What’s Special About Thebes? Two Fragments from Sophokles

Sophocles fr. 773

“Do you say to me concerning Thebes and its seven gates
That it is the only place where mortal women give birth to gods?

Θήβας λέγεις μοι καὶ πύλας ἑπταστόμους,
οὗ δὴ μόνον τίκτουσιν αἱ θνηταὶ θεούς

from Heraclides On the Cities of Greece, 1, 17

Fr. 799 (Odysseus to Diomedes)

“I will say nothing terrible to you, not how
You wander the earth an exile from your father hand,
Nor how your father killed a blood relative
And then settled as a foreigner in Argos or even
How right before the walls of Thebes he made a meal of human flesh
When he cut off the head of the child of Astacus.”

ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ (τῷ Διομήδει)•
ἐγὼ δ’ ἐρῶ σοι δεινὸν οὐδέν, οὔθ’ ὅπως
φυγὰς πατρῴας ἐξελήλασαι χθονός,
οὔθ’ ὡς ὁ Τυδεὺς ἀνδρὸς αἷμα συγγενὲς
κτείνας ἐν ῎Αργει ξεῖνος ὢν οἰκίζεται,
οὔθ’ ὡς πρὸ Θηβῶν ὠμοβρὼς ἐδαίσατο
τὸν ᾿Αστάκειον παῖδα διὰ κάρα τεμών

Three Sophoklean Fragments on Parents and Children

Fr. 567 (Those Who Dine Together)
“Oh, you have your hands in everything, so much like
Sisyphus in you, and much of your mother’s father.”

ὦ πάντα πράσσων, ὡς ὁ Σίσυφος πολὺς
ἔνδηλος ἐν σοὶ πάντα χὠ μητρὸς πατήρ

Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

Fr. 932

“A women flees the sharp pains of child birth
On oaths. But when she has stopped feeling the pain,
She is caught in those same nets, conquered
By desires’ present tense”

ὅρκοισι γάρ τοι καὶ γυνὴ φεύγει πικρὰν
ὠδῖνα παίδων• ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ λήξῃ κακοῦ,
ἐν τοῖσιν αὐτοῖς δικτύοις ἁλίσκεται
πρὸς τοῦ παρόντος ἱμέρου νικωμένη

“No One is Pain-Free”: Four Sophoklean Fragments on Life and Pain

Fr. 356 (Creusa)

“The most noble thing is to be just.
The best thing is to live without sickness; the sweetest is when
A man has the ability to get what he wants each day.”

κάλλιστόν ἐστι τοὔνδικον πεφυκέναι,
λῷστον δὲ τὸ ζῆν ἄνοσον, ἥδιστον δ’ ὅτῳ
πάρεστι λῆψις ὧν ἐρᾷ καθ’ ἡμέραν

Fr. 375 (Laocoon)

“There is no account of pain that has gone by”

μόχθου γὰρ οὐδεὶς τοῦ παρελθόντος λόγος

Fr. 410 (The Mysians)

“No one is pain-free: the man who has the least
is the luckiest.”

ἄμοχθος γὰρ οὐδείς• ὁ δ’ ἥκιστ’ ἔχων

Fr. 434 (Nauplius)

“A single night seems like ten thousand for a man
Who suffers, but even daybreak surprises a man doing well.”

τῷ γὰρ κακῶς πράσσοντι μυρία μία
νύξ ἐστιν, εὖ παθόντα δ’ ἡμέρα φθάνει

The Horrors of a Marriage Arranged: Sophokles, fr. 583 (Tereus)

“I am nothing now, apart. But often
I have examined the nature of women like this,
How we are nothing. As girls we live the sweetest life
of all human beings, I think, in our father’s house.
But ignorance nurses children always with pleasure.
When we come with full wits to adolescence,
We are sent out and made ready for sale,
Away from our paternal gods and our parents,
Some sent to foreign husbands, some sent to barbarians;
Some are sold to unhappy homes, some are wed to horrors.
And then, once a single evening has joined us,
We need to praise it and think that this is living well.”

<ΠΡΟΚΝΗ•> νῦν δ’ οὐδέν εἰμι χωρίς. ἀλλὰ πολλάκις
ἔβλεψα ταύτῃ τὴν γυναικείαν φύσιν,
ὡς οὐδέν ἐσμεν. αἳ νέαι μὲν ἐν πατρὸς
ἥδιστον, οἶμαι, ζῶμεν ἀνθρώπων βίον•
τερπνῶς γὰρ ἀεὶ παῖδας ἁνοία τρέφει.
ὅταν δ’ ἐς ἥβην ἐξικώμεθ’ ἔμφρονες,
ὠθούμεθ’ ἔξω καὶ διεμπολώμεθα
θεῶν πατρῴων τῶν τε φυσάντων ἄπο,
αἱ μὲν ξένους πρὸς ἄνδρας, αἱ δὲ βαρβάρους,
αἱ δ’ εἰς ἀγηθῆ δώμαθ’, αἱ δ’ ἐπίρροθα.
καὶ ταῦτ’, ἐπειδὰν εὐφρόνη ζεύξῃ μία,
χρεὼν ἐπαινεῖν καὶ δοκεῖν καλῶς ἔχειν

The story of Prokne, upon which this play of Sophocles is based, is most well-known to us from Ovid. Tereus, a Thracian King, marries the Athenian Prokne and then rapes her sister Philomela when she comes to visit. The sexual assault was not enough–he also cut out her tongue to keep her from telling her sister.

Philomela weaves a picture of what happened to inform Prokne; they kill her son with Tereus (Itys) and feed him to his father. According to Ovid, when Tereus tries to kill them, the gods turn them into birds to help them escape.

It seems that this passage–which shows Sophocles’ ability to empathize with someone else’s perspective–conveys a misery that is prior to the assault.