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The Probing Philosopher Kings

by on July 6, 2017

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to impart his wisdom to future generations? Surely he would aspire to inspire others who weren’t necessarily within ear shot? But no. He didn’t author a single word. He wanted people to think for themselves, rather than just mimic his ideas. For Socrates it was all about the method. It was about being able to arrive at one’s own ideas independently.

Plato, however, did write, and he recorded both his and Socrates’ thoughts. He didn’t forget his teacher’s lesson though, and so often composed dialogues that demonstrate the critical process of thinking and questioning, rather than present a definitive, conclusive answer. In this way, Plato encourages us to keep thinking.
As a child, Plato probably would not have envisioned the life he was going to lead. His family’s lot, steeped in aristocracy and influence, was of the political class. His father Ariston supposedly could trace his ancestry to the King of Athens and the King of Messenia. Not to be outshone by her husband, Plato’s mother, Perictione, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Solon, a famous lawyer and lyric poet. In addition, her brother and uncle we part of the thirty tyrants that ruled over Athens after the deafening defeat at the hands of Sparta. Plato was very proud of his distinguished family tree, and often glowingly referred to them in his dialogues.
Considering his family’s affluence and prestige, it is not surprising that Plato received the best education, instructed by the most distinguished teachers at the time. His most influential mentor, of course, was Socrates himself. He met him when he was but a youth. Socrates was considered an ugly man who did not possess much wealth or prominence. He might have been seen as a strange intellectual bedfellow for the well-to-do Plato. However, the old man had a remarkable power of discourse and an ability to bring down the most grandiose of gentlemen.
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Socrates was Plato’s mentor and became his protagonist. His execution in 399 would have certainly affected the budding boy and shake his confidence in a political system that allowed such a tragedy. The fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war also would have been a momentous episode in Plato’s life. As well as the ensuing dictatorship which failed miserably due to the inevitable corruption of the 30 chosen oligarchs. It’s no wonder then the quick thinking Plato abandoned the family trade and choose philosopher over politics. It was Socrates, the probing philosopher, who changed Plato’s course to the world of debate, dialogues and discovery.

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

His career, once selected, was very successful. He wrote, traveled, set up an academy dedicated to thinking and questioning. He even tried to shape a dictator in Syracuse to become one of the Philosopher kings. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And then, as all mortal men do, he died, at the ripe old age of 80. Recognised at the brilliant man he was, forever imparting not only wisdom, but a way of trying to understand the world.

We’ll never know exactly where Socrates ended and Plato began. What ideas, ultimately, belonged to the teacher or to the student? All we can know and be grateful for, is that Plato had the audacity to write them down, so that even now we can continue to question.
Check in in next week for a look at Plato’s Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free:

Danae’s Destiny

by on June 9, 2017

Picture of DanaeDestiny was unkind to poor Danae, or Danaê, depending on the spelling. She, like Oedipus and many other tragic Greek heros, never decided her destiny. The various gods in her life did it for her. What she wanted never came into play. Instead, the tides of fate tossed her and her son through a strange and spectacular tale.
It all started with her father, King Acrisius of Argos, who was disappointed with the lack of a male heir. He journeyed to the oracle to shed some light on the situation, but came away with a frightening prophecy. Apparently the son of his daughter will kill him.
Danae and the Brazen TowerDetermined to not let this happen, he locked Danae away, either in a subterranean cave, if you consult one story, or a bronze tower, if you rely on another. Clearly, the king fancied himself smart enough to circumvent fate. Zeus, however, had other plans and certainly wasn’t going to let a thing like walls get in his way.
So the god of gods decided to visit poor Danae in her father’s prison in the form of a shower of gold. Silver just wouldn’t do. In this magical element he managed to impregnate the girl and she gave birth to a baby boy named Perseus.
Now Danae’s father was faced with a tricky situation. The prophesied patricidal child was apparently part Olympian and the royal grandfather-to-be definitely didn’t want to incur the wrath of an entity who is famous for throwing lightning bolts around. So king Acrisius concluded the best thing to do was to put mother and child into a wooden chest and throw said ‘vessel’ into the sea, leaving their life or death to fate. Not quite Grandad of the year, but at least their blood was not on his hands.
Once again the gods had Danae’s back. Poseidon was in cahoots with Zeus and calmed the seas for the pair. Eventually they found their way safely to the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys, the brother of King Polydectes. The surrogate father raised young Perseus to manhood but the island’s ruler clearly had a thing for his mother. The feelings were not returned, however, and Danae kept resisting his unrequited advances.
King Polydectes decided, however, that if he got rid of her overly protective son, he could have his way with Danae. Once the interfering bastard boy was old enough, the king sent him on a deadly mission.
Perseus with the head of Medusa

