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The Theban Cycle Notes

Classics Notes > Early Greek Hexameter Poetry Notes

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Discuss the style of the Theban Cycle The Theban Cycle deals with the myths surrounding the city of Thebes, firstly how Oedipus came to rule there, as detailed in the Oedipodeia, then the conflict surrounding his sons Polynices and Eteocles in the Thebais and finally the attempts of the children of the original seven against Thebes to capture the city in the Epigoni; they do not tackle the same subject matter of the Homeric epics since they largely come before the time of the Trojan War. The style of the Theban cycle is certainly different to that of Homer especially in terms of linguistics, motifs and the details of particular stories which they choose to include. The Alexandrian scholars referred to them as cyclic because they lacked a quality when compared with Homer and it is certainly true that their style at times seems lacking and their fragmentary nature means that they lack the unity of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. However this is perhaps an overly critical assessment of the Thebais which Pausanias rates as the best poem as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The style of the Oedipodeia is certainly very hard to analyse since only a handful of lines remain of the work which is recorded on the Borgia plaque as stretching to over 6,600 verses. The first is a quote given in the Tragedians' Tales by Asclepiades which records the riddle of the sphinx; "There is on earth a two-footed and four-footed creature with a single voice, and three-footed, changing its form alone of all creatures that move in earth, sky or sea. When it walks on the most legs, then the strength of its limbs it weakest." This is the riddle which Oedipus had to solve to defeat the sphinx, take over the kingship of Thebes which had been vacated by his father Laius and marry his mother Jocasta. The other surviving line from the epic also concerns the sphinx; "But also the handsomest and loveliest of all, the dear son of blameless Creon, noble Haemon." This is clearly different from the tradition as detailed in Sophocles' Antigone in which Haemon kills himself because his father Creon has condemned his bride-to-be Antigone to death. What is particularly striking about this extract is how erotic the language that is used of Haemon is, especially because the sphinx is a monster which kills young men and so it is hard to conceive the implication that it somehow desires Haemon in this way. The word himeros which is used of Haemon here in the superlative means yearning or love and kalliston means most beautiful; it implies it was for these reasons that the sphinx chose to kill him. In fact the very inclusion of the sphinx itself shows that the Oedipodeia has a very different style to the Iliad because in this poem Homer consciously excludes all elements of the fantastic or of folk-superstition, for example the tradition that Achilles was granted immortality on the Isles of The Blessed by his mother Thetis and the fact he largely excludes any reference to the underworld. Homer is also careful to exclude all the excessively gruesome details of the Oedipus tale; something which the Theban cycle does not and therefore highlights another aspect of the Oedipodeia's style. It necessary to highlight its style in contrast to the Homeric poems in this way because so much of the original work is lost it is hard to get a proper idea of the nuances of the Theban cycle. It is Pausanias who highlights this difference between the two versions of the myth, according to him Homer in the Odyssey, "And I saw Oedipus' mother, fair Epicaste, who

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