The Rambling Writer, Reflections on Greece: The Journey of Oedipus

As I reflect on my travels in Greece, while working on my novel THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT, I’ll be weaving together threads of thoughts and photos here. I recently reread the consummate Greek tragedy, “Oedipus Rex.”

The cautionary tale of Oedipus, who attempted to defy the fate that the gods had decreed for him, was an ancient story and mentioned by Homer in “The Odyssey.” The most famous version is the later dramatic tragedy “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. First performed in the Theater of Dionysos in Athens in 429 BC, it earned second place in the City Dionysia festival. Then and now, it has been considered the epitome of classic Greek tragedy.

Here is the restored Theater of Dionysos that Thor and I saw nestled below the Acropolis on our recent visit to the Athens. On my first visit to Greece many years ago, I was lucky enough to be walking the hills where I happened to be overlooking an evening performance there, a breathtaking experience.

The gist of the story is this: Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, after his father had learned from the Delphic Oracle that any child of his born to Jocasta would become his murderer. (For more about the Delphic Oracle, see my blog series here, The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece — several posts about Delphi and the famous oracle that was the object of pilgrimage in the ancient Greek world.) Laius pierced together the feet of his infant son, then gave Oedipus to a shepherd, to be taken to the hills and left to die of exposure. Oedipus can be translated as “swollen foot.” The shepherd took pity on the infant and gave him to a traveler, who in turn gave the baby to the childless king and queen of nearby Corinth. Oedipus grew up to hear rumors about his birth, so went to the Delphic Oracle to learn the truth. There he learned that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he determined never to return to Corinth. Setting out on the road toward Thebes, at a crossroads he encountered a rich nobleman in a chariot, who ordered him to step aside from the road.

Reconstruction with remnants of an ancient chariot in the Athens museum:

Unbeknownst to Oedipus, this rich man was none other than King Laius, his birth father. When proud Oedipus refused to step aside, Laius hit him over the head. Angry Oedipus then killed him and his companions, fulfilling the first part of the oracle’s prophecy. Oedipus continued on the road toward Thebes, where he encountered the monstrous Sphinx that was killing any traveler who could not answer her riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?”

The Naxian Sphinx in the Delphi Museum:

Oedipus correctly answered the riddle with one word: “Man.” (A man crawls on all fours in infancy, two when grown, and leans on a staff in old age.) The Sphinx, in despair, hurled herself to her death from a mountainside. When Oedipus reached Thebes, the people hailed him as a hero and gave him the hand of the widowed Queen Jocasta in marriage, thus fulfilling the second part of the prophecy. Oedipus ruled for many years and sired four children with the woman he didn’t realize was his own mother. Sigmund Freud would much later invent the “Oedipus complex” as part of his psychoanalytic theories, but that notion of men being subconsciously attracted to their mothers has little to do with the original story or ancient Greek thinking.)

When the Sophocles drama opens, the city of Thebes is suffering a terrible plague, and Oedipus once again resorts to Apollo’s advice through the Delphic Oracle. The oracle reports that the plague can’t be lifted until the murderer of King Laius is brought to justice. The blind prophet Tiresias warns Oedipus that he won’t like the truth, and the king, always quick to anger, mocks him for his blindness. Oedipus, despite appeals by Jocasta and others, stubbornly pursues the truth. After much confusion, it’s finally clear that Oedipus is the murderer of his father, who has married his own mother. Horrified, Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus finds her body, plucks loose her cloak pins, and thrusts them repeatedly into his own eyes, blinding himself. He demands to be exiled, freeing the city from his pollution.

This costume in the Athens museum is from a production of the tragedy:

The most horrific events seem to occur in Homer’s stories and the tragedies of the later dramatists, often at the instigation of the gods or Fates. The capricious pantheon of twelve gods and goddesses residing on Mount Olympos perhaps represents an attempt to make sense of the sometimes terrible chaos and violence of the world and humanity. Several of these deities are mentioned in “Oedipus Rex”:

In this reproduction of the frieze from a Parthenon pediment, Zeus, king of the gods, is seated on his throne in the middle. His daughter, wise Athena is the next full figure to our right, with shield. The goddess of the wild, Artemis, seems about to run just to the left of Zeus. At the far left, next to the horse of the emerging dawn chariot, lounges Dionysos of wine and ecstatic revelry. In the middle left, with shield and spear is Ares, god of war. Midway to the right, partially hidden with his lyre, is Apollo, god of music and logic.

The Chorus of Theban citizens calls upon the gods for help with the plague: (All quotations from a translation by Kenneth Cavander)

“From golden Delphi Apollo replies to Thebes, and the words of heaven send a warning…. As a lyre trembles, so we tremble at the touch of fear. Apollo, god of healing, god of newness, We fear you, and the commands you send to humble us.”  Apollo, who took over the ancient oracle at Delphi from the primeval Pythia, established a temple and priesthood to interpret and perhaps control the prophecies to maintain order.

Incidentally, Apollo was also the god of plagues, a seeming contradiction to his healing aspect, but the ancient Greeks accepted these dualities. His companion raven was often a warning of bad luck:

The Theban chorus continues: “First in my prayers is the goddess Athene, the daughter of Zeus….”