Perseus with the head of Medusa

So where did he send this inconveniently half divine youth? To the foreign land of the Grey Ladies, with orders to slay the hideous, snake-haired Gorgon Medusa.
Yet again, those divinities sitting on Olympus indulged in some human meddling. Athena lent him a shield that could repel the infamous stone changing gaze of Medusa. Perseus managed to use his gift so well that he not only survived, but killed the old hag and even rescued fair Andromeda (his future wife) on his way home.
The original father killing prophesy, however, somehow, still came true. After his success, Perseus participated in a sport competition in Larissa and accidentally killed his real grandpa with a flying javelin.
Too ashamed to return to Argos after stupidly murdering his predecessor and king of the country, Perseus, the rightful heir, gave the kingdom away and took over his kingdom of Tiryns, founding Mycenae and Midea there.
Now, let’s look to a more symmetrical, possible turn of events. In another version, Perseus sought revenge for sea chest dwelling days. He returned to his homeland glorious, carrying the head of medusa. Her powerful gaze, unaffected by decapitation is used on grandfather Acrisius to convert king, and court, to less than organic material.
In the end, Perseus takes his rightful place in the kingdom, all while his mother is aside him. Only then Danae reigns as the queen she is meant to be, finally.

Sophocles Antigone: One Woman Against the State

by on May 15, 2017

Portrait of Antigone

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.

“My nature is to join in love, not hate” – ‘Antigone’ in Sophocles Antigone.
Maybe it’s no surprise then that this individual found herself on the wrong side of the state. The powers that be probably didn’t appreciate either, that this adversary came from the oppressed class, one of the current underdogs of their society – a woman.
And what happens to a newly crowned king when such an opponent threatens him before his authority sets in? Does he take considered actions and reason out the situation? Does he look at the crisis from all points of views and contemplate what is best for the city he rules? In the case of Creon in Sophocles Antigone, the answer is a resounding no.
A man, who at other times had been the voice of reason, grows tyrannical and obsessed with his own law. He represents an unstable nation-state that figures itself higher than all other laws, both natural and religious. And those who oppose his unjust rulings, who struggle against unfair governance, are destroyed.
All that is left then, is the consideration, the weighing in, of the risk and reward of standing up to the state.
The story is the last in the Oedipal myth series, though the first written by Sophocles. It continues on from Aeschylus’ Seven Against ThebesOedipus, the original self-blinded, ill-fated character, who committed both patricide and incest, is dead and gone. His two sons have fought to take the throne and have both died by the other’s sword. However, one man was protecting the seven-gated city of Thebes, while the other was attacking it.
This is where the problem begins.
Antigone and her dead brother

Antigone and Ismene mourning for their brother

The former goes down with hero status. The latter, fighting with foreign friends, does not. He should be consumed by the crows and denied a proper burial, or so says Creon, the next of kin and therefore King. He publicly decrees as such, labeling the lad as an enemy of the state. Unfortunately for him, Antigone does not agree. As sister to the foregone fighters, she feels it is her duty, under the traditions and divine laws, to see that the condemned soldier sleep beneath the earth.
She initially attempts to recruit her sister Ismene. They secretly meet outside the city walls, outside the law itself, to concoct a plan so their brother’s soul can find peace. The second sister, however, fears death, men and the regal rule that threatens a stony demise. She does not commit and therefore finds herself disowned by her stubborn kin.
And so, Antigone, in defiance of those who rule her, steals away and sprinkles the thirsty dust on her deceased relation. The thought of his corpse, exposed to the elements and prey for fowl, digs into a core cultural concept of respect for the dead. No doubt, this imagery, so horrific, was Creon’s design. It is a reminder to all the citizens of what will happen if they challenge the state.
Once the forbidden rites are revealed, a poor sod, a sentry, is sent with the task to inform King Creon. The monarch is not happy. He threatens and thrashes out at the watchman, promising him a fatal punishment if he does not find the culprit.
A trap is set. The body is washed of its earth and put out on display while the soldiers keep a lookout, under threat of death. Sure enough, Antigone takes the bait, incensed at what has happened. This time the sentry, knowing he is off the hook, happily returns to the enraged ruler with the unforeseen outlaw.
Antigone stands strong in front of the tyrant. She does not deny a thing, for what would her defiance mean if she did? The epitome of a heroine she faces her opponent unflinchingly, uncompromisingly and condemns his injustices. She tells him what no other has the gumption to say, that his law is not right. His law is an affront to decency and to the Gods. He has no ruling over the dead.
Her punishment: death. Ismene tries to turn herself in, so she may die with her sister, but Antigone has none of it. Not out of sisterly love, but because she did not actually help to bury the brother and does not deserve the honor. The two are taken away nonetheless.
At this time Creon’s son, heir and future, enters. Haemon is also betrothed to Antigone, and the chorus reveals to us that it is of mutual love. He begins speaking to his father out of respect, promising loyalty and agreeing with his dad. At one point, however, he discloses a rumor running in town. “The city mourns for this girl; they think she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly for all womankind, for the most glorious acts”.
Antigone burying her brother

Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices by Nikiforos Lytras

Here we start to see Creon fully unravel. He develops into the epitome of a dictator and misogynist, reviled by his own son. The king chooses the state over what is right. He chooses oppression over a minority. He rants, “we must stand on the side of what is orderly; we cannot give victory to a woman. If we must accept defeat, let it be from a man; we must not let people say that a woman beat us.”
One might question if the opponent were male, would the retribution be so harsh? Nothing offends an overreaching ruler like the rise of the underclass. It these people who have to fear tyranny the most. Something many still face today.
An argument ensues between father and son, one that has the modern reader cheering for the wise youth, who demands regard for his actions, not his age. The despot declares his judgment alone should rule the city. Haemon retorts he would be a fine dictator of a desert and reminds his predecessor “there is no city possessed by one man only.” But the old monarch rebuffs with the argument that king and country are one… and his.
Furious, Haemon promises his father will never see him again and quickly leaves.
Now Creon knows he does not have the public support he initially sought. The communal stoning he originally promised won’t do. Instead, he decides to entomb Antigone, so she can be with Hades, the God of death. Ismene, however, is let go.
Once the deed has been done, the old blind prophet, Theiresia enters. Castigating the king for putting the dead above the ground and the living below, he warns him it will be his demise. Eventually and after many bitter words, Creon listens to reason and attempts to undo his mistakes. Unfortunately he is too late.
Antigone and Creon

Antigone and Creon

The violence ensues off stage. While Creon resignedly buries the fallen warrior, Antigone, forlorn by her fate, hangs herself. Haemon finds her, attempts to assassinate the king and then falls on his sword. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, he cradles the woman he loves as he passes away.
But death doesn’t stop there. Finding out about her son’s end, the wife of Creon also expires by her own hand. At this point, the fallen ruler fully realizes what he has done and despondently quits the stage.
They don’t call it a tragedy for nothing.
But what can we take away from these grisly endings? The overbearing sovereign and the young woman who stood up to him? She may have met a sad ending, but she also took her oppressor with her. She, as a woman, represented the underclass, but nonetheless, faced an unlikely fight and stood up to an absolutist.
Perhaps then, it is not shocking that modern history has used this powerful text of resistance. One of the most famous examples is Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Paris version ofAntigone, which was produced during world war two. It was potent play for his countrymen during the Nazi occupation. It was reminder to remain strong and defiant, because, in the end, the conflict between the state and the individual was as relevant then as it is now.
Antigone was written by Sophocles around 441 b.c. It is the third, sequentially of Sophocles’ Theban plays. You can read the full story here:
Staying with the individual versus the state theme, we will move onto Plato. Tune in next week for a look into his Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free:

