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The following are just some notes I put together a long time ago in semi-outline form to help students better understand and study the play Oedipus Tyrannus in the light of the religious, social and political contexts of Sophocles's time (5th Century, B.C.). While these notes are specifically directed to the 5th Century, B.C., they can be taken as applying in a broader sense to the Ancient Greek world in general. Conversely, many conclusions put forward here about Sophocles's world are conclusions reached inductively, from what we know about the larger span of centuries before, after and including the 5th.
PART I. Notes on the Greek notions of Gods and Oracles, Destiny and Disaster:
An oracle is a prophecy delivered by a priestess after having consulted sacred writings and natural signs. An example of an oracle (e.g. - at Delphi) is the prophecy of a god as interpreted in natural signs (smoke, clouds, birds) by a priest, such as the one received by Oedipus which foretold that he would kill his father and marry his mother.
1. We "moderns" read Oedipus Tyrannus and we tend to misinterpret Oedipus' exact relation to the oracle, which told him what his fate was to be, and which also told his father Laius, what his fate was to be. This misinterpretation more than anything is due to 2000 years of Christendom.
A. CHRISTIAN PROPHECY: Now when we moderns think of prophecy, we often think of something like the Book of Revelation by St. John, in which God's divine plan will be worked out for each and every one of us according to a fixed scheme and toward a certain end in history.
In at least one modern version of Christianity vou are not born with an explicit fate like Oedipus had. You are, instead, born with original sin, which is more vague and inexplicit. In Christianity, all men are more or less equal and it's up to each of them to sin and seek redemption, whether through the process of conversion in the Protestant Churches, or via the sacramental path in the Catholic. If something bad befalls someone who is a modern religious believer, he typically considers it "God's will" - as a part in some kind of overall divine plan in which he is being tested and purified by God for his spiritual improvement, and that he believes he will be rewarded, either in this life or in the next. Modern religious sentiment involves a belief that God is interested in the individual man, and that each earthly life is improvable and perfectible. By comparison with most religious doctrines, present and past, the modern conception of God, as typified in Christian Protestantism, is much more personal. In the most extreme modern view, using the contemporary popular way of saying it, the person is an individual in an individual relationship with an omniscient, omni-present, loving Father. Furthermore, whatever God does (although inexplicable to us today) is for a real reason which will all become clear to us one day. Thus we are ultimately responsible in the clearest way possible.
Now, when the historically naive modern reader reads Oedipus-Tyrannus he comes up with a modern moral message which depends on Oedipus being judged by "God" for doing some thing "wrong", which he had to do because (following the logic of original sin) it was preordained. My point is that this is a misinterpretation caused by modern religious understanding and a lack of understanding of ancient religion.
B. CLASSICAL GREEK PROPHECY: In the religious scheme of things in the Greek world, from perhaps 1200-400 B.C., you are handed your fate by the gods, and that's that. Rather thanloving and comforting, divine power is jealous and mischievous, that is, the gods wantonly and regularly intervene and wreak havoc in human lives. Why? Because they can, because its fun, because the human realm is one of the arenas where the gods can fight against each other, because . . . who knows? The only difference between gods and man are these: 1) the gods are a little more powerful, 2) the gods are immortal, 3) the gods possess more of honor, 4) the gods possess more of arete, or virtue.
Incidentally, there was not a Greek conception of the afterlife or of Heaven or Hell, as we know it.
Nothing can guard against divine mischief, but you might avoid it by not calling too much attention to yourself, which you will do if you rise above your "proper level" (Moira) in life. The poor were usually not the targets of the gods, because the gods had already messed with them - that's why they were poor. (The Greek term generally designating the lowest classes was Kakotes.)
You cannot ever know your fate, but you can get a "reading" on it, but it won't necessarily be the right reading, even though it bears some relation to the "shape" of your actual fate.
Some examples: 1) King Croesus of Lydia and his many dealings with Oracle at Delphi as recounted by Herodotus in his book The Histories. 2) Oedipus asks Oracle at Delphi if he is the son of Polybus and Merope. Instead of answering the question, the oracle responds with a prophecy which is totally different from the question posed to it.
So anyway, you get your fate from the oracle and it's bad. What are your options? 1.) You can pray and sacrifice to Apollo - and you may be granted an extension for a number ofyears; or you might get the fate fobbed off on your grandchildren (does this sound like Christianity?) but Apollo cannot abolish your fate, he can only delay or change it a little bit.
2.) You can use your intellect and figure out some way of outsmarting the god, but this is a delaying action also, and it always ends up like a multi-car pileup, or with shockwaves that start secondary disasters (kind of like landslides). Oedipus is another good example of this.
3.) You can use your reason to mitigate some of the effects of the oracle, e.g., in Herodotus's Histories, again, the way Croesus is able to keep Kind Cyrus from killing him - but you cannot avoid it.
