Seven Against Thebes (3)

Dirce's punishment - Roman wall painting in House of the Vettii, Pompeii.


When Antiope realized that she was pregnant, she fled from home. Even though she’d been impregnated by Zeus himself, she knew that her father, a ruthless, cruel man, would never forgive her. She was right: when her story broke out, he committed suicide. But prior to his death he had extracted from his brother, Lycus – who was at the time the ruler of Thebes – the promise that he would find and punish the girl.

Antiope sought refuge in Sicyon, a city on the shores of the Peloponnesus. The local king offered her protection, but Lycus broke into the city along with his men and carried her off. As they crossed the Kithairon on their way back, the girl was ceased by contractions; and there she gave birth to two boys, twins. But Lycus kept the promise given to this brother; he had the children abandoned in the mountain as food for wild animals.

Lycus had no mercy, but his wife, Dirce, treated the girl with great cruelty. The girl’s great beauty drove the queen to wild feats of envy. Dirce even suspected her husband of disloyalty; and he, so as not to give rise to any suspicion with any ill-considered act of generosity, allowed his wife to do whatever she liked. For many years Antiope was imprisoned in the dungeons of the Theban castle. She eventually managed to escape by miracle: one night, the chains slipped off her wrists and the doors of the dungeon opened by themselves. She ran off into the Kithairon and there found a poor hut and in it an old shepherd and his two sons.

The boys were twins, but of very different disposition. Amphion seemed calm and carefree while Zethus was secretive and introverted and worked ceaselessly: he hunted, ploughed the fields, chopped wood, gathered rocks with which to hold up the walls of the hut. The two brothers were attached to each other, but quarreled constantly. It was difficult for them to understand each other because both were happy – one running around in the mountains with song on his lips, the other content to see how well his work progressed. They also disagreed in the matter of the woman who sought refuge in their hut: Zethus would most gladly have chased her away, suspecting, as he was, that she was merely a runaway slave and that hiding her would only lead to trouble.

Then the Dionysian holidays came. At the time, Theban women celebrated them in a rather strange manner. They headed into Kithairon in a great throng and there, in the meadows, they danced to the mad beat of tympani and the piercing wailing of flutes. The night was filled with orgiastic yelling and singing, all over the mountain there wound processions with torches. Dirce was a passionate devotee of Dionysius. She, too, danced in the dark wilderness of Kithairon, singing and waving a burning tree branch. And when the night of divine madness passed, the queen descended from the mountain and stopped at a mountain hut to take rest. Here she came upon Antiope. In a sudden rush of hatred, she decided to murder the girl. She ordered the shepherd’s sons:

“This woman is my slave. She has committed many improprieties and that is why, to flee a just punishment, she ran away from the palace. But gods are just! Dionysius himself gave her into my hands. And you, too, are not entirely blameless. By what right are you hiding this criminal? I will beg the king for forgiveness on your behalf, but you must first mend your error. You must kill her right now, before my eyes!”

Shocked, the two brothers did not object, ready to fulfill the order they’d been given. But then the old shepherd spoke up. Slowly, over many days he’d put together everything Antiope had told him and compared it with everything he had earlier heard from the city folk. Now, the anger of Dirce, and the preparations for the murder of the defenseless woman revealed to him the horror of what was about to happen. He understood whose children the twins were, the twins whom he had found in the forest so many years ago.

Amphion and Zethus tied their mother’s persecutoress by her hair to the horns of a bull, and they drove the animal into a field of rocks. This is what Dirce had envisioned as a death for Antiope; now her own howling could be heard in the wild ravines where the mad animal dragged her bloody carcass.

The brothers then ambushed Lycus and either killed him, or forced him to flee (the story was told in several versions) and then they became the new rulers of Thebes. Zethus immediately spotted a golden opportunity for heavy labor: the city still had no walls! He immediately went to work. He carried huge boulders himself, in the sweat of his brow but also with great pleasure. But he constantly upbraided Amphion; for Amphion, instead of helping, spent whole days singing and playing a strange lyre, a gift which he had received from a mysterious stranger (it was later said that the stranger was Hermes, the messenger of gods). When eventually Amphion became fed up with his brother’s chiding, he went to the place where Zethus was piling up his rocks. But instead of helping him to lift the rocks, he struck the lyre and – a miracle took place, a miracle which Thebans were to tell for the rest of their history with pride: the rocks, like shepherded animals, moved and submissively followed the sound of the music. They rolled in a long line, slowly and heavily, but unceasingly: Amphion led them the way a shepherd leads his sheep. Ruled by him, the rocks laid themselves into a great wall, leaving only seven openings: in those openings seven gates took shape. This is how the great, massive walls of the city were formed, walls which could not be torn down by the hand of man because they were not built by the hand of man, but by divine music.

That was the version of the myth of Antiope and Dirce which was told most often. It might seem strange at first, but it is enough to think of its main motifs to see it in a different light:

A girl gives birth to twins, whose father is a god. The children are threatened by death, but they are saved by a shepherd who raises them. A cruel, jealous woman persecutes another, more pretty than herself. Estranged mother and children meet and recognize each other in the face of great danger.

How many myths of how many different peoples contain these very same elements! They are the favorite motifs of all fairy tales; they have been in circulation in near and far lands for millennia, sometimes borrowed, but sometimes arising spontaneously. So perhaps we should consider this Theban myth of twins a fairy-tale. Hardly anyone would seek a reflection of real historical events in it.

Yet, and this is different business altogether, there are in this myth other elements, strikingly original and unique to it: above all, the method of Dirce’s punishment. This figure seems especially tied up with Thebes. Somewhere near the city there was her tomb, though it was only known to the commanders of the cavalry. As we know from the conversation of the plotters of 379 B.C., the Spartans were eager to find it.

But did the tomb of Dirce actually exist? Many denied it. They said:

Because Dirce was a passionate follower of Dionysius, following her terrible death, gods sent Hermes to the city. He ordered the two brothers to collect the fragments of her body and to cremate them properly on a funeral pyre. It was then that Amphion received his magical lyre from Hermes. But the brothers did not bury her ashes, but threw them instead into a spring which runs at the western foot of the castle hill. Its water cascades down towards a stream in a gorge below; and this is why both the spring and the gorge are named after Dirce.

The stream had other sources, too. They lay somewhat to the south of the city, in a lovely, shady grove. There were three springs here, with crystal-clear water, very delicious to drink. Perhaps there, in that grove, we should seek the queen’s tomb? Or perhaps Dirce was simply the name of the water nymph, the protectress of the spring, and the stream, to whom, per ancient custom, sacrifices had once been made here?


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