“Send us strength that will look kindly on us, Golden daughter of Zeus. Ares, the god of war, confronts us, bitter in his cruelty, and his shout burns like fire….  Zeus, you are the lord of lightning, lord of fire, destroy him with your thunder, crush our enemy! Lord Apollo, god in the sun, we pray for your light; Strike with your golden spears and your hands of fire, strike to protect us. We pray for Artemis to bring her chaste fires, which we see her carry like a shining torch across the mountains where the wolf runs. I call you, the god with the golden crown, born in our country, Dionysos, with the fire of wine in your cheek, and the voice of wine in your shout, Come with your pine branch burning, and your Maenads following the light, the fire of heaven’s madness in their eyes, come to guard us against the treacherous power who goes to war with justice and the harmony of heaven!”

Dionysos, as I discussed in previous blogs in the Return to Greece series about Delphi, took over for Apollo at Delphi during the winter months, when his wild Maenad women ran over the mountainside. The Thebans would have had a particular attachment to this god of nature who was supposedly born in their region, the youngest of the Olympic pantheon.

His worship involved ancient rites in the Korykeion Cave in the foothills of Mount Parnassos that overlooks Delphi. Thor and I hiked to the cave during our recent travels:

The Theban Chorus continues: “In the rock at Delphi there is a cave which is the mouth of heaven; Now the cave warns us of one man, whose hands are red with murder, and whose actions break the unspoken laws that shackle us.” This smaller cave would be the mouth of the ancient Pythia in Delphi, from whose vapors wafted the prophecies of the oracle. On that spot was the stone of the Omphalos, the ancient navel or center of the ancient world:

The tragedy would almost certainly have been presented also at the theater of Delphi:

Aristotle, in his famous “Poetics,” laid out the rules for tragedy, which aimed to present humans as more noble than they were in ordinary life, and thus more tragic when they fell through failure to follow the natural balance, or dictates of the gods and Fate. Often the tragic hero has a “fatal flaw,” which in the case of Oedipus is sometimes considered to be his angry stubbornness. Also, his very nobility, in trying to prevent the terrible actions of murdering his father and marrying his mother, leads to his path of committing exactly those deeds. That irony is a necessary element of tragedy, according to Aristotle, who incidentally considered “Oedipus Rex” the finest tragedy. Further irony lies in the fact that Oedipus mocks the prophet Tiresias for his blindness, refusing to heed his warnings, and then when Oedipus insists on learning the terrible truth, he blinds himself. Another common fatal flaw is “hubris,” often associated with excessive pride that challenges the will of the gods. Oedipus is proud of his actions in saving Thebes from the Sphinx, and perhaps buys into the Thebans near-worship of him.

Again, from the Chorus: “Oedipus aimed beyond the reach of man…. Now his life turns and brings the reward of his greatness…. More than mortal in your acts of evil. More than mortal in your suffering, Oedipus.”

When I saw this marble statue on the island of Rhodes, I thought of the tragic heroes like Oedipus, caught in the monstrous coils of Fate:

When we in the audience witness the terrible fall of the tragic hero, we are meant to experience “catharsis,” or a release of the fear and pity aroused by the dramatic events, and indeed by the inexplicable blows of life.

In my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, my near-future heroine Ariadne struggles to accept her fate as a healer who can cure a modern plague with her inexplicable connection to ancient mythic forces. After many trials and tribulations, she accepts her destiny on the road to Delphi where she must face a deadly challenge:

Above the rock terraces, a spring spilled into a rock-dammed pool. She tore off her filthy rags and plunged in. She wanted to swim down forever into the clear cold, wash away the smell of blood and her own human corruption. She emerged gasping for air. Shivering, she rinsed the threadbare skirt and blouse, beating them against the rocks and spreading them over branches to dry, then huddling into exhausted sleep.
    It was afternoon when she awoke. She pulled on the damp clothing and set out, her mind strangely light and clear now. But the compulsion was still there, beating with her heartbeat, shivering up from the damaged earth to fill her with a terrible sorrow and rage and pity, and she had to return to the cave on Parnassos. She knew the forces were too great for her, but that didn’t matter.
    She found a crossroad with signs, and set out steadily walking, raising a hand to passing trucks or the rare electric car. Silent laughter mocked her, but her feet were set on the road and there was no turning back. Pride. Fatal hubris. Had Oedipus known, set upon this same ancient road, it would have made no difference. Ariadne could only accept the call of the mountain, the call of her own flesh and blood.

*****

You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

 

 

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The Rambling Writer, Reflections on Greece: The Journey of Oedipus — 2 Comments

  1. What an amazing piece of luck, to stumble onto a production! And what a riveting play.

    As I looked through the photos, it struck me what a profound experience to tread those stones, speaking words that have been heard in that amphitheater for over two thousand years.

    • Thanks, Sherwood! Yes, exactly — the experience of treading those stones that reverberate with so much history and culture. The ancient Greeks created so much that underlies our lives in the West.