4.) The gods are more impersonal and the individual is not so very important. Therefore, if someone does something individualistic - like disbelieves in the chain of history or the inevitability of the oracle, or if he tries to run away (e.g. - Laius, Oedipus) he causes the "nemesis" to descend. The "nemesis", goddess of retribution, is the bearer of the Divine enmity, which comes down and frustrates, disrupts and torments the life of the individual, like a monkey on his back, (e.g. the Sphinx and all the other horrible consequences which come to Oedipus. He discovers that his fate really did come to pass. In fact, he becomes the Sphinx, a plague-causing affliction, which only is lifted when a riddle is answered.)
II. THE PROBLEM OF REACHING AN ETHICAL JUDGEMENT OF OEDIPUS IN THE LIGHT OF THE GREEK SYSTEM OF DESTINY AND ORACLE.
In the classical Greek view, the actual end of our actions in this world, the telos, is only judged by hindsight (see the last paragraph of Oedipus Tyrannus.) Performing a real ethical assessment of Oedipus (e.g., could Oedipus have chosen to act differently than he did at some point? Was he personally irresponsible when he did what he did when he did it?) is very hard because it's hard todecide at what point you are going to judge him. Let's look at some examples from the play and see whether or not it makes sense to judge him morally:
1.) At the crossroads? Surely he could have acted otherwise than he did, especially when he had just come from an oracle that predicted he would kill his father, and the guy who provoked him was his father's age. But let's not be too hasty in saying he was wrong. Note:
a) He was seriously provoked.
b) He was seriously outnumbered, 6-1.
c) The other guys started it
d) When a Greek went out from the city (away from the domain of law) there was only one law: survival, or natural law, and that's just how Oedipus behaved: survival first, ask questions later.
2.) When he married Jocasta, a woman his mother's age? Surely we can judge this as wrong.
a) They seemed to love each other, and love and marriage are "natural" relationships (except when unnatural, which is what we have here).
b) He inherited her when he triumphed over the Sphinx. So it wasn't his fault; if anything it was the people of Thebes or Jocasta's fault. In both cases (1 & 2), there is also the oracle operating, which says that what happened had to have happened.
The point is, assigning an ethical status is difficult here. It must be assigned on an individual basis and on the basis of individual teloi. And those teloi - those "natural ends for which man aims" - are bound up in the oracle at all times.
In the light of what we've said, in Oedipus Tyrannus there is no strong, over-arching moral lesson or message which binds the play together, only particular moments in whichOedipus' behavior could be argued either good or bad. But the good-bad distinction completely and ultimately collapses before the oracle.
PART III: THE POLITICAL CONTEXT: THE NATURE OF KINGSHIP IN THE ANCIENT WORLD:
First of all we have to get some sense of the Ancient World of between about 1400-420 B.C.: There was no real "nation" of Greece as we know it. There were only individual kingdoms or "city states" in a loose confederation of often rocky alliances. There was no national culture as we experience it. Language, custom, religion, social and family structure varied-often from town to town (e.g, Iliad, IV, 437). No standard currency, no legal standards - each town had its own in some cases.
In the Dark Ages of Greek History (1400-800 B.C.) political control was in the hands of the Ancient Kings. This was sort of a traditional kingship a' la King Arthur. Ancient Kings were the religious and political figureheads of the ancient world and were given the respect due a pontiff or sacred person. But each King was the head of his own separate realm, e.g., Agamemnon is King of Mycenae; Priam is King of Troy. There were less powerful Kings, e.g., Idomeneus of Crete, allied with those more powerful Kings.
Around 900 B.C. the Ancient Kings were nonviolently removed (or stepped down voluntarily). Why? No one knows. Most likely, the growth and expansion of the individual city- states, e.g. Athens, made traditional kingly rule too nerve-wracking to a King who mainly was interested in religious festivals and sacrifices.
How was this stepping-down accomplished? They distributed their power among lower order magistrates and "bureaucrats".
But the rich saw this as a power vacuum and sought their own opportunities for power. The rich and influential banded together into closed castes of "families of venerable fathers" (Eupatriadae), and seized power from the weak magistrates. They set up aristocratic rule which lasted from about the 9th century to the early 5th century B.C.
During the rule of Eupatriadae waves of colonists fanned out over the Mediterranean world, and Greece was influenced by distant and diverse cultures. Her wealth increased and her culture was changed by this influx of foreign influence. The 5th century B.C. was the tail-end of this period, during which Greece reached a sort of "critical mass" and enjoyed an explosion of culture which has literally and directly influenced civilization ever since.
But let's back up: starting in the 7th century, the different families of the Eupatriadae were fighting among themselves, which again left leadership weakened. This time the social unrest and weakness was exploited by tyrants. In the Greek sense, a tyrant was a man of no hereditary claim to the throne who seized power through his own effort. The era when the tyrants succeeded the Eupatriadae was roughly between 650-550 B.C. These tyrants were not necessarily oppressive or bad rulers in the Hitlerian sense. But they were important because they seem to have had popular support in suppressing the internal conflicts of the Eupatriadae.
