THE ERINYES were the three goddess avengers of the crimes of murder, unfilial conduct, impiety and perjury.
This page describes their role in the story of Oidipous and his sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles. N.B. Quotes from the plays of the Tragedians are not yet included here.
FAMILY CURSES: LAIOS, EPIKASTE & OIDIPOUS (MURDER)
Oidipous unintentionally killed his father and married his mother, not knowing their true identities since he had been abandoned at birth and raised by others.
I) THE DEARTH OF THEBES
When the crime lay unpunished the Erinyes inflicted the land of Thebes with drought and pestilence, until the truth was revealed and Oidipous driven into exile. (N.B. Many other authors describe the dearth of Thebes, although the Erinyes are not specifically mentioned as the agent behind the affliction).
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 67 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"When he [Laius] was going to Delphi, Oedipus met him . . . [and in a dispute] not knowing who he was, killed him . . . [Later] Oedipus received his father's kingdom [of Thebes], and Jocasta his mother as his wife, unwittingly [not realising she was his long lost mother] . . . Meanwhile barrenness of crops and want fell on Thebes because of the crimes of Oedipus."
Seneca, Oedipus 160 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[Drought and pestilence inflict the city of Thebes:] They have burst the bars of abysmal Erebus, the throng of sisters with Tartarean torch [the Erinyes], and Phlegethon [river of fire], changing his own course, has mingled Styx with our Sidonian streams [i.e. to cause deadly fevers]. Dark Mors [Thanatos, death], death opens wide his greedy, gaping jaws and unfolds all his wings, and the boatman [Kharon] who plies the troubled stream with roomy skiff, tough hardy in his vigorous old age, can scarce draw back his arms wearied with constant poling, worn out with ferrying the fresh throng o’er. Nay more, they say that the dog [Kerberos] has burst his chains of Taenarian iron, and is wandering through our fields; that the earth has rumbled; that ghosts go stealing through the groves, larger than mortal forms; that twice have Cadmean forests trembled and shed their snows; twice has Dirce welled up with blood; in the silent night Amphion’s hounds have bayed."
Seneca, Oedipus 582 ff :
"[The seer Teiresias performs necromancy to learn the cause of the pestilence which ravages Thebes:] Suddenly the earth yawned and opened wide with gulf immeasurable. Myself, I saw the numb pools amidst the shadows; myself, the wan gods and night in very truth. My frozen blood stood still and clogged my veins. Forth leaped a savage cohort [of ghosts] . . . Then grim Erinys (Vengeance) shrieked, and blind Furor [Lyssa, fury] and Horror [Phrike, horror], and all the forms which spawn and lurk midst the eternal shades [i.e. in the underworld]: Luctus [Penthos, grief], tearing her hair; Morbus [Nosos, disease], scarce holding up her wearied head; Senectus [Geras, age], burdened with herself; impending Metus [Phobos, fear], and greedy Pestis [Ker, pestilence], the Ogygian people’s curse. Our spirits died within us. Even she [Manto] who knew the rites and the arts of her aged sire stood amazed. But he, undaunted and bold from his lost sight, summons the bloodless throng of cruel Dis [Haides]." - Seneca, Oedipus 582
Seneca, Oedipus 642 ff :
II) EXILE OF OIDIPOUS
"[The seer Teiresias summons forth the ghost of King Laius, who cries:] `Thee, thee [Oidipous], who in thy blood-stained hand dost hold the sceptre, thee and thy whole city will I, thy father, still unavenged, pursue; and with me Erinys as bridesmaid of thy nuptials [with his mother Jokasta] will I bring, yea, I will bring her sounding with her lash; thine incestuous house will I overturn and thy household with unnatural strife will I destroy.'"
After the truth was revealed, Oidipous was driven into exile, and suffered the curse of the Erinys, inflicted upon him by his parents' ghosts.
Homer, Odyssey 11. 280 ff (trans. Shewring) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
"The mother of Oidipous, lovely Epikaste, who did a most evil thing in the ignorance of her heart and wedded her own son, and he, before he wedded her, had slain his own father [Laios]; but a time came when the gods revealed all these things to men. Then, since the gods were bent on ruin, while Oidipous in lovely Thebes continued despite his misery to rule the sons of Kadmos, his mother went down to the house whose gates mighty Haides guards; in the passion of her grief she made fast a noose for hesrself from the lofty roof-beam; and for Oidipos she left behind such endless woes as a mother's Erinyes (Avengers) bring."
Statius, Thebaid 2. 20 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Old Laius’ trembling shade, still halting from his wound; for deeper than the hilt had his kinsman’s [Oidipous'] impious swordthrust pierced into his life and sped the first blow of Furia (Wrat) [Erinys] . . . an overmastering Erinys drives thee [Laius] to meet the day [ascend from Haides to haunt the living]."
FAMILY CURSES: OIDIPOUS & HIS SONS (BETRAYAL)
Oidipous, following the revelation that he had unknowingly slain his own father and married his mother, blinded himself in despair. His sons treated him with disgust and mocked him in his suffering, seized his throne and called for his banishment. For their cruel mistreatment he lay the curse of the Erinyes upon them.
Homerica, The Thebaid Fragment 2 (from Athenaeus, Deipnosiphistae 11. 465E) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
"The heaven-born hero, golden-haired Polyneikes, first set beside [his father] Oidipous a rich table of silver which once belonged to Kadmos the divinely wise: next he filled a fine golden cup with sweet wine. But when Oidipous perceived these treasures of his father, great misery fell on his heart, and he straight-way
called down bitter curses (arai) there in the presence of both his sons. And the avenging Erinys (Fury) of the gods failed not to hear him as he prayed that they might never divide their father's goods in loving brotherhood, but that war and fighting might be ever the portion of them both."
Homerica, The Thebaid Frag 3 (from Laurentian Scholiast on Sophocles O.C. 1375) :
"And when Oedipus noticed the haunch [served him by his sons] he threw it on the ground and said: `Oh! Oh! my sons have sent this mocking me ... ' So he prayed to Zeus the king and the other deathless gods that
each might fall by his brother's hand and go down into the house of Haides."
Pindar, Olympian Ode 2 str 3 (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"Fate, who keeps their pleasant fortune to be handed from father to son, bring at another time some painful reversal together with god-sent prosperity, since the destined son [Oidipous] met and killed Laios, and fulfilled the oracle of Pytho, spoken long before. But the sharp-eyed Erinys saw it, and destroyed his warlike sons [Eteokles and Polyneikes] through mutual slaughter."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 69 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Eteokles [king of Thebes, prays before the battle of the Seven Against Thebes]: `O Zeus and Ge (Earth), and gods that guard our city, and Ara (Curse), potent agent of my father's Erinys (Vengeance), do not destroy my city, ripping it up from its foundations, captive of the enemy, a city that speaks in Greece's tongue, and do not destroy our hearths and homes.'"
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 570 ff :
"Amphiaraus repeatedly rebukes mighty Tydeus [in the war of the Seven Against Thebes] with evil names `Murderer, maker of unrest in the city, principal teacher of evils to the Argives, summoner of Erinys (vengeance's Curse), servant of Phonos (Slaughter).'"
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 654 ff :
"Eteokles [preparing to engage his brother in fatal combat]: O my family sired by Oidipous, steeped in tears, driven to madness by the gods and by the gods detested! Ah, now indeed our father's curses (arai) are brought to fulfillment."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 691-790 :
"Chorus: A savage desire eats away at you [Eteokles, who is departing to battle his brother], drives you to murder, blood-sacrifice proscribed by divine law, whose only fruit is bitterness.
Eteokles: True, my own beloved father's hateful, ruinous curse (ara) hovers before my dry, unweeping eyes, and informs me of benefit preceding subsequent death.
Chorus: No, do not let yourself be driven to it. You will not be called a coward if you retain life nobly. Will not the avenging Erinys in her dark aigis (melanaigis) leave your house, when the gods receive sacrifice from your hands?
