Laius, son of Labdacus, king of Thebes, was in a right pickle. He was sitting at the breakfast table with his beautiful and insatiable queen Jocasta, pretending to read the newspaper as she berated him about his disastrous performance in bed the previous night. His heart sank.
‘—Absolutely pathetic. I’m a woman, Laius, and you’ve got to start treating me like one. And let’s face it, neither of us is getting any younger. We’ve got to start a family. Thebes needs an heir and I want a child.’
He stared with feigned intensity at the sports page.
‘I want a beautiful bouncy baby boy to cling to my breast!’ To emphasize this she lowered her bosom onto the table. Laius did not flinch.
‘People will talk, you know. A childless woman is a reproach to her husband.’ She looked quizzically at the top of his balding head over the newspaper. ‘Anyone would think you’re gay.’
Laius stiffened visibly. He was going through Tartarus.
‘You’re not gay are you?’
‘No—at the moment I’m more than usually morose.’
She stood up, infuriated, and walked the enormous length of the table which kept them a safe distance apart over breakfast, snatched away the paper and fixed him in the eye.
‘Laius, do you prefer boys?’
‘Please Jocasta, you know I love you. These things must be allowed to take their own course—’
‘It’s been five years and you only enjoy having me when you’re so blind drunk you can’t even tell who I am.’
His eyes glazed over and he thought of his beloved Chrysippus, the son of the maniac charioteer Pelops. He was soon in a reverie as Jocasta walked up and down the room declaiming about sex, sex and sex. His mind wandered to the tryst he had with his lover after breakfast and cast his mind back to their last meeting in the Cretan bower when they had plucked the petals of delight as the sun played on their buttocks. Jocasta’s voice grew fainter and fainter.
She returned to the table and edged herself in front of the corn flakes for another attempt. The heavy clasps which held the folds of her purple robe at the shoulder were fashioned into a pair of copulating serpents. These she undid slowly in front of him. The garment revealed the sensuous geometry beneath but Laius was simply embarrassed. She took him by the neck and shouted,
‘Now listen to me, Laius. This is the limit! Tomorrow morning you’re going to Delphi to ask the god for a child and if there’s nothing wrong with you and you still don’t do your duty by your queen and city, I’ll leave you.’ She made for the door and turned. ‘I’ll shack up with the bloody king of Thrace and you’ll be the laughing stock of Greece.’
This hit home. To lose one’s wife was stigma enough, but to lose her to some polygamous barbarian moron with the table manners of a blind cow really would be too much. When it came to the behaviour of their royal family the Thebans were a prurient bunch and loved nothing more than a good scandal. It was difficult enough keeping Chrysippus a secret. Jocasta’s departure would be very hard to explain. He stared at the doorway vacated by his wife.
‘Just why does anyone care what I do with my genitals?’ he thought to himself.
When he met Chrysippus later he told him the problem.
‘So it’s Delphi or the high jump for me tomorrow. I’m sorry about this, Puss, but I have to do something about an heir. I’ve put it off long enough. It’s what the bastards expect of me after all.’
Laius had been most reluctant to marry Jocasta in the first place but he had been pressured into it by the Theban elders; a bunch of anally retentive fascists who could bear any monstrous deed done out of sight in the privacy of one’s home but flew into fits of righteous outrage if the dirty linen, or anything else provocative appeared on the washing line. Always ready to feed like vultures on some scrap of tittle-tattle, the Theban populace lapped up the propaganda produced in the state-owned newspaper The Sod (so named because the ultra-traditional oligarchy claimed descent from the first true Thebans who sprang out of the topsoil in front of Cadmus). The Sod’s reporters had already stirred up some juicy stuff on Laius’ paranoia about hair-loss after the king visited The Old Bore on the Hill in search of some advice for a treatment. The Sod ran a predictable headline:
First no Heir. Now no Hair!!
The Sod Says: ‘Get a Grip on yerself, yer Majesty!’
Laius sighed. In Thebes, rather as in Sparta, the top aristocratic families held a great deal of power and if a king was weak they soon took advantage. Laius, however, was no politician. All he wanted to do was open a gay café in some tolerant city like Athens where no-one would give a toss about him having kids. Just then Chrysippus had an idea.
‘Look; I’ve got it! You know Old Crab-Face retired last week?’ Old Crab-Face was not, in fact, the real name of the retiring Pythia (priestess and mouthpiece of Apollo) who had hung up her garlands for the last time. She was called Cankeropeia and was, unusually for a Pythia, a thoroughly dignified and incorruptible character.
‘So there’s a new Pythia.’
‘Of course there is! Oh what’s she called now? Ah: Serendipity!’
‘Yes, that’s her name. My Auntie Niobe went on holiday with her when they were kids. You could bribe her into telling you what you want to hear. She’s very friendly and as thick as a pork chop from the giant boar of Calydon. She became my auntie Niobe’s lifelong friend when she gave her a dead beetle once.’
Laius saw a way out of his dilemma at once and showered the youth with palpable gratitude.
The next morning Laius, propelled by threats from Jocasta, headed for Delphi to consult the Oracle of Apollo. When he arrived the city was in chaos, as was often the case shortly after the appointment of a new Pythia. The streets were still full of tourists, worshippers and locals, pushing and shoving to be among the first thousand to receive a consultation. As he reached the top of the Sacred Way he stood up in his chariot to get a view over the crowd but someone threw a kebab at him. He went off to wash in the sacred spring of Castalia and asked the attendant priest to fix him up with a private session with Serendipity before the public consultation. Afterwards he retired to his hotel room and stared out of the window hoping at last for a means of escape.
Chrysippus had been right to regard her appointment as a curious one. She had actually become Pythia by accident. When Apollo was asked to reveal the identity of his new priestess, all the women of Delphi were herded into the sanctuary and the god was supposed to possess the body of the chosen one as a visible sign of his approval and confirm this through the shuddering of the sacred goat. On the day Serendipity was chosen Apollo hadn’t even bothered to get up; so savage was his hangover after the previous night’s game of Twisted™. Athena had won, as usual, and Apollo had had to drink seventeen barrels of day-old lager as a forfeit.
All the girls were chosen by the laws for their naïve innocence and piety. They lined up and waited, but nothing happened. Suddenly, high in the clear air above the sanctuary a small bee known to local shepherds as Pop was going home when a freak zephyr blew off a grain of pollen she had collected from the slopes of Parnassus down to the waiting girls where it ended up in Serendipity’s nostril. At that very moment her breathing cycle had reached its turning point, and in rushed the grain. As the scrutinizing priests stared, she sneezed.
A few eyebrows were raised about her appointment as she certainly was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but there was no doubting her naïve innocence, and Apollo’s choice was Apollo’s choice, however bizarre.
The sneeze was enough for them to fetch the sacred goat, which was brought out to Serendipity. Unfortunately, nothing happened and the priests had to pour buckets of water over its head in a frantic attempt to make it shudder. It did eventually bleat, shudder and collapse and her feet.
Her stint had hardly started when Laius and Chryssipus turned up. She welcomed them formally and was delighted to see Chryssipus again. The three of them spent an hour cooking up a plot to thwart Jocasta and settle Laius’s worries.
‘Well?’ Jocasta said, after he returned.
‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid,’ Laius began. ‘The oracle says that if I have a son he will kill his father and marry his mother, who will hang herself after having had four incestuous children, the two boys of which will kill each other and one of the girls of which will be put to death for treason by her own uncle after her fiance kills himself after threatening to kill his father, whose other son will have to be walled up to save Thebes, just before his mother kills herself.’
Dire portents like this, Jocasta felt, should not be delivered in a tone of such equanimity—nay, relief. She furrowed her brow, eyeing him suspiciously.
'That's pretty specific, isn't it?'
‘It is, isn't it? I suppose that Apollo really wanted to drive the message home. Obviously we just must not have a child. The only safe course is to avoid all intimate contact with each other. I shall be sleeping in the spare megaron from now on, in reverence to the god. We can’t afford to jeopardize the popularity of the monarchy with any more murder and incest, can we? I’ll talk to your brother Creon about the succession. I’m sure he or his son Haimon will be a splendid king after I’m gone.’ He left Jocasta staring into space and went to start moving his things.