The Unlucky Seven Against Thebes

by on May 4, 2017

Seven warriors killing seven other soldiers in front of seven gates. You’d think that story would forever condemn the number to enmity. But Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes makes no comment on the conspicuous symmetry of the legend’s numeral element. Maybe the seven city portals warranted warriors to both attack and protect them. Unfortunately if you are seeking legitimacy in the next installment of the Oedipal series, you probably won’t find it. In fact, the seven Theban gates have never been found. This would lead us to believe that the number was entirely made up… Or stolen from a different story.
We can’t know for sure, of course, but there are some pretty eerie parallels between Seven Against Thebes and a little old myth found in an Akkadian epic text. It’s a story of Erra the plague god, and the Seven (Sibitti), called upon to destroy mankind, but who withdraw from Babylon at the last moment. Does this sound like Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes?
The Seven against Thebes
It is a play that has only a few action points, but ones that match quite closely to the Fertile Crescent edition. Of course with the Greek adaptation, there’s a thorough back story regarding an infamously unlucky king.
In Seven Against Thebes, poor Oedipus is long gone, but his bad luck isn’t. His unfortunate descendants have inherited his prejudicial fate. The same destiny that brought the ruined royal to bed his ma and slaughter his pa, now drives his two sons to destroy each other.
We saw this coming in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus when son number one, Polynices, came out of the wood works begging his blind father to help him out. The heirs were suppose to split the throne, alternating years in power, but offspring number two, Eteocles, refused to play nicely. He exiled his older brother and greedily grabbed the Kingdom of Thebes for himself. Oedipus told his son to buzz off and leaves him with this curse: The two boys will fall from each others’ sword.
This is where Seven Against Thebes begins. Polynices, with a severely bruised ego, amasses a foreign army to take back his hometown. This act of attack immediately assigns the elder child into the ‘villain’ character, rather than the selfish younger son who kicked him out in the first place.
And so, Aeschylus writes Eteocles as his hero. We only see the story from his side. The play begins with him, the current Theban king, listening to a spy describe his brother’s oncoming army. Eteocles then assigns his own soldiers to each of the seven gates to combat their counterparts.
The reader falls into the rhythm of impending doom. The chorus bewails the women, who will be taken as slaves if the city falls. Eteocles tells the ladies to stop crying and deal with it. The modern reader may wonder why we are suppose empathize with this character.
Eventually king, spy and chorus discuss the last warrior. It is the brother Polynices. Fulfilling destiny, Eteocles appoints himself as the seventh combatant. Oedipus’ final malediction come true as, sure enough, the two brothers kill each other. Fortunately for the city’s inhabitants, the war does not continue without each army’s leader.

Eteocles and Polynices
In the original version, the drama comes to end when the boys’ bodies are brought on stage to a mourning chorus. In the Sophocles compatible edition, written 50 years later after the success of the subsequent play, a messenger appears and announces a prohibition against burying Polynices. Then, as a perfect lead in to the last installment of the Oedipal series, Antigone, the rebellious daughter announces her intention to defy this edict.

So what can we attribute to Aeschylus? Is the story original or just the manner of the storytelling? The ‘mytheme’, the original, unchangeable element, is of the horrible seven bringing potential devastation, which is prevented at the very last minute. This concept traditionally seems to be based on Bronze Age history in the generation before the Trojan War. You can see it in the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, where the only remnant Hypothebai (“Lower Town”) subsists on the ruins of Thebes.
But Aeschylus did do something very unique. He added another character. To us now, that may not seem very impressive, but at the time it was completely revolutionary. Previously, the chorus danced around a glorified orator. Then the “Father of Tragedy” came onto the stage, and there was interaction, tension, conversation and essentially the real beginning of drama.
Seven Against Thebes was written by Aeschylus around 467 b.c. The trilogy won the first prize at the City Dionysia. Its first two plays, Laius and Oedipus as well as the satyr play Sphinx are no longer extant. You can read the full story here:
Make sure to read the next installment of the Oedipal myth for next week’s essay. We’ll go back to Sophocles to read his renowned version of Antigone. You can view the whole text here for free:

The Warring Writer: Aeschylus Tragedy

by on April 20, 2017

Portrait of AeschylusLet’s say you are considered the “father of tragedy”. Even in your own lifetime, everyone knows you have revolutionized drama and changed the theatre game. Do you think it would be mentioned on your tomb? Surely a throw away reference at least?
But no, not for Aeschylus. The man who wrote between 70 and 90 plays, won 28 competitions and completely altered the face of the stage, says nothing about it in his eulogy. His tomb engraving, which he wrote himself, only talks about his military accomplishments.
Now, why would a man who has gone down in history as a playwright, only describe himself as a soldier? Actually it makes a lot of sense when you consider his life.
Aeschylus was born of a well-to-do family in 525 B.C. He was reared in the town of Eleusis, about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens. But he didn’t start off as a writer at all.
The legend goes like this: the young fellow was working in a vineyard helping ‘guard’ the grapes when he fell asleep. The god Dionynus, patron saint of both wine and drama, visited him in a dream. The bacchus divinity told him to leave his grape picking days behind him: he should inscribe scripts instead. The very next day the lad took a try at the pen and realized immediately that he had a gift.
His first play, produced when he was 26 years old, did not win him much success. It was not long, however, before he was triumphing at all the competitions and beating the likes of Sophocles and Euripides.
But his life wasn’t all wining, winning and writing. There was also a lot of war. His days in ancient Greece saw the major turning point of the Persian war, and he had front row seats. In fact, in 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought in the famous Battle of Marathon. They were defending Athens against Darius I‘s invading Persian army. Though outnumbered, the Greeks won, gaining confidence and perhaps changing western history as we know it. Unfortunately for our fighting brothers, only one made it out alive.
Theatre of Dionysia

Theatre of Dionysia

Returning to his homeland, Aeschylus took inspiration from the theatre of war to the stage of tragedy. Even his tone is said to have barked like a bugle.  It is during this time at home, that he changed drama as we know it. Previously a play consisted of one actor and the chorus which mostly danced around the orator. Aeschylus was the first to write in an additional actor, therefore creating interaction between the characters. His revolutionary approach to the art finally brought him victory at the City Dionysia in 484BC, the first of many.
Portrait of Xerxes 1

Portrait of Xerxes 1

But Aeschylus did not stay the play writing civilian for long. In 480, he was called back into military service, but this time against Xerxes I‘s invading forces at the Battle of Salamis. He left the field with honor, losing part of a limb in the scuffle. This event was a highlight for him nonetheless, as he was renowned and took the actions as fodder for his play, The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.
Then there was the religious side of Aeschylus. He was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive cult based in his hometown which worshipped Demeter, the goddess of hearth and grain. Like many creepy sects, members were sworn to secrecy, under penalty of death.
This, rather than the blood letting wars, was his downfall. Apparently the playwright, who also acted and directed, revealed a few choice mysteries in his play The Eumenides. He was almost stoned to death on stage, but managed to escape to safety to the alter of Dionysus.
He then stood trial for his impiety and pleaded ignorance. He was finally acquitted, due to his heroic military past. Apparently his youngest brother gave him a helping hand by showing the jury Aeschylus’ stump, the result of the battle of Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. (Though this last part was not, in fact, true).
However, his unpopularity continued none the less and in 458 BC, he practiced his right of self banishment. He returned to Sicily, where he still had friends and eventually died in 456 or 455 BC. The rumor is he met his end when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, thinking his baldness was a stone. It is much more likely, however, that he expired due to being the ripe old age of 70.
But before Aeschylus gave up the ghost, he inscribed the following words, reminding everyone of all the things that had made him a hero and purposefully ignoring his then ‘unpopular’ accomplishments:

Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος[20]

