The Seven Against Thebes
Written 467 B.C.E
Translated by E. D. A. Morshead
The final chapter of the Oedipus story, ‘The Seven Against Thebes’ tells the tale of two brothers pitted against each other, fulfilling a family curse.
ETEOCLES, son of Oedipus, King of Thebes
CHORUS OF THEBAN WOMEN
sisters of ETEOCLES
Within the Citadel of Thebes. There is an altar with the statues of several gods visible. A crowd of citizens are present as ETEOCLES enters with his attendants.
Clansmen of Cadmus, at the signal given
By time and season must the ruler speak
Who sets the course and steers the ship of State
With hand upon the tiller, and with eye
Watchful against the treachery of sleep.
For if all go aright, thank Heaven, men say,
But if adversely-which may God forefend!-
One name on many lips, from street to street,
Would bear the bruit and rumour of the time,
Down witk Eteocles!-a clamorous curse,
A dirge of ruin. May averting Zeus
Make good his title here, in Cadmus’ hold!
You it beseems now-boys unripened yet
To lusty manhood, men gone past the prime
And increase of the full begetting seed,
And those whom youth and manhood well combined
Array for action-all to rise in aid
Of city, shrines, and altars of all powers
Who guard our land; that ne’er, to end of time,
Be blotted out the sacred service due
To our sweet mother-land and to her brood.
For she it was who to their guest-right called
Your waxing youth, was patient of the toil,
And cherished you on the land’s gracious lap,
Alike to plant the hearth and bear the shield
In loyal service, for an hour like this.
Mark now! until to-day, luck rules our scale;
For we, though long beleaguered, in the main
Have with our sallies struck the foemen hard.
But now the seer, the feeder of the birds
(Whose art unerring and prophetic skill
Of ear and mind divines their utterance
Without the lore of fire interpreted)
Foretelleth, by the mastery of his art,
That now an onset of Achaea’s host
Is by a council of the night designed
To fall in double strength upon our walls.
Up and away, then, to the battlements,
The gates, the bulwarks! don your panoplies,
Array you at the breast-work, take your stand
On the floorings of the towers, and with good heart
Stand firm for sudden sallies at the gates,
Nor hold too heinous a respect for hordes
Sent on you from afar: some god will guard!
I too, for shrewd espial of their camp,
Have sent forth scouts, and confidence is mine
They will not fail nor tremble at their task,
And, with their news, I fear no foeman’s guile.
A Spy enters.
Eteocles, high king of Cadmus’ folk,
I stand here with news certified and sure
From Argos’ camp, things by myself descried.
Seven warriors yonder, doughty chiefs of might,
Into the crimsoned concave of a shield
Have shed a bull’s blood, and, with hands immersed
Into the gore of sacrifice, have sworn
By Ares, lord of fight, and by thy name,
Blood-lapping Terror, Let our oath be heard-
Either to raze the walls, make void the hold
Of Cadmus-strive his children as they may-
Or, dying here, to make the foemen’s land
With blood impasted. Then, as memory’s gift
Unto their parents at the far-off home,
Chaplets they hung upon Adrastus’ car,
With eyes tear-dropping, but no word of moan.
For their steeled spirit glowed with high resolve,
As lions pant, with battle in their eyes.
For them, no weak alarm delays the clear
Issues of death or life! I parted thence
Even as they cast the lots, how each should lead,
Against which gate, his serried company.
Rank then thy bravest, with what speed thou may’st,
Hard by the gates, to dash on them, for now,
Full-armed, the onward ranks of Argos come!
The dust whirls up, and from their panting steeds
White foamy flakes like snow bedew the plain.
Thou therefore, chieftain! like a steersman skilled,
Enshield the city’s bulwarks, ere the blast
Of war comes darting on them! hark, the roar
Of the great landstorm with its waves of men
Take Fortune by the forelock! for the rest,
By yonder dawn-light will I scan the field
Clear and aright, and surety of my word
Shall keep thee scatheless of the coming storm.
O Zeus and Earth and city-guarding gods,
And thou, my father’s Curse, of baneful might,
Spare ye at least this town, nor root it up,
By violence of the foemen, stock and stem!
For here, from home and hearth, rings Hellas’ tongue.
Forbid that e’er the yoke of slavery
Should bow this land of freedom, Cadmus’ hold!
Be ye her help! your cause I plead with mine-
A city saved doth honour to her gods!
ETEOCLES, his attendants and most of the crowd go out. The CHORUS OF THEBAN WOMEN enters. They appear terror-stricken.
I wail in the stress of my terror, and shrill is my cry of despair.
The foemen roll forth from their camp as a billow, and onward they bear!
Their horsemen are swift in the forefront, the dust rises up to the sky,
A signal, though speechless, of doom, a herald more clear than a cry!
Hoof-trampled, the land of my love bears onward the din to mine ears.
As a torrent descending a mountain, it thunders and echoes and nears!
The doom is unloosened and cometh! O kings and O queens of high
Prevail that it fall not upon us! the sign for their onset is given-
They stream to the walls from without, white-shielded and keen for the fray.
The rush of their feet? to what shrine shall I bow me in terror and pray?
They rush to pray to the gods.
O gods high-throned in bliss, we must crouch at the shrines in your home!
Not here must we tarry and wail: shield clashes on shield as they come
And now, even now is the hour for the robes and the chaplets of prayer!
Mine eyes feel the flash of the sword, the clang is instinct with the spear!
Is thy hand set against us, O Ares, in ruin and wrath to o’erwhelm
Thine own immemorial land, O god of the golden helm?
Look down upon us, we beseech thee, on the land that thou lovest of old.
And ye, O protecting gods, in pity your people behold!
Yea, save us, the maidenly troop, from the doom and despair of the slave,
For the crests of the foemen come onward, their rush is the rush of a wave
Rolled on by the War-god’s breath! almighty one, hear us and save
From the grasp of the Argives’ might! to the ramparts of Cadmus they crowd,
And, clenched in the teeth of the steeds, the bits clink horror aloud
And seven high chieftains of war, with spear and with panoply bold,
Are set, by the law of the lot, to storm the seven gates of our hold!
Be near and befriend us, O Pallas, the Zeus-born maiden of might!
O lord of the steed and the sea, be thy trident uplifted to smite
In eager desire of the fray, Poseidon! and Ares come down,
In fatherly presence revealed, to rescue Harmonia’s town!
Thine too, Aphrodite, we are! thou art mother and queen of our race,
To thee we cry out in our need, from thee let thy children have grace!
Ye too, to scare back the foe, be your cry as a wolf’s howl wild,
Thou, O the wolf-lord, and thou, of she-wolf Leto the child!
Woe and alack for the sound, for the rattle of cars to the wall,
And the creak of the griding axles! O Hera, to thee is our call!
Artemis, maiden beloved! the air is distraught with the spears,
And whither doth destiny drive us, and where is the goal of our fears?
The blast of the terrible stones on the ridge of our wall is not stayed,
At the gates is the brazen clash of the bucklers-Apollo to aid!
Thou too, O daughter of Zeus, who guidest the wavering fray
To the holy decision of fate, Athena! be with us to-day!
Come down to the sevenfold gates and harry the foemen away!
O gods and O sisters of gods, our bulwark and guard! we beseech
That ye give not our war-worn hold to a rabble of alien speech!
List to the call of the maidens, the hands held up for the right,
The Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus