Jan/Feb 2011 Nonfiction

Oedipus and his Discontents

by Jascha Kessler

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess freely that events have controlled me.
     —Abraham Lincoln

People of Thebes! Consider Oedipus,
Who was a man of might, and a great man
Envied by our citizens for his luck,
All because the answer to that famous
Riddle was his alone to give. And yet
A cruel storm blew up and he was wrecked.
So wait, and watch until the day is done.
Not one of us among the living here
Should be regarded fortunate unless
Our death has come before we ever learn
Just what it is to suffer human grief.

     —Concluding Chorus, King Oedipus

I want to discuss fragments, or rather, the fragments of fragments heaped to shore up the ruins of the Western world's past. Ruins that, metaphorically and literally, take us to pre-history and far beyond, into "the dark backward and abysm of time." Literary artists from time immemorial have picked up the shards of legend, myth, and ritual and reassembled them into epic forms, and later, drama, as a way of explaining, or justifying, or making them into something new for their own time—Hesiod, Homer, and the redactors of the Pentateuch, for example, who may be called the first historians. The fragments or even the built-up wholes we received from them during the last three millennia are the tales upon which our recorded civilization is framed and erected, shakily as they may seem to our era which writes rational, or rationalized, constitutions for the societies of new states. When, however, we review the materials of myth, even if we psychoanalyze Aboriginal myths and dreams as Geza Róheim did with his Australians, we find it difficult to grasp what those narrations tell us, let alone what it means. And when we deconstruct whole bodies of myth, sorting them into categories, such as, say, Levi-Straus' "Raw" and "Cooked," we lose the active, lively force of the poetry that conveys the stories, as Socrates suggests in his analysis of Eros in The Symposium, because poetry means "to make," and it is this making that is the elusive secret of human speech.

In other words, there is no end to the making of myths. Yet there are so few deep wells, the sources, I mean, into which we can plunge in order to retrieve the events, the rituals, the situations, so as to realize for ourselves a semblance of the world from which myths emanated. Palingenesis is just an old mystical/alchemical notion; for the worlds of their origin cannot be resurrected out of the forms in which they come down to us. Indeed, the past, even a generation or so back, is irretrievable per se and as such, no matter what the records we have.1 Still, there are the stories, those variant versions of "primitive" myths and legends; and there are archeological remains that help us try to parse the tattered, worn, often shapeless remnants that remain.2

The reality of the religion of archaic Greece is difficult to comprehend. What, for example, can we make of a ritual that lasted into 200 B.C., in which each year the Lokrians sent two virgins to Troy, who were disembarked and forced to run a fatal gauntlet to attain the city's gates... all because Lokrian Ajax in some mythical time was said by Homer to have raped the Princess Cassandra! That reality of archaic religion was impossibly difficult even for Plutarch, who lived much later, only 1900 years ago. One finds him, in the charming conversation of his Moralia, reviewing the legends and doings of the Gods and speculating about their meaning, scarcely able to go beneath their surface. Take for example his puzzlement regarding the flight of Apollo, when the god was a fugitive for eight years, an event that occurred following upon his conquest of the great chthonic serpent at Delphi in a past so remote before there may even have been a Delphi. How was it possible, he asks, that such a powerful, high god, whose name was synonymous with the greatest oracle of the Classical world, could have been a fugitive?3

How much more problematic then are those myths that are the staple for the plots of Greek tragic drama. One may connect a few dots, however, bearing in mind that those myths and legends seem to refer to the movements of the many tribes and clans and peoples in pre-historic times; that is, they stand for what is unknown of the archaic, and represent an unknown mentality and way of life. Furthermore, the relations between what we term Archaic Greece and the Middle East, with Mycenean cultures, and even more so with Egypt are tenuous, not recorded as such in any clear-cut or direct way, and even harder to interpret. The relationship, if any, between "Hundred-gated Thebes," the richest and greatest city of dynastic Egypt, and the"Seven-gated Thebes" of Boetia remains tantalizing; and when the great playwrights use some elements of either, they are taking, as Sophocles did, from the contemporary history of Herodotus. In any case, the relatively swift appearance on the scene of the civilization of Classical Greece is in itself puzzling; until recently the views we were taught tend to show us what only began to appear in the Sixth Century, the basis for the great era of the city states that took recognizable form about that time. Looking backward, we can see the outlines of that form just growing visible into the eighth century, whereas what the ninth century offers is unfamiliar, as only some small settlements existed then, and nothing like town or city foundations. Athens seems to have been a grouping of five hamlets; no more than five dozen graves have been found in all. There was no writing; there was no culture, whether of artistic or technological development, throughout the Aegean world, and no colonization outside it. Within it, there are some famous sites—Sparta, Tegea, Mantineia, Eretria, Ephesos, Chios—which show little more than the possibility of sanctuaries, and scarcely the physical evidence of cults. In short, no temples have been brought to light built from even the ninth century. The personalities and feats that the Classical Greeks would have asserted to have existed back in the ninth century have almost universally been traced to a later epoch. What we have are but names that are names only, void of denotation. The Mycenean era, indeed, came to its close around the twelfth century. What we have instead is perhaps a half-millennium of little or no population and settlements; or to put it another way, a great depopulation. Furthermore, it would seem that around the entire Mediterranean Basin to the west of Egypt and the Aegean there was a general depopulation, as suggested by the great diminishment of sacrificial remains in general.4 In any case, the very severe, call it catastrophic, depopulation of Greece from the thirteenth down through the tenth centuries appears as extraordinary at the end of the Bronze Age.

Equally extraordinary is the astonishing rise in population that commenced in the eighth century. One can easily enough imagine the traditions, or memories, of ancient glories passed down by the very few inhabitants who lived in tiny settlements, often enough within the ruins of greater Mycenean ones all over Greece, like the monumental "Cyclopean" walls we see today at Tiryns, just south of Argos. How Classical Greece as we know it from the sixth century on came to be, and how its social and political structures took shape, are questions not yet resolved; and they enable suppositions available today for the eighth century's dramatic movement, marked by the strains of great population growth whose societies resemble forms that might have been taken from the cities of Phoenicia. Also, many of the attributions of founding ancestors, such as Cadmus of Thebes, seem a practice that commenced in the eighth century, the dedications and rationalizations of paying ceremonial reverence at the sites of ancient tombs, often 500 years older than the later establishment of a cult to a particular god or founder.

In that respect, it is significant that nothing is known of any cults or shrines anywhere in connection with an Oedipus of Boetian Thebes. Let's recall the terrific opening to King Oedipus, in which an old priest describes the imminent doom of Thebes, and calls upon Oedipus to be its savior once more.5 The theme of Thebes as a wasteland may be taken to be the recollection however faint of an ancient catastrophe. Let's also recall that Aristotle is emphatic in saying that "tragedy is a mimesis not of persons, but of an action,"6 whereas modern drama asserts that the motives and conflicts of persons are principal, which has been the one constant and overriding theme of critical interpretation of this play. Sophocles is also said by Aristotle to have made the great advance in technique by introducing a third actor, thus allowing for messengers, and servants, etc., and the doubling and tripling of parts by the players. In Sophocles, the action of the plays is usually shared in one way or another by the human agent and the gods. It suggests that for the playwright and his audiences their involvement in actions that are otherwise fully accountable in human terms alone implies the operation of some universal law. If the gods bring about the consequences of our actions,then Aristotle's point is that action takes precedence over character. Although the playwright's persons are drawn naturally and vividly, it may well be that Sophocles created them for the sake of the action; furthermore, that his religious views were not simply conventionally pious, but reveal his thought about the way things are. In short, he speaks to his audience about what he considers problems (or as we would put it today, "issues") that concerned them there and then. If so, it may help us come to another perspective regarding the three Theban plays, but especially King Oedipus. It may help explain the strange relations, in more than a few ways, between the principal characters of the play: Oedipus, Tiresias, Jocasta, and Creon.

We know that its power as drama arises from the set of terrible revelations about the past that Oedipus himself unravels in the course of the day. His bold and determined investigation and interrogation of the past leads him and his wife to disaster, against the admonition at the very outset that things were best left alone, at least for them, if not for Thebes. Still, he is a hero, and he will behave responsibly as the savior of Thebes, and its present lord. Aristotle also considered Oedipus the paragon of the tragic hero, whose fall is the result of a flaw in character, usually ascribed to hubris, i.e., presumption, especially towards the gods; pride, excessive self-confidence. Like everyone else, I believed that was Oedipus' tragic flaw... until I was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania Press to make a new translation for their Complete Greek Drama Series.7 In the course of my work, I kept waiting, line by line, scene by scene, for the manifestation of his hubris. While I found myself impressed by the courage and nobility of his character, his manliness, his morality—perhaps because I identified with him, as what 20th Century man or woman would not, since Freud, at any rate?—I was quite surprised by his perfectly modern psychology. I also found myself disagreeing with Aristotle. In the end,it seemed to me that something quite different was going on in this, the central masterpiece of Classic tragic drama. In short, there was a subtext that so far as I know has not been examined in the critical literature, something radically different from all the admiration devoted to this first great exemplar of what the West admires as the Greek achievement of the self-conscious, autonomous individual.8

To get at that subtext, I began to wonder about the legendary background, the mythological materials that inform Greek tragic drama,from which the playwrights drew, relying on their audience's familiarity with Homer principally, as well as other epics now lost, as well as the vast corpus of stories that circulated in their world. It should be said that the Greek artists and poets of that great period had no difficulty in dealing with the most ancient, unknown, unwritten past as though they were its contemporaries. For example, nowhere in The Iliad or the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, who we believe is 9th and 8th century, the age of iron, is iron mentioned: it is all bronze, bronze, bronze. In Homer, Queen Jocasta of Thebes is mentioned in The Odyssey, called there Epicaste.9 It is noteworthy that when Odysseus descends to the Kingdom of the Dead, and after his interview with the famous seer Tiresias, he does not call up the ghosts of heroes or companions from the ten years' siege of Troy, but speaks first to his mother, who tells him his wife has been waiting loyally for him in Ithaca to this hour; she also advises him to remember what he sees and hears, so as to tell his wife one day. Then, as Odysseus relates, there come the other ghosts of his former companions.

Epicaste rated top mention in Homer's catalogue of immemorial and great women.10 Indeed, The Odyssey, although it has a heroic father and his son for protagonists, also shows that its principle cast,the determiners of the wanderer's vicissitudes as well as his hoped-for arrival at home, consist mainly of goddesses, nymphs and women, just as Helen herself was the cause of the Trojan War. Homer's tale depends ultimately on a contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite,who vied for the honor of being the most beautiful of all.

The archaic Classical world reveals an interminable struggle between the culture of a matrilineal foundation, having to do with agriculture and the family, one in which priestesses and goddesses rule,and a continual assault upon it by patrilineal warriors, who though having taken power must rely on the female as the source of life and access to the gods. That is exemplified by the history of Delphi, conquered and ruled by Apollo, yet dependent on its line of Sibyls for access to supernal power.11

Tiresias, the famous blind seer of Thebes, for Homer a quasi immortal, reputed so wise that even his ghost or spirit or soul has kept its wits in the Kingdom of the Dead, is the one to whom Odysseus is directed by a woman, in order to learn the way home to his wife. Tiresias was said to have lived in Thebes for seven generations. It may not have required clairvoyance for him to have known the history of King Laius, Queen Jocasta, and the origin of Oedipus. Tiresias is said to have died when he fled Thebes with other refugees during its destruction by the Epigoni, the sons of the Seven Against Thebes; he died drinking from the spring Tilphussa, whose water was too cold for him. That sounds metaphorical, for springs have their female sources, as it were. Too cold, that is, unbearably original.

Most figures in myth carry variant histories. For Tiresias, several traditions existed, all of them significant for my purpose here. In one story, he came upon a grotto where he saw Athena bathing. That should have meant the condign punishment, death—except that his mother interceded for him, as "a friend of the goddess." That is a way of suggesting she was her priestess. Athena spared his life, but blinded him (a euphemism for castration for ancient Greeks as well Freud); in compensation she gave him the gift of understanding the language of the birds, who see everything. In another, Tiresias, out walking, came upon two snakes copulating, whereupon he struck them with his staff. He was promptly punished for that sacrilege by being turned into a woman for seven years (and a famous harlot, at that, which may suggest something parallel to practices in Phoenicia). Later the same thing occurred: striking at copulating serpents, he was restored as a man.

Ancient Thebes, situated on the richest plains of Boetia, was famous for its horses and cattle and grain; it was also under the protection of Aphrodite, Athena and Artemis. Zeus, the paramount god for the invading Hellenes of Archaic Greece, did not yet rule. The snake, an underground dweller, is emblematic of ancient fertility cults. It should not surprise us today to see that entwined pair of serpents around the herald's staff carried by Hermes, the messenger who connects three realms, the underworld, the world, and the supermundane land of the gods. From the earliest, Hermes was the representative of fertility; and the "herm," a stone column that stood beside roads and paths, protector of wayfarers and available as a nonce local shrine for women's devotions. Fertility always was and perhaps still is the paramount concern of women, and certainly of men as well, if for other motives and sentiments. Tiresias' attack on copulating serpents, call it an assault upon the fertility rite, is an attack on the female prerogative.12 I take "copulating serpents" as figurative for those rites. After the death of Alexander the Great, his mother Olympias led an army in the civil war that broke out. Defeated, she was taken and condemned, but the victors did not dare to execute her themselves because she was said "to sleep with snakes." That too suggests she stood high in the rank of the votaries of the sacred pantheon of the goddesses. It seems worth mentioning that even as late as the second century women from cities all over Greece gathered at Delphi for orgiastic rites during the three months of winter before and after the Solstice; for in that season Apollo was said to have abandoned, or forsaken, his shrine to to wander in the north. His annual removal from Delphi indicates a diplomatic compromise, as well as suggesting resentment if not stubborn resistance to its conquest in pre-history, to his overthrow of the Python, and the killing of that chthonic serpent monster. Not for nothing was the great oracle known as the Pythia, and the place as Pytho.13

Sophocles' Tiresias is a potent figure long-acquainted with the situation in the palace at Thebes, and an intimate of the oracle at Delphi, declaring boldly that he is Loxias' ( i.e., Apollo's) servant, hence beholden to no man, king or tyrant. Although Oedipus has requested his help, Tiresias replies:

My god, my god!
What use is it to know
What there is to know,
When it is useless
To know it at all!
This I understood,
Yet did not.
Would I be here, if I had?

They argue; but Tiresias remains adamant until he's threatened with violence; there follows a savage altercation, after which he departs without revealing all he knows, in effect denying Oedipus the key to his situation.

Just imagine yourself as Oedipus, who knows himself as himself, and only himself—what else must you suspect but some cabal, as indeed he does. Surely his brother-in-law Creon has used Tiresias as his mouthpiece? So far as Oedipus knows, his life is decent, god-fearing and filial. He is an innocent; in fact guiltless of some heinous, polluting crime, let alone parricide, which he abhors. He utters his dreadful anathema against the one who will be found guilty, ignorant as to where that foul source is to be found. What follows is the unfolding of the tragedy, driven along by his uncompromising, honest purpose to save great Thebes.

Nevertheless, I think we should look back some generations, during which, let us remember, Tiresias was alive. In short, he knew that King Laius had vanished on the way to Delphi to seek advice and help because of the scourge of the Sphinx. Let's pause to review some features of that peculiar situation, which is alluded to in King Oedipus simply as something that occurred in the far-off past.

In the first place, that creature perched on a cliff quizzing any who approached Thebes was rather unusual, a punishing oracle. Oracles don't ask questions; they answer questions. In the second, the Sphinx per se was no creature of the Greek world. She is Egyptian. Also, she was the emblem associated with Queen Tiy, the powerful wife of Amenhotep III, a great Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who ruled in glory during the 14th Century. Tiy was the mother of Amenhotep IV, known to us today, and to Freud as well, as Akhenaton, the Pharaoh who upset and overturned all of Egypt by removing himself and the power of the royal court from 100-gated Thebes, after demolishing the Sphinx who overlooked that city and establishing an entirely new capital, Heliopolis, at el-Amarna.14 Akenhaton's attempt to reform Egypt's religious structure came to naught.15 Throughout it all, a powerful priest and seer opposed him, and outlived him, too, reaching a great age, in his nineties—like Sophocles. The stories of Akenaton's reign and the discoveries in the ground during this past century form a tangled complex. What's of interest here are the numerous points of similarity between his life and the legend of Oedipus. It is a stretch of one thousand years from the Egypt of 1375-1320, down to Periclean Athens; still, a sphinx amulet has been retrieved from the most ancient foundations of Boetian Thebes, as well as a quantity of Mesopotamian cylinder seals.16

Suffice it here to mention only that Amenhotep III, a great hunter who boasted of his hunting from a chariot and killing 110 lions in the Western Desert, adopted women's dress at the end of his career, causing himself to be depicted and carved as a woman, something unknown in Semitic lands. His wife Queen Tiy long outlasted him. Her son Amenhotep IV was sent away far from Egypt soon after his birth, for twenty years, to be "adopted" by Kings in Palestine-Syria, among them one who ruled a mysterious people, the Mitanni, whose aristocratic or royal culture was marked by mothers who married their sons.17 Upon his return, Amenhotep IV showed himself no friend of the oracle at Thebes, or of its venerated seer; for good reason, since it had during that century become all-powerful, even dictating the succession of kingship. Once crowned, he changed his name to Akhenaton.18 Perhaps a coup had been arranged by his mother Queen Tiy and the priests of Aton, a god whose lineage and powers extended as far back as those of Amon's priests at Thebes. Since succession in Egypt was through the female line, Tiy not only continued to rule, but apparently married her son.19

In Greece, King Laius was said to have been condemned by the gods for having introduced pederasty to Greece.20 That was regarded anciently as an abomination, although by Sophocles' time pederasty, or boy-love, was fashionable among the aristocratic elite. His punishment was to father a son who would grow up to kill him. It seems that at one time, he had been forced out of Thebes into exile, taking refuge for four years with a king named Pelops. Why he was driven away we are not told, although it may be assumed he married into the kingship when he wed Jocasta. Upon his return to retake power in Thebes, he abducted the son of Pelops, Chrysippus, whose mother was Hippodameia, repaying his host's kindness with insult and injury by carrying off his son as his catamite. [Sophocles is said to have written a play called Chrysippus, so the mythologem was not unknown to him. And Pericles is said to have twitted him about dramatizing his own sexual inclination.]

That story is intriguing because Pelops won his bride from her father, Oenomaus of Pisa, a district of Olympia. Oenomaus himself had been warned by the gods that he would be killed because of his carnal possession of his daughter. Oenomaus wished to be released from the guilt of his incestuous relation, and announced a contest to abduct his daughter, if the challenger would risk being killed in a chariot race. Thirteen suitors lost their lives in the attempt. The fourteenth, Pelops, bribed the stable groom to loosen the wheel fastenings; the chariot collapsed, and King Oenomaus was thrown and killed by him.21 In Oedipus' overthrow of the old domineering stranger in the defile where three roads meet, there persists an echo of Pelops' victory. Sculpture on the Parthenon frieze memorializes Hippodaimeia's redemption from incest.22 But her son lived to serve his kidnapper in a sterile union, and Chrysippus too is on the frieze.

Queen Tiy a thousand years earlier sent her infant son into an exile of twenty years; she also preserved her line of succession. Jocasta was forced to dispose of her newborn son because her husband lived condemned for his criminal pederasty. Curiously enough, Amenhotep IV returned from exile, apparently to usurp his father's throne with his mother's help, declaring himself in his ascriptions, "The King Who Lives in Truth," a newfangled, unusual epithet for a Pharaoh. He also did away with human sacrifice. What he erased, after changing his name to Akhenaton, interestingly enough, were his father's attributes—but not those of his grandfather and great-grandfather. Furthermore, he seems to have fathered children on his mother, ruling to all intents and purposes as a stranger to Egypt.23 As for Oedipus, it is curious that when the average life-expectancy of people in Archaic Greek times was not much more than 35 years, he took a queen as his reward,who tells him that when he arrived at Thebes, he resembled the departed Laius, who was "...just going gray in the beard." With that"old" Queen, who would then have been in her forties, he fathered four children. In other words, Laius never went to her in all those years, not only because of the curse laid on him, but, it may be presumed, because he preferred the lad Chrysippus, and, presumably, his successors.

Given those various points, we may suppose that Sophocles, who wrote three plays on this ancient "Theban" family, spoke to contemporary Athens. Sophocles' plays assert that the sin of boy-love carries profound consequences for both sinner and society. The lifestyle of the aristos is sterile. Plagues of infertility may inform the legendary background; there were hundreds of years of devastating depopulation, but the present also confronts a debate in Periclean Athens. The debate is taken up in Plato's Symposium. It probably reflects a view altogether different from that so fashionable since the 19th Century, which lauded an Athenian culture rife with pederasty. Perhaps mainly Oxford and Cambridge society was like that. A case has been made that it was condemned by the citizenry; though aristos were permitted to do as some were pleased to do, they were not well-regarded for it by hoi polloi. Aristophanes makes fun of the europroktoi, or "big assholes."24 Alcibiades complains that Socrates is cold to his great, male beauty. And we know that Socrates disapproved of the domination of boys who were too young to protect themselves, or to choose to be passive objects.

King Oedipus offers us a deep, tragic, and inherently moral view. Everyone but Oedipus, it seems, knew who and what Laius was. Their silence is eloquent in its acceptance of resignation to the judgment of the great goddesses upon his father. Creon, Jocasta's brother, knows, but remains silent, reserved, discreet, patient—a man of firm resolve. Indeed, the last lines before the closing chorus are Creon's; they can stand for the playwright's judgment and are worth pondering:

You still presume to do what pleases you?
You never in your life were free to choose!

Jocasta and her son Oedipus—who was never free to make his life, as he had earlier boasted—suffer the bitterest of fates—but only because Laius, her husband and his father, offended the gods—not by murder, not by theft, not by blasphemy—but by denying the order of survival, by refusing the woman, rejecting procreation, and thereby rejecting the future of the community. The innocent suffer because others do harm.


1 Archaeology tells us this. I have always been astonished by the would-be reconstructions of the world's people who inhabited this hemisphere: pots and carved stones, whether Mayan or Mistec or Olmec, are elaborated into whole social systems by archaeologists who pretend to know what people were like, from their objects alone, not to speak of mythical vestiges, seldom in writing. As a small case in point, we have today the brouhaha by Native Americans over the finding of a person whose attributes seem to contradict oral traditions about the founding peoples of this hemisphere, Native Americans who of course will have nothing to do with paleontology's offer of rather more solid grounds for guesswork. As Eliot said, when contemplating "the dark backward and abysm of time":

Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

2 It is certainly true enough when it comes to the Classical world that we in the West have brought back to light in bits and pieces, texts, paintings, monuments and their broken columns, pottery shards, sculptures in clay, bronze and stone, mosaics, and tomb artifacts. We do our best to try to make them live, vestigially, as well as in their most rudimentary forms. Mostly these scraps tell us very little indeed. Sir Moses Finley once objected to a vast study of archaeological remains from ancient Alexandria—its cataloguing of tens of thousands of shards, and the rationalization and the bits of text on some—all amounted to not much increase in our knowledge of what was lost forever, as surely as the entire treasury of texts went up in ashes from its great library. And if there is no end to the making of texts, as Ecclesiastes sighed, neither is there an end to our remaking of them, so that we may presume to think we can understand them.

3 I make can a guess, but it would take us somewhat a-field, just as I can guess the reason Eurydice died, or why Herakles' mother was rescued from the pyre of execution her husband built for her.

4 As a corollary to this situation, there is also during and after the Second Millennium, a gradual substitution of animal for human sacrifice. Two famous sacrifices in quasi-historical times come to mind in this connection: that of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon, which is told in The Iliad; and of his daughter by Jephthah, a warrior-judge in Judges. These are perhaps roughly parallel in time, and both are involved with military events: the first to appease a god, and permit the fleet to find favoring winds en route to the siege of Troy; the second, to appease the god to whom Jephtah vowed a sacrifice if he emerged the victor in war against the Philistine sea-people.



Well then, Oedipus, and our city's king,
we've come to your altars to beseech you,
young and old: some too young to run away,
some hobbled by the burden of their years.
I am the priest of Zeus; these children
are tokens of our youth, as yet unwed;
those others, carrying their flowered wreaths,
sit in the market square near Athena's
two temples and the prophesying ashes
of Ismenus. Look around at Thebes,
look at your whole land, storm-tossed and drowning
in the crashing waves of an angry sea.
The fruiting trees are blighted as they bud;
goats, sheep, and cows miscarry as they graze;
babies die in the womb and are stillborn;
overhead the ghastly, burning, black god
of the plague flaps its wings and swoops to snatch
away the last of the House of Cadmus,
and Pluton's coffers fill with groans and tears.
I sit before your hearth with these children,
not because we rank you high as the gods,
though we esteem you first amongst all men—
both for your knowledge of life, and the strength
you showed when faced by superhuman force.
Who but you dared to come to this city
of Cadmus to free us from the tribute
that monstrous singer wrung from our own flesh—
who but you, when Thebes was hopelessly lost!
And that is why it's said, None but a god
gave you such power to set our lives straight!
So, Oedipus, we come to you once more:
only the man mightiest in our eyes
will find some means to shield us all from death.
Whether you have heard a god's whispered word,
or counsel from some other person's lips,
it's best that wisdom's brought to bear by you.
Come then, greatest of men who walk the earth,
lift this city! Raise up our Thebes from dust!
You, whom we call our hero, preserver,
let not the future say in memory
of your days as king that once you saved us,
but stood aside and watched us as we died.
The happiness you brought us then was crowned
with luck—so may its splendor shine today!
It must—if you hope to govern in Thebes
tonight! Or else you're merely sovereign
of a vacant land—what good is a wall
or a ship with not a man to man them?

6 (Poetics, 49b24, 50aa16, 50b3.7600/250)

7 Published in 2000, in the volume, SOPHOCLES, 2, which offers the three Theban plays.

8 Typical examples of the current sort of analytical reading may be found in the essays of the late Professors Bernadete of NYU and Segal of Harvard.

9 The name seems to derive from the word for "overturning," or catastrophe, or bouleversement, to use the French word. An overturning as when an amphora or vase is knocked over, and metaphorically, as when a whole situation is turned topsy-turvy and everything that once cohered is spilled out in chaos, or better, causes chaos to come again.

...a grand array of women,
all sent before me now by august Persephone,
and all were wives and daughters once of princes.
...And I saw the mother of Oedipus, beautiful Epicaste.
What a monstrous thing she did in all innocence—
She married her own son...
Who'd killed his father, then he married her!
But the gods soon made it known to all mankind.
So he in growing pain ruled on in beloved Thebes,
lording Cadmus' people—thanks to the gods' brutal plan—
while she went down to Death who guards the massive gates.
Lashing a noose to a steep rafter, there she hanged aloft,
strangling in all her anguish, leaving her son to bear
the world of horror a mother's Furies bring to life.

10 Note that remarkably Greek phrase, "thanks to the gods'" brutal plan.

11 In that connection, what Freud was so fascinated by, and it is something that remains to this hour utterly Freudian for us, comes from a passage in the play that goes like this:


So, Lady! So...! And we kneel at Pytho's
fiery tripod, or gaze at birds
who croak prophetic messages on high
that say I was doomed to kill my father?!
But now my father lies deep in his tomb—
and here I stand, with no weapon in hand—
unless he perished longing to see me...?
which is all the blame I'll bear for his death.
Well, Hades holds him, and with Polybus
have gone those oracles that oppressed us;
worth nothing now; worth less than nothing now.


How long since I predicted this to you?


You did, you did. But fear rose and took me.


Nothing's come of it. What's to worry you?


Sleep with my mother?! That's frightful enough!


Can a man live like this, in constant fear?
Should he not be ruled by what is the case,
since he knows he knows nothing of his fate?
It's better to make the best of each day;
but—worry that you'll marry your mother?!
So many men have slept with their mothers,
and made love to them as well—in their dreams!
The man who sees such things as mere nothings
can well confront his life, and bear it, too.

In the final analysis, however, our current complexes don't shed too much light on the drama itself. Let us work back from the characters as we have them to what may be known of their originals, although we must acknowledge that stroke of genius by Sophocles. [Should I have said, "Twentieth Century genius?"] On the other hand, given the archaizing conservatism of the Greeks, there may be some foundation in reality, and not only psychology.

Robert Graves remarks that originally the herald's staff carried two white ribbons; he doesn't explain how they later became serpents—or ask if they were serpents originally, and became ribbons only by later substitution.

12 We know what happened to the curious King Pentheus, dressed as a woman in Euripides' Bacchae, after he entered the forbidden place of the women's orgiastic rite: he was torn to pieces by them in their rapturous fury as Dionysus' maenads.

13 Of course, the earth and its roots sleep at that time, so that the rites were also magical invocations to insure springtime germination. Furthermore, so strong is that archaic and Classical memory that to this day tourists gape at the Omphalos, a four foot tall conical stone marking the navel of the world, the bellybutton of our being, although it's not what was there in those times; it is in fact a Corinthian capital plunked down there long after Delphi's destruction, and well into Christian times; it's something for us, the latecomers and rubes of tour groups. Nevertheless there was nostalgia and respect, and perhaps worship as well, even if the Omphalos was a phony substitute for whatever had been there, perhaps an altar.

14 We know Akhenaton's son as Tutankhamen; and of course we know his wife too, Nefertiti, whose most beauteous head is to be seen today in Berlin, and everywhere else in cosmetics ads, who herself may have been one of the Mitanni's royal line, which might explain her marriage to him. It may well be the case that her mother-in-law, Tiy, ruled with her son in an incestuous relationship, also typical of the Mitanni.

15 Akhenaton's substitution of Aton for Amon and replacing the entire ages-old pantheon of Egyptian deities, as well as their all-powerful priesthood with the Sun God, or rather the Solar Disk itself, is a subject that fascinates us to this hour, upon which an immense array of studies have been published.

16 It merely begs the question to propose that some traveler happened to drop things like that once upon a millennium past. Robert Graves assumed in his study of Greek myth that priests of Aton,fleeing after the death of Tutankhamen, and the utter defacing of everything connected with his family and parents in the abandoned city and cemetery of el-Amarna, somehow turned up across the far seas in Boetia, carrying the story of their Pharaoh with them, a story that somehow got integrated over a thousand years later by the Greeks, even purduring through the darkness of the Archaic centuries that followed the close of the Mycenean era about 1200.

17 That seems to have been something Persian, and Zorastrian, and high value was placed on father-daughter incest, and mother-son incest.

18 He seems to have exhibited the signs of Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic defect seen in his sons as well, in which there are sometimes enlarged breasts, elongated hands and fingers, a long jaw, a potbelly, and short, thick, seemingly swollen thighs.

19 The complexities the Tutankhamen tombs yielded, wives and sisters, half-sisters and brother-husbands are still unresolved. They also seem to have echo in the story of Antigone. There is ample modeling for the story of Oedipus in all that set of peculiarly-placed tombs, with their defaced names and images, poems elegizing husband-brothers, overturned sarcophagi, and even a pit tomb full of vessels for eating, not ceremony. So far as parricide is concerned, and the Oedipus Complex that Freud devised, an amusing anecdote might not be out of place here. It seems, according to his biographer Ernest Jones, that in September, 1913, in Munich, there was a discussion of an essay written by Karl Abraham, a disciple of Freud's, in which he outlined the revolution of Akhenaton as caused by his deep hostility to his father, Amenhotop III. Carl Jung protested that far too much had been made of all the erasures of inscriptions of his father's name, and all such "death wishes" were unimportant in comparison with the establishment of monotheism by the son. Freud suddenly passed out and fell unconscious to the floor. It is curious, because Freud wrote 20 years later on monotheism, but seems to have repressed that issue of son against father, almost as though he had forgotten his immense foundation work on the Oedipus Complex. For Freud had earlier recognized that Akhenaton—and his mother Queen Tiy—so hated the father who had become an old woman,overtly and defiant of the cultural norm. When the Emperor Nero made the same claim about his mother and himself, he may well have been play-acting; the play of course was King Oedipus, hundreds of years old by his time.

20 I assume that meant the three great goddesses.

21 The killing of a father who beds his daughter suggests some earlier struggle of the father-son contest, vegetation and fertility rites, female concerns, female needs, and male power. Matriarchy overwhelmed by patriarchal force.

22 The Athenians carved mythical essential poetry, symbolic representations of ancient tribal wars,or ritual myths. Robert Graves would have it all as the killing of the sacrificial king of the year in the sacred wood, something Fraser's The Golden Bough taught his generation. I am far from being clear on another coincidence: the legend of the Minotaur, which has it that Athens was required to send fourteen youths, seven boys and seven girls, annually to Knossos, to be sacrificed to the monster,which seems to echo the story of Pelops as the fourteenth challenger. I knew an American woman who worked in Africa, in the 1950s, who said she had seen a great ceremonial feast, in which the sorcerer danced for an hour and more, finally nearing the circle of people watching him dance, until he could snatch up a little boy, and tuck him under his grass cloak; after long dancing, he released a small barrel from beneath his cloak, said he had changed the boy into the barrel, and danced away, out of the village. The child was never seen again, she said. The people understood that this was necessary for the harvest to succeed. As for the subtleties and significance of the Freudian hypothesis, which he himself drew from Sophocles' drama, these have much bearing on modern psychology, in terms of a stage of development covering the transition of childhood to late adolescence, as I understand it, and involve the redistribution of our infantile mental structures and redirection of our libidinal drives as we enter maturity. The social and individual questions that haunt us today, and indeed seem to remain in the developmental picture of all cultures at whatever stage of their history and development, are a problem in general for psychologists and anthropologists, perhaps even some sociologists here and there, those who don't rely on statistics and polls of their own devising, that is. But, so far as the tragic suffering of King Oedipus is concerned, perhaps it might be better to ignore Freud. After all, Oedipus knew a father from infancy, although it was not his genetic father Laius, but Polybus, his adopted father, whom he loved in a filial and simple way. Oedipus was so straightforward and ingenuous a young man that he took flight from home, after getting the word from Delphi that he was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. What he could not know was that in fact it was his true father Laius who had been doomed to be killed by his son... because he was a lover of boys. The gods had it in for Laius. That simply means society could not condone his way of life.

23 The physical evidence from an Egypt, far away and a millennium in the past, tells us that Tiy bore children to her son with the swollen thighs.

24 Recently, by T.K. Hubbard, "Popular Perceptions of Elite Homosexuality in Classical Athens, "ARION: A Journal of the Classics and Humanities, Third Series 6.1 (Boston University, Spring/Summer 1998), pp. 48-78.


Previous Piece Next Piece