Saturday, November 9, 2013

TFBT; Oedipus at Colonus; A Tale of Old men

With great joy, I continue my on-line class from Harvard; The Ancient Greek Hero in Twenty-Four Hours”.  Even on the second reading I still enjoy the textbook by the same name. This session we studied Oedipus.  Professor Nagy describes the hero in “Oedipus at Colonus” by Sophocles as;

“seeking to be purified of the unholy pollution he has already experienced in his most wretched life.” ( HSH 18.9)

You know Oedipus.  He killed the Sphinx with the answer to a riddle.  He killed his dad and married his mother.  Things went downhill from there.  Considering the unthinkable crimes and tragedy that hounded Oedipus,  Professor Nagy’s description above kindly sidesteps the issue of how much Oedipus knew or not of what he did.  For at this point in the cycle of myths surrounding Oedipus, he is “blind old man”, “care worn”, exiled by his sons, cast out by his city of Thebes, doomed  to “wander, an outcast and a beggar evermore” in “filthy clothing.”  He arrives at Colonus a suburb of Athens hoping to make peace with the goddesses of vengeance who have hounded him these many years and to find a resting place. 
The place he came to is described   as;

this land of fine horses you have come to earth’s fairest home, the shining Colonus. Here the nightingale, a constant guest, trills her clear note under the trees of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the god’s inviolate foliage, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by the wind of any storm. Here the reveler Dionysus ever walks the ground,  companion of  the nymphs that nursed him. And, fed on heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms day by day with its fair clusters; it is the ancient garland of the Great Goddesses.  And the crocus blooms with a golden gleam. Nor do the ever- flowing springs diminish, from which the waters of Cephisus wander, and each day with pure  current it moves over the plains of the land’s swelling bosom, making things fertile. Nor have the choruses of the Muses shunned this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rein. 

In addition to the shrine to the Hero Colonus, this is the home of the same goddess of vengeance Oedipus is trying to escape; the Eumenides. 

The lame old man explains to the local ruler,  King Theseus; “ I come to donate this wretched body of mine   as a gift to you   - a gift that seems not to be important when you look at it. But it has   benefits coming out from it that have more power than any form of beauty.”  Professor Nagy continual leads us in discussions about how a peaceful fallen Hero is connected to the fertility of the land in which he lays.

All the ancient tragedies were performed at a festival in Athens.  Now Sophocles is no fool.  He and his fellow playwrights wrote for the mob.  In their plays, Athens is the ideal city state, often set during the reign of the most ideal of King, Theseus.  Theseus in the plays is portrayed as heroic, righteous and almost saintly. 

The King quickly assures Oedipus of proper burial ceremonies.  So the purification ceremonies begin.  Then Oedipus’ maternal uncle (and brother-in-law) arrives;

Gentlemen, noble dwellers in this land, I see from your eyes that a sudden fear has troubled you at my coming;   but do not shrink back from me, and let no bad utterance   escape you. I am here with no thought of force; I am old, and I know that the  to which I have come is mighty, if any in Hellas has might.   No, I have been sent, aged as I am, to plead with this man to return with me to the land of Kadmos ( He means Thebes.  Cadmus is the founder of Thebes). 

To which Oedipus knowingly replies “You have come to get me, not to bring me to my home but to plant me near your borders, so that your city might escape uninjured by evils from this land”. 
At which point, the “old”, “aged” perpetual regent of Thebes makes it clear, that he is taking Oedipus home dead or alive.   How old is Creon at this point?  He is clearly a generation older than “blind old”, “care worn” Oedipus.  Creon  saw all his sister’s grandchildren grow to maturity and will shortly be the regent for his sister’s great-grandson!
Theseus saves the day, the ceremony continues, most of the celebrants (and the audience)  are sent away, “ He of the Earth Below made a thunderclap.” and theoretically Mother Earth opens and  with loving arms welcomes the weary hero home.  A messenger appears on stage shortly thereafter to tell the citizens of Athens what happen.  In describing the death scene the messenger says of Oedipus,
 “he stopped still at one place where paths were leading in many directions, 1593 near the Hollow Crater, which was where Theseus and Peirithoos had made their faithful covenant lasting forever.”   
The line strikes me strange because in the storyline, King Theseus and his best friend Peirithoos haven’t made this pact yet.  This is something King Theseus will do later, when he is an old man.  Many sources say around age fifty, both men found themselves bachelors again and determined that the only suitable wives would be Helen for Theseus and Persephone for Peirithoos.  Helen, not even a teenager was easily snatched up and left with Theseus’ mother for safe keeping.  Then off to Hades for Persephone.  Peirithoos never returned. By the time Theseus got home (thanks to Heracles)  the Spartans had rescued princess Helen, overthrown Theseus and sent the old man into exile.   (Fabulae 79 by Hyginus)
This is a lot of aged male characters in exile.  Oedipus at Colonus hit the stage, the year father Sophocles died.  Here is what Leonard Meullner and Gregory Nagy had to say about the playwright in lecture for 19.CD22.1x 
“ Sophocles dies in his nineties, he lives to a ripe old age -- he is so respected by his city, he did just about everything that you would ever want to be able to do in Athens. He realized all his ambitions. He was a general. He was a statesman, besides being a performer in tragedies, -the greatest master of tragedy and a performer in tragedy. He did everything. And then after he died, his people did transform him, so to speak, into a cult hero.  And he was worshipped as a cult hero.

Just as Oedipus was at Colonus.







  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The funny thing is that Oedipus cannot have been really old. I am realizing this now as I am reading the Phoenician Women.
    A woman can have kids from her son only if she has been young when giving birth to him, and he is young when begetting children with her. Which means that Jokasta must have been in her early 40s when having her last child, and Oedipus must have been in his 20s.
    Then, in the Antigone, we have Oedipus' daughter engaged to be married to Bachelor No. 1 in the city. Which means that she must be young enough, let's say in her 20s. Oedipus has already died. So his age at death cannot be much more than 50, and probably less.
    Small wonder that Sohpocles did not present his Theban plays as a connected trilogy!

  3. Excellent point. Of course, we dont know how long Oedipus wanderes around before comming to Athens


  4. In one of the many variants of the Thebes saga, Oedipus is indeed old and his son Eteocles after dying is directly succeeded by his own (apparently adult) son Laodamas. The latter "was responsible for the deaths of his aunts Antigone and Ismene, whom he prosecuted for having buried Polynices. They sought refuge in the temple of Hera, but Laodamas set fire to it and thus killed them." (From the Wikipedia article of Laodamas.)
    Here, Antigone and Ismene are about 40 and most likely spinsters. This explains why nobody has used this version for a tragedy. To the Greeks (in I understand correctly their mindset), being a spinster is not significantly better than being dead, so the suspense vital for any play cannot be created.
    I also think that only this version gives some justification for the divine treatment of Thebes. Because, while we can understand that the gods wanted the city destroyed, it is difficult to understand why they allowed the defeat of the Seven, giving false hopes to the Thebans, just to bring the victorious Epigoni ten years later. Indeed, the Iliad is about a similar cat-and-mouse play of Zeus with the Troyans, but Homer explains in detail the extraordinary circumstances leading to it. Here, such an explanation is lacking, and as far as I know, no god appears in any of the works devoted to Thebes.

  5. Oops, I was wrong. Just read Euripides' Suppliant Women. At the end, Athena appears, encourages the young Epigoni to wage a war against Thebes in order to avenge their bandit fathers, and promises that the gods will give them victory. No explanation why the gods did not give victory to the Seven, of course.

    1. Maya,

      I am sure that the god Dionysius appears in some of the Theban plays.

      According to the lost epic "Cypria" the wars at Thebes and Troy were designed by the gods to releave the earth of the burden of the tribes of demi-gods. Apparently, one war at Thebes wasn't enough to thin out of the population of divine bastards.

      The Olympians really seemed to have a thing about Theban Royalty. They slaughtered all of Queen Niobe's children, Kings Amphion and Zethus seem to have no sons. Princes Pentheus, Dionysius and Acteon were ripped apart eaten. The Sphinx ate how many young men? Cadmus was cursed by slaying the dragon when founding the place and then cursed when wedding harmonia. Princess Megara and her children were slaughtered Creon had to keep taking over because the kings all died young.

      On the other hand princess Ino and Semele became goddess. Melicertes, Arisreaus and Dionysisu became gods along with Megara's husband Heracles. So maybe the Olympians destroyed Thebes because it ws the breeding ground for divine competion.

      I can't figure why they picked on Troy. The only thing mythically unique about troy was the number of hot princes that got snatched up by the olypians for lovers.


    2. Dionysus is the antagonist (some say the protagonist) in the Bacchae. However, I did not mean the early events of Theban mythohistory. This poor city endured so many mythological destrictions, not to cound the also numerous historical ones, that I had to be specific what exactly I mean! I was meaning the later events, from the Sphinx onwards.
      I think Troy was ideal for total, all-destructive war, because it required a sea expedition. So after destroying it the victorious army could easily be drowned during the return journey. This way, gods achieved their aim, the Heroic Age Collapse we can call it. It is not necessary to ruin a polis to destroy it - it is enough to exterminate the adult males. In Ithaca, too many of them shirked the war and survived, but Odysseus took care of this.
      Thebes could not serve this purpose because it could easily be reached by land and, hence, it is difficult to imagine how a war there could destroy both vanquished and victors. Then, why did the gods campaign against it? I like your explanation about the need to end the unauthorized divine reproduction producing competitors.
      I think the prophecy given to Laius that everything would be OK if he had no children was as false and taunting as the promise of Hades to Orpheus that Eurydice would be left to leave if he did not turn back. Then we have Oedipus, the perfect human tool for (self)-destruction. He had a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he killed an older man for a trivial reason and married an older woman, and still claimed that he was totally innocent and did everything possible to avoid the disaster. However, I think the single act dooming him to destruction was his interaction with the Sphinx. He tried to help Thebes and bound his fate to hers. Otherwise, he could possibly get away with his father's murder. At the end of his life, he reconciled with the gods by becoming a conscious accomplice in their quest against his city. I think that, with his arrogant and self-centered mindset, he never realized that they were after the city and not after him.
      Creon also brought about his destruction by trying to save his city against the will of the gods. Other heroes who desecrated corpses got away with it. Achilles was not punished, just told to behave - and received a ransom. His father dismembered a corpse and marched between the pieces and still passed as the most virtuous among heroes and deserving a divine wife.
      The thing still puzzling me is, after the gods gave victory to Thersander son of Polyneices, why didn't they give it to the father? Why such a disturbing false happy end? Possibly, after they promised to spare Thebes if Creon's son Megareus dies (another taunting-false prophecy), they didn't want to be immediately exposed as liars.
      BTW, it turned out that I am not the only one seeing the heroes as the apocalyptic horsemen. Some have made an analogy between Thebes and an Akkadian myth about seven (sibitti) destructive demons led by the plague god Erra. To back it, some archeologists think that Thebes never had 7 gates, so the number may have been invented to match the 7 attackers.

    3. Maya,
      I loved your logic for using Troy as part of the "the Heroic Age Collapse ". Drown them coming and going. So, by your logic it have to be a city across the Aegean, so why not Egypt?

      "the single act dooming him (Oedipus) to destruction was his interaction with the Sphinx" What do you think about the theory that Jocaste and the Sphinx were two side of the same coin? Jocaste had reason for not marrying. All the good men had been eaten. Sharing the throne with her brother was probably a better deal than with a stranger/husband.

      "His father (Achilles father Peleus) dismembered a corpse and marched between the pieces and still passed as the most virtuous among heroes and deserving a divine wife." Plus he routinely accidently killed his hunting buddies. I often think is pious reputation among the gods was just a line. In fact Peleus was "a second rate hero who lost a wrestling match to a girl." The gods knew that Achilles would be greater than his father and to sit comfortable upon his throne Zeus had to make sure the mark that Achilles surpassed wasn't too high in the first place.

      I will look for the Erra story. Thanks

  6. I guess the mythology of the Heroic Age Collapse was generally shaped after the history of the Bronze Age Collapse, which involved a war at Troy. But from purely mythological point of view, I think Egypt would hardly do. It was under the jurisdiction of other gods :-), as Aeschylus' Suppliants states. Zeus could have a problem pulling the strings there.
    The theory about the Sphinx being an alter ego of Jocaste is interesting. I wonder why the Sphinx is female; Pausanias reports a version that she is an illegitimate sister of Oedipus. In the context of Theban mythology, however, it seems to me that the Sphinx was a trap set by the gods for Oedipus. The other men were eaten, so we do not know what they were asked and what they answered. They would have been eaten, whatever they would say. And Oedipus would pass whatever he would say.
    In Oedipus Rex, the protagonist chastises Teiresias that he (Teiresias) with all his prophetic gift was unable to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, so Oedipus had to come and solve it. From our point of view, this is perfectly logical. However, in the context of Greek thought it is hubris and impiety, like the statement of Hector that he does not care in what direction birds fly. And, if my idea is correct, Oedipus is wrong and unjust. Teiresias could never solve the riddle, and there was no such thing as a correct answer.
    Peleus was allegedly also accomplice of his brother Telamon in the killing of their half-brother Phocus, motivated by jealousy. To cap it all, Phocus was Thetis' nephew.
    Thank you for the detail that Peleus was defeated in a wrestling match by Atalanta! BTW, this means that Thetis was physically weaker than Atalanta. I imagine Thetis small and fragile.