One tyrant seems to stand out about all the rest: Cleisthenes of Sparta (early 5th Century) who was the reformer who set up democracy of a limited sort. Cleisthenes set it up so that instead of 4 kinship groups of squabbling Eupatriadae, there were 10 kinship groups, the lowest and least significant of which was the demoi, or small village, where each villager had a vote.
As this system grew, the people (or demos) became more conscious of their power and status and began to assert their power more vigorously, until by the end of the 5th century,democracy had reached its highest flowering in Athens, and it was a democracy that we would recognize in many respects as being similar to our own.
IV. WHAT WAS SOPHOCLEAN GREECE (5TH CENTURY B.C.) REALLY LIKE TO LIVE IN POLITICALLY BASED ON A READING OF OEDIPUS TYRANNUS?
The answer is that the Athens of Sophocles' time was a curious mix of political ideas that had been popular in the ancient world from before history began, combined with the most "up to date" democratic ideals.
Yes, there was popular support of the ruler as in a democracy, but the way the guy got support was similar to the way the rulers of Persia and Egypt had always gotten theirs, back to the dawn of their civilizations. That is, the power holder got populart support by showing certain special traits or oddities or peculiarities.
A. In Sophoclean Athens, for example, the guy who is "laughably other" (is a weirdo, in other words) from the rest gets the support of the people, and we can grasp the meaning of this by looking at Oedipus:
1) Oedipus is certainly larger than the average man in physical stature.
2) He probably walks strangely due to his having been crippled as an infant. So, we get this picture of a huge, hulking sort of Frankenstein.
3) His claim to the throne is ludicrous - he answers a child's riddle that has life or death implications.
All of the above combine to make him "laughably other" than the rest of the demos. Thisis a very ancient way of telling if you are a king or not.
B. There was another even more ancient way, however: A king had to be a man who could distinguish himself in a manner which people recognized. He had to show his kingship. Being the son of a King was one way to do that. But even if somehow you get separated from your royal parentage (as Oedipus did) and you don't know that you are a king, events will work out which will show that you are a king anyway. This method, which existed prior to the 5th century B.C., can also be illustrated by a few examples:
1) The tombs of Egyptian pharaohs often have the record of the guy's life chiseled on the outside. Even if everybody knew that the pharaoh grew up in the palace surrounded by luxury, his biography on the tomb would say, for example, that he was found out on the desert where he'd been left to die (notice that the "foundling" motif was typical of ancient storytelling), but that a princess had found him, and raised him, and that at age two he had distinguished himself by destroying a dragon or enemy army. The lie was told, of course, to satisfy the requirement that a King must show his Kingly qualities from infancy. 2) In the Odyssey of Homer, Odysseus comes home after his long voyage to find his palace overrun by evil suitors who are trying to marry his wife, Penelope. He disguises himself as a beggar, goes to the palace, and "shows" his Kingship in an archery contest by shooting the arrow through the line of axe heads.
3) King Cyrus (again referring to an example from Herodotus's Histories) showed his kingship at age 4 (here again, he was a foundling, supposedly) by ordering people around. The ordering didn't make him a king, but the fact that people obeyed him did. If I order you to do something, and you obey me, and I'm only 4 years old, I must be a King, right? In the Ancient World this was considered proof of kingship.
The point of this is that the play by Sophocles does not allow us to pose a moral political question such as "How ought a ruler behave in the circumstances laid out in Oedipus Tyrannus?" Rather, the range of possible political actions is narrowed by the fact that Oedipus is portrayed as very much the product of his times, which were a mixture of the most ancient political, religious, cultural ideas and beliefs, and the most modern democratic ones.
Bibliographical Sources and Suggested Reading
Anthony Andrews, The Greeks, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
David Grene, Greek Political Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1950.
A.W.H. Adkins, Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the End of the Fifth Century, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1972.
M.I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks, New York: The Viking Press, 1964.
Erwin Schrodinger, Die Natur und Die Griechen: Cosmos und Physik, Hamburg: Rowolts Deutsche Enzyklopadie, 1956.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Herodotus, The Histories
Arnaldo Momigliano, Ancient Wisdom, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1978; The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (The Sather Lectures, No. 54), Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1992.
Revised Fall, 1989; Spring, 1998
W. B. YEATS
328 SOPHOCLES' KING OEDIPUS
Chorus Make way for Oedipus. All people said, 'That is a fortunate man';
And now what storms are beating on his head!
'That is a fortunate man';
Call no man fortunate that is not dead.
The dead are free from pain.
Formerly Scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge
>From the Loeb Library Edition
Originally published by
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
William Heinemann Ltd, London
First published in 1912
Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx's riddle and was mightiest in our state.
Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes'?
Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!
Therefore wait to see life's ending ere thou count one mortal blest;
Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.
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