Hour 18. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and the power of the cult hero in death

The meaning of kolōnos

18§1. The key word for this hour is kolōnos, which means a ‘tumulus’ or ‘elevation’ in a local landscape. As we will see, kolōnos means also the whole landscape itself, which is a garden or grove that is entered by Oedipus. Further, Colonus / Kolōnos is the name of a district or dēmos, ‘deme’, of Attica, which was named after this prominent landmark. When I say Attica here, I mean the name of the overall region controlled by the metropolis of Athens.
18§2. And there is also another meaning of kolōnos at work here in the context of Colonus / Kolōnos as a name for a deme of Attica: Colonus / Kolōnos is the name of a local cult hero who resides in the deme of Colonus / Kolōnos.
18§3. All these meanings are activated in a dialogue between Oedipus and a representative of the local population of Colonus, whom the old hero addresses as xenos, ‘stranger’:

Hour 18 Text A

|49 {Oedipus:} I implore you by the gods, stranger [xenos], do not deprive me of honor [a-tīmân], |50 wanderer that I am, and do point out to me the things I ask you to tell me.
|51 {Xenos:} Indicate [sēmainein] to me, and it will be clear that you will not be without honor [a-tīmos] from me.
|52 {Oedipus:} What, then, is the place [khōros] that I [we] have entered?
|53 {Xenos:} All that I myself know, you will hear and learn. |54 This whole place [khōros] is sacred [hieros]; it is possessed |55 by the revered [semnos] Poseidon, and inside it is the fire-bringing god, |56 the Titan Prometheus. Αs for the place [topos] where you have set foot, |57 it is called the Bronze-Step Threshold of this land here. |58 It is the Protection of Athens. And the neighboring fields |59 claim as their own this person here, Colonus [Kolōnos], who is the rider of chariots [hippotēs], |60 as their ancient ruler; and all the population bear the name of |61 this person here [= Colonus] as their shared [koinon] possession. |62 Such, you see, stranger [xenos], are these things, which are what they are not because what we say |63 gives them honor [tīmân], but rather because we live in communion [sun-ousiā] with them.
|64 {Oedipus:} So, there are in fact some dwellers in these places [topoi] here?
|65 {Xenos:} Oh, yes, very much so, and they are the namesakes of this god [theos = Colonus] here.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 49-65 [1]
18§4. For the moment, I highlight only three details in this remarkable passage. First, the language describing the sacred place that Oedipus has entered uses the deictic pronoun hode, which can be translated as ‘this person here’, in referring to the local cult hero of this place, whose name is Colonus / Kolōnos. The reference is most ostentatious, since it happens three times in a row, at lines 59 (τόνδ’), 61 (τοῦδε), 65 (τοῦδε). So, the immediate presence of this hero named Colonus / Kolōnos is deeply felt by the local population of a district that is likewise named Colonus / Kolōnos. Second, this hero is described by the epithet hippotēs at line 59, which I interpret as ‘the rider of a horse-drawn chariot’. I will have more to say later about the significance of associating both the hero and the place named Colonus / Kolōnos with horses. Third, in the last line of what I just quoted, we see the word theos, ‘god’, applied to this local cult hero. As we already saw in Hour 15§30, local cult heroes may be called theoi, ‘gods’, at climactic moments in the course of rituals that venerate them.

More on the meaning of Colonus

18§5. I started this hour by observing that the cult hero Colonus / Kolōnos is named after a landmark that distinguishes the district in which he resides, and that this landmark is a kolōnos or ‘tumulus’ of a hero. To pick up on this observation, I find it most relevant to recall the use of the word kolōnos in the Hērōikos of Philostratus:

Hour 18 Text B = Hour 14 Text G

|9.1 Listen to such stories now, my guest [xenos]. Protesilaos lies buried not at Troy but here on the Chersonesus. This large tumulus [kolōnos] over here on the left no doubt contains him. The nymphs generated [phuein] these elms [that you see here] around the tumulus [kolōnos], and they wrote, so to speak, the following decree concerning these trees: |9.2 “Those branches that turn toward Ilion [= Troy] will blossom early and will then immediately shed their leaves and perish before their season [hōrā] - for this was also the life experience [pathos] of Protesilaos - but a tree on its other side will live and prosper.” |9.3 All the trees that do not stand around the tomb [sēma], such as these trees [that you see right over here] in the grove, have strength in all their branches and flourish according to their particular nature.
Philostratus Hērōikos 9.1-3
18§6. In this passage, I translated kolōnos as ‘tumulus’, but the word can also be rendered more generally as ‘landmark’; it marks the mound, surrounded by elm-trees, that ‘extends over’ (epekhei) the body of the cult hero Protesilaos at Elaious in the Chersonesus. We may compare the expression kolōnos lithōn, in Herodotus 4.92, which can be translated as ‘mound of stones’. In Hērōikos 51.12-13, which I quoted in Hour 14 Text H, this same word kolōnos designates the mound that the Achaeans had built to extend over the bodies of Achilles and Patroklos; the verb there, ageirein, suggests a piling of stones. This mound or tumulus, as we saw in Hour 14 Text H, was situated on a headland overlooking the Asiatic side of the Hellespont, facing the tumulus of Protesilaos situated on a corresponding headland overlooking the European side of the strait. Also, in Hērōikos 53.10-11, kolōnos refers, again, to the tomb of Achilles, and there the word is used synonymously with sēma in the sense of ‘tomb’ (53.11).
18§7. So, how are all these contexts of the word kolōnos relevant to the meaning of the place-name Colonus / Kolōnos in the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles? In the wording of the drama, this place-name Kolōnos is used as a general reference, at lines 670 and 889, to the sacred space that Oedipus the wanderer has entered in a quest to find a permanent resting place for his wretched body, polluted by all the deeds he had committed in a chronologically earlier phase of the story of Oedipus. That earlier phase is retold in another drama of Sophocles, the Oedipus Tyrannus. As for the Oedipus at Colonus, produced in 401 BCE after the death of Sophocles (as we read in Hypothesis 2 for the drama), it focuses on the final phase of the story, retold in a distinctly Athenian way. In the Athenian version of the story as retold in the Oedipus at Colonus, the sacred space of Colonus will receive the body of Oedipus, after he is purified of his pollutions, and it will offer him an oikos, that is, a ‘dwelling place’ or ‘abode’ befitting a cult hero. I have already noted in Hour 15§26 the meaning of oikos as a cult hero’s ‘dwelling place’. And, as Oedipus himself says at line 627 of the Oedipus at Colonus, he desires to be an oikētēr or ‘dweller’ within the sacred space of Colonus. [2] In other words, he desires to be a cult hero at Colonus.
18§8. In what follows, I intend to argue that the idea of Oedipus as a cult hero who is worshipped by the people of Athens in the days of Sophocles is essential for understanding the idea of Oedipus as a polluted abomination who was once upon a time rejected by the people of Thebes, where he had ruled as their king. That is why I chose to analyze first the Oedipus at Colonus, which tells how Oedipus was accepted by the Athenians as their cult hero, before I go on to analyze the Oedipus Tyrannus, which tells how Oedipus was rejected by the Thebans as their king. [3]

How to imagine Colonus

18§9. From the perspective of ritual, Colonus is a temenos, a sacred space or ‘precinct’, as we see it described at line 136 of the Oedipus at Colonus. And, as I have already noted, this same space is described at line 54 as a place that is hieros or ‘sacred’. Further, from the perspective of myth, this place is a paradisiacal space, a stylized garden or grove inhabited by the most potent superhuman powers. I quote here a lyrical description that is sung and danced by the chorus in the role of a speaker addressing Oedipus after he has just arrived in the sacred space of Colonus, seeking to be purified of the unholy pollution he has already experienced in his most wretched life. Here are the words of the speaker, addressing Oedipus as a xenos, ‘stranger’ (since both Oedipus and the speaker are still strangers to each other):

