Trouble is brewing. All around you are signs that things are about to change for the worse. Your life is being threatened by the new king of Thebes; or your life is being threatened by strangers proposing marriage to your mother while your father is away; or your life is being threatened because your father is proposing marriage to a younger princess; or your life is being threatened because your mother has remarried after she murdered your father; or worst of all—an oracle has placed your family at the top of the cursed list. If any of these happen to you, and if you are the son or daughter of a famous hero, there are options available to help ensure your living through the crisis, but it is not easy. With the survival average less than 50% for the progeny of famous persons, how can a youngster defy the odds and grow into adulthood in the household of a hero?
Let us compare several of the sons and daughters of heroes who managed to reach adulthood with several groups who perished as a result of some anger/curse/madness that inundated their parents. Many of the heroes’ children who outlived their parents did so because their fathers were away for a very long time at Troy. Nearly all of the surviving progeny included in this survey fall into this group. As for the ones who did not survive, perhaps escape could have been possible if only they had realized their special peril as the progeny of heroes.
Most famous for surviving his childhood and returning to avenge the murder of his father is Orestes. This youth managed to survive his childhood because he was stolen away to grow up in a remote location. He returns at the prompting of an oracle to avenge his father’s murder as described by Sophocles in the opening passages of Electra:
When I went to the god’s oracle at Delphi
To learn how to avenge my father’s murder,
Apollo gave me this advice, “Go alone,
Unaided by arms or soldiers, and snatch by stealth
The lawful vengeance that is yours.”
(Sophocles, Electra, 35-9)
Orestes has grown into manhood apart from his family, but his return home is in disguise.
When Odysseus visits the spirits of the underworld in The Odyssey he encounters a melancholy Agamemnon who mulls over the events of his premature end:
But my wife—she nevereven let me feast my eyes on my own son:
she killed me first, his father!
(Homer, The Odyssey, XI 512-4)
While Agamemnon bemoans never seeing his son before his death, had he not died would Orestes have suffered some other fate at the hands of his father? Agamemnon does have a track record for murdering his children having previously sacrificed one in order to set sail for Troy. Who knows if Orestes could have survived growing up in the same house with his father?
The story of the feisty return of Orestes is used by a crafty Athene to spur Telemachus toward action to seek his father in The Odyssey:
You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—
It’s time you were a man. Haven’t you heard
what glory Prince Orestes won throughout the world
when he killed the cunning, murderous Aegisthus,who’d killed his famous father?And you, my friend—how tall and handsome I see you now—be brave, you too,so men to come will sing your praises down the years.
(The Odyssey, I 341-7)
Telemachus thanks the disguised Athene for counseling him “like a father” and decides to depart on his quest to discover the fate of his long missing real father. Between the campaign at Troy and the decade lost at sea, twenty years have past since Telemachus shared lodging with his father. While the presence of the suitors has forced him to keep a low profile, he has had the time to grow into manhood, as Athene reminded him.
By the time both Odysseus and Telemachus return to Ithaca the son is within a second or two of proving himself a match for his father when he nearly strings Odysseus’ bow:
…three times his power flagged—but his hopes ran high
he’d string his fathers bow and shoot through every ironand now struggling with all his might for the fourth time,
he would have strung the bow, but Odysseus shook his head
and stopped him short despite his tense zeal.
(The Odyssey, XXI 145-8)
Of course, had Telemachus strung the bow it would have ruined Odysseus’ plan. But had he done it anyway, what peril would Telemachus have been in, not just from the suitors, but from his own father?
A third surviving son of a hero was able to grow up because his father was fated to die young. Neoptolemus, the son of Achilleus, also carries a destiny, as he describes the prophecy to Philoktetes:
That now my father is dead, I alone—
Or so say the gods—can win the war at Troy.
He is compared to his father when he arrives at Troy:
As I walk ashore, the entire army crowds round me,
Shouting greetings and words like: “Achilleus is back!
Achilleus is back from the dead!”
But no, Achilleus is dead, laid out for burial.
Because his father is dead and because he was able to mature to early manhood separated from his father, Neoptolemus is able to successfully fill the void. Had Neoptolemus been present at Troy earlier in the saga, would he perhaps have met a fate similar to Patroclus?
A longer list of heroes’ children belongs to those who perished at the hands of their parents. While the body count is higher than those of the survivors there is a twist in that many of these murdered children are unnamed.
The most famous slain brothers are the children of Medea. Their identities are so immersed in the tragic story that their names do not survive. They are known by the name of their murderer: their mother. So completely has she taken the story that the name of their famous sire is not what marks them. History has not call them ‘the boy’s of Jason’ or ‘the children of Jason and Medea’, but only Medea. Not that there were not plenty of signs that things were going terribly wrong. First there was the forceful lamentation of their mother:
Accursed children of a hateful mother!Perish with your father!
The whole house be damned!
(Euripides, Medea, 112-4)
Before long she is sending the boys on a mission to deliver a dress to the new bride of their father. A faux peace offering that is infused with poisons. The boys have been goaded into acting as destructive ministers of doom to the young princess. The dress does its work, the bride and her father die. All Jason has left are his sons. By now the boys should realize that they are in grave peril. Too young to strike out on their own, are caught in this crisis by their proximity to their father, because their mother’s anger is about to strike as close to Jason as possible without actually hitting him. The boys are a convenient and handy target:
FIRST BOY: (from within) O, what should I do? Where run from mother’s attack?
SECOND BOY: I don’t know dearest brother. We’re slain!
