Septem TFF Series Septem, Part I: vv. 1-77
Before considering any deeper matters of theology or politics, let us take a run through the play. If you have read my earlier series on Greek tragedy, you will not need to be told that the early tragedies of Aeschylus were performed by two actors and a chorus of 12 Athenian citizens at the Greater Dionysia. The actors in this play mostly speak their lines, while the chorus and its leader enter with a chant in anapests, take up their position and sing and dance a lyric song, but can also engage in spoken dialogue.
Many later tragedies begin with a prologue spoken by a god, but Aeschylus plunges straight in with a speech given by King Eteocles (played by the Protagonist, or first actor) to a silent chorus. We in the audience, having heard some of the stories as we grew up and having already seen the first two plays of the trilogy, are not given much introduction. Thebes is about to reach the height of its crisis.
Eteocles tells his people—the citizens of Cadmus—that they have reached a point where all must man up and do their duty. As king, he must be vigilant and be prepared to meet every challenge, while they, depending on age and condition, must be ready to risk all in defense of their city, and not just their homes and public buildings but the shrines of the gods and the gods themselves “that their worship may never be blotted out.” Their protection must extend to the very land of Thebes—Ge the Mother—who has given them sustenance.
We Athenians, in hearing these lines, will think not only of the Theban legend of the Spartoi, the “sown men” who sprang forth out of the soil, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth but also of similar Athenian legends about their early kings, often depicted as humanoid snakes, who sprang directly from the soil of Attica. It was the Athenians’ greatest boast that, while most other cities had been overrun by aliens who displaced the older population, the people of Athens were autochthonous, in the double sense that they were never conquered and restocked and that they were sprung from the soil itself. (Our word autochthonous comes from a Greek word that means something like belonging to or coming from the land (chthon) itself.)
Eteocles, portrayed as a responsible ruler, shows himself to be the model commander as he dispatches his people to the battlements and proceeds to meet with the scout (the deuteragonist, second actor) he has sent out.
The scout makes his report that the invaders (coming from Argos) are led by seven great champions, who have made a sacrifice of bull’s blood and sworn by the gods of war that they will take the city or die in inflicting great slaughter. He advises Eteocles to take urgent measures to ward off the looming disaster.
Eteocles’ response to the Scout is extremely puzzling. He calls for divine aid, first from the gods who guard Thebes, and second from the Curse (ara) and the mighty Revenge Fiend (Erinys) of his father Oedipus. There is, of course, a general curse on the family, going back at least to grandfather Laius, but Oedipus cursed his sons. There are various versions of his motive. In the most popular, he curses them for giving him the “cold shoulder”, that is an inferior cut of meat at the table. Whatever the motive, calling on the curse and Fury is a peculiar sort of prayer, unless one scholar is correct in conjecturing that Oedipus’ curse was that the sons would divide their inheritance by the sword, and since Eteocles is now defending the city, these supernatural forces of darkness can be invoked as allies.
Even stranger is Eteocles’ description of Thebes as a city whose people speak Greek. At this point, I just want to highlight it as significant, so that when the language question comes up again, you will seize upon it.