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

Oedipus at Colonus: The Tale of Two Ancient Deaths

by on April 11, 2017

And so it comes to be, that all men must die. Yes, even the old ones. The great poet and dramatist, Sophocles, was approaching his own end when he imagined the glorious finale of the tragic figure, Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus.
This play is thought to be Sophocles’ final one because it was first produced in 401 B.C., four years after his death. And just to add to the confusion, the events that occur in the story are actually second chronologically in the Oedipal myth series. Wedged between the action packed stories of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, this tragedy is more philosophical than the others, paying attention to shifting characters and morality.  It addresses fate full on and creates a triangle of power between the good, the bad and the blind beggar.
In a nutshell, it is the tale of two ancient cities, three kings and the slow, painful process of redemption.
Oedipus Rex, the first episode, finished with its eponymous character banished and blinded. The previously glorious king, who unknowingly committed incest and patricide, boldly bewailed his fate, accepted responsibility and sadly left his kingdom. This contrasts sharply with the enfeebled and humbled Oedipus in the second section of the tragic tale.
But let’s review quickly.
Death of OedipusHe, the one and only Oedipus, arrives in the village of Colonus, which is just outside Athens and also – very interestingly- Sophocles’ birthplace. He is unrecognizable from the monarch he used to be. The ultimate tragic hero is no longer bold, nor decisive, nor very regal. His previous ownership of his actions and destiny has vanished into thin air. He rejects the guilt of his deeds. Acts committed unknowingly make the man innocent, surely?  He is clearly weakened by his many, lonely years wandering.
The first scene of Oedipus at Colonus begins with Antigone, his daughter, helping him walk into a grove, but not just any vegetable patch. This garden happens to be scared, which quickly draws the Chorus to admonish the old man. They are unrelenting until the tragic figure’s identity is revealed. When Oedipus finally figures out where he is, he discloses to Antigone that the oracle predicted this location as the spot of his death. Furthermore, there would be a blessing to the city that buries him.
Upon Oedipus’ request, the king of Athens, Theseus, is summoned to decide whether this unseeing hobo should be expelled once more. Before the monarch arrives, however, Oedipus’ daughter, Ismene, enters and recounts the unfortunate happenings in Thebes. The two brothers, Oedipus’ sons, are fighting for rulership in the wake of their father’s infamous downfall.
Apparently, the youngest scoundrel is in cahoots with Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle and the eldest is exiled. The first son’s pride is bruised and therefore he amasses an army to take back Thebes.
Theseus enters. Knowing Oedipus’ story, he is empathetic to the unfortunate man. The king grants him protection, even when he understands it will mean war and an uncomfortable confrontation with Thebes. He offers the gift of a proper burial and all praise the glory of Athens.
Creon enters. Full of treachery, deceit and the usual villainy, he attempts to bring Oedipus back to Thebes. He also knows the oracle and wants the prophesied protection his favorite corpse-to-be will bring. He kidnaps Antigone and Ismene and threatens to force Oedipus back. The bully almost has his way until the benevolent Theseus acts and returns the daughters to their father.
But the family feud does not end there. The banished brother appeals to his father for help, but his requests fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. The son was not there for Oedipus when he was exiled, and the father cannot forgive his progeny’s grave disrespect. Oedipus sends him away with a curse that the two boys will kill each other.
Finally, sweet, peaceful death comes. Thunder resounds, signaling that it is time for Oedipus’ final rest. Preparing the rituals, he meets his end in a sacred and secret spot. So special that Theseus only knows it, so the noble king can enjoy the God’s blessings.
And so we have Oedipus’ redemption. After being reviled, shamed and stained, Oedipus is finally sought after. His unimaginable deeds have been forgiven after his years of punishment, and sanctified with a divine gift. Once exiled, now Oedipus has kings beseeching him to come to their city. The blind man who was pleading for protection, eventually, and ironically, leads the king of Athens.
In short, Oedipus began as a noble and strong ruler and became a debased and decrepit vagrant. Finally, as fate would have it, he was restored as a messenger of the gods with divine gift to give.
Oedipus’ full cycle of highs and lows is clearly contrasted with the other two kings, Theseus and Creon, who are positioned as polar opposites, extreme regal examples. The Athenian monarch, Theseus, represents the good, the empathetic and the noble. He, like the city he reigns, is praised by the Chorus and by Oedipus as being fair and just.
In contrast, Creon is a vile, lying, threatening royal who the audience and Oedipus hate and fear. His city Thebes, the long-standing rival of Athens, was considered a place where proper boundaries and identities were not maintained. A place where incest and murder could happen.
However, this depiction of good ole Athena town was no longer true. As Sophocles’ life was drawing to an end, so was the golden age of Athens. The Peloponnesian War, which brought the fair state to its knees, reached its end only a year after the playwright’s death. The surrender in 404 B.C. stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions.
Oedipus at Colonus, therefore, was like a swansong. A final ode or maybe glorious nostalgia by a very old man of what once was. Praise for a city coming to its demise. But then again, everyone likes a happy ending. Athens had it, if only fictionally, so why shouldn’t Oedipus? His death is the perfect conclusion. After being seen as so repulsive, he is finally accepted.
But this play was more than that. It was also the philosophical statement and justification that actions unintended are not our fault – the antithesis of Sophocles’ earlier editions and a very clear change of heart.
And so, perhaps, character and writer became one. Oedipus and Sophocles sing praises of the good, come to terms with one’s deeds in life and then, finally, prepare for death.
Oedipus at Colonus was written by Sophocles around 406 b.c. Produced in Athens, Greece. You can read the full story here
Make sure to read the next installment of the Oedipal myth for next week’s essay. This time it’s a play written by Aeschylus called The Seven Against Thebes. You can view the whole text here for free: