Here there is a great dollop of exposition in the best declamatory style – including the word “yeomen”. Indeed, “local yeomen”. In the phrase “gathering local yeomen”. Ahem.
No one knows anything. Not even Oedipus. He may have answered the sphinx’s question, but that was because it was so damnably stupid, once you realised. I had guessed it myself. Do you know the story? Ach, like all stories, my story opens up every other story. I actually want to talk about the damned plague, and how Oedipus, arrogant as ever, announced he could handle it. “Delphi, Creon”, he had announced, “To Delphi. There it will be revealed to me just how I am to best the plague that ails my city.” That’s how he talked. I, me, my. My city, my city.
Thebes was my city, not his. So I thought, though of course time would prove him to be very much the native son. My city. A senseless regicide, a crazed cryptic puzzle-setting monster, and now after the years of peace which – give the man his due – Oedipus had delivered, the plague. Plague! You country folk – not really proper country farming folk, not even mountain people, you folk have the look of the mean hardscrabble hills of this territory – anyway, you have no conception of what plague does to a city. Do you even know what a city really is? A city isn’t just a few buildings, like this mean hut – mean in every way, speaking frankly – thrown together. A city is alive, a city has a life. O Thebes! My city. My city.
Plague rips open a city by tearing apart what makes a city – trust. Everyday trust. Where once neighbours chatted in the marketplace, during plague they stay at home, fearful of each other. Where once children played and cried in front of their house, during plague the streets are silent. Silence is the death of cities.
Oedipus had won Thebes with words. And with words he would save it. I felt the anguish of the city under my skin, in my flesh, in my bones. When Laius vanished and was killed, and my sister widowed, and Thebes made kingless – I had felt the grief and shame in belly, as a constant constraint and tightening. When the riddling Sphinx had reigned, I had felt the oppression in my chest, as a difficulty in breathing. And now, with the plague, I had felt the citizens agony, felt it as an endless tension in my head. Yet through all this misery and pain and had been the same Creon – decisive, “Delphi, Creon,” he had barked at me, and off to Delphi I went. The oracle. Truth, in this world of lies and deceit. Purity. Knowledge, for those who can understand it. Of course, just as with the words of the Sphinx, the words of the Oracle are clear only with hindsight. But I was going to speak of the Sphinx! I am old and tired, and had forgotten that you near-barbarians seem baffled by my references to the creature. And everything implies everything else, and there is no end to stories.
We’ll begin further back, with Laius. Laius, King of Thebes, husband of my sister Jocasta, a lordly man, a royal man. Command emanated from him. Decisive. Always ready for action. Unfortunately, his actions tended to be completely random and destructive. Consider Chrysippus, son of Pelops, King of Pisa in the Peloponnese. Laius had been on a royal visit to Pelops. A dull affair at the best of times, full of speechifying and decisions about agricultural produce. Nevertheless, a royal duty. The gods make us work through duty to earn our royal status. Now, unfortunately, Laius didn’t know much about duty. While still a child, his own royal father had died, and a regent, Lycus, had stepped in. There had been an usurpation. Two twins, two offspring of Zeus no less! Amphion and Zetheus, unfortunately for them, were the product of one of the god’s unofficial couplings. Or so their mother, lovely haired Antiope, had said. Of course, the land is filled with these “offspring of Zeus”, children whose parentage, or rather fatherhood, is, how shall we put it, inconvenient. How happy the land that has such a randy Chief Divinity who can take credit for these children!
Fleeing to become consort of yet another foreign king, Antiope was brought back by force by Lycus, her own uncle. route back to Thebes, she left her children to be brought up by a herdsman – who, as we shall see, seem always ready to raise any infants left abandoned around the place. Back in Thebes, Antiope was installed as a prisoner in Lycus’ household. Now, Antiope was reputedly the daughter of a river god, and whatever the truth of that, she had the look. Slender and elegant, with a body that meandered like a lazy river, with long, billowing hair and with one of those faces that seem permanently delicately poised between delight and tears, or possibly just on the verge of delighted tears, Antiope had the beauty to bewitch the father of the gods alright. And the kindle the jealousy of Lycus’ wife, Dirce.
Dirce had Antiope whipped when she got up in the morning. She had Antiope put to work in the kitchens, and whipped if she dropped a pot or if she was late fetching a pail of water, whipped if she stood up too straight or bent too crooked, and sometimes whipped just for the sake of it. Dirce would pull Antiope’s long, long hair out, twisting her tresses and pulling hard. Antiope slept upon stony ground, which Dirce refreshed with sharp flints every so often. This went on for years Antiope fled from this house of terror, and fled to the region where she had abandoned her children. There, as you might expect, she found her sons who were now sturdy young men, disbelieving that their mother had appeared. Eventually the old herdsman who had raised them came back, and confirmed this was indeed her. The boys reacted by gathering local yeomen, heading off to Thebes, killing Lycus, seizing power, obliging Laius to go into exile, and attaching Dirce to a bull which was then driven over rough ground. Dirce died many times in many places.