With such a claim to fame, it is small wonder that many of the stories from Greek tragedy and Greco-Roman mythology feature Thebes.
There is a Theban Cycle (Greek: Θηβαϊκὸς Κύκλος) -- like the epic cycle on the city of Troy -- that refers to four almost entirely lost Greek epics about Oedipus and his family.
N.B.: Sometimes "epic cycle" refers to both the Trojan War cycle and the Theban cycle of epic poems; sometimes "Theban cycle" refers to all the pivotal stories about Thebes.
Three Generations of a Cursed Family
In Etruscan Myths, classicist (and especially Etruscan archaeologist) Larissa Bonfante, with her co-author Judith Swaddling, describes the Theban Cycle as the stories about three generations of a cursed family. The topic interests Bonfante because the stories were popular with Etruscan painters who knew the stories from Greek tragedy and painted, imported Greek vases.
The three generations begin with the Theban King Laius, who knows better than to father a son. Still, lust gets the better of him, as Bonfante and Swaddling say, so he orders the inevitable son to be exposed. Oedipus is the son, named swollen foot because of a piercing through his ankles. Years later, after he fulfills the prophecy that Laius had failed to avoid, he blinds himself out of remorse, and sets out from Thebes. His children, who are also his brothers and sisters, since he fathered them on his own mother, Jocasta, are the third generation of this cursed family. Oedipus adds to the curse by showing a paternally-inherited lack of affection for his own sons when he, too, tries a passive method of filicide. Instead of exposing Eteocles and Polyneices, which he can't, since they aren't infants, but full grown men, he curses them. They fulfill his curse by killing each other in the section of the cycle known from the Seven Against Thebes.
The Oedipal stories are one of the three sets of stories that focus on Thebes. The other two are the founding stories featuring Cadmus and his wife Harmonia (or the wall-building twin sons of Zeus and Antiope, Amphion and Zethos) and the stories of Dionysus and the sparagmos or tearing apart of Pentheus. The Heracles stories are not counted part of the Theban cycle.
Cadmus had been sent on an impossible quest by his father, King Agenor of Sidon. Being sent on impossible quests is common in the heroic lore. Generally, the king sending the young hero on the mission is not his (loving) father, but someone jealous of him. In this vein, Jason is sent to fetch the Golden Fleece, by the wrongful claimant to the throne, while Theseus went after the minotaur, but only over the objections of his father. Cadmus' father sent him off to find his daughter, a young girl abducted by a white bull that turned out to be the king of the gods. Fortunately, since Cadmus failed, this particular quest was not a suicide mission.
Cadmus and his brothers, accompanied by their mother, went off to find their missing sister, whose name was Europa. When it became obvious they had failed, but couldn't return home, the oracle directed Cadmus to found the city of Boeotia, which he did. His band found drinking water nearby at a spring guarded by a dragon of Ares. Because it ate Cadmus' followers, Cadmus slew it; thereby earning the long-lasting enmity of Ares, who later became his father-in-law. Harmonia, the daughter of a still unappeased Ares, married Cadmus. They had four daughters and a son. Then, in their dotage, Zeus turned them into snakes.
Ares is not the only god who had a grudge against the family of Cadmus. Hera was upset that Cadmus' sister had attracted Zeus' notice. Europa wound up in Crete where she mothered men who became Underworld judges and married a descendant of the deluge survivor and son of Prometheus, Deucalion. Another deity who may have had it in for the family of Cadmus was Artemis. One of Cadmus' grandsons was Actaeon who violated the modesty taboos of the goddess. He was torn apart by his own hounds. Another grandson of Cadmus was torn apart by his own mother and aunt because of his family's affront to their cousin/nephew, the god Dionysus. This was Pentheus.
|Bulfinch: 'Cadmus and the Myrmidons'|
There are different stories of the birth of Dionysus, but the popular version is that his mother was Semele, a daughter of Cadmus, a young woman who must have had something of her paternal aunt about her since she caught the fancy of Zeus. Hera, perhaps keeping a watchful eye on this odd family, noticed her straying husband's wandering eye and tricked Semele into causing her own destruction. Zeus caught their unborn son before it had a chance to be destroyed and sewed him into the divine thigh, which served as a womb perhaps a little roomier than the head-womb from which Athena emerged. Not convinced she had done enough to punish Zeus' philandering, Hera planted the idea in the Thebans that Semele hadn't become pregnant through a god, but had conceived with a mortal man. Then, when Dionysus came swaggering back to his mother's hometown, his family didn't accept him as god-born. He did what he could to convince them, but had limited patience, especially with his obnoxious, irreligious cousin, Pentheus.
|Euripides' 'Bacchae' Study Guide|
Winding in and out of these myths is the seer Tiresias. He offers advice in the Oedipal cycle, in particular, and comes into the story of Pentheus and Dionysus. Tiresias' daughter appears in the story of Niobe, which ties the Thebans with the other major tragic house, the House of Atreus. Another related myth is the story of Narcissus and Echo, where it's his prophecy that sets the tone for the unequal contest between the will of man and god.
|Cadmus and Tiresias|