Hour 18 Text C

This place [khōrā] here, having good power from horses [eu-hippos], O stranger [xenos], is the most potent inhabitation on earth - that is where you have just arrived. |670 It is Colonus [Kolōnos], shining white [argēs]. Here the nightingale, a constant visitor, trills her clear note under the trees of green glades, dwelling in the midst of the wine-colored ivy |675 and the god’s inviolate foliage, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by the wind of any storm. Here the Bacchic reveler Dionysus ever walks the ground, |680 companion of the nymphs that nursed him. And, feeding on heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms day by day with its fair clusters, over and over again; it is the ancient garland [stephanōma] of the two Great Goddesses. |685 And the crocus blooms with a golden gleam. Nor do the ever-flowing springs diminish, from which the waters of Cephisus wander off, and each day this river, swift in making things fertile, |690 moves with its pure current over the broad plains of Earth with her swelling breasts. Nor have the singing and dancing choruses [khoroi] of the Muses shunned this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rein. |695 And there is a thing such as I have not heard of on Asian ground, nor as ever yet originating in the great Dorian island of Pelops: it is a plant unconquered, self-renewing, causing terror for enemies armed with spears. |700 It greatly flourishes in this land - the gray-leafed olive, nurturer of children. No young man may harm it by the ravages of his hand, nor may anyone who lives with old age. For the sleepless circular eye |705 of Zeus Morios [guard of the sacred olive trees] watches over it, and so too does gray-eyed Athena. And I have another word of praise [ainos] to say for this city, our mother [mātro-polis], and it is a most potent word: |710 [I praise] the gift of the great superhuman force [daimōn]. It is the greatest thing worthy of praise. It has the good power of horses [eu-hippon], the good power of colts [eu-pōlon], the good power of the sea [eu-thalasson]. I say this because you, son of Kronos, lord Poseidon, have set the city on the throne of these words of praise |715 by inventing, first of all on our own roadways, the bit that cures the rage of horses. Meanwhile the oar, well shaped for rowing on the sea, is gliding past the land as it leaps [thrōiskein] to keep time with the singing and dancing of the hundred-footed Nereids.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 668-719 [4]

Colonus, land of running horses

18§10. As we can see from this lyrical description of Colonus, it is a place that is specially linked with horses and with Poseidon as the god of horses. Further, Colonus as a personified hero is imagined at line 59 as a hippotēs, and I have already argued that this epithet refers to a rider on a chariot drawn by horses. Even further, as we are about to see, Poseidon can be imagined as begetting the First Horse at Colonus.
18§11. In the Oedipus at Colonus, we find a mystical reference to a myth, evidently local to Colonus, about a prototypical stallion fathered by Poseidon. The myth is connected to the last moments of Oedipus as a living mortal. In the drama, a messenger narrates these last moments:

Hour 18 Text D

|1586 This [= the death of Oedipus] has already happened, and it was something that was outstandingly wondrous. |1587 As for how he started to depart from this world, you yourself know that full well, since you were here: |1588 he did not have any of his dear ones [philoi] as guide, |1589 but rather he himself was leading the way for us all. |1590 Then, when he arrived at the Threshold for Descending, |1591 with its bronze foundations rooted in the earth deep below |1592 he stopped still at one place where paths were leading in many directions, |1593 near the Hollow Crater, which was where Theseus |1594 and Peirithoos had made their faithful covenant lasting forever - it is marked there. |1595 Midway he [= Oedipus] stood there between that place [= the Hollow Crater] and the Thorikios Petros, |1596 between the Hollow Pear Tree and the Stone Tomb [lāïnos taphos]. |1597 Next, he sat down and loosened his filthy clothing. |1598 And then he called out to his daughters, ordering them to bring from flowing streams |1599 water for ritual washing [loutra] and for libations [khoai] - to bring him the water from wherever [pothen] they brought it. |1600 And the two daughters went to the place of Demeter, the one who has the beautiful greenness [khloē]. |1601 The place was a Hill, and they went to it. |1602 In a short time they brought back what their father had ordered them to bring, and then they gave him ritual washing [loutra] |1603 and dressed him, as is the custom [nomos]. |1604 But when all his desire was fulfilled, |1605 and nothing that he required was still undone, |1606 then Zeus, He of the Earth Below [khthonios], made a thunderclap.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1586-1606 [5]
18§12. Among the many landmarks of the mystical topography of Colonus that we see described in this most remarkable passage, I highlight a rock that is called by the name of Thorikios Petros at line 1595. The meaning of this place-name is complex. The noun petros means ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, while the adjective thorikios is derived from the verb thrōiskein, which means both ‘leap’ and ‘emit semen’. [6] I quote here an antiquarian report about the relevant myth:

Hour 18 Text E

Others say that, in the vicinity of the rocks at Athenian Colonus [Kolōnos], he [Poseidon], falling asleep, had an emission of semen, and a horse named Skuphios came out, who is also named Skīrōnitēs.
Scholia for Lycophron 766 [7]
18§13. There are other versions of the myth that are tied to places other than Colonus. Here is an example:

Hour 18 Text F

Poseidon Petraios [‘of the rocks’] has a cult among the Thessalians ... because he, having fallen asleep at some rock, had an emission of semen; and the earth, receiving the semen, produced the first horse, whom they called Skuphios. ... And they say that there was a festival established in worship of Poseidon Petraios at the spot where the first horse leapt forth.
Scholia for Pindar Pythian 4.246 [8]
18§14. As we consider further the antiquarian report, just quoted, about the myth originating from Colonus, I draw attention to the name Skīrōnitēs for the prototypical horse. This name means ‘the one who originates from a white rock [skīros / skirros]’, and such a meaning can be connected with a variety of other myths about leaping and about the emission of semen. [9] For the moment, however, I concentrate simply on the connection between the Thorikios Petros at Colonus and the idea of a white rock. I find it most significant that Colonus itself, as a place, is pictured as a white rock shining from afar: as we saw in Text C, the epithet describing Colonus at line 670 is argēs, which means ‘shining white’. [10] And this shining white rock Colonus becomes personified as a cult hero who bears the same name: as we saw in Text A, this hero is the mysterious Kolōnos, described as hippotēs at line 59, which I have interpreted as ‘the rider of a chariot drawn by horses’.

Further perspectives on the meanings connected to the word kolōnos and to the name Kolōnos

18§15. These connections of the Thorikios Petros at Colonus with the idea of Colonus itself as a white rock lead me to consider some further perspectives on the meanings connected to the word kolōnos and to the name Kolōnos. In developing these perspectives, I find it most useful to return to the definition I offered in Hour 4§32 for the concept of metonymy. As I defined it there, metonymy is an expression of meaning by way of connecting something to something else that is next to that something or at least near to it, thereby establishing contact. Applying that definition, I now argue that there is a metonymy built into the word kolōnos and the name Kolōnos.
18§16. Let us start again with kolōnos as a word for a landmark, a shining white rock. As we have seen, this rock is personified as a cult hero, and the word becomes the name of that hero. By extension, the word also becomes the name of an entire sacred space, Kolōnos. And, by further extension, Kolōnos becomes the name of the entire deme of Attica in which the sacred space is situated. Throughout the Oedipus at Colonus, the wording of Sophocles explores the politics as well as the poetics of the dynamic tension between Colonus as a deme of Attica and Athens as the centralized polis or ‘city’. Especially suggestive are the distinctions between the word khōros or ‘place’, referring to the sacred space of Colonus (as at line 54), and a more general word for ‘place’, khōrā, which can refer to the entire deme of Colonus (as at line 89). [11]
18§17. The metonymic personification of a rock or a stone as a hero, as we see it at work in the mythological landscape of Colonus, can be compared to what we saw in the medieval Irish saga of the Táin. As I noted in Hour 15§60, the singing of an incantation to the gravestone of the hero Fergus, long dead, becomes the equivalent of singing this incantation to the hero himself, who is thus temporarily brought back to life. So, here too we see a metonymy, and this time the metonymy is achieved by way of incantation: a man sings to the gravestone ‘as though it were Fergus himself’, and then the hero Fergus materializes from the dead.

Oedipus as cult hero at Colonus

18§18. So, how does Oedipus fit into the complex of myths and rituals connected with the sacred space of Colonus? The answer is simple, even if the details are complicated: in the myth that takes shape in the drama Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, Oedipus becomes a cult hero of Colonus. In terms of my argumentation, to put it more precisely, Oedipus develops into a cult hero of Colonus in the course of the developing story as told in the Oedipus at Colonus. And a key to understanding the idea of Oedipus as a cult hero is the messenger’s narrative about his mysterious death in a locale that is marked by a set of six mysterious landmarks, which are mentioned in the following order at lines 1590-1601 of the passage I just quoted, Text D: the Threshold for Descending (1590-1592), the Hollow Crater (1593), the Thorikios Petros (1595), the Hollow Pear Tree (1596), the Stone Tomb or lāïnos taphos (1596), and the Hill of Demeter (1600-1601). According to the narrative, as I interpret it, Oedipus comes to a stop at the first landmark, the Threshold for Descending, which is pictured as a sheer drop downward into the depths of the earth below. [12] This landmark is a centerpoint that is equidistant from the next four of the six landmarks, which are the Hollow Crater, the Thorikios Petros, the Hollow Pear Tree, and the Stone Tomb. In terms of my interpretation, the Threshold for Descending is the crossroads that Oedipus reaches when he comes to a full stop (1592). [13] Farther away, but within view, is the sixth landmark, the Hill of Demeter. In my analysis so far, I have focused on the Thorikios Petros. In what follows, I will focus on the Hill of Demeter. As I will argue, this sacred place of Demeter is connected with the Thorikios Petros, which as we have seen is a sacred place of Poseidon. And this connection, I will also argue, is relevant to the status of Oedipus as cult hero at Colonus.
18§19. The myth of the Thorikios Petros, as we have seen so far, is about a shining white rock that marks the place where Mother Earth produced a prototypical horse when Poseidon, falling asleep at this rock and having a dream there, emitted semen that dropped on the ground, fertilizing it. As we have also seen, this prototypical horse that leapt out of the fertilized ground was named Skīrōnitēs according to one version of the myth. That is, this mythical First Horse was named after the shining white rock.
18§20. Here I draw attention to a parallel myth studied by Pausanias (8.25). According to this myth, originating from the Arcadian community of Thelpousa, the god Poseidon and the goddess Demeter were the father and mother of a divine horse named Areion (8.25.7); according to another version of this myth, also reported by Pausanias, the parents of Areion were Poseidon and Mother Earth (8.25.8-10). I also draw attention to two details in the Arcadian version of the myth as studied by Pausanias:
(1) Both Demeter and Poseidon assumed the form of horses when they actually mated with each other (8.25.5).
(2) The epithet that applies to Demeter when she mated with Poseidon and produced the divine horse Areion is erīnūs or Erinys (8.25.4-7), and this noun is reported to be derived from a verb used in the Arcadian dialect to mean ‘be angry’, erīnuein (Pausanias 8.25.6).
18§21. In the myth about the begetting of the divine horse Areion by Poseidon, we have just seen from the two different attested versions that the mother is either the goddess Demeter Erinys or the goddess Earth; by contrast, in the myth about the begetting of the prototypical horse Skīrōnitēs by the same god Poseidon, we can find only one version, featuring Earth instead of Demeter as the divine mother. And yet, even if Demeter Erinys is not overtly featured as the divine mother of the prototypical horse of Colonus, we see in the Oedipus at Colonus that the goddess Demeter is explicitly named as a resident of this sacred space. The naming is tied to the moment when Oedipus sits down in preparation for receiving fresh water to be used for performing the rituals of loutra or ‘washings’ and of khoai or ‘libations’, mentioned at line 1599. This fresh water, as we see at lines 1600-1601, is brought from a hill named after the goddess Demeter. After the performing of these rituals, as we will see later on, Oedipus will be lovingly engulfed by Mother Earth, never to be seen again by mortals.
18§22. Just as Demeter is a resident of Colonus, so too are the Eumenides, who are mentioned by that name at lines 42 and 486 of the Oedipus at Colonus. These Eumenides, according to the myth we considered in Hour 17, were formerly the Erinyes before they were transformed into their benevolent aspect - and before they were renamed, as it were, as the Eumenides or the Semnai, the ‘Revered Ones’. There are significant parallels to be noted in the wording of the Oedipus at Colonus. At line 41, for example, it is made explicit that the Eumenides are called the Eumenides because the local population of Colonus wishes to call them by a name that is semnon or ‘revered’. And these Eumenides as goddesses of Colonus are actually called the Semnai or the ‘Revered Ones’ at lines 90 and 458. [14]
18§23. Given that the Eumenides were divine occupants of the sacred space of Colonus in the Oedipus at Colonus, I find it essential to compare another sacred space that these goddesses occupied: it was located at a cleft in the rocks at the foot of the northeast side of the Areopagos, to the west of the Acropolis of Athens. [15] It was here at the Areopagos, according to the local myth reported by Pausanias (1.28.5), that Orestes was tried for killing his mother. [16] It was this local myth that shaped the retelling in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, a drama that becomes an aetiology for the cult of the Eumenides or the Semnai in their sacred place at the Areopagos. [17] And, as we learn from Pausanias (1.28.6-7) in his description of the sacred space of the Eumenides at the Areopagos, there was a tomb of the hero Oedipus inside this space (1.28.7). [18] So, Oedipus was evidently worshipped as a cult hero within this sacred space of the Eumenides at the Areopagos. Similarly, Oedipus was worshipped as a cult hero within the sacred space of Colonus. According to Pausanias (1.30.4), the first place in Attica where Oedipus came as an exile from Thebes was Kolōnos Hippios, or ‘Colonus of the Horses’, where he shares with Theseus, Peirithoos, and Adrastos a hērōion, that is, a sacred precinct for worshipping heroes.
18§24. Whereas Oedipus as a cult hero of the sacred space at the Areopagos shares that space only with the Eumenides, he shares the corresponding sacred space of Colonus not only with the Eumenides but also with other divinities, including Demeter and Poseidon, as we saw earlier, and with other heroes, as we have just seen from the report of Pausanias. Still, even at Colonus, the Eumenides are the primary divinities that define Oedipus as a cult hero. Already at lines 84-110 of the Oedipus at Colonus, he prays to the Eumenides to allow him to ‘dwell’, oikeîn (92), in the sacred space that he describes as the alsos or ‘grove’ of these goddesses (98). Then, at lines 466-492, Oedipus receives instructions from the inhabitants of Colonus, as represented by the chorus, about the ritually correct procedures that will be needed for the hero to worship the Eumenides - and thereby to purify himself of his pollution. And the primary form of this worship is the pouring of ‘libations’, khoai, of clear spring water, for the Eumenides (469-470). This ‘pouring of libations’, khoas kheâsthai (477), must be performed in a standing position, while facing the first light of dawn (477), and the water of libation must be mixed with honey and not with wine (481). Further, while pouring the libations, Oedipus must address the Eumenides exactly that way, as Eumenides (486), since the hearts of these goddesses will now be eu-menê, ‘of good intentions’ (486-487). Once Oedipus properly worships the Eumenides, he will be purified of his pollution, and he can then become a cult hero for the people of Colonus in particular and for Athens in general. In the words of the prayer that Oedipus is instructed to utter while pouring his libations, this polluted suppliant will become transformed into a ‘bringer of salvation’, a sōtērios, for the whole community (487). [19] But this transformation can happen only if Oedipus properly invokes the Eumenides as Eumenides while pouring his libations.
18§25. At this moment in the Oedipus at Colonus, the transformation of Oedipus into a cult hero is actually postponed. The old man says that he is in no state of mind to perform the ritual of libations himself, blind as he is (495-496), and so it should be one of his two accompanying daughters who will do it for him (497) while the other one of the two will stay behind to look after him (498-502); the daughter Ismene volunteers to go, asking the chorus to reveal to her the place where she will find the source for the waters of libation (503-504). But the wording of the chorus is ostentatiously secretive: the source of the waters is ‘on that side of this grove [alsos] here’ (505 τοὐκεῖθεν ἄλσους, ὦ ξένη, τοῦδ’), and, if Ismene needs further instructions along the way to that source, some ep-oikos or ‘dweller in the locale’ will indicate the place to her (505-506). But Ismene is prevented from reaching the source: she is kidnapped, after her exit, by the men of Creon (818-821). Only toward the end of the drama, as we already saw in Text D (1598-1603), does Oedipus get to perform the libations himself, and only then is he finally purified by way of a ritual washing. As we also already saw in Text D, Oedipus has by now reached a different state of mind, since his blindness no longer holds him back, and some mysterious force is now enabling him to lead the way, instead of blindly following along, as he proceeds toward the place where he will die (1587-1589). Once Oedipus reaches that place, he himself will perform his own libations: so now he calls for his daughters to bring him clear spring water for ritual washing, loutra, and for libations, khoai (1599). After he is purified by the washing (1602-1603), the ritual of libation can take place, though the procedures for the ritual pouring as prescribed earlier by the chorus (469-470, 477-484) are this time not specified by the messenger. Instead, what does get specified now, and ostentatiously so, is a revelation of the source for the clear spring water that will be used for the washings and for the libations, and that source is the Hill of Demeter (1600-1601). What makes the revelation ostentatious is the ritualistic hesitation in specifying the source even in this context. I repeat here my translation of the wording: ‘And then he called out to his daughters, ordering them to bring from flowing streams | water for ritual washing [loutra] and for libations [khoai] - to bring him the water from wherever [pothen] they brought it’ (1598-1599). Having made his libation, Oedipus will be eligible to receive libations in his own right - once he becomes a cult hero. He has predicted this eligibility already at the beginning of the drama when he first prayed to the Eumenides (84-110): there he described himself as nēphōn or ‘sober’ while praying to these divinities, whom he described in turn as a-oinoi or ‘wineless’ (100). [20] This initial description of the Eumenides as abstaining from wine, aoinoi, suits the offering that Oedipus is instructed to make to these goddesses: as we saw, the water of libation for the Eumenides must be mixed with honey and not with wine (481).
18§26. I return here to the revelation, toward the end of the Oedipus at Colonus, that the source for the waters of libation for the Eumenides comes from the Hill of Demeter (1600-1601). This revelation signals what it is that Demeter has in common with the Eumenides: this goddess too, like the Eumenides, is connected with the libations that will transform Oedipus into a cult hero who will reside in Colonus. And the Hill of Demeter, along with the Thorikios Petros, is one of the six mystical landmarks that mark the actual locale where Oedipus died and where his tomb hides his body. That body, once Oedipus is purified, will become a talisman of fertility and prosperity not only for the local community that worships this new cult hero of Colonus but also, by sacred metonymy, for the overall community of Athens. [21] The words of Oedipus himself predict his new status as the cult hero of Colonus when he expresses his intention to donate his body to Theseus in that hero’s capacity as king and virtual high priest of Athens:

Hour 18 Text G

|576 I [= Oedipus] come to donate this wretched body of mine |577 as a gift to you [= Theseus] - a gift that seems not to be important when you look at it. But it has |578 benefits coming out from it that have more power than any form of beauty.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 576-578 [22]
18§27. The exact location of the death and entombment of Oedipus will be shown only to Theseus as king and virtual high priest of Athens - and to his successors. That is what Oedipus himself promises to Theseus in the Oedipus at Colonus (1518-1539): driven by a mysterious divine force (1540), the blind man will now take the lead, needing no human guide, he says, as he heads toward that mysterious location (1521, 1540-1545), where he will find what he describes as his own hieros tumbos, ‘sacred tomb’ (1545). This landmark seems to match the mystical Stone Tomb or lāïnos taphos (1596), listed as one of the six mystical landmarks marking the place where Oedipus died.
18§28. Here I return to another one of those six mystical landmarks in the Oedipus at Colonus, the Hill of Demeter (1600-1601). The association of this place as the source for the libation of Oedipus to the Eumenides shows that the goddess Demeter herself, like the Eumenides, is somehow involved in the death and entombment of Oedipus.
18§29. In another version of the Oedipus myth as retold in an antiquarian source dated to the fourth century BCE (Androtion FGH 334 F 62), we see relevant details about the relationship of Demeter with Oedipus, which I paraphrase here:
- Oedipus comes to a place in Attica called Kolōnos Hippeus, where he ‘occupies a dwelling’, as expressed by the verb oikeîn.
- Just before he dies, Oedipus persuades Theseus to promise him that the location of his taphos or ‘tomb’ will be kept a secret, so that the people of Thebes may not come to Colonus, find his body, and abuse it.
- Oedipus had been received as a suppliant at Colonus in the hieron or ‘sacred precinct’ of Demeter, which this goddess shares with Athena Polioukhos, or ‘guardian of the city [of Athens]’, and with Zeus himself.
18§30. In yet another version of the Oedipus myth, transmitted by a source dated around 200 BCE (Lysimachus of Alexandria FGH 382 F 2), we see further relevant details, which I again paraphrase here:
- When Oedipus died, the Thebans refused him a proper burial. Then his body was taken by his near-and-dear ones to a place called Keos in Boeotia, where it was buried. But the people of this place blamed their misfortunes on the presence of the body, and so his near-and-dear were forced to remove it.
- Then the near-and-dear of Oedipus took his body to another place in Boeotia, called Eteonos. There they buried it secretly in the hieron or ‘sacred space’ of the goddess Demeter. When the people of Eteonos found out, they consulted an oracle, and the god ordained that they must not disturb (kineîn) the body of Oedipus, since he is ‘the suppliant [hiketēs] of the goddess’. Accordingly, the hieron or ‘sacred space’ is named the Oidipodeion.
18§31. So, also in the Oedipus at Colonus (44), Oedipus is a hiketēs or ‘suppliant’ - this time, not of Demeter but of the Eumenides (42). And once again there is an oracular pronouncement (84-110), given by Apollo himself (86, 102). [23] The oracle ordains that the local population should receive Oedipus and assign to him a hedrā or ‘station’ in the or ‘earth’ that is Colonus (84-85; also already 45), where he will ‘occupy a dwelling’, oikeîn (92); thus Oedipus will become a cult hero of Colonus. [24] And the key to the new status of Oedipus as a cult hero is that he will be buried in territory belonging to Athens (582). As a new cult hero, Oedipus will now benefit the native population who have received him (dekhesthai 92) - but he will become a source of atē or ‘disaster’ for those who have expelled him, namely, his former countrymen in Thebes (93). Later on in the Oedipus at Colonus, where the native population of Colonus as represented by the chorus is giving instructions to Oedipus about the proper way to pray while performing the rituals of libation (486-489), it is said that the words of his prayer must describe him as a hiketēs or ‘suppliant’ who will be a ‘bringer of salvation’, a sōtērios (487), for the Athenians. I note, once again, that Oedipus here is a suppliant of the Eumenides, not of Demeter. And it is to the Eumenides, not to Demeter, that he pours libations while praying.
18§32. Having analyzed these parallelisms between Demeter and the Eumenides, let us consider the thinking of Oedipus as an agent of the Eumenides - which is how he describes himself (457-459) when he declares that he, as a cult hero, will become a sōtēr or ‘savior’ for the Athenians (460; see also 463). While the thinking of Oedipus here shows his benevolence toward his new countrymen, it shows also his malevolence toward the Thebans as the enemies of the Athenians (460). Even in this negative frame of mind, Oedipus is thinking as an agent of the Eumenides. We see this negativity elsewhere as well. A striking example is the passage where Oedipus expresses the malevolence that he as a cult hero of the Athenians will direct against his former countrymen, the Thebans, if they ever dare to attack Athens. Here is that passage:

Hour 18 Text H

|621 [there in my tomb under the Earth,] where my sleeping and hidden corpse, |622 cold as it is, will at some moment in the future drink their hot blood.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 621-622 [25]
18§33. Oedipus here is thinking the thoughts of a cult hero as he thinks about his enemies, and these thoughts correspond to the malevolent thinking of the Erinyes before they became the Eumenides. Only after their transformation from Erinyes to Eumenides can these goddesses show a positive frame of mind that leads them to think benevolent thoughts. As we saw in Hour 17, the Erinyes in their thirst for vengeance had craved human blood, not the blood of animal sacrifice. And, in the passage we have just read, Oedipus as a cult hero can still show the malevolence of the Erinyes. This malevolence, however, will be directed not at the Athenians but at the Thebans as the enemies of Athens.
18§34. Signs of such malevolence tend to be suppressed in the case of the Eumenides, who are implicitly the Erinyes of the heroic past, but these negative signs do come to the surface in the case of Demeter, since she can even bear explicitly the epithet Erinys, as we saw in the Arcadian myth about the divine horse Areion, conceived when Poseidon impregnated the goddess Demeter Erinys: as we already saw, Demeter’s epithet Erinys is understood to convey the idea of ‘feeling angry’, erīnuein (Pausanias 8.25.4-7). Further, as we saw in §30, Demeter would have ‘felt angry’ at the people of Eteonos in Boeotia if they had disturbed the body of Oedipus, who shared with this goddess a hieron or ‘sacred space’ that was named after him as the Oidipodeion. I highlight here, however, not the differences between Demeter Erinys and the Eumenides but rather the parallelisms, as indicated by their shared inheritance of the name Erinys or Erinyes in the plural.
18§35. Now I extend the comparison further by highlighting also a parallelism between Demeter Erinys and Mother Earth: in §§19-20, we have already seen myths where either one or the other of these two goddesses was impregnated by the god Poseidon and gave birth to a prototypical horse. But now I come to the most striking parallelism of them all, involving the Eumenides and Demeter and Mother Earth - all three together. We have just seen a separate parallelism involving Demeter and the Eumenides, where these goddesses receive Oedipus into their respective sacred spaces, thus transforming him into a cult hero. But now we will see, in the Oedipus at Colonus, the picturing of Mother Earth herself in the act of receiving Oedipus, literally engulfing him. And just as Demeter and the Eumenides have the power to transform Oedipus into a cult hero, so also the goddess Earth has that power. Moreover, in the case of the Eumenides, Mother Earth is even the genetic source of their power to transform Oedipus into a cult hero: that is because these goddesses, as Oedipus is told by the native inhabitants of Colonus in the Oedipus at Colonus (40), are pictured as the children of feminine or ‘Earth’ and of masculine Skotos or ‘Darkness’.

The mysterious death of Oedipus

18§36. As we have seen in the Oedipus at Colonus, the references made to the death and entombment of Oedipus, as also to his transformation into a cult hero, are ostentatiously secretive. Only Theseus and his successors may have full access to the mysteries of the hero cult of Oedipus. Still, there are many hints in the drama.
18§37. Among these hints are six mystical landmarks that are located near the place where Oedipus was seen by mortals for the very last time. These landmarks, as we have seen, are recounted in the part of the messenger’s narration that I quoted in Text D, and I have already reviewed all six of them in §18. Further, I have already highlighted two of these landmarks:
- The Thorikios Petros (1595). This landmark is imagined as a shining white rock that marks the place where the First Horse leapt forth, begotten of the goddess Earth by the god Poseidon.
- The Hill of Demeter (1600-1601). Here is the source of the fresh waters used by Oedipus in pouring his libations to the Eumenides while praying to them.
18§38. Along the way, I have also highlighted the Stone Tomb or lāïnos taphos (1596), which may be identical with the Thorikios Petros. And now I highlight also the last three of the mystical landmarks, following the wording of the messenger’s narration as quoted in Text D:
- The Hollow Pear Tree (1596). Oedipus is standing between this landmark and the Stone Tomb (1596), just as he is standing between the Hollow Crater (1593) and the white rock named the Thorikios Petros (1595). Whatever myth was connected with the Pear Tree is left untold in the messenger’s narration. For now, all I can add is the observation that this tree is koilē, ‘hollow’ (1596), just as the crater is koilos, ‘hollow’ (1593). And we do know from Pherecydes (FGH 3 F 33, by way of scholia for Odyssey xi 289) of a myth about a wild pear tree - called an akherdos, just like the Hollow Pear Tree - which contained a dagger embedded within its trunk: the rust from this dagger, after it was found and removed from inside the tree, proved to be a cure, when mixed with wine, for the impotence of the hero Iphiklos, who became the father of Protesilaos.
- The Hollow Crater (1593). This landmark was evidently a depression in the earth, shaped like a krātēr, that is, a ‘mixing bowl’ used for the mixing of wine and water. We might have thought that such a shape, which I interpret as a natural rock formation imprinted into the earth, would be an ideal place for Oedipus to pour a libation - except that this hero, as we know, will be pouring not wine mixed with water but only water mixed with honey (481). So, the Crater is koilos, ‘hollow’ (1593), empty of libations, just as the Pear Tree is koilē, ‘hollow’ (1596), empty of any elixirs that may be concocted for the cure of impotence. In any case, it was near this Hollow Crater, the messenger says, that the heroes Theseus and Peirithoos had started their own Descent into Hādēs (1593-1594) - though such a version of the myth is not developed further in the messenger’s narration.
- The Threshold for Descending (1590-1592), with its bronze foundations rooted in the world below the earth. This centerpoint, since the Hollow Crater is ‘near’ it, is evidently the place where Theseus and Peirithoos started their Descent. There is a reference to this same place already at the beginning of the drama, as quoted in Text A, where the speaker who receives Oedipus tells him that he is stepping on a topos or ‘place’ (56) that is known by the local inhabitants as ‘the Bronze-Step Threshold of this land here’ (57). In the guarded wording of that description, the Threshold seems to be a metonymic reference to the entire sacred space of Colonus.
18§39. Before we proceed, I take this opportunity to note in passing a similar catalogue of mystical landmarks that separate the world of the living from the world of the dead: we find it in Odyssey xxiv 11-13, where the psūkhai or ‘spirits’ of the suitors enter Hādēs: those landmarks are, in the order in which they are listed, the Streams of Okeanos (11), the White Rock (11), the Gates of the Sun (12), the District of Dreams (12), and the Meadow of Asphodel (13). [26]
18§40. Besides the hints about the mysterious death and entombment of Oedipus, as signaled by the landmarks that I have surveyed, we can also get a glimpse - just a glimpse - of the actual moment of his death. It happens in the middle of a final narration performed by the messenger who is reporting to all assembled:

Hour 18 Text I

|1638 Then, right away, Oedipus |1639 felt for his children with blind hands, and said: |1640 “Children, you must endure in a noble way in your hearts [phrenes] |1641 and depart from these places [topoi]; and, as for things forbidden by divine law [themis], do not |1642 consider it just [dikaion] to look upon those things, or to hear things you must not hear. |1643 So, go away, go, as fast as you can - except for the one who is authorized, |1644 Theseus, who must be present and must learn the things that are being done [drân].” |1645 Such things he spoke, and we listened, |1646 each and every one of us. With streaming tears we mourned as we accompanied the maidens |1647 and went off. But after we had departed, |1648 in a short time, we turned around and looked back and saw |1649 that the man was nowhere present anymore |1650 and that our king [= Theseus] was alone, screening his eyes |1651 by holding his hand in front of his head, as if some terrifying |1652 thing to fear had appeared before him, something unbearable to look at. |1653 And then, after a short time, |1654 we saw him adore the Earth |1655 and also the Olympus that belongs to the gods, using the same wording for both. |1656 But by what fate Oedipus perished, no one |1657 among mortals can indicate, except the head of Theseus alone. |1658 You see, what happened to him [= Oedipus] was not that the god’s fiery |1659 thunderbolt did him in, nor was he done in by anything that comes from the sea [pontos], |1660 by some stirring of a gust of wind [thuella], coming for him in the fullness of time. |1661 No, it was either some escort sent by the gods, or else it was that thing from the nether world, |1662 that thing that has good intentions [noos], that gaping unlit foundation of the earth. |1663 You see, the man did not need lamentations, and there were no diseases |1664 that gave him any pain at the moment when he was escorted away. No, if there was ever any mortal |1665 who was wondrous [thaumastos], it was he.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1638-1665 [27]
18§41. There seem to be four possible alternatives for imagining the mysterious death of Oedipus here. The first and the second alternatives are, respectively, death by being struck by the thunderbolt of Zeus (1658-1659) or death by being spirited away by a violent gust of wind (1659-1660). These two alternatives are dismissed, however, and it seems as if there are now only two remaining alternatives for explaining what it was that brought about the death of Oedipus: so it was either an escort sent by the gods who took away Oedipus so that he might join their divine company, presumably in Olympus (1661), or else the goddess Earth lovingly engulfed him (1661-1662). Here is the way these two alternatives were translated by Robert Fitzgerald:
But it was either a messenger from the gods, or else the underworld
opened in love the unlit door of earth. [28]
18§42. These two alternatives for explaining the death of Oedipus are mirrored by the ritualized response of Theseus to whatever it was that he saw: he reacts to the death of Oedipus by adoring both Olympus and Earth, using for both divinities the same words of prayer (1653-1655). The double response of Theseus indicates a double outcome: first, Oedipus descends into the depths of Earth, and then he will somehow ascend to Olympus. We can see comparable double outcomes in myths about other cult heroes as well. And there are many different ways of picturing such a double outcome, but it all comes down to the basic sequence of death followed by some kind of return to life.

Scenarios for dying and then coming back to life

18§43. In the course of many years of research on the ancient Greek hero, I have collected a vast variety of traditional narratives, stemming ultimately from hero cults, about mortals who die and then come back to life again. I offer here a small selection of five such traditional narratives, summarizing them in the form of scenarios: [29]
- Scenario 1: to die from a thunderstroke - and then to come back to life. An example is the ultimate hero Hēraklēs, who is vaporized by the thunderbolt of Zeus on top of Mount Oeta, only to be brought back to life thereafter on Mount Olympus, where he joins the company of the immortal gods. I summarized this myth in Hour 1§46 and analyzed it briefly in 1§47.
- Scenario 2: to die after being spirited away by a gust of wind - and then to come back to life. An example is the hero Phaethon, whose story is told in Hesiod Theogony 986-991. [30] A conventional word for such a gust of wind is thuella, as we can see from the wording of a death wish uttered by Penelope in Odyssey xx 83. [31]
- Scenario 3: to die after leaping from the top of a shining white rock - and then to come back to life. An example is the female hero Ino, as we see from the testimony of Pausanias 1.44.7-9: according to one version of the myth about Ino, she makes such a leap from the rocky heights of Megara, plunging into the dark watery depths below and drowning in the sea - only to come back to life thereafter as the Leukotheā or ‘White Goddess’ (there is a reference to this myth in Odyssey v 333-335). [32] Up on the heights of Megara, according to Pausanias (1.44.7-8), there was a rock formation named Molouris, frequented by a monstrous brigand named Skīrōn, meaning ‘he of the white rock’. According to other reports (Strabo 9.1.4 C391, Plutarch Theseus 10), Theseus threw Skīrōn down into the sea from the top of a rock formation named Skīrōnides Petrai, or ‘the shining white rocks’, thus killing him. Pausanias (1.44.7-8) goes on to say that the rocky heights of Molouris were sacred to the Leukotheā or ‘White Goddess’, and that it was from the top of Molouris that Ino had taken her fatal leap. [33] In the poetry of Pindar (Olympian 2.29), the immortal afterlife of Ino is described as a biotos, ‘life’, that is aphthitos, ‘unwilting’. [34]
- Scenario 4: to die after being engulfed by the earth from down below - and then to come back to life. An example we have already seen is the hero Amphiaraos, who is engulfed - chariot and horses and all - as he is riding across a plain after the defeat of the Seven against Thebes. I summarized this myth and analyzed it briefly in Hour 15§34. In the course of that analysis, I argued that the references in the odes of Pindar (Olympian 6.14; Nemean 9.24-27, 10.8-9) to the engulfment of Amphiaraos show a keen awareness that this hero comes back to life after death. Another example of a hero who experiences such an engulfment is Trophōnios, as we saw in Hour 15§35.
- Scenario 5: to die in whatever way - and then to come back to life simply by returning home. An example is Memnon, king of the Aithiopes or ‘Ethiopians’. This hero is the son of Ēōs, the goddess of the dawn. The home of both Memnon and Ēōs is the mystical land of the Ethiopians, which is located at the extremities of the world. After Memnon is killed by Achilles, Ēōs immortalizes her son (plot-summary by Proclus of the Aithiopis by Arctinus p. 106 lines 4-7). [35] This immortalization of the mortal hero is achieved by way of escorting the body of Memnon back to the realm of light and life. [36] For Memnon, then, immortalization is a kind of individualized nostos or ‘homecoming’. [37]
18§44. Each one of these five scenarios is in some way relevant to the messenger’s narrative about the death of Oedipus in Text I as quoted from the Oedipus at Colonus:
(1) A death caused by a thunderstroke is ostentatiously denied for Oedipus (1658-1659). But the possibility of such a death for Oedipus is still brought to mind by the very ostentatiousness of the denial. After all, the messenger’s speech goes on to leave the door open to the possibility that the hero ascended to Olympus after his death. As we have seen, Theseus reacts to the death of Oedipus by adoring both Olympus and Earth, using for both divinities the same words of prayer (1653-1655), and this double response of Theseus indicates a double outcome: first, Oedipus descends into the depths of Earth, and then he will somehow ascend to Olympus. So, the experience of Oedipus may in the end resemble the experience of Hēraklēs, who is immortalized in Olympus after his death by thunderstroke.
(2) A death caused by being spirited away by a thuella or a violent ‘gust of wind’ is likewise ostentatiously denied for Oedipus (1659-1660). But the possibility of such a death, which leads to immortalization, is once again brought to mind by the very ostentatiousness of the denial.
(3) A death caused by leaping from the top of a shining white rock is not even considered an alternative for Oedipus. But the place where this hero dies is marked by a shining white rock, the Thorikios Petros, and this rock conveys the idea of immortalization after death for Oedipus. Similarly, such an idea is conveyed by the name of the grove that features the Thorikios Petros as its landmark. That name is Colonus, which likewise refers to the shining white rock: as we saw in Text C, the epithet describing Colonus at line 670 is argēs, which means ‘shining white’. Further, the adjective thorikios that forms the first part of the place name Thorikios Petros is derived from the verb thrōiskein, which means both ‘leap’ and ‘emit semen’. [38] As we saw in Text E, the myth about the origin of the First Horse that leapt forth from the Earth of Colonus is shaped by the idea of a shining white stallion named Skīrōnitēs, begotten by the semen emitted by Poseidon when he lost consciousness and slept on the ground at the shining white rock that marks the place where the horse was conceived by Mother Earth. The idea of a shining white rock as a landmark for Oedipus brings me back to the myth about Ino and her leap from a shining white rock. As I have noted already, the immortal afterlife of Ino is described as a biotos, ‘life’, that is aphthitos, ‘unwilting’, in the poetry of Pindar (Olympian 2.29). And here I find it relevant to quote the words of the messenger in the Oedipus at Colonus when he has just been asked whether Oedipus is dead. The messenger replies (1583-1584): Ὡς λελογχότα | κεῖνον τὸν αἰεὶ βίοτον ἐξεπίστασο, ‘that one, I want you to understand, has received as his fate a life [biotos] that is forever [aiei]’. This reading, I must warn, is not certain, since it depends on an emendation of λελοιπότα, ‘has left behind’, which is what we find in the manuscript tradition, to λελογχότα, ‘has received as his fate’. [39] Still, I am inclined to accept the emendation, not only because I find the Pindaric analogy most compelling but also because the adverb aiei, which I translate as ‘forever’ and which we see here in collocation with biotos, is attested in analogous contexts centering on the idea of immortalization after death. As we saw in Hour 14§34, the adverb aiei, ‘forever’, is the old locative singular of the noun aiōn in the sense of a ‘life’ or a ‘life-force’ that keeps coming back to life by way of a ‘recircling of time’, and this locative aiei means literally ‘in a recircling of time’, signaling an eternal return. [40]
(4) A death caused by being engulfed by the Earth from down below is in fact considered one of two possible alternative explanations for the mysterious disappearance of Oedipus. Here again I return to the double response of Theseus (1653-1655), indicating a double outcome: first, Oedipus descends into the depths of Earth, and then he will somehow ascend to Olympus. That ascent is the second of the two possible explanations for the mysterious disappearance of Oedipus.
(5) A death, whatever its cause, that leads to a mystical return to light and life fits the myth of Oedipus as it takes shape in the Oedipus at Colonus. In what follows, I will develop further the formulation I have just offered.

The mystification of the hero’s tomb in the Oedipus at Colonus

18§45. By now we have seen a number of variations on the basic theme of death followed by some kind of return to life for the hero. What must remain an invariable, however, is the institutional requirement of establishing a hero cult that is tied to correct procedures of worshipping a cult hero in the setting of a tomb. In the case of Oedipus, as in other cases, these correct procedures are dutifully observed - but they are clouded in mysteries, just as the outcome of life after death is clouded for this hero. There is, then, a veritable poetics of mystification in representing the tomb of Oedipus in the Oedipus at Colonus.
18§46. Here I focus again on the mysterious disappearance of Oedipus, pictured either as an ascent to divine Olympus or as a descent into the depths of the goddess Earth. As we can see in the Oedipus at Colonus, the picturing of the hero’s tomb is correspondingly mysterious. I note especially the vagueness of the reference made by Oedipus himself to his own hieros tumbos, ‘sacred tomb’ (1545): when he finds the place where this tomb will be, wherever it is, he will be ‘hidden’ by the earth there (kruptesthai 1546). And, as Theseus says to Antigone, it is forbidden to see the tomb or to approach it - let alone to address it (1754-1765). What we find here is an analogue in ritual to the mystical engulfment of Oedipus in myth: the secrets of establishing and maintaining the tomb of this hero in ritual correspond to the secrets about the way he died. [41]
18§47. As we have already seen in the Oedipus at Colonus, the essence of the idea of Oedipus as a cult hero is that he will be buried in the territory of Athens (582). But how and where he will be buried is a sacred secret, just as the story of how and where he died is left untold. It should be enough for his worshippers to know that Oedipus will dwell inside a Mother Earth that belongs to the polis or ‘city’ of Athens. I say it this way because we have already seen at line 707 of a choral lyric song, as quoted in Text C, that Colonus is an integral part of Athens, which is called in this song the Mother City or mētropolis (in the Doric dialect of choral lyric, this word is pronounced mātropolis). For the grove as for the deme of Colonus, where Oedipus is secretly buried, Athens is truly a metropolis.
18§48. For the metropolis of Athens, Theseus is the ideal prototype for maintaining the mysteries of the tomb and the hero cult of Oedipus. After all, Theseus is also the ideal prototype for maintaining the Eleusinian Mysteries for the Athenians, as Claude Calame has shown; in fact, there are telling references to the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Oedipus at Colonus (as at 1049-1058). [42] Even the language used by Oedipus in formulating his heroic legacy for Theseus evokes the secret language of the Eleusinian Mysteries: [43]

Hour 18 Text J (part of Text I)

Children, you must endure in a noble way in your hearts [phrenes] |1641 and depart from these places [topoi]; and, as for things forbidden by divine law [themis], do not |1642 consider it just [dikaion] to look upon those things, or to hear things you must not hear. |1643 So, go away, go, as fast as you can - except for the one who is authorized, |1644 Theseus, who must be present and must learn the things that are being done [drân].
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1640-1644
18§49. The drōmena here at line 1644, referring to ‘the things that are being done [drân]’, are the secret agenda of mysteries that can be visualized and verbalized only in special sacred circumstances. [44] Otherwise, as we learn at line 1642, these drōmena must not be seen and must not be heard. Such, then, are the mysteries of the cult hero. And we have already noted in Hour 15§15 the basic words for visualizing and verbalizing such mysteries.

Personalizing the death of Oedipus

18§50. Whenever I return to reading the final words of the messenger who reports the mysterious death of Oedipus, I am struck by a sense of wonder - the Greek word for which is thauma - as I contemplate the wording:

Hour 18 Text K (part of Text I)

|1661 No, it was either some escort sent by the gods, or else it was that thing from the nether world, |1662 that thing that has good intentions [noos], that gaping unlit foundation of the earth. |1663 You see, the man did not need lamentations, and there were no diseases |1664 that gave him any pain at the moment when he was escorted away. No, if there was ever any mortal |1665 who was wondrous [thaumastos], it was he.
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1661-1665
18§51. The words describing this wondrous man fit not only Oedipus as a cult hero but also the tragedy of the Oedipus at Colonus - and even Sophocles himself, who was in his own time perhaps the most admired citizen of Athens. [45] And the emotions surrounding the mystical death of Oedipus may match the emotions of Sophocles, who was surely contemplating the prospect of his own death as he was composing the Oedipus at Colonus toward the end of his long life. So, I find it most relevant to note that this wondrous man was not only a proud citizen of Athens but also a native son of Colonus. [46] For Sophocles, the idea of being engulfed and embraced by the loving goddess Earth of Colonus is a death that becomes a true ‘homecoming’, a nostos. And this nostos may reveal, after death, a true return to light and life.


[ back ] 1. |49 {ΟΙ.} Πρός νυν θεῶν, ὦ ξεῖνε, μή μ’ ἀτιμάσῃς |50 τοιόνδ’ ἀλήτην ὧν σε προστρέπω φράσαι. |51 {ΞΕ.} Σήμαινε, κοὐκ ἄτιμος ἔκ γ’ ἐμοῦ φανῇ. |52 {ΟΙ.} Τίς δ’ ἔσθ’ ὁ χῶρος δῆτ’ ἐν ᾧ βεβήκαμεν; |53{ΞΕ.} Ὅσ’ οἶδα κἀγὼ πάντ’ ἐπιστήσῃ κλύων. |54 Χῶρος μὲν ἱρὸς πᾶς ὅδ’ ἔστ’· ἔχει δέ νιν |55 σεμνὸς Ποσειδῶν· ἐν δ’ ὁ πυρφόρος θεὸς |56 Τιτὰν Προμηθεύς· ὃν δ’ ἐπιστείβεις τόπον |57 χθονὸς καλεῖται τῆσδε χαλκόπους ὀδός, |58 ἔρεισμ’ Ἀθηνῶν· οἱ δὲ πλησίοι γύαι |59 τόνδ’ ἱππότην Κολωνὸν εὔχονται σφίσιν |60 ἀρχηγὸν εἶναι, καὶ φέρουσι τοὔνομα |61 τὸ τοῦδε κοινὸν πάντες ὠνομασμένοι. |62 Τοιαῦτά σοι ταῦτ’ ἐστίν, ὦ ξέν’, οὐ λόγοις |63 τιμώμεν’, ἀλλὰ τῇ ξυνουσίᾳ πλέον. |64 {ΟΙ.} Ἦ γάρ τινες ναίουσι τούσδε τοὺς τόπους; |65 {ΞΕ.} Καὶ κάρτα, τοῦδε τοῦ θεοῦ γ’ ἐπώνυμοι.
[ back ] 2. On this context of oikos, see PH 268-269 = 9§27, following Edmunds 1981:223n8. See also Calame 1998:336n11, with reference to Nagy 1993 on the use of the verb oikeîn, ‘occupy a dwelling’, in Alcaeus F 130b 10 and 16.
[ back ] 3. For an overall study of Oedipus as a cult hero worshipped by the Athenians, see Calame 1998, with a vast array of references to other studies; also Edmunds 1996.
[ back ] 4. Εὐίππου, ξένε, τᾶσδε χώρας ἵκου τὰ κράτιστα γᾶς ἔπαυλα, |670 τὸν ἀργῆτα Κολωνόν, ἔνθ’ ἁ λίγεια μινύρεται θαμίζουσα μάλιστ’ ἀηδὼν χλωραῖς ὑπὸ βάσσαις, τὸν οἰνῶπα νέμουσα κισ-|675σὸν καὶ τὰν ἄβατον θεοῦ φυλλάδα μυριόκαρπον ἀνήλιον ἀνήνεμόν τε πάντων χειμώνων· ἵν’ ὁ Βακχιώτας ἀεὶ Διόνυσος ἐμβατεύει |680 θείαις ἀμφιπολῶν τιθήναις. Θάλλει δ’ οὐρανίας ὑπ’ ἄχνας ὁ καλλίβοτρυς κατ’ ἦμαρ αἰεὶ νάρκισσος, μεγάλαιν θεαῖν ἀρχαῖον στεφάνωμ’, ὅ τε |685 χρυσαυγὴς κρόκος· οὐδ’ ἄυπνοι κρῆναι μινύθουσιν Κηφισοῦ νομάδες ῥεέθρων, ἀλλ’ αἰὲν ἐπ’ ἤματι ὠκυτόκος πεδίων ἐπινίσεται |690 ἀκηράτῳ σὺν ὄμβρῳ στερνούχου χθονός· οὐδὲ Μουσᾶν χοροί νιν ἀπεστύγησαν, οὐδ’ αὖ ἁ χρυσάνιος Ἀφροδίτα. |695 Ἔστιν δ’ οἷον ἐγὼ γᾶς Ἀσίας οὐκ ἐπακούω, οὐδ’ ἐν τᾷ μεγάλᾳ Δωρίδι νάσῳ Πέλοπος πώποτε βλαστὸν φύτευμ’ ἀχείρωτον αὐτοποιόν, ἐγχέων φόβημα δαΐων, |700 ὃ τᾷδε θάλλει μέγιστα χώρᾳ, γλαυκᾶς παιδοτρόφου φύλλον ἐλαίας· τὸ μέν τις οὐ νεαρὸς οὔτε γήρᾳ σημαίνων ἁλιώσει χερὶ πέρσας· ὁ γὰρ αἰὲν ὁρῶν κύκλος |705 λεύσσει νιν Μορίου Διὸς χἀ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθάνα. Ἄλλον δ’ αἶνον ἔχω ματροπόλει τᾷδε κράτιστον, |710 δῶρον τοῦ μεγάλου δαίμονος, εἰπεῖν, <ἐμὸν> αὔχημα μέγιστον, εὔιππον, εὔπωλον, εὐθάλασσον. Ὦ παῖ Κρόνου, σὺ γάρ νιν εἰς τόδ’ εἷσας αὔχημ’, ἄναξ Ποσειδάν, ἵπποισιν τὸν ἀκεστῆρα χαλινὸν |715 πρώταισι ταῖσδε κτίσας ἀγυιαῖς· ἁ δ’ εὐήρετμος ἔκπαγλ’ ἁλία χερσὶ παραπτομένα πλάτα θρῴσκει, τῶν ἑκατομπόδων Νηρῄδων ἀκόλουθος.
[ back ] 5. |1586 {ΑΓ.} Τοῦτ’ ἐστὶν ἤδη κἀποθαυμάσαι πρέπον. |1587 Ὡς μὲν γὰρ ἐνθένδ’ εἷρπε, καὶ σύ που παρὼν |1588 ἔξοισθ’, ὑφηγητῆρος οὐδενὸς φίλων, |1589 ἀλλ’ αὐτὸς ἡμῖν πᾶσιν ἐξηγούμενος· |1590 ἐπεὶ δ’ ἀφῖκτο τὸν καταρράκτην ὀδὸν |1591 χαλκοῖς βάθροισι γῆθεν ἐρριζωμένον, |1592 ἔστη κελεύθων ἐν πολυσχίστων μιᾷ, |1593 κοίλου πέλας κρατῆρος, οὗ τὰ Θησέως |1594 Περίθου τε κεῖται πίστ’ ἀεὶ ξυνθήματα· |1595 ἀφ’ οὗ μέσος [emended from ἐφ’ οὗ μέσου] στὰς τοῦ τε Θορικίου πέτρου |1596 κοίλης τ’ ἀχέρδου κἀπὸ λαΐνου τάφου, |1597 καθέζετ’· εἶτ’ ἔλυσε δυσπινεῖς στολάς, |1598 κἄπειτ’ ἀΰσας παῖδας ἠνώγει ῥυτῶν |1599 ὑδάτων ἐνεγκεῖν λουτρὰ καὶ χοάς ποθεν. |1600 Τὼ δ’, εὐχλόου Δήμητρος εἰς προσόψιον |1601 πάγον μολοῦσαι, τάσδ’ ἐπιστολὰς πατρὶ |1602 ταχεῖ ’πόρευσαν σὺν χρόνῳ λουτροῖς τέ νιν |1603 ἐσθῆτί τ’ ἐξήσκησαν ᾗ νομίζεται. |1604 Ἐπεὶ δὲ παντὸς εἶχε δρῶντος ἡδονὴν |1605 κοὐκ ἦν ἔτ’ ἀργὸν οὐδὲν ὧν ἐφίετο, |1606 κτύπησε μὲν Ζεὺς Χθόνιος.
[ back ] 6. GM 231.
[ back ] 7. ἄλλοι δέ φασιν ὅτι καὶ περὶ τοὺς πέτρους τοῦ ἐν Ἀθήναις Κολωνοῦ καθευδήσας ἀπεσπέρμηνε καὶ ἵππος Σκύφιος ἐξῆλθεν ὁ καὶ Σκιρωνίτης λεγόμενος.
[ back ] 8. Πετραῖος τιμᾶται Ποσειδῶν παρὰ Θεσσαλοῖς … ὅτι ἐπί τινος πέτρας κοιμηθεὶς ἀπεσπερμάτισε, καὶ τὸν θορὸν δεξαμένη ἡ γῆ ἀνέδωκεν ἵππον πρῶτον, ὃν ἐπεκάλεσαν Σκύφιον. … φασὶ δὲ καὶ ἀγῶνα διατίθεσθαι τῷ Πετραίῳ Ποσειδῶνι, ὅπου ἀπὸ τῆς πέτρας ἐξεπήδησεν ὁ πρῶτος ἵππος.
[ back ] 9. GM 231-233.
[ back ] 10. See also GM 231.
[ back ] 11. For an analysis of all the contexts of khōros and khōrā in the Oedipus at Colonus, see Edmunds 1996:101-103; also Calame 1998:334n10.
[ back ] 12. Here I follow, at least in part, the wording of Easterling 2006:147.
[ back ] 13. This interpretation resembles, but does not exactly converge with, the one given by Easterling 2006:1941.
[ back ] 14. Henrichs 1994:48-49.
[ back ] 15. Henrichs 1994:39.
[ back ] 16. Henrichs 1994:39-40, with an analysis of Pausanias 1.28.5 and of additional ancient sources.
[ back ] 17. Henrichs 1994:40.
[ back ] 18. Besides Pausanias 1.28.7, there is also the testimony of Valerius Maximus 5.3.3; see Henrichs 1994:41.
[ back ] 19. Like Calame 1998:336, I retain the manuscript reading σωτήριον at line 487 of the Oedipus at Colonus. As we see at line 480, Oedipus declares that he, as a cult hero, will become a sōtēr or ‘savior’ for the Athenians.
[ back ] 20. For an incisive analysis of this ritual correlation between Oedipus as a cult hero and the Eumenides, see Henrichs 1983 and 1984.
[ back ] 21. PH 178 = 6§59; see also Edmunds 1981:223n8 and Brelich 1958:40, 69-73.
[ back ] 22. |576 Δώσων ἱκάνω τοὐμὸν ἄθλιον δέμας |577 σοὶ δῶρον, οὐ σπουδαῖον εἰς ὄψιν· τὰ δὲ |578 κέρδη παρ’ αὐτοῦ κρείσσον’ ἢ μορφὴ καλή.
[ back ] 23. For an incisive analysis of Apollo’s oracular pronouncement and its integration with the plot of the Oedipus at Colonus, see Easterling 2012.
[ back ] 24. In the Oedipus at Colonus, there are many other instances where the word oikeîn in the sense of ‘occupy a dwelling’ refers to the status of Oedipus as a cult hero: besides line 92 here and line 627 as mentioned in §7, I highlight lines 27 and 28.
[ back ] 25. |621 ἵν’ οὑμὸς εὕδων καὶ κεκρυμμένος νέκυς |622 ψυχρός ποτ' αὐτῶν θερμὸν αἷμα πίεται.
[ back ] 26. Commentary in GM 223-227.
[ back ] 27. |1638 … εὐθὺς Οἰδίπους |1639 ψαύσας ἀμαυραῖς χερσὶν ὧν παίδων λέγει· |1640 “Ὦ παῖδε, τλάσας χρὴ τὸ γενναῖον φρενὶ |1641 χωρεῖν τόπων ἐκ τῶνδε, μηδ’ ἃ μὴ θέμις |1642 λεύσσειν δικαιοῦν, μηδὲ φωνούντων κλύειν. |1643 Ἀλλ’ ἕρπεθ’ ὡς τάχιστα· πλὴν ὁ κύριος |1644 Θησεὺς παρέστω μανθάνων τὰ δρώμενα.” |1645 Τοσαῦτα φωνήσαντος εἰσηκούσαμεν |1646 ξύμπαντες· ἀστακτὶ δὲ σὺν ταῖς παρθένοις |1647 στένοντες ὡμαρτοῦμεν· ὡς δ’ ἀπήλθομεν, |1648 χρόνῳ βραχεῖ στραφέντες, ἐξαπείδομεν |1649 τὸν ἄνδρα τὸν μὲν οὐδαμοῦ παρόντ’ ἔτι, |1650 ἄνακτα δ’ αὐτὸν ὀμμάτων ἐπίσκιον |1651 χεῖρ’ ἀντέχοντα κρατός, ὡς δεινοῦ τινος |1652 φόβου φανέντος οὐδ’ ἀνασχετοῦ βλέπειν. |1653 Ἔπειτα μέντοι βαιὸν οὐδὲ σὺν χρόνῳ |1654 ὁρῶμεν αὐτὸν Γῆν τε προσκυνοῦνθ’ ἅμα |1655 καὶ τὸν θεῶν Ὄλυμπον ἐν ταὐτῷ λόγῳ. |1656 Μόρῳ δ’ ὁποίῳ κεῖνος ὤλετ’ οὐδ’ ἂν εἷς |1657 θνητῶν φράσειε, πλὴν τὸ Θησέως κάρα· |1658 οὐ γάρ τις αὐτὸν οὔτε πυρφόρος θεοῦ |1659 κεραυνὸς ἐξέπραξεν οὔτε ποντία |1660 θύελλα κινηθεῖσα τῷ τότ’ ἐν χρόνῳ, |1661 ἀλλ’ ἤ τις ἐκ θεῶν πομπός, ἢ τὸ νερτέρων |1662 εὔνουν διαστὰν γῆς ἀλάμπετον βάθρον. |1663 Ἀνὴρ γὰρ οὐ στενακτὸς οὐδὲ σὺν νόσοις |1664 ἀλγεινὸς ἐξεπέμπετ’, ἀλλ’ εἴ τις βροτῶν |1665 θαυμαστός.
[ back ] 28. Fitzgerald 1941. I had the chance to read these lines, as he had translated them, at an event held at Harvard University and entitled “An Evening for Robert Fitzgerald,” 6 May 1993, chaired by William Alfred. There is a recording of that event, archived by the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard College Library, PS3511.I922 Z62 1993x.
[ back ] 29. I have more to say about these five scenarios in BA 189-210 = 10§§20-50.
[ back ] 30. BA 190-194 = 10§§22-24.
[ back ] 31. GM 99n61, following BA 194-203; see also Easterling 2006:136.
[ back ] 32. BA 175 = 10§1n4; Nagy 1985:79-81 = §§76-79.
[ back ] 33. GM 231, where Pausanias “1.33.8” should be corrected to 1.44.8 (also at n8).
[ back ] 34. GM 126, following BA 175, 203 = 10§1n4 and 10§41n2.
[ back ] 35. BA 164 = 9§23
[ back ] 36. BA 205-208 = 10§§43-47.
[ back ] 37. BA 213 = 11§1.
[ back ] 38. GM 231.
[ back ] 39. Easterling 2006:39-40 gives an evenhanded evaluation of the arguments for and against this emendation.
[ back ] 40. Nagy 2011b:179, following PH 195n210 = 6§88.
[ back ] 41. More on the engulfment of Oedipus by Earth in Easterling 2006:137.
[ back ] 42. Calame 1998:349-351; see also Easterling 2006:139, 143.
[ back ] 43. Calame 1998:349-351.
[ back ] 44. Easterling 2006:135 and 145n14, citing PH 32 = 1§29n82. See also Calame 1998:349n34, citing PH 31-33 = 1§§29-30.
[ back ] 45. I am guided here by the incisive essay of Slatkin 1986, especially pp. 219-221. See also Easterling 2006:147n50.
[ back ] 46. On the political implications of the fact that Sophocles was a native of the deme of Colonus, see Edmunds 1996:163-168.