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The Fifth Episode:
Tiresias and Creon
Tiresias, the seer of Thebes, enters, led by a boy. He addresses the “Lords of Thebes” (the Chorus), saying that since he is blind, he needs the help of the young boy who is his guide. Creon asks Tiresias why he has come.
Tiresias reminds Creon that his advice to Creon on previous occasions has been sound and useful, and has saved Thebes from destruction. Creon agrees. Tiresias now warns Creon that Thebes is once again on the “edge of peril.” Creon admits that he is frightened by Tiresias’ warning and asks about the nature and cause of the impending disaster.
Tiresias begins to answer Creon’s question. He relates that once, while he sat on his ancient seat of divination, he heard birds of prey screeching and fighting among themselves. He could hear the talons of two birds tearing each other apart. Frightened by these strange noises, Tiresias offered a sacrifice to the fire-god at the high alter of Thebes. But the fire did not burn brightly because a liquid had dripped onto the fire from the bones of the animal which Tiresias had offered as a sacrifice. Thus the fire was turned into “a sputtering fume.” The animal’s bile was thrown up high into the air. Tiresias took this as an bad omen. Although Tiresias could not see all of this, it was reported to him by his helper, a young boy. Tiresias accuses Creon of causing these strange happenings to occur through his (Creon’s) obstinacy. Tiresias says that throughout Thebes, the sacred altars have been infected because of the dogs and vultures who have fed on the decaying body of Polynices, which lies out in the open due to Creon’s decree.
Tiresias complains that the gods refuse to accept sacrifices from infected altars. He advises Creon to relent and to listen to reason. He asks Creon not to be inflexible, but to make amends for his unnatural behavior. He tells Creon that there is no honor in demeaning the man who is already dead. Tiresias believes that careful counsel “is precious to the understanding soul.”
Creon describes himself as the target of everyone’s anger. He accuses Tiresias of having taken a bribe to speak out against Creon. He promises never to allow Polynices’ body to be buried. Creon asserts that he is not frightened by the disturbances among the animals and birds of Thebes. He states that defilement among men cannot rise up to the gods.
Tiresias laments the fact that Creon speaks unwisely. He tells Creon that he (Creon) suffers from the disease of wealth. Tiresias is angry because Creon has labeled him as a false prophet. Creon does not relent and calls Tiresias “dishonest.” At this, Tiresias responds with a prophecy that is almost a curse. He warns Creon that within a few days two members of Creon’s own family will die as recompense for the death of Antigone and the cruel manner in which Creon has refused a burial for Polynices’ body. The “powers beneath” (the gods of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone) demand that Polynices’ corpse be buried. Tiresias tells Creon that the avenging gods and the “furies of the grave” are waiting to bring “ruinous harm” to Creon’s family. Tiresias predicts that the palace halls will soon ring with the sound of mourners crying for the dead. He warns Creon that the people of the cities whose unburied sons lie outside Thebes are forming armies to attack Thebes. He ends by telling Creon that since Creon has attacked Tiresias personally, it is now his (Tiresias’) turn to play the archer and shoot arrows at Creon. Tiresias’ arrows take the form of curses. He leaves in a hurry, warning Creon not to act unwisely.
Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, appears as a character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Euripides’ Bacchae and Phoenissae. Tiresias was granted the gift of prophecy by Zeus. As in Oedipus Rex, Tiresias comes to warn the King of Thebes about the impending dangers awaiting him, and as in the Oedipus play, the king insults Tiresias and at first refuses to listen to him.
Tiresias, although blind, can “see” more clearly than most men. He has heard the quarreling among the birds who were fighting for their share of Polynices’ body. For Tiresias, such an event is a bad omen. Furthermore, his sacrifice to the gods at the altar of Thebes was rejected. Tiresias concludes that something is wrong within Thebes, and it is none other than Creon’s edict concerning the burial of Polynices. The body has begun to decompose and the air surrounding Thebes is now rife with infection. Tiresias asks Creon to change his thinking and allow for Polynices’ body to be buried, so that the gods may be satisfied. Then, the people of Thebes can once again live in an atmosphere free of the stench of death.
Creon is stubbornly unrelenting. He wildly accuses Tiresias of accepting a bribe from those who wish to see Polynices buried.
Creon has at this point provoked Tiresias’ wrath. Tiresias reveals to Creon all that he sees as a prophet. He foretells the deaths of two members of Creon’s family in exchange for the cruel treatment that Creon has meted out to Antigone and for his refusal to allow Polynices’ burial. Tiresias observes that the gods of the Underworld are unhappy because Polynices’ body needs to be buried so that his spirit can reach Hades. Tiresias warns Creon that unless he retracts his proclamation and forgives Antigone, he shall suffer great tragedy in the days to come. Tiresias, being an old man, is offended by Creon’s hasty and ill-phrased remarks, and he storms out of the palace in anger.