Who Am I? (Mis)Identity and the Polis in Oedipus Tyrannus

  Karakantza, Efimia D. 2020. Who Am I? (Mis)Identity and the Polis in Oedipus Tyrannus. Hellenic Studies Series 86. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_KarakantzaED.Who_am_I.2020.

4. Who Am I? A Tragedy of Identity

Simon had been right.
You saw things differently
when you changed your perspective and location.
All blind spots could be compensated for.

Jo Nesbo, The Son

Oedipus’ major handicap in his life is not knowing who he is; the parricide and incest come about as the result of this ignorance. This extremely simple and stark statement sounds self-evident but, save for a very few exceptions, [1] has never been the main focus of interpretation of the play. In the nineteenth century Oedipus is the Philosopher, at the turn of the twentieth century Freud detects the Oedipus complex in the play—an interpretation that has become the overwhelmingly popular assumption in contemporary versions of Oedipus’ story. Under the influence of German Idealism, scholarship has seen the protagonist’s endeavors as indicative of the relentless human struggle to attain knowledge. The play explores, in this interpretive view, how precarious human knowledge and happiness are. Although not a subscriber to this view, I do often quote the following exquisite formulation by E. R. Dodds, from his 1966 paper “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,” as the epitome of the “humanistic” approach to classics (which was very much in fashion even into the late 70’s):

Psychoanalysis, philosophy, and German Idealism (with the subsequent humanistic trend that held sway well into the twentieth century) do not exhaust formulations of the play’s cardinal “meaning.” In the political vein, Oedipus is seen as a tyrant in the polis, or as Pericles, or as the wounded body of the Athenian democracy itself (the date of the play is circa 425 BCE). Of course, the artistic merits of the play have been praised ever since the Poetics of Aristotle and have contributed immensely to the unquestionable popularity the play has enjoyed since its rediscovery in the Renaissance. Furthermore, under the “weight” of the widespread Christian morality of our times a long debate has been waged as to the existence and extent of Oedipus’ guilt for his transgressions. And if guilty, what is he to blame for: intellectual pride, or political arrogance imbued with a disposition for tyranny?

We need to reorient our perspective on the Oedipus Tyrannus, in contrast to much of the scholarship on the play, so as to see things differently. [7] No matter how important all the other issues are, it is the omnipresent question of identity that dominates the entire Sophoclean tragedy, and with this question on his mind (and on his lips) Oedipus comes to visit the oracle at Delphi. He asks the god “who he is and who his father is”—this is how the questions should be formulated when we render the indirect question(s) to the oracle (ζητῶν ἑαυτὸν καὶ γένους φυτοσπόρον), found in the ancient hypothesis by Aristophanes the Grammarian (line 6), into direct speech. In reality, what obsesses Oedipus is, above all, the question “who am I?” in relation to his genealogy. This is, of course, the first and cardinal question that springs to one’s mind when talking about identity: your name and genealogy. [8] This destabilizing uncertainty intrudes abruptly into Oedipus’ life when a fellow-drinker at a banquet in Corinth accuses him of being the bastard son of the king. Up to that moment, Oedipus had been living under the comforting delusion that he knew who he was and where he stood in life, all founded on the figment of his false identity. How and why I attach such a primal importance to Oedipus’ false and true identities will be clarified in a close reading of the play, after first posing some fundamental directive lines so as to follow the steps of Oedipus, as they are delineated by Sophocles.

Starting from the second point, the “where I stand” obviously places a person in a space, a locality that is primarily spatial (for example, “I was born in Corinth, but now I live in and reign over Thebes”). This spatial dimension is not innocently (or indifferently) demarcated, for it fuses with the public space, the theater of our activities as social beings. This is where we react to, or take decisions in respect to, ethical issues: the notion of justice, respect for other people’s lives, their wellbeing and dignity, as well as our own dignity and pride—this is where we realize a meaningful life. [12] The public space is “potentially one of respect or contempt, of pride or shame,” [13] and how we move in a public space can command respect and can empower our sense of dominating it (or failing to do so). [14] The public space becomes a moral space, a place where our moral choices are formulated: “what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what is not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary”; [15] it is where our morality is tried and tested. It is clear that physical space becomes a metaphor for moral space; [16] an identity crisis is very often seen as an acute sense of disorientation, [17] and the story of Oedipus is a prime case in point. The “disoriented” Oedipus leaves Corinth plunged into doubt about his identity, reaches Delphi where he becomes stricken with terror, and sets out on his road once more in desperation, without knowing where to go. As he leaves Delphi, he is utterly confused (in Taylor’s terminology he is ‘disoriented’), driven only by his fear of ever returning home—distancing himself as far as he can, with the help of the stars, from Corinth (794–797):

κἀγὼ ’πακούσας ταῦτα τὴν Κορινθίαν
ἄστροις τὸ λοιπὸν τεκμαρούμενος χθόνα
ἔφευγον, ἔνθα μήποτ’ ὀψοίμην κακῶν
χρησμῶν ὀνείδη τῶν ἐμῶν τελούμενα.

When I heard this I left the land of Corinth, henceforth making out its position by the stars, and went where I could never see accomplished the shameful predictions of my cruel oracles.

Taylor argues that “orientation in moral space turns out again to be similar to orientation in physical space. We know where we are through a mixture of recognition of landmarks before us and a sense of how we have travelled to get here … .” [
18] All the landmarks before the eyes of Oedipus are mistaken; he is confused because, first, he does not know who he is, and, second, because after being struck by terror in Delphi, he forgets that he does not know who he is and he acts as if he does know. How else can we understand why upon hearing the oracle at Delphi he flees Corinth, since it was in Corinth that he first suspected himself to be the bastard son of the king? The uncertainty about his identity vanishes in a split second, although without any rational foundation for his new belief. Oedipus becomes certain once more that his parents are Polybus and Merope, and he entertains this illusionary certainty for the duration of his sojourn in Thebes. The confusion has doubled now, and he has no means of regaining his orientation. The only unmistakable marks of his identity are his pierced and swollen feet, but Oedipus is not yet in a position to read this sign.

4.1 Cithairon: Naming the Baby

I mentioned earlier that the only unmistakable sign of Oedipus’ identity is his wounded feet, whence he got his name. His name was not given to him, as expected, by his parents in the royal palace, where he was born. Since the baby was exposed to die on Mount Cithairon, he should have remained nameless. There was a parental act, however, that was linked with the naming of the baby: Laius’ piercing of his son’s feet, an act of unjustifiable cruelty that has always been perplexing. It is obvious, however, that this act constitutes a perverted form of naming, since the scars on the feet are an indelible mark of identity, unmissable and irrefutable, even if everything else has become unrecognizable, as with Odysseus’ scar on his thigh. As the play unfolds, moving closer to the revelation of the truth, the messenger from Corinth supplies the first clue to Oedipus’ identity, revealing that, when he freed the baby, his ankles were pierced and pinned together (λύω σ’ ἔχοντα διατόρους ποδοῖν ἀκμάς, 1034), and he owes his name to this alone (ὥστ’ ὠνομάσθης ἐκ τύχης ταύτης ὃς εἶ, 1036). Symbolically, then, Cithairon becomes not only the birthplace of Oedipus, since it ensures his physical survival, but also the place where Oedipus receives the first segment of his identity, his name. Furthermore, on a second symbolic level, Cithairon is named by the chorus as the nurse and the mother of Oedipus in the short euphoric interval of the third stasimon (καὶ τροφὸν καὶ ματέρ’ αὔξειν, 1092); ironic, but utterly true since the mountain assumes the role of mother, as if it had nurtured the baby within its wooded glens (ναπαίαις ἐν Κιθαιρῶνος πτυχαῖς, 1026). Oedipus, shortly before this third stasimon, fills the gap of his identity with reference to Tyche, considering it as his mother (1080–1082):

ἐγὼ δ’ ἐμαυτὸν παῖδα τῆς Τύχης νέμων
τῆς εὖ διδούσης …
τῆς γὰρ πέφυκα μητρός·

I regard myself as child of the event that brought good fortune, … / she is my mother.

Interestingly, in the renowned (if also strongly criticized) analysis of the myths of the family of Oedipus by Lévi-Strauss [
22] the patrilineal line is linked through a serious corporal deficiency or sign. In the fourth column of the grid of his structural analysis, one can read, along the diachronic axis, the thematic thread marking the affinity between three male generations of the Labdacids: Labdacus himself (the grandfather of Oedipus and a descendant of the founder of Thebes, Cadmus); Laius, the father of Oedipus, and Oedipus himself. Of all the four columns of the grid, this last one, which, together with the third column, represents the idea of autochthony in the myth of Oedipus, arouses a certain degree of speculation, relying, as it does, mainly on etymology rather than on narratives related to the history of the family. Of course, one may rightly observe that resorting to etymology is a legitimate means for the structural analyst, for this pays tribute, so to speak, to the “father” of this methodology, Ferdinand de Saussure and his Structural Linguistics. [23]

I will not, at this point, highlight the flaws in the structural methodology and the specific results of the analysis of the Oedipus myth. I will only point out that we live in a poststructuralist era, where attempts to articulate a universal methodological tool to interpret myths and traditions across the globe (the preoccupation of the structural approach in the social sciences in the 70’s and 80’s) are no longer viable, for we have come to realize that any monolithic approach is bound to fail. As well, classical scholars find Lévi-Strauss’s analysis highly unconventional, with its selective emphasis on some traits of the myth (the so-called mythèmes), at the expense of others; but above all, for its disinterest in the social and historical context of classical Greece. [27] However, from my perspective, the final results of Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the Oedipal family myths yields convincing results, to a greater extent than the widespread humanistic emphasis on the quest of human knowledge, or the Freudian attachment to the mother and envy of the father, or the other critical tendencies that I discussed at the beginning of this chapter. Lévi-Strauss, coming from another academic tradition, puts an emphasis on the “question of origin” that is a pervasive component, I argue, of Sophocles’ own treatment of the myth. The difference, of course, is the universality of this interpretation; Lévi-Strauss poses the question of human origin in general, and his method, by revealing the binary oppositions embedded in this (and other) narratives, presents a general picture of the working of the human mind.

In the present argument, I will concentrate on the fourth column of the grid and claim that the etymology of the names of the three generations of patrilineal descent fits Oedipus almost seamlessly into the family tree and that he is, indeed, given his name by his father, as tradition would require. Of course, the naming of the baby is performed in the form of a distorted, perverse, and bloody ritual that would mark the disintegration of the individual oikos in favor of the polis. The naming of the child involves blood, physical pain, scarring for life, and, above all, exclusion, in lieu of integration, blessing, and a strengthening of family ties and continuation. Ritual cruelty, Walter Burkert argues, transposes some of the violence of pre-civilized life into the polis in an institutionalized, thus controlled, form of action. [28] But here is the reverse: a private ritual (Laius’ scarring of the baby), which distorts the institutionalized form of the ritual that integrates the newborn baby into the family. [29] In a resolutely patriarchal society, typified by ancient Greece, one of the first actions after birth is to secure the attachment of the male heir to the line of the father through (indelible) naming; in Oedipus Tyrannus the grotesque “swollen-foot” substitutes for a proper human name. The ritual that should follow (or that corroborates the naming) is that five days after birth the head of the oikos, the father, child in arms, walks around the hearth, thus irrevocably embedding the child as the new member of the household. [30] That private ritual is twisted into perversion, for instead of the hearth of the oikos the child is “admitted” in the “wooded folds” of Cithairon (εὑρὼν ναπαίαις ἐν Κιθαιρῶνος πτυχαῖς, 1026) that, as if a surrogate mother, shelters him and saves his life. But without the individual oikos, of course, there is no polis, and without proper admission into the father’s oikos there can be no possibility of assuming proper citizenship. Thus the piercing of the feet is a gross perversion of the ritual of naming the child, crippling any later capacity for acting properly as a citizen.

Thus, if we follow Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of Labdacus’ and Laius’ names, Oedipus is well established in the family tree through his corporeal deficiency. His name is his swollen feet because his father pierced and shackled his ankles together before he gave him away to be exposed to die. [32] This cruel act of permanently scarring the baby opens another critical perspective: Oedipus acquires a corporeal sign, a stigma, marking him as a dangerous social outcast, and it functions as a warning, a signal, of his propensity to bring evil in the eventuality of his surviving. He becomes stigmatized in the current meaning of the term. Erving Goffman begins his classic book on Stigma by stating that:

The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor—a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.

The scars, which were inflicted on Oedipus’ body from birth, make visible a “spoiled identity,” marking him as a pariah to be avoided at all costs; he is ritually polluted, as Oedipus himself eloquently elaborates in the long passage on the punishment awaiting the murderer of Laius: no shelter, no food or drink, no admittance to public or private rituals, banishment from all homes, for he is the pollution of the city (ὡς μιάσματος / τοῦδ’ ἡμὶν ὄντος, 241–42). The plague, the horrific backdrop that evokes the doom-ridden ambience from the outset of the play, makes the pollution brought about by Oedipus visible and tangible. He is a social outcast, and his stigmatized feet bear witness to this.

Taylor’s formulation “where one stands in life” as part of one’s identity, now becomes clearer, as does the ensuing disorientation and confusion when someone lacks the pieces that connect him with his origin. Laius did not give Oedipus a proper name linking him with his ancestral patrilineal line (or so he thought). He signified him by mutilating his feet in the hope his son would be indeed lost. Contrary to his intentions, the infant survived, but Oedipus was, thenceforth, disoriented.

4.2 In the Webs of Interlocution: Delphi, the Crossroads, and the Sphinx

Oedipus sets out on the road to Delphi pre-occupied with the pressing question, “who am I?” Both posing the question and expecting an answer fall into the original situation of identity formation because, as Charles Taylor claims, we form our self (among other things) in relation to the language and vision of others. [35] Or, as he puts it slightly differently, one identifies one’s self in relation to “where [one] is speaking from and to whom,” [36] because “there is no way we could be inducted into personhood except by being initiated into a language.” [37] This last statement is strongly reminiscent of the Lacanian initiation into the symbolic order of society through the linguistic symbol of the Father that imposes the incest prohibition. This Law of the Father is our initiation into the symbolic order of society that produces a language-mediated order of culture; for Lévi-Strauss, it was a kinship-mediated order of culture. The Lacanian version combines both: laws of kinship and language, because it is through kinship nominations that the societal order is imposed through preferences and taboos. In the Lacanian vein, the confusion of generations (son and husband, mother and wife, children and siblings) represents the abomination of the Word (in the Bible as in all traditional frameworks of laws)—a situation tellingly applicable to the case of Oedipus, in whose person the “confusion of generations” is indelibly etched. [38] However, we need to advance a step beyond the Lacanian approach, which has been accused of being wholly androcentric. [39] As I will argue at length later, what is at stake here are the laws of kinship that sustain patriarchy with the denomination of women as exchangeable goods aimed at forming an extended network of relationships between families; this network, within which all kinship relations are firmly defined, also relegates women to an inferior position in society. In the narrative of Oedipus, these laws collapse, the Law of the Father becomes ineffective, and Jocasta, the female figure par excellence, is elevated to a stature of authority unusual for the times. [40]

I will revisit the question of divine action versus human action in Oedipus Tyrannus—one of the most puzzling and unsettling features of the play—later. For now, I will dwell on the issue of the nature of Apollo’s answer to Oedipus. Let us follow the thread of the Sophoclean narrative. In the long reiteration of his past life (771–833), Oedipus describes to Jocasta how he went to Delphi and how Apollo responded to his question (787–793):

λάθρᾳ δὲ μητρὸς καὶ πατρὸς πορεύομαι
Πυθώδε, καί μ’ ὁ Φοῖβος ὧν μὲν ἱκόμην
ἄτιμον ἐξέπεμψεν, ἄλλα δ’ ἀθλίῳ
καὶ δεινὰ καὶ δύστηνα προὐφάνη λέγων,
ὡς μητρὶ μὲν χρείη με μειχθῆναι, γένος δ’
ἄτλητον ἀνθρώποισι δηλώσοιμ’ ὁρᾶν,
φονεὺς δ’ ἐσοίμην τοῦ φυτεύσαντος πατρός.

Without the knowledge of my mother and my father I went to Pytho, and Phoebus sent me away cheated on what I had come for, but came out with other things terrible and sad for my unhappy self, saying that I was destined to lie with my mother, and to show to mortals a brood they could not bear to look on, and I should be the murderer of my father who had begotten me.

I have argued elsewhere that Apollo answers “as if [Oedipus] has asked a completely different question,” [
46] and this is pretty much what Oedipus himself expresses in the play: “ἄλλα δ’[ε]”, “Apollo came out with other things.” I have now reached the point of revising this thesis, and suggest that Apollo’s reply conforms exactly to what he has been asked. It seems that his reply is irrelevant to the question because Oedipus (and the audience for that matter) crucially fails to take a minute to complete Apollo’s deliberately elliptic response: “you [are the person who] will marry your mother and kill your father.” Apollo answers Oedipus’ question precisely and truthfully. However, it is interesting to note the seductive power of the poetic diction here, and how Sophocles can lure us into believing what he wishes us to believe; we are as eager as Oedipus in thinking about what the oracle is about: other things. We share in the panic and confusion besetting Oedipus, failing to rationally process the information the oracle provides, although, as members of the audience or readers of the play, we possess superior knowledge and could easily complete the elliptic sentence.

Apollo’s pronouncement in Oedipus Tyrannus does not fall within any of these categories. Apollo seems to state what will happen simply because of his superior knowledge. His oracle is not a revelation of future events, but of Oedipus’ identity, since what will happen is an intrinsic part of it, as are his pierced feet, and (later) his mutilated sight. For the time being, I shall leave aside one of the contentious issues of the interpretation of this tragedy, namely Jocasta’s denial of the validity of the oracles (willingly adopted by Oedipus) in the second episode. [48] In my interpretation, the doubting of the oracles is paired with the subversion produced by the gendered body of the Queen, where the established distinctions of the patriarchal society collapse. What interests me, at this point, are the webs of interlocution in which Oedipus converses. In all three important waypoints before Oedipus reaches the city of Thebes (Delphi, the crossroads of Phocis, and the outskirts of Thebes), he finds himself in dialogue with other linguistic agents (the god Apollo, his biological father, and the Sphinx). A dialogue entails a linguistic exchange that ideally leads to linguistic articulacy [49] —this is how human beings communicate and this is how a person forms and nurtures his identity as a member of a community of interlocutors. In the case of Oedipus, however, the attempted communication is broken, leading to failed articulacy; Oedipus is an eager interlocutor incapacitated by a distorted idea of his identity.

In Delphi, asking meaningful questions and expecting meaningful answers fails, because Oedipus is incapable of completing the elliptic answer of the god. At the intersection of the three roads at Phocis, Oedipus has, for his first and last time, the chance to converse with his own biological father. Interestingly, the dialogue between father and son (to the point that it can be reconstructed) is about the exertion of power (paternal over filial), as the father asks his son to step back and allow free passage to the advancing carriage. The paternal authority in this narrative is implied (since neither party knows the identity of the other) by the royal insignia and the authoritative voice of the king reinforced by that of his herald. Observe how Oedipus relates the incident (804–805):

… κἀξ ὁδοῦ μ’ ὅ θ’ ἡγεμὼν
αὐτός θ’ ὁ πρέσβυς πρὸς βίαν ἠλαυνέτην

… and the leader and the old man himself tried to drive me from the road by force.

Oedipus does not give way to the royal father and keeps walking; and while walking alongside the carriage he strikes the driver who asked him to cede the road. This is how the debate turns into a physical assault, and Laius strikes his son’s head with his double-edged scepter. In retaliation, Oedipus returns the blow with added violence [
50] and kills his father. He completes the assault by massacring the royal party (810–813):

οὐ μὴν ἴσην γ’ ἔτεισεν, ἀλλὰ συντόμως
σκήπτρῳ τυπεὶς ἐκ τῆσδε χειρὸς ὕπτιος
μέσης ἀπήνης εὐθὺς ἐκκυλίνδεται·
κτείνω δὲ τοὺς ξύμπαντας.

Yet he paid the penalty with interest; in a word, this hand struck him with a stick, and he rolled backwards right out of the wagon, and I killed them all.

Turning an attempted dialogue into sheer violence proves the failure of human communication, hence the failure of the linguistic media; and even more so, if we take into account that the Father is the linguistic symbol of the Law that prohibits incest, [
51] and that at this moment in Oedipus’ life the Father and the father are ironically coincident. Oedipus fails to recognize the father (without the clues to do so), and the road to committing incest is now wide open and beckoning.

In the orthodox Freudian approach, this debate over the strip of land could very well signify the filial antagonism expressed in all the succession myths of the theogonic narratives. Richard Caldwell has shown how the motif of the powerful son who castrates or overthrows the father who is the ruler of the world, in the succession myths of Ouranos–Kronos–Zeus, is the reversal of the fear of castration that a son feels threatened by in his Oedipal desire for the mother. [52] Interestingly, Caldwell also detects this motif in “hidden” (not openly expressed) desires, as manifested in the mythologies of Hephaistos, Prometheus, the monster Typhoeus, and, generally, all those rebelling against the power of Zeus. Forbidden Oedipal desires and the ensuing fears of the male child turn out well for the son in the narratives, as he displaces, by castration or murder, the father, the King, or the Ruler. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, Laius and Oedipus coincide in Delphi inquiring about the existence of one another: Oedipus about his parents (τοὺς φύσαντας ἐκμαθεῖν θέλων, 34), and Laius as to whether his son is still alive (τὸν ἐκτεθέντα παῖδα μαστεύων μαθεῖν / εἰ μηκέτ’ εἴη, 36–37). Moreover, their paths literally coincide on Phocis’ Cloven Way (καὶ ξυνάπτετον πόδα / ἐς ταὐτὸν ἄμφω Φωκίδος σχιστῆς ὁδοῦ, 37–38). There, the exertion of paternal power that bears the royal insignia is condensed in the following order: “Stranger, make way for royalty” (Ὦ ξένε, τυράννοις ἐκποδὼν μεθίστασο, 40). While the son keeps walking, silently and proudly (ἄναυδος, μέγα φρονῶν, 41), the horses’ hooves of the royal chariot bloody the tendons of his feet (πῶλοι δέ νιν / χηλαῖς τένοντας ἐξεφοίνισσον ποδῶν, 41–42), in a sinister repetition of the original act of parental violence at his birth. The difference is that now Oedipus can react to this act of violence, and consequently he kills his biological father and returns with the royal chariot as a prize for Polybus, his foster father (44–45).

Additionally, an Oedipal desire and the ensuing fear of castration are submerged in all accounts of the succession myth and the divine narratives that record a mortal threat posed by the birth of a son mightier than his father; once again, an Oedipal rival to paternal authority in disguise. In one of these archetypical stories, Zeus swallows Mêtis; in another, Thetis is given as a bride to mortal Peleus. The goddess Athena and the hero Achilles are the respective offspring of these unions, but they pose no threat, for the first is a female goddess who always sides with the father, while the latter is a great hero, but mortal. For Oedipus the prediction is clearly that he will kill his father, transposing the responsibility, as in the previous accounts, to the father to thwart the fulfillment of the oracle: Oedipus should not have been allowed to be born in the first place; after his birth, the only solution is a death that concretizes all the nightmarish fears of the son in Oedipal rivalry with the father.

Even if we did not have any Freudian, post-Freudian, or Lacanian readings of the play, there is a passage that succinctly fuses the identity of the son with that of the father (not in rivalry but in a seemingly harmonious unity), which defies even the wildest imagination of all psychoanalytic approaches. Surprisingly, Freud did not single out this passage in the formulation of the Oedipus complex. Oedipus has just finished pronouncing the punishment awaiting the murderer of king Laius and utters the curses to fall upon his head. “I am doing this,” Oedipus says, “because” (258–266):

… νῦν δ’ ἐπεὶ κυρῶ τ’ ἐγὼ
ἔχων μὲν ἀρχάς, ἃς ἐκεῖνος εἶχε πρίν,
ἔχων δὲ λέκτρα καὶ γυναῖχ’ ὁμόσπορον,
κοινῶν τε παίδων κοίν’ ἄν, εἰ κείνῳ γένος
μὴ ’δυστύχησεν, ἦν ἂν ἐκπεφυκότα –
νῦν δ’ ἐς τὸ κείνου κρᾶτ’ ἐνήλαθ’ ἡ τύχη·
ἀνθ’ ὧν ἐγὼ τάδ’, ὡσπερεὶ τοὐμοῦ πατρὸς
ὑπερμαχοῦμαι κἀπὶ πάντ’ ἀφίξομαι
ζητῶν τὸν αὐτόχειρα τοῦ φόνου λαβεῖν …

But now, since I chance to hold the power which once he held, and to have a marriage and a wife in common with him, and since had he not been unfortunate in respect of issue our children would have had one mother [κοινῶν τε παίδων κοίν’ ἄν]—but as things are he has been struck down by fortune; on account of this I shall fight for him as though he had been my father, and shall go to every length in searching for the author of the murder …

Sophocles’ lexical double entendres, lethally loaded with psychological and mental premonitions of what lies ahead, are remarkable. In terms of narratology, this passage is a masterpiece. The underlying meaning, obscured from the speaker, is stronger than the surface meaning and is ominously ever present in the minds of the audience. Γυναῖχ’ ὁμόσπορον (260) = ὁμοίως σπειρομένην, that is, ἣν καὶ ἐκεῖνος ἔσπειρε (literally, the woman who was also “sown” by Laius), is wonderfully fused with the later accusation of Teiresias (459–460): τοῦ πατρὸς / ὁμόσπορος = τὴν αὐτὴν σπείρων γυναῖκα (in the active voice this time). [
53] The second point of convergence is the children, who are born of “one mother and would have made ties between he and me,” [54] as Oedipus declares. The “obvious sense of κοινά, that is, ‘common to Laius and Oedipus,’ has behind it a second, sinister, sense, in which it hints at a brood who are brothers and sisters of their own sire.” [55] Paraphrasing slightly Sophocles’ diction, it is as if Oedipus said the following words: “I shall pursue this investigation on the grounds of my strong affinities with Laius (the woman and the children); and I will do it eagerly, immediately, and with great dedication, as if Laius were my father” (ὡσπερεὶ τοὐμοῦ πατρός, 264); this last formulation is an exquisite culmination of Sophocles’ celebrated flickering irony. [56]

This passage prepares the ground for the revelations of Teiresias in the first episode, which actually name Oedipus as the killer of Laius and the incestuous husband of Jocasta. In this latter case, we have a near revelation of Oedipus’ identity. One thing should be clear: Oedipus disbelieves the seer, not because the language of the seer is cryptic, for Teiresias openly accuses him of the murder of Laius (362). Oedipus, however, cannot understand, and thus rejects the accusations as the product of malign conspiracy because of the voids in his knowledge of the narrative of his life; or, to put it differently, his narrative of his own life is flawed with false elements, for although he received the oracle of impending parricide and incest, he reigns at Thebes as the son of Polybus and Merope. We have seen earlier how, upon hearing the oracle of Apollo, Oedipus, stricken by panic and fear, erases his doubts about his identity and resumes his Corinthian parentage.

It is crucial for Oedipus’ story that the riddle of the Sphinx refers to the identity of man:

ἔστι δίπουν ἐπὶ γῆς καὶ τετράπον, οὗ μία φωνή,
καὶ τρίπον, ἀλλάσσει δὲ φύσιν μόνον ὅσσ’ ἐπὶ γαῖαν
ἑρπετὰ γίνονται καὶ ἀν’ αἰθέρα καὶ κατὰ πόντον·
ἀλλ’ ὁπόταν πλείστοισιν ἐρειδόμενον ποσὶ βαίνῃ,
ἔνθα τάχος γυίοισιν ἀφαυρότατον πέλει αὐτοῦ.

Of all the features of man, the Sphinx focuses on the legs and the ability to walk—a feature pointing directly (albeit not overtly) to the identity of Oedipus himself. Oedipus has no difficulty in understanding and correctly answering the question: the tetrapous, dipous, and tripous creature is a human being similar to him. He misses, however, the strong undercurrent connecting himself and man especially in the tetrapous and tripous phase of a human life: as an infant (the tetrapous phase) he is exposed with pierced feet on Cithairon, the signs of which are still engraved on his body (oidipous); and he will enter the tripous phase not as an old man but prematurely, after blinding himself, condemned to walk with the help of the staff of a blind wanderer; the latter, of course, will be revealed to him in the last act of this drama.

My argument in this chapter has followed the webs of interlocution created before Oedipus triumphantly entered Thebes, which are only narrated after the action of the drama has begun. There were three webs in three different localities: the oracle at Delphi, the crossroads at Phocis, and the outskirts of Thebes. In the first two, the attempted communication failed swiftly and fatally. The third one, the engagement with the Sphinx, was successful. The Sphinx is overthrown and Oedipus descends to Thebes to be rewarded with his own mother as a prize for his intelligence.

4.3 In the Space of Questions at Thebes: Reconstructing Identity

In the “space of questions” of Thebes, three major cycles of questions open: one with Jocasta, the second with the Corinthian messenger, and the third with Laius’ servant. Piece by piece the painful reconstruction of Oedipus’ life is unfolded before our (and his) eyes: starting with Jocasta’s relation of the story of Laius’ murder at the crossroads and of the oracle about the parricide, and ending with the last two encounters that tease out the details of the very beginning of the story on Mount Cithairon. We hear the story of the exposed baby and his pierced feet, the only unmistakable sign of Oedipus’ identity that he has borne throughout life, retold by the Corinthian messenger; and finally, the confirmation of the kinship of the baby exposed to die on Cithairon to Laius himself retold by his servant. However, even before Jocasta, an unexpected space of questions opens between two interlocutors whose (mis)communication and distrust bring about a preview of Oedipus’ identity.

4.4 Questions with Teiresias: A Preview of Identity

Teiresias is summoned on stage to assist in answering the question “Who is Laius’ murderer?” Nothing in the plot or in the minds of the dramatis personae foreshadows this first preview of identity. Before examining this scene as the first explicit—to a certain extent—and certainly horrifying revelation of Oedipus’ identity, it is worth noting the special relationship this episode has to the progressive unfolding of the rest of the play, in terms of the quest for the hero’s self.

As one might expect, the overall interpretation of the scene has deviated from investigating the murderer or the identity of Oedipus to focusing on the issue of knowledge and understanding, for we have two interlocutors conversing without establishing any level of mutual understanding. As has been noted many times, the question of verisimilitude has hovered over the scene since the time of Voltaire (at least), who contemptuously pointed out in his Lettres à M. de Genonville (in 1719) the many faults of “human logic” in the encounter between the seer and Oedipus; [73] the misunderstanding between the two creates an impasse. Lowell Edmunds suggests that two competing forms of knowledge are established here, setting a cognitive framework for the rest of the tragedy. With the verb phronein that Teiresias uses to begin (315) and virtually end his speech in the scene (462), he focalizes the theme of knowledge that is fundamental here and in Oedipus Tyrannus in general. [74] The seer’s knowledge regarding the truth (ἀλήθεια, and the cognitively related verb of λεληθέναι [= escape notice] used to describe Oedipus’ actions in 356, [75] and 366–369) [76] contends with Oedipus’ human intelligence (γνώμη); in fact, “Oedipus construes the riddle-solving as a competition in which he defeated Teiresias.” [77] Steven Lattimore, before Edmunds, focuses also on intelligence and understanding; the question we should ask about the scene is not “why did Oedipus not understand Teiresias,” but rather, “why is Teiresias made to tell Oedipus so much?”; because “Sophocles meant to show that the question in the following action is not the individual intelligence of Oedipus but the efficacy of all human understanding. … The prophet of Apollo, when consulted, proves considerably more talkative than Apollo’s priestess, but the amount of humanly usable information he conveys is not appreciably greater.” [78]

Therefore, one should read the scene in terms of dramatic technique and acknowledge Sophocles’ audacity in disclosing the essentials right away, “setting the stage for a much more intricate plot” and the “astounding dénouement” [86] of the play. Sophocles also introduces details that are not canonical, thus novel to this version, such as the future blinding and exile. [87] This dramatic technique that ambushes the audience when least expected, brings about an extraordinary result: the truth about the murder and the identity of Oedipus (which will be gradually and painfully reconstructed in the course of the whole tragedy) “lies hidden in plain view,” just like Poe’s purloined letter; so well, indeed, that “everyone (save Teiresias) fails to see the obvious.” [88] The revelations and warnings, however, “must be resisted” [89] because they actually initiate the upholding of the plot: a heated conversation between Oedipus and Creon will follow, where the latter denies the allegations, which provokes Jocasta’s intervention to retell for the first time the oracle of Laius and the encounter at the crossroads. In terms of the narratological technique that animates the intricate plot of the play and leads to all the fragments of evidence eventually coalescing, this scene is indeed a “masterful stroke.” Questions like “why did Oedipus not understand” do not make sense; Oedipus could not understand because Sophocles’ manipulation of the action makes the dramatic and psychological moment inappropriate for understanding. For one thing, Teiresias has remained silent for many years about the murder of Laius; second, when summoned, he charges the current king not only with the murder of his predecessor, but with a number of other hideous transgressions, as yet unproclaimed as problems; and third, since no clues or evidence has yet surfaced in relation to this murder, why should anybody believe Teiresias? [90]

Oedipus is not the only one who fails to understand. Even the chorus, who in the second stasimon will be so skeptical about the slurs cast on the veracity of oracles and seers by Jocasta, sides here—in the first stasimon immediately following the scene with Teiresias—with their king by questioning the credibility of seers (498–503):

ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὖν Ζεὺς ὁ τ’ Ἀπόλλων ξυνετοὶ καὶ τὰ βροτῶν
εἰδότες· ἀνδρῶν δ’ ὅτι μάντις πλέον ἢ ’γὼ φέρεται,
κρίσις οὐκ ἔστιν ἀληθής·

Well, Zeus and Apollo are wise and know the affairs of mortals; but when it comes to men, one cannot tell for sure that a prophet carries more weight than I.

Above all, the chorus claims that Oedipus is, in their eyes, innocent of all crimes, for he is their “sweet” king (509–512):

… καὶ σοφὸς ὤφθη
βασάνῳ θ’ ἡδύπολις· τῷ ἀπ’ ἐμᾶς
φρενὸς οὔποτ’ ὀφλήσει κακίαν.

… he was seen to be wise and approved as dear to the city [ἡδύπολις]; thus shall he never be convicted of crime by my judgment.

However, we should bear in mind that this scene defines in essence Oedipus’ entire identity, for we hear, albeit in précis, all we need to know about Oedipus: he is the murderer of Laius, a parricide, and incestuous. The elements comprising the story of his life are laid bare in a coherent narrative that begins with the arrival of the outsider, who, it transpires, is a native of the land, and that projects into the future, with the vision of the impoverished mendicant, wandering in foreign lands. The concluding passage to the scene is Teiresias’ last utterance, which, contrary to dramatic conventions, remains unanswered by a counter-utterance from the main character, [91] because this very narrative needs to be profoundly imprinted on Oedipus’ (and the audience’s) mind. He stands silent, while Teiresias recounts his life (449–460):

And I say this to you: the man you have long been looking for, with threats and proclamations about the murder of Laius, that man is here! He is thought to be a stranger who has migrated here, but later he shall be revealed to be a native Theban, and the finding will bring him no pleasure; for he shall travel over strange land blind instead of seeing, poor instead of rich, feeling his way with his stick. And he shall be revealed as being to his children whom he lives with both a brother and a father, and to his mother both a son and a husband, and to his father a sharer in his wife and a killer.

The syntactical construction of the beginning of this passage points emphatically to “that man you have long been looking for” (τὸν ἄνδρα τοῦτον, ὃν πάλαι / ζητεῖς). The narrative of Teiresias begins with τὸν ἄνδρα τοῦτον, which is the antecedent prefixed to the relative clause that follows ὃν πάλαι / ζητεῖς … , (attracted also into the case of the relative clause); when thus prefixed, it “marks with greater emphasis the subject of the coming statement”: [
93] οὗτός ἐστιν ἐνθάδε, that man [i.e., the murderer of Laius] is here. What follows are the segments of Oedipus’ life: seemingly a foreigner, but in reality a native Theban; he will become blind from sighted, beggar from rich. The rest of the story is breathtaking in the immensity of the transgressions it depicts: that man shall be found brother and father of his children; son and husband of the woman who bore him; “sowing” the same field as his father and, finally, killer of his father. The conclusion of the narrative marks that man as the agent of the hideous acts in the words ὁμόσπορος and φονεύς; exchanging roles with his father, he actively [94] “sowed” the same woman, for ὁμόσπορος here is in an active sense, contrary to the earlier use of the word in the play (260). Oedipus sexually usurps the role of the father after having killed him (τοῦ πατρὸς / φονεύς). [95]

The question posed at the beginning of this chapter “Who is Laius’ murderer?” is answered: “You are.” But even the pervasive question that haunts this play—“Who Am I?”—could have been answered here in a way that Oedipus would have been able to understand, because Teiresias told him that he knew his parents (436). This piece of information, as well as the clue that Jocasta reveals in the next episode (“you look very much alike the dead king,” 743) will remain unexplored. The “I knew your parents” statement of Teiresias, also a native Theban, could point to the indigenous origin of the current king. However, nothing is meant to be taken as the consummation of the truth, for Oedipus does not have the question of his identity in the forefront of his mind; all doubts about this have been repressed since, terror stricken, he fled Delphi. Sophocles’ task is to unearth the forgotten fragments and piece them together, simultaneously tracking the mental and psychological travails afflicting Oedipus as he unravels the answer to the question “Who Am I,” which gradually resurfaces as the preeminent question of the play.

4.5 Questions with Jocasta: Dislocating the Origin (or Jocasta’s Body and Mind)

Doubting the oracles is, however, an act of impiety, in the light of which the famous second stasimon is composed. The equally famous line ὕβρις φυτεύει τύραννον (872) has triggered a longstanding scholarly debate about hybris in Oedipus Tyrannus, focusing mainly on Oedipus; Jocasta has always been considered a lesser candidate. I will not engage with the abiding preoccupation of scholars with Oedipus’ possible hybris. [98] I will briefly state here that the relationship of the choral songs to the various episodes of the drama (and Sophoclean drama, in particular) is a very complex and, so far, unresolved issue. My thesis [99] is that a choral song stands in loose relation to both the preceding and following episodes, suggestive and allusive, rather than directly indicating the protagonists. The famous second stasimon (863–910) is a thorough study of hybris, arrogance, and irreverence, prompted by Jocasta’s doubts regarding the validity of the oracles. In such a world, the chorus says, where arrogance prevails without fear of Dikê or reverence for the gods (883–895), “why should I continue honoring the gods with dances?” (τί δεῖ με χορεύειν; 896). We cannot deny the seriousness of the challenge Jocasta raises to the pious institution of the elders of Thebes with her insistence that “there is nothing mortal that possesses any of the prophetic art” [100] (οὕνεκ’ ἐστί σοι / βρότειον οὐδὲν μαντικῆς ἔχον τέχνης, 708–709). Her own history and that of Laius stand as a living proof of such a statement; their son was exposed to die, whereas Laius was killed by robbers at the junction of the three roads (710–722); thus prophetic voices are worthless—and should be discounted (723–724).

What Jocasta does is to first introduce, and then deflect, the line of investigation with two powerful instruments. The first, and more obvious, is the rejection of the oracles—a line of thought not easily accepted in Greek tragedy; she dares do so. The second, more insidious and subversive, is her gendered body and its standing in relation to Oedipus, who, as we all know, is both her husband and son. This introduces Jocasta as a heavily gendered subject, undermining the established familial relationships; in her body, all the distinctions—expected in a well-structured patriarchal society—collapse. Thus this section could have been titled “Jocasta’s Body and Mind,” because with both, Jocasta deflects the investigation into Laius’ murder, which, at this point, has brought into perilous proximity the narratives of Jocasta and Oedipus, not only regarding the murder, but also, most significantly, the birth and origin of Oedipus. Jocasta’s body is the locus nativus (γενέθλιος τόπος) of Oedipus, which makes it the most apt candidate to dislocate the question of origin; she does so intentionally (in her attempt to assuage the mind of Oedipus), and unwittingly (in the confusion of the laws of kinship she literally embodies).

I will begin with the more sophisticated part of this ‘equation’: Jocasta’s gendered body, which constitutes part of the reception of the scene, albeit sometimes in an unspoken way. The reason why the dislocation can be materialized is because of this body, where the organizing principle of western culture (the prohibition of incest or, in the Lacanian formulation, “the Name (Law) of the Father”) collapses; as has been said time and again, the mother is also the wife, the son is also the husband, the children are also brothers and sisters. The bipolar dichotomies within the “elementary structures of kinship” [101] that uphold patriarchy through the prohibition of incest, the law of exogamy, and the exchange of women, collapse in one of the most important founding narratives of the West—that of the incestuous relationship of Jocasta and Oedipus. It is worth remembering here that any strict bipolar taxonomy seeks to regulate the normative, and, because it privileges one of the two poles, it instigates exclusion and discrimination, as does the “female” in the distinction male/female. As a result, women become part of an elaborate network of exchange through marriage that consolidates patriarchy and the inferior position of women within those laws of kinship; thus special relations of power in the economy of sexual politics develop as canonical and hegemonic to control the female body and the process of reproduction. [102] In the analysis of Maria Wyke, female bodies in antiquity become:

Wyke’s further remark that bodies are also inscribed with “other interconnected matrices of knowledge and power” points to Foucault’s and Butler’s further refinements of our understanding of the gendered body. Judith Butler, in Bodies that Matter, claims that:

Butler’s eloquent formula that “culture is ‘made body’ ” points to the refinement I would now like to bring into this discussion. In the Foucauldian vein of interpreting sex (that is to say, the anatomical differentiated sexual self, what we regularly call “biological sex”), sexual practices, and the sexual economy in general, bodies are not inert material upon which the culturally informed understanding of gender is inscribed. Instead, bodies are powerful dynamic loci witnessing the interaction of power relations, hegemonic practices, and heteronormative imperatives aiming at ultimate social control. In this sense, these things cannot be in reality inscribed in a fixed or static way (even within the confines of a certain chronological period), but must rather be debated, claimed, and manipulated to enforce hegemonic policies; on the gendered body, strategies and practices are being exerted rather than marking it forever. This more adequately explains how subversions and counter manipulation can take place, allowing margins to undermine, and thus renegotiate, hegemonic practices. In Jocasta’s heavily gendered body, the locus classicus of the metaphorical language for the female body—that is, as a field for male ploughing—is overturned and subverted. For this ploughed field is also the body where distinctions and dichotomies collapse. As Butler says in analyzing Foucault’s Herculine Barbin, “exploding the binary assumptions is one of the ways of depriving male hegemony and compulsory heterosexuality of the most treasured of primary premises.” [105]

The question of the last passage opens up the vast and absorbing debate I referred to in the previous section of this chapter. A woman (be it a mother or wife) is a locus, her body is a locus claimed for ploughing, fertilization, and reproduction by the male to ensure the patriarchal order of things. Jocasta’s body was claimed and “sown” by two male agents: father and son. Thus, in this primary action of female objectification, something went terribly wrong, and the founding principle of kinship establishing patriarchy collapsed. We can trace this subversion more vividly if we think of Deianeira’s description of the ploughing of her body as a “distant field” [107] by Heracles in her opening, agonizing speech in Trachiniae (32–34):

κἀφύσαμεν δὴ παῖδας, οὓς κεῖνός ποτε,
γῄτης ὅπως ἄρουραν ἔκτοπον λαβών,
σπείρων μόνον προσεῖδε κἀξαμῶν ἅπαξ·

In this graphic metaphor, the body of Deianeira has become an objectified external locus of reproduction. Unlike Deianeira, however, who, in a more gendered conventional and socially sanctioned manner, seeks to regain Heracles’ sexual favor and conjugal fidelity, Jocasta defies all this— even if unwillingly, for in her body the distinctions that sustain the sexual economy of patriarchy no longer exist. Her body blurs (and confounds) the confines of kinship: ὁμογενὴς δ’ ἀφ’ ὧν αὐτὸς ἔφυν (1362/3) (literally, “I am of the same genos with the person from whom I was sprung”); and in a more telling manner Oedipus exclaims finally (1403–1408):

ὦ γάμοι γάμοι,
ἐφύσαθ’ ἡμᾶς, καὶ φυτεύσαντες πάλιν
ἀνεῖτε ταὐτὸν σπέρμα, κἀπεδείξατε
πατέρας ἀδελφούς, παῖδας αἷμ’ ἐμφύλιον,
νύμφας γυναῖκας μητέρας τε, χὠπόσα
αἴσχιστ’ ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔργα γίγνεται.

Marriage, marriage, you gave me birth, and after you have done so you brought up the selfsame seed, and displayed fathers who were brothers, children who were fruit of incest, brides who were both wives and mothers to their spouses, and all things that are most atrocious among men.

The endogamic blood (αἷμ’ ἐμφύλιον) blurs the confines of all the kinship distinctions; renegotiating kinship is one of the most potent female means of resistance against the patriarchal order, as Judith Butler in Antigone’s Claim and Bonnie Honig in Antigone, Interrupted advocate. The awkward moment when Antigone, moments before she dies, limits the cycle of the kin for whom she would sacrifice her life only to her brother puts the whole spectrum of kinship relations in another perspective. Butler claims that Antigone renegotiates the laws of kinship from the standpoint of the less privileged (i.e. women), [
109] and Honig proposes that, through the politics of lamentation and by renegotiating death, Antigone reclaims her political agency, [110] something she was deprived of by Hegelian and Lacanian readings. [111]

Without anyone realizing it, Jocasta emerges from this new kinship economy empowered. Sophocles gives her a dynamic entrance in the second episode to assertively stop the fighting between Oedipus and Creon that erupted when Oedipus accused Creon of conspiring with Teiresias to usurp his power and threatened him with exile and death (623). Jocasta’s intervention is forceful, regal, and effective—the action of someone not only imbued with power, but who is in power. As if scolding inferior subjects, she demands both combatants, Creon and Oedipus, retire to the palace to free the public realm from their dispute. Jocasta is dressed in power. How and why do the trivial personal disputes of Oedipus and Creon take precedence over the important public calamities, Jocasta asks in authoritative manner (634–636):

τί τὴν ἄβουλον, ὦ ταλαίπωροι, στάσιν
γλώσσης ἐπήρασθ’; οὐδ’ ἐπαισχύνεσθε γῆς
οὕτω νοσούσης ἴδια κινοῦντες κακά;
οὐκ εἶ σύ τ’ οἴκους σύ τε, Κρέων, κατὰ στέγας,
καὶ μὴ τὸ μηδὲν ἄλγος εἰς μέγ’ οἴσετε;

Wretches, why have you struck up this foolish battle of abuse? Are you not ashamed to start up private troubles when the country is thus sick? Will you not go indoors, and you Creon, to your house, and not make what ought not to pain you into something big?

Jocasta subverts her gendered role regarding two important aspects: first, she uses a politically significant word to describe the quarrel of Oedipus and Creon: stasis, the civil strife that needs to be averted at all costs. [
112] This statement would be expected from someone bearing political authority or who is at least conscious of the political exigencies besetting the city. It is in accordance with the heartfelt concern that Oedipus shows in the beginning of the play to care about the citizens of Thebes, a concern that seems to fall increasingly by the wayside in the course of the play. The second level of subversion concerns the public space that Jocasta comes to dominate. When she emerges from the palace, she authoritatively orders the two men to their homes, ridding the public space of their private quarrel. Jocasta is a suitable candidate for such a political action because in her “a whole new economy of the mechanisms of power” [113] is inaugurated, for, as claimed earlier, the founding narrative of patriarchy collapses. We have not realized how subversive the character of Jocasta is. Critics tend to think of her as a motherly figure or as a seductress. Lacan, for example, sees her as the polar opposite of the virginal and idealized Antigone. [114] Of course, Antigone is not a virginal, innocent heroine, nor Jocasta the seductive, empowered mother, as Lacan would have it. On the other hand, critics fall into modern stereotypes, such as the bipolar “motherly preoccupation with avoiding disgrace” and the “wifely ‘survival philosophy,’ ” [115] as is expressed in the later “easy life” statement (979).

Jocasta has nothing to do with any of this; she commands the two men, initiates the cycle of questions, reveals intimate truths, and dares question the validity of the oracles. Now, this last movement touches upon deeply rooted beliefs stemming from the religious life of the time. Without entering into the long and interesting discussion about the function of the oracles in tragedy in general, and in Sophoclean tragedy in particular, I will note that at times, as in Trachiniae, there are multiple or obscure oracles; at other times, as in Philoctetes, parts of the oracle are revealed progressively by the playwright as a device to build dramatic tension. The meaning of an oracle might be obscure or misleading, but nowhere do we have persons questioning their intrinsic validity. The breach of common beliefs regarding this communication between mortals and gods is momentous here in Oedipus Tyrannus, and thus, understandably, the chorus in the following stasimon fears for the stability of the entire religious edifice: ἔρρει δὲ τὰ θεῖα (910); Jocasta has shaken it.

Therefore, Jocasta initiates and disorients the investigation; she dislocates the question of origin—because she is the origin, but her body has not sustained the confines of her gender. As a result, she becomes empowered, and steps into the public realm, rebuking the king and her brother, and questioning the oracles, thus misleading Oedipus. The Foucauldian concept of the body as the locus where the mechanisms of power are being exerted finds here an exemplar; Jocasta’s body is not a static tablet where gender is inscribed, but an (inter)active locus where power strategies of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic acts are being played out. This, again, is much reminiscent of Butler’s bodies “as a mode of dramatizing or enacting possibilities” in the process of gender constitution through performative acts. [116] The body is “materialized,” and this materialization is not a static condition, as Butler claims in Bodies that Matter; [117] rather,

the regulatory norms of ‘sex’ work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of the bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body’s sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative.

Jocasta defies all this; she sees that her system (comprising Oedipus) survives in a life that defies the binary confines of the gender distinctions. She suggests living, not in the way acceptable for a man or a woman, as Ajax and Deianeira in other plays of Sophocles declare, [
118] but “live at random, live as best one can,” [119] articulated in the famous “easy life” statement: εἰκῇ κράτιστον ζῆν, ὅπως δύναιτό τις (979).

4.5.1 The cycle of questions

The cycle of questions initiating the investigation begins in 634, when Jocasta asks both Creon and Oedipus: “What has aroused this quarrel (stasis)?”; and again in 699 she asks Oedipus: “What is the reason for your blazing anger (mênis)?” Oedipus’ indignant response is that he is the target of a sinister plot, since he is accused of being the murderer of Laius (φονέα με φησὶ Λαΐου καθεστάναι, 703).

“How could that be possible?” Jocasta wonders, since Laius was killed at the intersection of three roads (ἐν τριπλαῖς ἁμαξιτοῖς, 716) by a stranger, although an oracle had foretold that the king would be killed by his son. It is here that Jocasta, seeking to reassure Oedipus about the doubts beginning to materialize in his mind, questions the validity of oracles and mentions the junction where Laius was murdered. The locality of τριπλῆ ἁμαξιτὸς shakes Oedipus: “Where is this place?” (732); “When did this happen?” (735); What did Laius look like?” (740); “How old was he?” (741). All the answers converge into identifying the murderer with Oedipus, since the place and time coincide with Oedipus’ presence there.

In this first agonizing exchange of questions and answers a significant trait of identity is revealed: Laius looked very much like Oedipus (μορφῆς δὲ τῆς σῆς οὐκ ἀπεστάτει πολύ, 743) or Oedipus looks very much like Laius. This piece of information is neither evaluated nor commented upon, by Oedipus or anyone else in the play; it is virtually wasted, as if the mention of the physical similarity between Laius and Oedipus is of no importance. [120] Indeed, this crucial piece of information about physical similarity is neutralized at this dangerous point of the narrative when Oedipus is nearly convinced that he has killed Laius (744–745, 747). Thus, instead of pondering the curious similarity between himself and the former king, Oedipus moves on to ask a question that acquires enormous significance for him, as well as for the unfolding of the plot, which has also confounded readers ever since. [121] The new question that deflects the narrative, as well as the mind of Oedipus, is “how many”: “was Laius travelling alone, or did he have company, and if yes, how many?” (I am paraphrasing the “πότερον ἐχώρει βαιός, ἢ πολλοὺς ἔχων / ἄνδρας λοχίτας, οἷ’ ἀνὴρ ἀρχηγέτης”; 750–751). The mathematics of the encounter follow: they were altogether five, and one of them a herald, and a single wagon carried Laius (πέντ’ ἦσαν οἱ ξύμπαντες, ἐν δ’ αὐτοῖσιν ἦν / κῆρυξ· ἀπήνη δ’ ἦγε Λάϊον μία, 752–753). “Alas,” Oedipus exclaims, “with this piece of information everything has become clear” (αἰαῖ, τάδ’ ἤδη διαφανῆ, 754), because the time, the space, the person, the numbers, all coincide. They all begin to dovetail to prove that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius. All but one: the number of the assailants enumerated earlier by Jocasta (ξένοι ποτὲ /λῃσταί, 715–716); they were many and not just one.

At this point—exactly in the middle of the play—Sophocles introduces a narratological device that first allows Oedipus the opportunity to retell his personal story and also, very importantly, his side of the story of the encounter with Laius. In his version of the story, (which we cannot contest), he alone killed the old man who was riding in a wagon and all of his attendants—κτείνω δὲ τοὺς ξύμπαντας (813).

Now, this statement is inconsistent with Jocasta’s story on two points: first, that the assailant was alone and single-handedly killed Laius and his company; second, that there was one survivor from the assault, a slave of the royal household (οἰκεύς τις, ὅσπερ ἵκετ’ ἐκσωθεὶς μόνος, 756). Two points of divergence that come down to one, the only one that provides a glimmer of hope: if the assailants were many, since Jocasta has talked about robbers in the plural (the famous lines: λῃστὰς ἔφασκες αὐτὸν ἄνδρας ἐννέπειν / ὥς νιν κατακτείναιεν, 842–843), it cannot be the same incident. “Because I was alone,” claims Oedipus, “and there is no way that one equals many” (οὐ γὰρ γένοιτ’ ἂν εἷς γε τοῖς πολλοῖς ἴσος, 845). The entire passage runs as follows (842–847):

λῃστὰς ἔφασκες αὐτὸν ἄνδρας ἐννέπειν
ὥς νιν κατακτείναιεν. εἰ μὲν οὖν ἔτι
λέξει τὸν αὐτὸν ἀριθμόν, οὐκ ἐγὼ ’κτανον·
οὐ γὰρ γένοιτ’ ἂν εἷς γε τοῖς πολλοῖς ἴσος·
εἰ δ’ ἄνδρ’ ἕν’ οἰόζωνον αὐδήσει σαφῶς
τοῦτ’ ἐστὶν ἤδη τοὔργον εἰς ἐμὲ ῥέπον.

You said that he told you that robbers had killed him; so if he still gives the same number, I was not the killer, for one is not the same as many. But if he speaks unmistakably of one solitary man, then at once the balance tilts towards me.

We know (as members of the audience and readers of the play), and Oedipus comes to realize at the end of the play, that the incident was one and the same. However, how is this logical inconsistency solved? In fact, the play reaches its denouement without this impossible equation ever being solved, as will be shown in the following section.

One last word, before examining the impossible equation that Oedipus poses: “one does not equal many.” I shall return briefly to the original statement of this chapter about “dislocating the question of origin,” in the double function that I have stated earlier. Doubting the oracles delays the finding of the truth for another 400 lines of action. When Oedipus finally finds out the truth, he resorts to Jocasta’s body—now lifeless—which becomes the source of Oedipus’ final blow; for it is the pins holding her garments that become the instruments of his blinding. The erotic symbolism of the act is obvious, not only because in the Freudian vein of interpretation, self-blinding equals castration, but because the female body gets symbolically undressed in a manner invoking Deianeira, who, laying on her nuptial bed, uncovers her breasts before striking the fatal blow (Trachiniae 924–926). But even before that, when Jocasta enters the conjugal chamber, she invokes the nuptial bed (1242–1243), the sperm of Laius (1246), and Laius himself, who, with his death, “left” her to sleep with her son (1248). She weeps and wails over the bed where from her husband she engendered her husband, and from her son her sons and daughters (γοᾶτο δ’ εὐνάς, ἔνθα δύστηνος διπλῇ / ἐξ ἀνδρὸς ἄνδρα καὶ τέκν’ ἐκ τέκνων τέκοι, 1249–1250). It is Jocasta’s body where the utterly “impossible equations” materialize, for all the distinctions sustaining the patriarchal order of things have disintegrated.

4.6 Contesting Human Intelligence: One and the Many

Many proposals have been made to solve this problem: the suggestion, for example, that this inconsistency lies within the framework of the elimination of the differences pervading Oedipus’ story (father-son, mother-wife, children-brothers/sisters, etc.). [123] Segal claims that for Sophocles, as for Plato, “the relation of the One to the Many is the focal point for man’s understanding of himself and the universe.” [124] Kamerbeek remarks that not “the one to the many,” but the “reverse is to become true: for Laius’ son, Laius’ murderer and Laius’ successor will prove to be one and the same person. On the other hand this peremptory statement sheds light on the repeated ambiguous shifts from singular to plural and vice versa wherever the murderer or murderers are alluded to.” [125] Surely, the “mistaken numbers” combine to form a nexus of misleading mathematical equations upon which the whole tragedy is built: the equating of the oracles to reality, of a person to Oedipus the just king, and to Oedipus the accursed. [126] In an era when human intelligence was celebrated as the prime mover of anthropological progress and Protagoras contended that man is the measure for all things, it seemed fitting to resort to mathematical methods, such as “calculation of time, measurement of age and number, comparison of place and description” [127] to resolve the riddles of Oedipus Tyrannus. Of course, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, some things in Oedipus Tyrannus should have been left unanswered or apart; in other words, the certainty apparently provided by mathematical equations proves unavailing in this play. In the second volume of the Anthropologie Structurale, when Lévi-Strauss revisits the Oedipus myth, he states that the riddle of the Sphinx is a question to which the answer should remain apart, and he connects the riddle with the incest, a relation where the two persons involved should have remained apart; these are two situations that bear internal and logical similarities. [128]

Indeed, equations presenting inconsistencies (the number of the attackers is but one of them) require resolution by an internal logic supported by the text itself. Let us see how this textual logic is built. In line 842, the λῃστὰς ἔφασκες ἄνδρας that Oedipus singles out from the narrative of Laius’ murder is in accordance with other references to the story scattered throughout the text. In the prologue of the play (in line 122), Creon refers to the murder, using again the λῃστὰς ἔφασκε (“it has been said that they were robbers”), highlighting first the villainy of the action (who would think that it was simply a dispute over a strip of land and not a robbery?) and second (and most importantly) the number of the assailants. The number is corroborated again in lines 107 (τοὺς αὐτοέντας, “the assailants”), 292 (πρός τινων ὁδοιπόρων, “[to have been killed] by people on the road”), and 308 (τοὺς κτανόντας, “the killers”), and this piece of information was uttered in front of the entire city by the only survivor (πόλις γὰρ ἤκουσ’, οὐκ ἐγὼ μόνη, τάδε, 850). It is certain, then, that the robbers were many and not just one; but in order to be sure, Oedipus summons the sole witness to confirm his testimony. When the herdsman finally arrives, no one asks him to verify it, for the issue at stake at that crucial moment has become the verification of the identity of the baby given to his Corinthian fellow-herdsman. [129] In other words, it does not matter anymore how many assailants were involved. So, did Sophocles use false information solely to misdirect our attention? Is it just a flaw of the narrative? The other possibility is that the servant of Laius had been lying all along out of fear or shame, as has been suggested. [130] But nowhere in the play is his version discredited. Or alternatively, Oedipus knew the truth all along about the single assailant, something betrayed in two passages where, although the interlocutor speaks about many robbers, Oedipus contradicts him by stating only one was involved, as if he was recalling past knowledge (139, 293). This could be a Freudian slip of the tongue regarding an action known to, but long forgotten by, Oedipus.

In both hypotheses (the servant lies, Oedipus knows unconsciously) I am reluctant to ascribe an intention to the author: neither the servant nor Oedipus ever acknowledge what we try to detect in their wording. The fact that Sophocles uses a narrative that contradicts the broad schema of human logic remains an issue of great puzzlement—the formulation of Oedipus is simple and eloquent (845): οὐ γὰρ γένοιτ’ ἂν εἷς γε τοῖς πολλοῖς ἴσος, one does not equal many; unless, of course, human logic becomes redundant under certain circumstances, as will be explored shortly.

One last remark before concluding this section: this impossible equation that the playwright introduces in the play challenges human logic; but in terms of potency, is it not overshadowed by the other impossible equation that we have seen formulated in the previous section in the body of Jocasta. If human logic is contested in this emblematic play of Sophocles, so are the laws of kinship, both of them fixed points of reference of our cultural paradigm; and yet, Sophocles dares introduce these shaken mathematics in a narrative that imposes its own principles in defiance of the expected equations.

At the end, Oedipus needs to recast his life in a new and coherent narrative, so as to straighten out the hitherto fragmented and discontinuous tale with its impossible equations. This is progressively reconstructed within the spaces of interlocution in which Oedipus finds himself on his quest to establish who he is. The cycles of questions for Oedipus, triggered in Thebes by the investigation of the murder of Laius, have just been opened; the second cycle of questions begins with the Corinthian messenger.

4.7 Intermezzo: Scholarship Thinks Oedipus is a Tyrant

Of course, all the above are closely entwined with the question of identity; in a sense, I need to clear the path for my interpretation by addressing some of the most popular and widespread views about Oedipus Tyrannus. Even if one intends to refute, or at least contest, some aspects of pervading opinions, significant lessons can always be gleaned from revisiting important scholarship on the matter.

The story of Cypselus, the son of Labda, bears structural similarities with the story of Oedipus, with his near execution by the Fathers of the Bacchiads, and his unexpected survival, concealed by his mother in a container used as a beehive (hence his name). With Cypselus, the direct line of the rulers deviates, and, following the instigation of the oracle, Cypselus, on reaching adulthood, marches against Corinth and overwhelms it. Now, Cypselus and his son Periander help us configure the Greek idea of a tyrant, also reflected in the works of contemporaneous Athenian tragedy. Herodotus in this narrative (5.92.6–7) has the Corinthian Socles reply to the Lacedaemonians (who attempt to reinstate Hippias in Athens) that there is nothing more unrighteous (ἀδικώτερον) and bloodthirsty (μιαιφονώτερον) than the tyrannis. Both Cypselus and Periander were profligate in such excesses but the son surpassed the father in many respects, [142] not least in the outrageous act of stripping naked all the Corinthian women in the temple of Hera and burning their garments to placate his dead wife Melissa (5.92.19–22). Abusing and humiliating other people’s women is a common characteristic of historical tyrants, as is the case of Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, who insulted the sister of Harmodius, who had been chosen, then later rejected, to bear a basket in a ritual procession in honor of Athena. Harmodius and his lover Aristogeiton conspired to kill Hippias at the Panatheneia, resulting, instead, in the murder of Hipparchus, thus ensuring that the regime of Hippias was spurred to greater violence and bloodthirstiness. [143] In tragedy, the abuse of ritual and the murder of kin frequently appear as characteristics of the figure of the tyrant. [144] In Oedipus Tyrannus abuse and perversion are reflected in the practice of extreme endogamy, for in Oedipus’ story the generations are fused (instead of being kept strictly apart): mother and wife, sons and brothers, daughters and sisters. [145] For Richard Seaford, Oedipus is a tyrant, a man of money, who suffers extreme isolation from kin and gods alike because of his absolute autonomy and self-sufficiency, resulting from the widespread monetization of Athens in the sixth century BCE. Money is used by tyrants to organize the religious festival and dramatic contests within the festival of the Great Dionysia and to accumulate wealth. Money homogenizes its users (historical and tragic tyrants are typically associated with excess in their desire for money) and can incite conflict between generations. [146] In Oedipus Tyrannus there is no conflict but the “confusion of generations,” which is due to an economic dimension detectable in the retelling of the story by Sophocles and hitherto neglected, as Seaford claims: [147] “the two functions of the household, wealth and procreation, are both susceptible to introverted self-sufficiency, and seem to interpenetrate.” [148]

In Herodotus’ historical account we can easily detect a tendency to mythologize; the lameness of the Labdacid’s line is “derailed” in the Cypselids as forms of disruptive marriage, endangered survival, and broken communication between the generations—all elements equally present in the story of Oedipus. Vernant concludes his analysis as follows: [152]

The tyrant despises the rules that control the ordering of the social fabric and, through its regularly woven mesh, determine the position of each individual in relation to all the rest, in other words—to put it more crudely, as Plato does—he is perfectly prepared to kill his father, sleep with his mother, and devour the flesh of his own children. Like both a god and a wild beast, he is, in his ambivalence, the very incarnation of the mythical representation of lameness with its two contrary aspects: Because his progress is superior to human gait in that, as it rolls, it encompasses every direction at once more quickly and with more agility, he overcomes the limitations that affect a straight way of walking, but at the same time his gait falls short of the normal modalities of locomotion in that, mutilated, unbalanced, and wavering as it is, he stumbles along in his own particular fashion only to fall the more definitively in the end.

In this fascinating analysis after Lévi-Strauss, the lameness of the Labdacids is linked to the real (that is, historical) tyrants and to all the perverse ways in which abusive power is exercised. It is obvious that the Herodotean narrative incorporates non-historical (that is, mythical or fictional) discursive modules to elaborate on the notions of the tyrant (and his deviations); to a great extent, all those are also detectable in the myth of Oedipus’ family. However, at this point I will raise two questions. First, to what extent does the existence of a mythical/narratological motif predetermine the overall meaning of the new version of the story? That is to say, does the motif of lameness in the myths of the Labdacids necessarily evoke the figure of the tyrant in the new version of the story of Oedipus, as told by Sophocles in this particular tragedy? [
153] Lameness, in any form, in the Sophoclean version is completely suppressed, appearing only in the scarring of the baby as an unmistakable sign of identity. On the other hand, abuse of power is, indeed, one of the salient characteristics of a historical tyrant, and it can take many forms. Does this necessarily entail killing of kin, incest, and confusion of generations? Or if we follow the reverse order: does the killing of kinfolk, incest, and confusion of generations in Oedipus Tyrannus necessarily point to the person of the historical (or else political) tyrant, as the Greeks understood it?

Another issue refers to the underlying emphasis in the analysis on the pharmakos interpretation of the narrative, which could be seen as clashing with the political or economic dimension of the retelling of the story. The fall of the tyrant, stumbling along in his own unbalanced fashion, with which Vernant concludes his analysis, points to the idea of the pharmakos, the indelibly polluted individual, who is expelled from his polis, bearing the collective miasma of his citizens. Vernant himself, in another, equally renowned essay titled “Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex,” [155] suggests that Oedipus embodies the two ends of the two polar extremes: the sacred king and the polluted pharmakos. Of course, this line of thought points to a long line of thinkers, starting with James Frazer and his sacred king, who is dethroned every year only to be reinstated to his position to bring renewed vigor and fertility to the people and the land. This model is very relevant to the opening scene of Oedipus Tyrannus, with the land lying desolate and barren, the animals dying, and the women of the city bearing stillborn offspring. What is described in the opening of the play is a pervasive sterility, embodying the nightmare besetting any primitive society unable to control the means of reproduction (of the plants, animals, and humans). Death in this context signifies the total physical demise of human society. [156] Frazer’s sacred king is echoed in the eniautos daimon (the god who dies and is reborn annually) of Jane Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists. [157] But most importantly for our case, the sacred king who is degraded, humiliated, and expelled (in order to symbolically re-acquire his vigor again and with it to reinvigorate the community) is beautifully formulated in René Girard’s interpretation of Oedipus (in his classic book La Violence et le Sacré), as being the epitome of pharmakos. From the zenith of kingship, beloved and respected by the Thebans, Oedipus plunges to the other end of the spectrum, for he is not simply the scapegoat of Thebes attracting and removing the pollution from the society; he is himself the source of the pollution. [158] The fusion of the extremes of this polarity in the story of Oedipus is absolute. But if we take this interpretative path, then the tyrannus cannot be accused of abuse of power, but rather praised as a benefactor to his community in cleansing it.

Bernard Knox historicizes the figure of the tyrant in his Oedipus at Thebes, where he suggests that Oedipus stands primarily for a hegemonic Athens, a polis that is democratic for its citizens but tyrannical to the dependant poleis; so Athens becomes a polis tyrannus (and Oedipus instantiates this polis):

Oedipus, Knox claims, does not present the most egregious features of the characteristics of the tyrant in his person: “he does not defy ancestral laws, outrage women, or put men to death without trial. He does not plunder his subjects, distrust the good and delight in the bad, or live in fear of his people.” [
160] Knox proceeds to elicit affinities between Oedipus and Pericles, the character of the Athenians, and their polis, as drawn by Thucydides. The affinities with Pericles—the “first” citizen, but in reality the πρώτου ἀνδρὸς ἀρχή—are further corroborated by the “hereditary curse on his family through the sacrilegious murder of Cylon by his ancestors.” [161] What is more interesting, though, are the many parallels drawn between Oedipus and the collective character of the Athenians, as shown mainly in the “Funeral Oration” and the Corinthian speech at the Congress of the Peloponnesian allies in Thucydides’ history. Oedipus’ virtues and defects resemble those of the Athenians: magnificent vigor, faith in action, courage, speed of decision and action, combined with careful reflection, intelligence, self confidence, adaptability and versatility, devotion to the city; on the debit side, one can note the suspicion of a political conspiracy against him and his anger. [162] In all cases Knox draws a parallel from the contemporary action or decision-making of the Athenian policies during the Peloponnesian War.

