Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus, the feel-good tragedy of 401 BC

Is there such a thing as a feel-good tragedy? Certainly this play, in which Oedipus who was horribly wronged previously goes from crippled dependence to visionary strength before dying what we can assume was a divine death, would seem to qualify. Yet, we should remember that all this good fortune bridges the gap between Oedipus the King and Antigone, two of the most brutal tragedies imaginable. It’s more a respite than a happy ending.

Surely, some happiness is owed to Oedipus. In Oedipus the King, he discovers that he completely-unknowingly killed his father and married his mother (alternate title: “it’s a small world after all”), and in shame and horror gouges his eyes out before being exiled from Thebes. Oedipus suffers precisely the sort of reversal of fortune that Aristotle thought typical of tragedy and for the same reason- an error on his part brings horrible and inevitable consequences. Of course, Aristotle was thinking of Sophocles and this suggests a limitation to his theory- it roughly explains what happens in many tragedies, while not explaining why some are more powerful than others. Oedipus Rex is one of the most powerful ever written and it’s partly because of the incredible unfairness of it all: Oedipus would have had to be prophetic to avoid his transgression and he wasn’t. As we discussed recently, it doesn’t seem to matter if you cross the order of things knowingly or unknowingly to be chastised in Greek tragedy.

I have to wonder if the elder Sophocles felt bad for Oedipus and therefore decided to depict his redemption. Here, he enters Athens as a sightless supplicant, with his loyal daughters caring for him- one of the genuinely charming ideas in Greek tragedy is that we become more fully human in the best sense by caring for the helpless and outcast- and is taken in by the good King Theseus, protected from his good-for-nothing son, Polyneíkes, and the power-hungry new Theban King Creon, receives prophetic vision and ascends to a sacred death and transfiguration. All that’s missing are a few musical numbers.

The blind are often given prophetic sight in Greek myths as a sort of compensation; when the gods close a window of perception, they open a visionary floodgate. Lacking eyes, Oedipus sees all.  Similarly, Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, plays a central role in Oedpus the King, exposing the truths that Oedipus blinds himself not to see. The prophet in these stories sees events before and behind him, stretching out like a mountain chain from a central peak that he couldn’t move if he wanted to. This is another aspect of fate: the future is decided, so the prophetic art is somewhat useless. He doesn’t want to see, but he must; he knows that he can do nothing. The tragic mood of hopelessness does not mean complete absence of free will- we can still choose to act- but very narrowly-proscribed will- in a real sense, it makes no difference- the conclusion is unquestionable. Whether you sing or snivel en route to the gallows, you end in the same state.

There’s also a strange gender indeterminacy to prophetic seers. Eyeless Oedipus thinks himself unmanned by his dependency on his daughters. One tradition holds that Tiresias received an abrupt sex change for striking coupling serpents with his staff, being returned to manhood later in life. This made him the only one qualified to say if men or women enjoy coitus more; his answer- women- enraged Hera who blinded him, and pleased Zeus who gave him prophecy. Other cultures notably allowed a great deal of gender bending on the part of their prophets- perhaps their eerie ability to step outside of ordinary sense perception extends to an ability to elude other bodily limitations. After all, isn’t that another sensory organ below the belt?

No matter. Oedipus is given prophetic sight and first sees his impending death and transfiguration. To thank Tiresias, who defended him against the Thebans, he allows the king to accompany him on his last walk to his secret tomb. His last moments are secret and thus sacred; permission to see them imparts blessings. Theseus is thus initiated into “the mysteries, sacred words, and forbidden things”, and his people are blessed. The idea of veiling sacred images is perhaps a bit archaic (although reverence for the power of the image is still prominent in Islam), but it’s a part of every western religious tradition, and most of the philosophy as well. The Platonic forms, after all, were images for initiates.

Theseus is quite a heroic figure here and the play includes the sort of Athenian chest-thumping we saw in the Oresteia- clearly, Athens saw itself as a city on a hill. Theseus displays the sort of courage and sense of justice that seem to entitle him to a superhero’s cape. Yet there’s a warning here that doesn’t come from Athena in Aeschylus- Athens must maintain these characteristics in order to keep their blessing. Remember that Sophocles wrote this play as an old man and seems to be warning the younger generation. Within a few years, the war will have ended and Athens will be permanently in decline.

Human happiness is short-lived, as numerous tragedies attest. Nevertheless, this is reason to consider those moments in which the gods smile upon us all the more precious. They don’t come often.

Endnote: Here, I think, is the musical version that J. L. Wall mentions in the comments: ‘The Gospel at Colonus’.

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4 thoughts on “Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus, the feel-good tragedy of 401 BC

  1. “Feel-good tragedy” just about describes it. I have to admit, I’ve always found the dissonance between Antigone’s pleas to Polyneikes — forget Fate, forget prophecy, you can CHOOSE not to attack Thebes — and Oedipus’ “I can’t be held responsible for anything I did; I was fated to do it,” a little too jarring. On the other hand, unlike a lot of people, I like the play and don’t think it’s boring at all.

    A few notes of my own:

    First, so everyone out there is clear, this is the “middle” play, but it was written decades after the other two, near the end of Sophokles’ life. (It was produced posthumously, after the end of the war, I believe.) One almost wonders if he had begun to mellow a bit.

    Second, there was a cult of Oedipus (as a healer) at Athens, certainly at the time of production — whether it began during or before the Peloponnesian War is unclear. Some ancient sources indicate that Sophokles was a priest of this cult; their veracity is unclear.

    Third, good point about prophecy and vision. For what it’s worth, several Classicists (among them Leo Strauss’ [!] daughter) also note the connection between poetry and blindness, and therefore poetry and prophecy.

    Fourth, on the precious, short-lived nature of human happiness: that’s a fantastic point and I don’t know how I hadn’t thought of anything similar before reading it, given the difficulty I have in separating this play from the time of it’s composition. In a lot of respects, it’s a paean for a lost Athens — but one also gets the sense that it is still asserting something along the lines of, “Just because everything has changed doesn’t mean that Athens cannot be/is not inherently great.”

    Finally, if I can find it, there’s a recording somewhere out there of a musical adaptation of the play in the style of black gospel music. It’s bizarre — but like most bizarre things, absolutely fascinating.

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