The only thing these boys could have done to prevent their deaths would have been to foresee the trouble on the horizon back when dad started fawning over the new princess and then requested to go to private school elsewhere. There are some very good schools in Athens, after all.
The children of Heracles were also led to slaughter, but in their case they were already prepared and dressed for death, as their execution date had been set. In the play by Euripides, Lycus had usurped power in Thebes while the children’s famous father has been engaged completing his numerous labors, the last of which had him descending into Hades. Because he suspects Heracles may never return, Lycus intends to eradicate opposition to his rule by liquidating the entire Herculean household.
The family of Heracles prepares for imminent death as they hope beyond hope for the return of their patriarch in time to save them. He does return just before the appointed moment of death, saving his family. But in an ironic turn the goddesses Iris and Lyssa appear on a mission from Hera to initiate a ‘madness’ to overpower Heracles:
…against this man drive, stir upfits of madness, disturbances of mind to kill his children…
his crown of beautiful children, killed in familial murder,
he may recognize what sort Hera’s anger against him
and learn mine. Otherwise the gods are nowhere
and mortal things will be great, if he doesn’t pay the penalty.
(Euripides, Heracles, 835-42)
While Hera has imposed this penalty to admonish Heracles, it is his nameless children that will pay with their blood:
…he, thinking it was Eurystheus’
father trembling as suppliant to touch his handpushed him away, and prepared his ready quiver
and arrows for his own children…
…Their mother cried out,
“You begot them, what are you doing?
Are you killing your own children?
Once again the children become an instrument of vengeance while in the vicinity of their hero father.
The house of Laius had more than its share of problems. Cursed before birth, young Oedipus manages to survive the attempt made on his life by his father, much to the chagrin of the entire royal line, not to mention the kingdom of Thebes. Of course at the time it seemed like a good thing to save the poor exposed babe, but o the woe that it would bring. Oedipus went on to win fame and fortune by unwittingly murdering his father and marrying his mother. Along the way he solved an important riddle saving Thebes, but o the woe once his crimes were revealed in the light of day. The moment that happened he spoke the first part of the curse that will dog his children:
Such disgrace, and you must bare it all!
Who will marry you then? Not a man on earth.
Your doom is clear: you’ll wither away to nothing,
single, without a child.
(Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 1642-5)
Of course, in the next passage he arranges for care of the ‘doomed’ children by their uncle Creon, but the curse has been spoken; no taking it back now.
After a time the girls Antigone and Ismene go off helping their father while the two boys Eteocles and Polynices remain in Thebes to work out a shared kingship. The boys are occupied with their own affairs, estranged from their self-blinded, shameful father. It is not until Polynices, the older of the male brace, requires his father’s blessing in order to regain the throne, that he seeks out his wandering father. He finds him near Thebes at the altar of the Furies. His impassioned pleas glean only malice from the bitter and timeworn Oedipus:
And so the eyes of fate look down upon you now,
but not yet with the lightning that will strikeif those armies are really marching hard on Thebes.
Impossible—you’ll never tear that city down. No,
you’ll fall first, red with your brother’s blood
and he stained with yours—equals, twins in blood.
Such were the curses I hurled against you long ago
and now, again, I call them up to fight beside me!
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1551-8)
The great irony of this curse is that it not only dooms his sons, it binds his dear Antigone to their fate as well. She tries to get her brother to see reason:
Don’t you see?
You carry out our father’s prophecies to the finish!
Didn’t he cry aloud you’d kill each other,
(Oedipus at Colonus, 1614-7)
As much as Oedipus was known for his reason, as when he solved the riddle of the sphinx, much of his family’s history plays out the way it does because they are so unreasonable.
Soon after the death of Oedipus at Colonus the fulfillment of his curse is realized; Eteocles and Polynices kill each other outside of the gates of Thebes. Both Antigone and Ismene have returned to their home city after declining an invitation from Theseus to remain in Athens. Antigone is bound by the shared family fate, and so she defies Creon’s order by determining to bury her brother Polynices, even though he has been declared a traitor for deploying an attack upon the city. Antigone’s ties to her brother are strong, and reasoning by neither her sister Ismene or her uncle Creon will dissuade her from her actions. She recounts the family traumas before she is led to her sentence is imposed:
…the worst pain
the worst anguish! Raking up the grief for fatherthree times over, for all the doomthat’s struck us down, the brilliant house of Laius.
O mother, your marriage-bed
the coiling horrors, the coupling there—
with your own son, my father—doom
struck mother!Such, such were my parents, and I their wretched child.
I go to them now, cursed, unwed, to share their home—
I am a stranger! O dear brother doomed
in your marriage—your marriage murders mine,
your dying drags me down to death alive!
(Sophocles, Antigone, 947-58)
What is unclear from this passage is whether she is evoking her slain brother Polynices in lines 56-7 or her ‘brother’ Oedipus—or both. The ambiguity of the text reflects the tangled nature of the familial relationships in the house of Laius. Either way she has sealed her doom and will be taken to be walled-up in a cave where she will take her own life by hanging herself rather than lingering in the dark with meager provisions; thus ending her life the same way queen Jocasta, her mother, had ended her own at the beginning of the revelations of disasters.
But what if Antigone had never returned to Thebes? What if she had stayed in Athens or gone to live with the Amazons or something equally fantastic? And what of Ismene? At the end of the great saga she is not mentioned, her whereabouts unknown, her story a mystery.
Oimoi! What to do?