Eteokles: The gods, it seems, have already banished us from their care . . . the curses of Oidipous have made it [approaching death] seethe in fury. Too true were the phantoms in my sleeping visions, predicting the division of our father's wealth! . . .
Chorus: I shudder in terror at the goddess [Erinys] who lays ruin to homes, a goddess unlike other divinities, who is an unerring omen of evil to come. I shudder that the Erinys invoked by the father's prayer will fulfil the over-wrathful curses that Oidipous spoke in madness. This strife that will destroy his sons drives the Erinys to fulfillment . . . For the compensation is heavy when curses uttered long ago are fulfilled, and once the deadly curse has come into existence, it does not pass away . . . [Oidipous] carried away by his grief [on learning of his unwitting crimes] and with maddened heart he accomplished a double evil . . . he struck out his eyes, which were dearer to him than his children. Next he launched brutal, wrathful words against the sons he had bred – ah! curses from a bitter tongue – that wielding iron in their hands they would one day divide his property. So now I tremble in fear that the swift-running (kampsipos) Erinys will bring this to fulfillment."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 833 ff :
"O black curse (melaina ara) [of the Erinyes] on the family, Oidipous' curse, now brought to fulfillment [when his sons Eteokles and Polyneikes slew each other in battle] . . . The curseful utterance of their father has done its work and not fallen short."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 864-855 :
"[The Argive women lament the deaths of Eteokles and Polyneikes:] But it is right for us . . . to cry out the awful hymn of the Erinys and thereafter sing the hated victory song of Aides [Death] . . . Ah, you brothers who were poised to cast over the walls of your home and looked – to your sorrow – for sole rule, now you have been reconciled by the iron sword. The great Erinys of your father Oidipous has fulfilled it all truly. Pierced through your left sides, pierced indeed – through those sides that were born from one womb! Ah, strange ones! Ah, the curses (arai) that demand death for death! Right through, as you say, were they struck, with blows to house and body by an unspeakable wrath and by the doom, called down by their father's curse, which they shared without discord . . . Ruthless, too, was Ares [i.e war], the cruel divider of their property, who made their father's curses come true. . . . In the final outcome the Arai (Curses) have raised their piercing cry, now that the family is turned to flight in all directions. A trophy to Ate (Ruin or Folly) now stands at the gate where they struck each other and where, having conquered them both, the divine power [the Erinys] stayed its hand."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 991 :
"[Laments following the death of the brothers:] O Moira (Fate), giver of grievous troubles, and awful shade of Oidipous, black (melaina) Erinys, you are indeed a mighty force. Now you know of the Erinys by experience."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 1060 ff :
"[After the death of the brothers Polynikes and Eteokles, the Argive women lament:] Ah, misery! O Erinyes, far-famed destroyers of families, Keres (goddesses of death) who have thus laid ruin to the family of Oidipos, digging it up from the roots!"
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 5. 15 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The Erinyes of Laios and Oidipous did not vent their wrath on Tisamenos [a distant descendant the two], but they did on his son Autesion, so that, at the bidding of the oracle, he migrated to the Dorians."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 28. 6 :
"Hard by [the Areopagos or Hill of Ares, the murder court of Athens] is a sanctuary of the goddesses which the Athenians call Semnai (August) [the Erinyes] . . . Within the precincts is a monument to Oidipous, whose bones, after diligent inquiry, I found were brought from Thebes."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 2. 29 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a description of a painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] As for the body of Polyneikes, tall like his associates, Antigone has lifted it up and will bury it by the tomb of Eteokles, thinking to reconcile her brothers in the only manner that is still possible . . . This shoot of a mulberry, my boy, has sprung up of itself, for the Erinnyes (Furies), it is said, caused it to grow on the tomb; and if you pluck its fruit, blood spurts out even to this day."
Statius, Thebaid 1. 46 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"[Oidipous summons the Erinyes to exact punishment upon his sons:] Oedipus with avenging hand probed deep his sinning eyes and sunk his guilty shame in eternal night [blinded himself upon discovering that he had slain his own father and married his mother] . . . yet with unwearied wings the fierce daylight of the mind hovers around him, and the avenging Dirae [Erinyes] of his crimes assail his heart. Then he displays to heaven those empty orbs, the cruel, pitiful punishment of his own lie, and with blood-stained hands beats upon the hollow earth, and in dire accents utters this prayer: `Gods [Haides, Persephone and the Erinyes] who hold sway over guilty souls and over Tartarus crowded with the damned, and thou O Styx, whom I behold, ghastly in thy shadowy depths, and thou Tisiphone, so oft the object of my prayer, be favourable now, and further my unnatural wish: if in aught I have found favour; if thou didst cherish me in thy bosom when I fell from my mother’s womb . . . if I knew ecstasy and fatal union of my mother’s bed, and passed many an unhallowed night, and begot sons for thee, as well thou knowest, yet soon, greedy for punishment, did violence to myself with tearing fingers and left my eyes upon my wretched mother - hear me to the end, if my prayer be worthy and such as thou wouldest inspire my raging heart withal. Sightless though I was and driven from my throne, my sons, on whatever couch begotten, attempted not to give me guidance or consolation in my grief; may, haughtily (ah! the maddening sting!) and raised to royalty with me long dead, they mock my blindness, they abhor their father’s groans. Do these too hold me accursed? And the father of gods [Zeus] beholds it, and does naught? Do thou at least, my due defender, come hither, and begin a work of vengeance that will blast their seed for ever! Set on thy head the gore-drenched circlet that my bloody nails tore off, and spired by their father’s curses go thou between the brethren, and with the sword sunder the binding ties of kinship. Grant me, thou queen of Tartarus’ abyss [Tisiphone], grant me to see the evil that my soul desires, nor will the spirit of the youths be slow to follow; come thou but worthy of thyself, thou shalt know them to be true sons of mine.’
So prayed he, and the cruel goddess [Tisiphone] turned her grim visage to hearken. By chance she sat beside dismal Cocytus, and had loosed the snakes from her head and suffered them to lap the sulphurous waters. Straightway, faster than fire of Jove [lightning of Zeus] or falling stars she leapt up from the gloomy bank: the crowd of phantoms gives way before her, fearing to meet their queen; then, journeying through the shadows and fields dark with trooping ghosts, she hastens to the gate of Taenarus [a reputed cavern entrance to the underworld], whose threshold none may cross and again return. Dies (Day) felt her presence, Nox (Night) interposed her pitchy cloud and startled his shining steeds; far off towering Atlas shuddered and shifted the weight of heaven upon his trembling shoulders. Forthwith rising aloft from Malea’s vale [the peninsular containing Tainaros] she hies her on the well-known way to Thebes: for on no errand is she swifter to go and to return, not kindred Tartarus itself pleases her so well. A hundred horned snakes erect shaded her face, the thronging terror of her awful head; deep within her sunken eyes there glows a light of iron hue, as when Atracian [Thessalian witches’] spells make travailing Phoebe [Selene the Moon] redden through the clouds; suffused with venom, her skin distends and swells with corruption; a fiery vapour issues from her evil mouth, brining upon mankind thirst unquenchable and sickness and famine and universal death. From her shoulders falls a stark and grisly robe, whose dark fastenings meet upon her breast: Atropos [one of the Fates] and Proserpine [Persephone] fashion her this garb anew. Then both her hands are shaken in wrath, the one gleaming with a funeral torch, the other lashing the air with a live water-snake.
She halted, where the sheer heights of vast [Mount] Cithaeron [in Boiotia] rise to meet the sky, and sent forth from her green locks fierce repeated hisses, a signal to the land, whereupon the whole shore of the Achaean gulf and the realm of Pelops [the Peloponnese] echoed far and wide. Parnassus also in mid-heaven heard it, and turbulent Eurotas; with the din Oete rocked and staggered, and Isthmos scarce withstood the waves on either side. With her own hand his mother [Leukothea] snatched Palaemon from the curved back of his straying dolphin steed and pressed him to her bosom.
Then the Furia (Fury), swooping headlong upon the Cadmean towers, straightway cast upon the house its wonted gloom: troubled dismay seized the brothers’ [Polyneikes and Eteokles, sons of Oidipous] hearts and the madness of their race inspired them, and envy that repines others’ happiness, and hate-engendering fear; and then fierce love of power, and breach of mutual covenant, and ambition that brooks not second place, the dearer joy of sole supremacy, and discord that attends on partnered rule."
Statius, Thebaid 4. 635 ff :
"[The ghost of Laios is summoned from Haides to prophesy the future of Thebes:] `He [Oidipous] wearies the gods and the dark councils of the Furiae [Erinyes], and supplicates my [Laios'] Shade for the coming strife. But if I have found such favour as a prophet of these times of woe, I will speak, so far as [the Fate] Lachesis and grim [Erinys] Megaera suffer me: War cometh from every side . . . Victory is sure for Thebes, doubt it not, nor shall thy fierce kinsman [Polyneikes] have thy realm; but Furiae [Erinyes] shall possess it, and twofold impious crime, and alas, in your unhappy swords your cruel father triumphs [the two sons of Oidipous are driven by the Erinys of their father to slay each other in battle].’ So speaking he faded from their sight, and left them in doubt at his mazy riddling words."
Statius, Thebaid 7. 466 ff :
"Tisiphone, shaking her twin serpents, goes rioting through either camp [in the War of the Seven Against Thebes]; brother against brother she inflames and against both their sire [Oidipous]: aroused he wanders far from his secret cell, and implores the Furiae [Erinyes, against his sons] and prays for his lost eyes once more."
Statius, Thebaid 8. 65 ff :
"[Haides to Tisiphone:] `Go, Tisiphone, avenge the abode of Tartarus! if ever thou hast wrought monsters fierce and strange, bring forth some ghastly horror, huge and unwonted, such as the sky hath never yet beheld, such as I may marvel at and thy Sisters [the Moirai] envy. Ay, and the brothers [Polyneikes and Eteokles] rush to slay each other in exultant combat; let there be one [Tydeus] who in hideous, bestial savagery shall gnaw his foeman’s head, and one [king Kreon] who shall bar the dead from the funeral fire and pollute the air with naked corpses.'"
Statius, Thebaid 8. 344 ff :
"From Teumesus’ height Tisiphone sends her shrill cry [as a battle in the War of the Seven Against Thebes commences], and shakes her locks, and with their hissing adds a sharpness to the trumpets’ note."
Statius, Thebaid 8. 685 ff :
"Cruel Erinys checks its [a thrown spear’s deadly] course, and preserves Eteocles for a brother’s impious deed [the Erinys preserves the life of Eteocles to ensure the curse of Oidipous is fulfilled]."
Statius, Thebaid 9. 148 ff :
"Mindful of the Elysian monarch [Haides], and recounting the crimes of Tydeus [who ate the brain of his dead opponent], impious Tisiphone craftily draws nigh to the middle of the field [where the troops were fighting over his body]: the armies felt her presence, and horses and men alike were seized by a sudden sweat, although, laying aside her own aspect, she counterfeited Halys the Inachian; absent was the unhallowed torch and the scourge, while her [snaky] locks at her command held their peace. As warrior, and with flattering looks and voice, she comes near to fierce Hipomedon [who was leading the charge to recover the body of Tydeus], yet he feared her countenance as she spoke, and marvelled at his fear. Weeping she says: ‘In vain, O man of renown, thou guardest thy dead comrades and the unburied bodies of the Greeks - is that then your fear, do we yet care for a sepulchre? - Lo! Adrastus is being dragged along, the captive of a Tyrian band, and to thee before all else, to thee he cries and beckons. Alas! in what plight I saw him slip and fall in blood, his diadem torn and the white locks streaming free? Nor far from here, look! Where all that cloud of dust is, all that mass of men.’ Awhile the hero stood perplexed, balancing his fears; the ruthless maid urges him: ‘Why dost thou hesitate? Shall we go forward? Or does this dead body keep us back, and is he more worthless who survives?’ To his comrades he entrusts the forlorn task the fight that should be his, and strides away, deserting his loyal friend, yet looking behind him, and ready, should they perchance recall him Then following the impetuous footsteps of the relentless goddess he rushes here and there in aimless, pathless course, till the wicked Eumenis [Erinys], casting her shield behind her, vanishes darkly from his sight, and snakes innumerable break forth from her helmet. The cloud disperses, and the unhappy man beholds the Inachidae [Argives] unperturbed, and Adrastus in his chariot, fearing nought."
Statius, Thebaid 11. 47 ff :
"And now Tisiphone, having wrought her crimes and weary of the bloodshed of two peoples [the War of the Seven Against Thebes], seeks to conclude the fight with the brothers’ [Polyneikes and Eteokles] conflict; nor trusts she her own strength for so dire a fray, unless she can rouse from her infernal abode her companion Megaera and her kindred snakes to battle. Therefore she withdrew to an empty vale afar, and dug into the ground her Stygian blade, and muttered into the earth the name of the absent one [her sister Erinys], and - a sign indubitable to the Elysian realm - raised aloft a horned serpent from her hair with long-drawn hisses: he was the prince of her caerulean tresses, and straightway hearing him earth shuddered and sea and sky, and the Father [Zeus] glanced again at his Aetnaean fires [where Typhon was buried]. The other heard the sound: by chance she was standing near her sire [Haides], while Capaneus [who scorned the gods] was belauded by the whole train of Dis [Hiades], and refreshed his glorious shade in the Stygian streams. Forthwith she broke through the massive earth, and stood beneath the stars: the Manes (Ghosts) rejoice, and as the nether darkness grows less thick, so wanes the light above. Her fell sister receives her, and clasps her hand and speaks: `Thus far, my sister, have I been able to sustain our Stygian father’s dread commands and the frenzy laid upon me, alone upon the earth and exposed to a hostile world, while ye in Elysium constrain the unresisting Manes (Ghosts). No mean reward is mine for my pains, my labours are not in vain: this deep-drenched battlefield, these waters that reek with blood, the countless swarms [of ghosts] that gladden Lethe’s bank - these are the tokens of my power, my signs of triumph. But what care I for these? Let Mars [Ares] enjoy them, Let Enyo boast and spread the story. Thou sawest - manifest surely was he in the Stygian shades - the chief [Tydeus] whose jaws were fouled with blood, whose face dripped back corruption; insatiable, he ate the head of a hapless foe, which I did give him. Just now - was it not so? - the sound of a terrible din came down to you from the stars: me did that awful storm assail, ‘twas I who mingling with the hero’s [Kapaneus’] fury-stricken arms laughed at the warring gods and the levin’s mighty wrath [Kapaneus was struck down by a thunderbolt for scorning the gods]. But now, sister, long toil - I confess it - has wearied out my spirit, and my arm is slow; the infernal yew [from which her torch was made] languishes in the air of heaven, and the too strong influence of the stars drowses my unaccustomed snakes. Thou who still hast all thy rage, whose tresses are still riotous and fresh from Cocytus’ fount, join thou thy strength to mine. 'Tis no common fray or Martian battle we prepare, but brothers - though kindly Fides (Faith) and Pietas (Duty) resist, they will be o’ercome - ay, brothers shall draw the sword in combat hand-to-hand. A noble work! Gird we ourselves with deadly hate, with armed discord. Dost thou hesitate? Nay, choose which banner thou wilt bear. Both are compliant and will do our will; but the mob is double-minded, and I fear his mother’s [Jokasta’s] words and [his sister] Antigone’s persuasive tongue, lest they somewhat hinder our design. Ay, even he [Oidipous], who is wont to weary us with his entreaties and call on the Dirae [Erinyes] to avenge his eyes [Oidipous laid the curse of the Erinyes on his sons in the first place], already feels his fatherhood; already they say he weeps alone, far from Thebes and the abode I know so well far from the haunts of men; ay, verily, I like not to invade Thebes and the abode I know so well without thy succour. Command thou the impious exile [Polyneikes], incite the Argive to the crime; see that the mild Adrastus prevail not, nor the Lernean host delay thee. Go, and return to the mutual fray - my foe!’
