Was Sophocles play “Oedipus at Colonus” an extended allegory about Athens and Sparta’s ongoing conflict?
Our book club held discussions at Hour 25 on Sophocles' final play; “Oedipus at Colonus”. The plot centers on what to do with Oedipus, his pollution and the plague it might bring up Thebes. I discussed this in a previous post or two.
An active member of our community kaoru9282 pointed out that Sophocles wrote a prequel to this Oedipus at Colonus titled “Oedipus Tyrannous” She wrote, “A year before OT was produced, Athens suffered a terrible plague. Pericles died in that plague.” She further writes of Athens; “In terms of the plague, the historians estimate the death toll to be anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population, and some even say it was close to 2/3.” She wondered if the audience would have recognized Pericles in the figure of Oedipus.
The consequences of Pericles reign in Athens were the plague Kaoru describes, eventual conquest by Sparta and the reign of terror of the Thirty Tyrants. Oedipus at Colonus was written when democracy had been abolished and was produced two years after the Athenians threw off the yoke of Spartan rule.
The comparison of Pericles to Oedipus, made me wonder if we should compare Sparta to Thebes. In the play the Athenians fought the Thebans (off stage); in history the Athens of Pericles fought the Spartans. In the play Thebes had two kings, historically the Spartan constitution required two kings.
So is “Oedipus at Colonus” an extended allegory? Was it written at great risk to the playwright and hence in allegorical form. Was the poet in fact writing about the animosity between Athens and Sparta?
Discussing inconsistences within the story line and unexpected comments might lead us to look for deeper significance in places.
“The all-seeing Eumenides the people here would call them: but other names please elsewhere.” (44) The mention of the Eumenides rather that Erinyes is unexpected because the worship of the Eumenides was not introduced for another two generations. (The death of Oedipus, ignited the first of the Theban wars where Tydeus died. Tydeus’ son Diomedes fought at Troy. After the Trojan War Agamemnon’s son Orestes, helped institute the worship of the Eumenides.) Would the audience who’d suffered two generations of persecution from the Spartans recall that Orestes, was a Spartan king?
Threshold for Descending,
“Threshold for Descending… which was where Theseus and Peirithoos had made their faithful covenant “ 1591-5 Another inconsistency within the story line which might make us suspicious that the poet is pointing us to something else.
The faithful covenant that Theseus and Peirithoos in their old age was to attain each other new wives. In the play Theseus is still a viral man. Sort of odd. The result of their rash oath was the kidnapping of an underage princess named Helen, their binding in Hades, a Spartan invasion during their absence lead by the twin princes Castor and Polydeuces to recover their sister.
“this city (Athens) unscathed by the men born of the Dragon’s teeth.” 1553 Legend has it that Cadmus’ close companions at the founding of Thebes were the men born of the dragon’s teeth he planted at Athena’s suggestion. These men are called Sparti. Would the traumatized audience ignore the pun?
In the opening line of the play Oedipus refers to himself as an old man, “Child of a blind old man, Antigone…” Old? He left Corinth a young man, married soon after, has two daughters called maidens rather than women and his first grandchild is still a baby. He is forty if not younger! How can Sophocles call Oedipus old? Easy, if Sophocles is actually talking about Pericles. Pericles was 66 when he died.
I have to end my analysis here today. I am not sure where it leads. Readers please respond with your thoughts. When time allows I hope to do a word search in the Greek for “ainos” ; a word that often signals a deeper meaning to the text and the “sparti”.