Oedipus and the Myths of Thebes,
Jason and the Argonauts

In this section we will cover two major groups of stories: first those pertaining to the city of Thebes in Boeotia, especially the tragedy of Oedipus and its consequences, and in the second part, we review the story of the Golden Fleece and the quest of Jason and the Argonauts.

These two storylines do actually overlap slightly, in the character of Ino, for she was the daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, and also the stepmother of Phrixus, who set into motion the events which led to the voyage of the Argonauts.

Cadmus and the Dragon

The story of the founding of Thebes is related to one of the stories in the previous section, namely the abduction of Europa, the daughter of king Agenor of Tyre in Phoenicia. After her disappearance, Agenor commanded his sons to search for their lost sister, and one of those sons, Cadmus, came to Greece but was unsuccessful in finding her. He consulted the oracle of Delphi to learn what to do, and was told that his destiny was to start a great city, and to know the proper place for it by following a cow until it laid down from weariness.

After he did this, the cow was sacrificed in a ritual which also required water from a nearby sacred spring; but Cadmus was unaware that the spring was guarded by a dragon (or serpent), the offspring of the god Ares, and his men were slaughtered by the monster, as depicted in the painting here by Cornelisz Van Haarlem, 1588.

Thus Cadmus himself had to defeat the monster, as depicted here on a black-figure vase painting. After it was dead, Athena appeared and advised Cadmus what to do next: he was to remove the teeth of the dragon and plant them in the ground like seeds. When he did this, the teeth sprouted into armed warriors, ready to attack. Cadmus tricked them into fighting one another, until only five survived, known as the Sparti (Sown men), who became the first citizens of his new city, initially named Cadmeia. The red-figure case painting here shows Cadmus planting the teeth, watched by Athena on the left and Ares and his daughter Harmonia, the future bride of Cadmus. The last image is a Renaissance manuscript illustration showing the sprouting of the Sparti.

Zeus and Antiope

After Cadmus ruled his city, the kingship passed first to his grandson Pentheus, who was killed by the followers of Dionysus, the son of Cadmus' daughter Semele (seen in section 7). The myths are a little hazy on exactly who follows Pentheus, but the next story features two brothers in power, Nycteus and Lycus, apparently descendants of the Sparti and linked to Cadmus' family by marriage.

Nycteus had a beautiful daughter named Antiope, who once paused to take a nap in the woods, but was was found there by Zeus, who had taken on the appearance of a satyr when he made love to her. This is seen here in three paintings: the first by Correggio (1523), then by Watteau (1715) and a third by Ingres (1851).

The Execution of Dirce

But Nycteus was ashamed at his daughter's pregnancy and committed suicide, after asking his brother Lycus to avenge his honor and punish Antiope. She fled from Lycus and gave birth to twin sons, who were left in the countryside, after which she was apprehended and severely punished. The wife of Lycus, Dirce, tormented Antiope daily for years, until a day came when Antiope escaped.

She managed to locate her sons, named Amphion and Zethus, who had been raised by shepherds and who now learned the tortures their mother had endured at the hands of Dirce. The enraged brothers avenged the wrongs done to their mother by executing Lycus and Dirce, for whom they devised a special method of execution in retaliation for her cruelty to Antiope. Dirce was lashed to a raging bull which trampled her to a gory death. This is seen here first in a red-figure vase painting, and then in a wall painting from Pompeii.

The Farnese Bull

This story was the subject of this huge group-sculpture, discovered in 1545 among the remains of the Baths of Caracalla, a colossal public building contructed about A.D. 215. It clearly demonstrates the prevalent style of Hellenistic and Roman sculpture in general, an interest in complex, energetic figures drawn from classical myths. The twins are distinguishable by the inclusion of the lyre beneath the figure on the right, for Amphion was said to be a skilled musician with this instrument. After her execution, Amphion and Zethus were co-rulers of the city, enlarging it and giving the city a new name after its expansion; from then on it would be called Thebes, after Thebe, the wife of Zethus.

The name Farnese comes from the family who owned it after its discovery; it is now on display at the National Museum of Naples.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

After Amphion and Zethus, the kingship of Thebes passed to a descendant of Cadmus, Laius, the son of labdacus; but Laius had offended the gods by assaulting (or abducting) Chrysippus, the son of king Pelops of Elis. For this crime, Laius brought a curse upon himself and his whole family. He was warned by a prophecy that if he and his wife Jocasta ever had a son, that child would one day kill him. So when a son was born, Laius commanded that it be taken out and exposed (abandoned in the countryside) to prevent the prophecy from coming true. The red-figure vase painting below shows the servant of Laius (labelled as Euphorbus) carrying the infant Oedipus. But the servant gave the baby to a shepherd he saw nearby, who carried the child to Corinth, where he grew up not knowing he was the adopted son of the king and queen of Corinth.

As an adult, Oedipus went to the consult the oracle, and was told he would kill his father and marry his mother, something he had no intention of doing, but was unaware who his real parents were. He soon after became involved in a fight with a man whom he killed at a crossroads (his father Laius, but neither of them knew the other at the time).

Arriving at Thebes, Oedipus found the city being terrorized by a monster known as the Sphinx (a Greek name meaning "the Strangler"), described as part woman-part lion, and the wings of an eagle, seen here in an Archaic sculpture from Delphi. The story says that the Sphinx would ask its victims a riddle before killing them; if they could guess the answer the Sphinx would kill itself. It was then Oedipus who correctly solved the riddle; the scene depicted below in four different versions, two ancient and two modern. The first red-figure vase painting, by the Oedipus Painter, shows a traditional view of Oedipus and the Sphinx, while the second one is based on a type of performance called a phylax play, a sort of comical parody of the myth, enacted by actors with padded, exaggerated costumes.

Finally the paintings by the Neoclassical artist Ingres (about 1800), and then Gustave Moreau, the first painting of his career which became widely known after its debut at the Salon of 1864.

The Fate of Oedipus & the Seven against Thebes

After his defeat of the Sphinx, Oedipus was rewarded with not only the throne of Thebes, but also given the widowed queen Jocasta as his bride; so now the second part of the prophecy had come true, for Jocasta was, unknown to either of them, his own mother. They had four children together, two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. But one day Oedipus probed into the murder of Laius, for the unpunished killer had brought a plague upon Thebes. To his horror, his investigation revealed what we already knew: that he was the one who had killed Laius, his own father, and married his own mother.

When the truth was revealed, Jocasta took her own life by hanging herself, and Oedipus took the pins from her dress and blinded himself as self-punishment for his sins, seen here in a manuscript illustration from a Renaissance edition of a drama by Seneca. Oedipus himself had said the guilty one must be banished from Thebes, and now that would apply to himself, seen here in the painting by Jalabert, 1843.

The expulsion of Oedipus led to a conflict between his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. Eteocles first took the throne, refusing to share it with his brother, who fled to Argos to seek the support of the king there, Adrastus. They organized an army commanded by the seven greatest champions of the time, known as the Seven against Thebes. In order to recruit one of the Seven, Amphiaraus, who had declined when asked, Polyneices offered the magical necklace of Harmonia to Eriphyle, the wife of Amphiaraus, if she could ensure that he would go along. She accepted the bribe (seen here in a red-figure vase painting) and sent her husband off, knowing he would die before returning home.

Polyneices also sought the support of his father Oedipus, now living in exile at Colonus near Athens, but Oedipus harshly commanded him to depart, since he wanted nothing to do with the brothers' quarrel, as seen here in two similar paintings, the first by Henri Fuseli (1786) and the other by Baschet, 1898.

The attack of the Seven ultimately failed, and the two brothers killed each other in the struggle. Creon, the brother of Jocasta, had assumed control of Thebes and had forbidden a burial for Polyneices, who had died as a traitor, attacking his own city and people. But Polyneices' sister Antigone had promised him a proper burial if he died, and here she is seen violating Creon's order to fulfill that promise in this painting by Marie Stillman, a noted female artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, from 1870. For doing this, Creon ordered her execution, a decision he later regretted, but was too late to save her, for he discovered she had already taken her own life.

Phrixus and the Golden Ram

The story of the Argonauts has its roots in Iolcus in Thessaly (northern Greece), the homeland of some of the descendants of Aeolus. One of his sons was Athamas, who ruled in Orchomenus in Boeotia. His first wife was Nephele, a cloud-goddess, who bore him two children, a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle. But Nephele had little interest in her mortal husband, so he eventually found another wife, Ino, one of the daughters of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes.

But Nephele was angered that he had remarried, so she and Hera arranged to punish Athamas, inflicing a madness upon Ino which drove her to try to destroy her husband's children. She deceived Athamas into believing that he must sacrifice them to save his kingdom, but just before they were killed, a flying golden ram appeared to carry the children to safety.

The red-figure vase painting here shows Ino as she makes another attempt at killing Phrixus, as the golden ram is carrying him away. Next is the terracotta relief also showing Phrixus clinging to the ram; notice the fish below, indicating that the ram is travelling across the sea. His sister Helle fell off and drowned in the body of water then named for her (the Hellespont), but Phrixus held on and eventually was brought to the distant land of Colchis. The ram was offered as a sacrifice to the gods in gratitude, and its pelt was kept there as a sacred object, now known as the Golden Fleece.

Jason and the Argonauts

Back in Iolcus, the ruler was Aeson, son of Cretheus, the brother of Athamas. But Aeson's mother Tyro had had a son with the god Poseidon, named Pelias, who seized the kingdom from his half-brother, and slaughtered Aeson's family to prevent any future retaliation. But Aeson's youngest son Jason was saved and smuggled to safety in the countryside, where he grew up under the care of Chiron the centaur, the pair seen here in the painting by Maxfield Parrish.

When he had grown up, Jason was determined to win back the throne of his father from Pelias, and confronted him. But Pelias came up with a scheme to be rid of Jason forever, by sending him on a mission he thought to be impossible: to retrieve the Golden Fleece and return it to Iolcus.

Jason accepted the challenge and organized the greatest voyage of Greek mythology, first having a ship designed and constructed, which was named the Argo in honor of its designer, Argus. Once the ship was ready, he sent out the word of his expedition and the greatest heroes of his time came to Iolcus, eager to participate in the great adventure; even the great hero Herakles arrived to be part of it.

Three images below show the gathering of the heroes, who were known as the Argonauts (Argo sailors); the first is a red-figure vase painting, then a painting by Costa Lorenzo, about 1500, and lastly a modern version by Wm. Russell Flint, about 1910.

Hylas & the Nymphs; Phineus & the Harpies

On their journey to Colchis, the Argonauts had a number of noteworthy encounters; here we will see images of two of them. While still not quite halfway there, the Argo made a stop during which Hylas, a young man who had accompanied Herakles, went ashore to fetch fresh water. But when he found a pool deep in the woods and leaned down to fill his containers, the beautiful female nymphs who lived in the water noticed the handsome stranger and pulled him in, to keep and enjoy him forever, as depicted in this painting by Waterhouse, 1896. His disappearance deeply affected Herakles, who proclaimed that he could not go on without his friend; thus Herakles remained behind, dropping out of the quest of the Argonauts.

As they approached the entrance to the Black Sea, the Argonauts encountered Phineus, a blind prophet, who was suffering the constant torment by the Harpies, creatures that were part-bird and part-woman, who snatched Phineus' food from him every time he tried to set out a meal (the name Harpy comes from the Greek word meaning "to snatch away").

He offered to help the Argonauts if they would help him get rid of the Harpies; since two of the Argonauts, named Zetes and Calais, were the sons of the North-wind god Boreas, they had the power of flight, which made them the obvious choice to handle the Harpies. This is seen here first in a damaged black-figure vase painting (notice that there are two males, side-by-side on the right) and then again on a red-figure vase, seen here in two different views, with the flying brothers going after the Harpies, while Phineus' table of food is spilled, one last time, for they either killed or chased the Harpies away forever.

Jason, Medea & the Golden Fleece

Upon reaching their destination, Jason approached the king, Aetes, to ask for the Golden Fleece, but he was refused, for the people of Colchis regarded it as a sacred object, and not something to be simply given away. But luckily for Jason, Medea, the daughter of Aetes, had fallen in love with the handsome stranger at first sight and agreed to help him get the Fleece. Medea was a priestess of Hecate, a goddess associated with magic and witchcraft, and she would use her magical skills to help Jason achieve his goal.

The first two paintings below are both from the late 1800s, the first a portrait of Medea by Anthony Frederick Sandys, the second by Waterhouse, with Medea showing her magical potions to Jason. It was thus due to Medea that Jason got the Fleece, for she gave him a drug which would knock out the dragon which guarded the Fleece.

The first red-figure vase shows Jason reaching up to take the Fleece as Athena watches, while the second, by an artist named Douris, shows a variation of the story not found in the written versions. Clearly this shows a scene of Jason (labelled so in Greek) being disgorged after apparently having been swallowed by the dragon, observed (or assisted?) by Athena. This is hard evidence that there were different versions of the story circulating in ancient times, not all of which were recorded in texts.

The next two paintings are both from the later 1600s: first, a dramatic scene of Jason administering the potion given by Medea on the dragon by Salvator Rosa, and then Jason carrying the Golden Fleece past a statue of Ares (who was the god of the grove where the Fleece was located) by Erasmus Quellinus.

The last painting here is by Herbert Draper (about 1900), showing the departure of Jason and Medea, and the gruesome fate of Medea's brother Apsyrtus, whom she had brought along as hostage. Seeing that her father's fleet would catch up to the Argo, she ruthlessly ordered that her brother be butchered and the pieces tossed overboard, in order to delay the pursuing ships. Although Draper has not shown the gory details, we see the boy pleading with Medea, while Jason stands behind her holding up the Fleece.

Jason and Medea after Colchis

After a long, roundabout voyage home, the Argo finally reached Iolcus, but Jason soon discovered that Pelias had had all of Jason's family slaughtered. Thus they resorted to trickery to gain revenge; Medea was dressed as a priestess of Artemis from a distant land, who told Pelias that the goddess had sent her to offer him a magical spell of rejuvenation.

The first two images here show Medea demonstrating her spell for Pelias, one a black-figure vase, and the other a red-figure. Both show her in the act of putting an aged ram into a boiling cauldron, after which she produced a baby lamb (which had been hidden beforehand), convincing him that this was the ram made young again. But there was no spell, and when Medea instructed the daughters of Pelias how to perform the 'spell', the result was only their father's death.

Although he had defeated Pelias, Jason was unable to inherit the kingship. He and Medea migrated south and eventually settled in Corinth. For some time, all was well, and they started a family, Medea having borne two sons to Jason. But one day, Jason informed Medea that they were through, that he was going to marry Glauce, the daughter of the local ruler Creon.

Enraged at being rejected, Medea got her revenge, first by sending Glauce a bewitched dress which burst into fire after she put it on, killing her and her father, and then slew her two sons, as a punishment against Jason, seen here in two versions, a red-figure vase painting, and one by Eugene Delacroix, 1838.

When Jason and the citizens of Corinth came to apprehend her, they were stunned to find she had killed her children, and was now making a clean getaway in the chariot of the sun-god, who was Medea's own grandfather, as depicted below in a red-figure vase. After this, Medea went to Athens where she married Aegeus, the father of Theseus. When Theseus first came to Athens to find his father, Medea tried to eliminate this potential rival by having him poisoned, but Aegeus recognized his son by the sword Theseus was carrying, which had belonged to Aegeus, seen here in the painting by Wm. Russell Flint. Medea was banished from Athens, and ended up returning home to Colchis.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt; Meleager and Atalanta

This was also a group-participation adventure, which featured many of the same characters who were Argonauts. The setting was Calydon in Aetolia, where the ruler was named Oeneus, who had angered Artemis by neglecting the proper offerings. This goddess punished his land by sending a gigantic boar to ravage it, whereby Oeneus instructed his son Meleager to gather the greatest heroes of the time to hunt the beast down and kill it.

This story was one of several myths depicted on the black-figure vase seen here, known as the "Francois Vase", after the man who found it in an Etruscan tomb in the 1800s. All together, there are almost 300 figures decorating the vessel, most of whom are labelled. Besides the Calydonian boar hunt, the vase depicts the return of Theseus from Crete, the funeral games of Patroclus (an event from Homer's Iliad, covered in section 11), the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs, and the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (another story from the next section, 11).

The upper register of the side depicted here is the portion with the boar hunt, seen in a black and white close-up view. In front of the boar are Meleager and Peleus (the father of Achilles), immediately behind them is the only female participant, Atalanta the huntress, who swore that she would only love the man who beat her in a foot-race.

After the boar was dead, Meleager was to reward the one who had slain it; he gave the honor to Atalanta, as depicted here in the painting by Jordaens, about 1617. Most were unhappy about this, since they thought he had awarded it to her simply because he was attracted to her, but this erupted into a violent fight during which many were killed.