Their duties thus assigned, the Sisters went their different ways . . . When from Olympus’ top the exalted Sire [Zeus] beheld them pollute the air [he cloaked the heavens with clouds so that the gods would not witness the horror of the brotherly conflict] . . .
Meanwhile the daughter of Erebus hastes on the track of Polynices through the Argolic cohorts, and finds him even at the gate, uncertain whether to avoid so many horrors by death or flight . . . But when the Dira [Erinys] of Acheron thrice smote her lash against his corslet, he raged without restraint, and yearned not to be seated on his throne, but for crime and carnage and to expire in his slaughtered kinsman’s blood . . . [he tells Adrastos that he will engage Eteokles in single combat and the king tries to deter him] . . . but the cruel Eumenis [Erinys] broke off his speech with new terrors, and straightway, in the shape of Inachian Phereclus, brought his swift wing-foot steed and fatal arms, and with his helmet closed his ears to trusty counsels. Then ‘Haste!’ she cried, ‘delay not! He too, so they say, is marching on the gates!’ Thus, all scruples overcome, she seizes him and sets him upon his steed; ashen pale, he scours the open plain, and glances back to descry the looming shadow of the goddess.
The Tyrian chieftain [Eteokles king of Thebes] was offering in vain to Jove [Zeus] the sacrifice that his lightning stroke had won, thinking that the Danaans [Argives] were disarmed. But neither the celestial Sire nor any of the gods were at his altars, but baneful Tisiphone mingling with the affrighted attendants stands near, and to the infernal Thunderer [Haides] turned aside his prayers . . . The murky flame leapt forth [from the sacrificial altar] against his face and cheeks, and seized and burnt the diadem on his locks. Then still unsmitten the angry [sacrificial] bull beflecked the shrine with bloody foam, and dashed wildly through the opposing concourse, bearing the altar upon his frenzied horns [as a sign of ill-omen]. The ministers scatter, and the soothsayer strives to console the king . . . [news is brought from the city-gates that Eteokles’ brother Polyneikes has come challenging him to single combat] . . .
`Thou shalt go’, he [Kreon] cries [to Polyneikes], ‘not, villain, shall we unavenged endure thee longer, thee the brother and the prince, made powerful by thy country’s tears and sufferings, guilty of Heaven’s Eumenides [Erinyes] and the war. Long enough have we atoned thy perjuries to the angry gods . . . ’
[Jokasta to her son Eteokles:] `. . . No solemn curses have I uttered against thee to the Stygian gods [like his father Oidipous], nor invoked the Erinyes with sightless prayer . . . [and she prays him not enter into single combat with his brother].’
Suddenly the Eumenis [Erinys] thrusting his mother aside, shatters the gate and hurls forth Eteocles crying [out to Polyneikes]: `I come, and only grudge thee thou wert first to challenge . . . ’
And now at the Furiae’s [Erinyes’] impulse they dash forward to the dusty plain, each goaded and inspired by his [Erinys] companion. These guide the reins themselves, and arrange the trappings and the shining arms, and entwine their snakes amid the horses’ manes. Set there upon the field is the crime of kindred blood, the dread conflict of one womb, beneath their helms the faces of brothers meet in battle. The banners quake, the trumpets are silent, and the Martian horns are struck dumb; thrice from the regions of doom thundered their impatient monarch [Haides], and shook the depths of the earth, and even the deities of battle fled; renowned Virtus (Virtue) was nowhere seen, Bellona [Enyo] put out her torches, Mars [Ares] drove afar his affrighted chariot, and the Maid [Athene] shrank away with her fierce Gorgon-head, and into their places came the Stygian sisters [the Erinyes] . . . The king of Tartarus [Haides] himself orders the gates to be set open, and the Ogygian Manes (Shades) to attend their kindred’s monstrous deeds. Seated upon their native hills they pollute the day with grisly band, and rejoice that their own crimes should be surpassed . . .
Down from the pole she [Pietas, the goddess of piety] leapt . . . scarce has she set foot upon the plain, when a sudden peace stilled the fury of the warriors, and they were all conscious of their crime; then tears bedewed their faces and breasts, and a silent horror stole upon the brethren [Eteokles and Polyneikes]. Clad in feigned armour also and manly dress she cries now to these, now to those: ‘Forward! Be moving! withstand them! ye who have sons at home or brothers, or pledges held so dear. Even here - is it not plain, the gods unasked are pitiful? - weapons are falling, steeds wavering, and Fors (Chance) herself resists.’
She had somewhat stirred the doubting lines, had not grim Tisiphone marked her deceit, and swifter than fire from heaven darted to her side reproaching her: `Why hinderest thou the bold deeds of war, O sluggard, peace-devoted deity? Hence, shameless one! this battle-field, this day is mine; too late no defendest thou guilty Thebes. Where wert thou then when Bacchus [Dionysos] made war and the orgies drove the matrons to arms and madness? Where wert thou idling, while the Snake of Mars [Ares] drank the unhallowed flood, while Cadmus ploughed, while the Sphinx fell defeated, while Oedipus was questioned by his sire, while by my torch’s light Jocasta was entering the marriage-chamber?’ So she upbraids, and threatens her with hissing hydras and brandished torch, as she shrinks from her gaze and far withdraws her shamefast face; down over her eyes the goddess draws her mantle and flees to lay her complaint before the mighty Thunderer [Zeus].
Then verily are they [Eteokles and Polyneikes] kindled to yet more fiery wrath; battle pleases, and the armies, changed once more, are willing to look on . . . [the brothers engage in battle] No more need is there of Furiae [Erinyes]: they only marvel and praise as they watch, and grieve that human rage exceeds their own. Each in furious lust seeks his brother’s life-blood nor knows his own is flowing . . . [the brothers slay one another in battle] . . .
Go, savage souls, and pollute baleful Tartarus by your death, and exhaust all the punishments of Erebus! And O ye Stygian goddesses [Erinyes], spare now the afflictions of mankind; in every land and throughout all ages let one day only have seen so dread a crime; let posterity forget the infamous horror, and kings alone recount that combat.
But the sire [Oidipous who laid the curse on his sons], when he knew the horrid deed was over, burst out from his gloom profound, and in the dread gateway displays his living corpse; his grey hair and beard are filthy and matted with ancient gore, and locks congealed with blood veil his fury-haunted head; deep-sunken are his cheeks and eyes, and foul the traces of the sight’s uprooting . . . `Lead me,’ he cries, `to my sons, I pray, and set their father on the new-slain corpses.’ . . . ‘Ah woe! alas, for a parent’s prayers and curses granted too faithfully [by the Erinyes]! What god was it stood by when I prayed, and caught my words and told them to the Fatae [Moirai, fates]? ‘Twas madness that caused those ills, and the Erinys, and my father and my mother and my kingdom and my falling eyes - not I! By Dis [Haides] I swear it, and by the darkness that I loved and this my innocent guide [his daughter Antigone], so may I go to Tartarus by a worthy death, and Laius’ shade [the father he killed] not angrily shun my presence!’ . . .
[Kreon declares himself king and banishes Oidipous from Thebes:] `Avaunt,’ he cried ‘hateful omen to the conquerors, keep far hence thy Furiae [Erinyes], and purify the Theban walls by thy departure! Fulfilled is thy long-enduring hope: go, for thy sons lie dead, what wishes hast thou left?"
- Homer, The Odyssey - Greek Epic C9th-8th BC
- Homerica, The Thebaid - Greek Epic BC
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th BC
- Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes - Greek Tragedy C5th BC
- Pausanias, Guide to Greece - Greek Geography C2nd AD
- Philostratus the Elder, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd AD
- Seneca, Oedipus - Latin Tragedy C1st AD
- Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st AD