We have seen thus far the lame tyrant, the king and the pharmakos, the man of money, a reflection of the historical tyrant of the hegemonic Athens. In another, wide cycle of interpretations, Oedipus veers towards tyranny: that is to say, to deviancy and excess, through intellectual arrogance and his capacity for philosophical reflections.

Jean-Joseph Goux claims that Oedipus, by solving the enigma of the Sphinx, breaks away from the ritualistic world of cyclic repetition to initiate a new process, one of reason; eradicating the Sphinx “marks the entrance into the world of linearity, progress, and knowledge.” [165] However, a prerequisite for performing this intellectual feat is the prior elimination of paternal authority. The removal of the father ensures the autonomy of the son, thus giving birth to philosophy, paving the path for “the beginning of the formation of the philosophical thought.” [166] The son, freed from domination by any tutelage, proceeds to an individualistic search for the truth (time and again, Oedipus reassures us that he himself understood and solved the riddle of the Sphinx without the help of any external authority) that is analogous to Socrates’ conduct in philosophy: autodidactic, accountable only to his inner voice, his daimon. Socrates finds the truth “by himself and in himself.” [167] For Oedipus, precisely as for Socrates, “no father, no master, no hierophant taught him a thing.” [168] This process marks, in a sense, “a developmental stage” in the history of philosophy, [169] which is placed “at the moment of deprojection that brings back to the subject what had first been attributed to external reality or excepted from the accomplishment of rites.” [170] However, there is always the danger of excess, even in philosophical thinking, or overweening confidence in one’s own intellectual powers. Oedipus has precisely that, as well as having inherent in his mythology the defining characteristics of a tyrant: excess in “frenetic impulses” (his anger and murder) and giving free rein to illegitimate pleasures (sleeping with the mother). [171] He thus moves from the Platonic philosopher-king to the perverse tyrant, who succumbs to his impulses and desires; “the perverse tyrant is an Oedipus, but a willful Oedipus.” [172] In the person of Oedipus, the “enlightened tyrant” (with his confidence in human reason) is fused with the “perverse tyrant” (with his impulses and desires); what could have been the two opposite poles of an antithesis, becomes a dangerous synthesis in tragedy; and this is our Oedipus.

Interestingly, a special type of human knowledge (an Oedipus-who-knew-too-much) in conjunction with Oedipus as tyrant is the focus of Michel Foucault’s interpretation of Oedipus, in a work that has been largely ignored by classicists. [173] Foucault’s reading of Oedipus is in the second of the four Brazilian lectures he gave at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 on “Truth and Juridical Forms,” which are in a sense a “variant working draft for the book Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison (Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison) published in France a year later.” [174] The perspective of Foucault’s approach to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is the special connection between power and knowledge within his attempt to rework the theory of the subject, subjectivity, and domains of knowledge. Contrary to theories based on economic/Marxist postulates about the human subject or on perspectives that view the human subject as pre-formed by economic, social, and political conditions, Foucault radically questions the position of the subject and his relative connection with truth. He claims, and sets out to prove, in the course of these lectures:

In this series of lectures, the social practices, which Foucault saw as engendering a new type of subject and knowledge, were control and supervision [surveillance], which of course fall into his wider engagement with the penal system as a mechanism for turning petty criminals into hardened delinquents, resulting in his great work Surveiller et Punir in 1975. The notions of individuality, normality, and deviation are all politically constructed concepts, enforced by social practices that produce domains of knowledge and types of individuals, “and consequently, relations between man and truth.” [
176] Since in western philosophy the subject is the core of all knowledge, Foucault undermines the very core of this intellectual edifice. His subject, and consequently his knowledge, is not a given, even if influenced by particular conditions at any given place and time, but it is “established and reestablished by history.” [177]

So, it is the power relations instantiated in the manipulation of knowledge in the first criminal investigation ever recorded in the West and the types of subjectivity that this manipulation engenders that Foucault scrutinizes. The Foucauldian Oedipus complex speaks about power relations, not our individual unconscious. As Foucault claims:

Foucault then proceeds to lay bare the mechanism of establishing the truth in this investigation, which moves along by the rule of the “halves.” The story of the killer of Laius, which is also the story of the exposed infant Oedipus, is broken into two, and then, in turn, each fragment is further broken into two halves, and so on. Only the god possesses the whole truth, but this is presented in the form of the future. [
181] The fragmented parts are rejoined together (“all these fragments parceled out among different hands”), and it takes the meeting between the god and his seer, Jocasta and Oedipus, and the Corinthian and Theban servants “for all these halves, and the halves of halves to match up, align themselves, and fit together to form the whole pattern of the story.” [182] The broken and rejoined parts represent the technique of symbolon (the Greek word for “symbol”), [183] which is the bearer of power—religious and political. At a practical level, the holder of a secret or of power breaks a ceramic and keeps the one half, while entrusting the other to an individual who would share and validate the truth. The symbolon becomes an instrument of power, and its overall configuration, when the separate fragments yield the unique object, is the manifest form of power. The Oedipus story is the fragmenting (and reassembling) of that token. In the handling of the story by Sophocles, the first halves of the story are held by the god and the prophet, the religious (or quasi-magical) world; the next series by Jocasta and Oedipus, the royalty; and the final, and decisive for the enunciation of the truth, by the slaves. The prescriptive type of the divine discourse is taken up by the retrospective, by evidence of the mortal world. Thus this tragedy “establishes a symbolic world in which the memory and the discourse of men are like an empirical margin around the great prophecy of the gods.” [184]

The interesting point that Foucault raises in the context of this analysis is that the tyrant is the person who, not only seized power in a certain (not institutionalized) manner, but also possessed a particular knowledge, superior to others, and was solitary. The case of Oedipus is a prime example: he succeeds in solving the riddle with his own intellectual powers aided by neither the gods nor mortals. His special knowledge is characterized by the Greek words euriskein, eureka (“I have found”):

This special knowledge is the “autocratic knowledge of the tyrant who can govern the city through his own abilities.” [
189] This is the special relation between power-and-knowledge, and knowledge-and-power that Foucault detects in the story of Oedipus: tyrannical power combined with solitary knowledge. “With his tyrannical power, Oedipus could do too much; with his solitary knowledge, he knew too much.” [190] While establishing “the junction between the prophecy of the gods and the memory of men,” he is also “the man of excess, the man who has too much of everything—in his power, his knowledge, his family, his sexuality. Oedipus, the double man, was excessive with regard to the symbolic transparency of what the shepherds knew and what the gods had said.” [191] In the end, and this is the important “lesson” of the Sophoclean Oedipus, the form of the political power he stands for, “privileged and exclusive,” [192] is fundamentally devalorized, and thus contributing to creating the “great myth” of the West, “according to which truth never belongs to political power.” [193] But this great myth needs to be demolished, for “behind all knowledge [savoir], behind all attainment of knowledge [connaissance], what is involved is a struggle for power.” [194] In the myth of Oedipus, therefore, one can detect forms of power implemented by forms of knowledge; or to put it slightly differently, knowledge possessed by men in power is used to further their own whims and predilections, to bypass other forms of collective power. Oedipus in this respect is a tyrant; the democratic body and his empirical knowledge demolish the privileged position of power and knowledge exemplified in Oedipus’ person. The people gain “the right to judge, the right to tell the truth, to set the truth against their own masters, to judge those who govern them.” [195]

Returning to the original framework of Foucault’s inquiry into “how social practices may engender domains of knowledge … that give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge,” [196] one can confidently assume, after his analysis, that the new type of knowledge instigated by socially inferior persons destroys the existing political structures of the privileged manipulation of knowledge and power; in the penal system of classical Athens, new forms of attaining the truth are inaugurated and implemented. The autocratic, solitary knowledge of the tyrant is no longer viable. Of course, a change in the ideology of the penal system reflects wider ideological changes in society; the profound democratic system is based, as we have seen in earlier chapters, [197] on the transfer of knowledge of the local to the master networks of power: the experience of managing the political affairs on the level of the dêmoi is transferred onto the master network for managing the central system of democratic Athens. One of the major components of this transformation is the collection of individual domains of knowledge, and its consequent diffusion from individual to collective structures. The sophisticated design of the master network could not have been implemented without the new type of knowledge, neither autocratic nor privileged nor exclusive. Neither could it have been implemented without a new type of subject, or the forms of subjectivity whose emergence we have witnessed in the process of a “new creation” in the Castoriadian vein at the turn of fifth-century Athens.

My intention in this chapter has not been to produce a new theory on the notion of the tyrant in Oedipus Tyrannus. From my perspective, the individual characteristics adhering to one form or another of the figure of the tyrant offer complementary readings in the quest for identity. My personal assessment, however, is that alongside the influential “Lame Tyrant” of Vernant lies the Foucauldian political reading. It is very important for contemporary critical thinking about Hellenic culture to comprehend the philosopher’s motto: “I do not study structures; instead, I study ‘dynasties’, the power relations of our culture”; and consequently, to reconceptualize our approach accordingly. Foucault rightly claims:

If there is a tyrant in Oedipus Tyrannus, I am compelled to accept that this is the tyrant of Foucault. Even if not explicitly stated by the philosopher, or in the same terminology that I have been using throughout this book, the way that power relations are reconsidered and reconfigured in his reading reflects the paradigmatic moment of the creation of radical democracy, which I have been considering as a milestone for the new concept of Athens and the Athenians; the Sophoclean tragedy stands as the “broken” mirror in which this radical moment is reflected.

4.8 Questions with the Corinthian Messenger: The Baby with the Pierced Feet

Starting with Goldhill’s thesis, we should bear in mind the double meaning implied in the word εὐαγῆ. If we focus on the negative meaning of the second component ἄγος—that is, the sense of pollution—then we can immediately think of the widespread plague in Thebes and of Oedipus himself as the source of this pollution. In this case, the adverb εὖ would point to the wish to turn the ἄγος into its opposite or to shake it off altogether. If, on the other hand, we understand ἄγος as an expiation, then the adverb εὖ intensifies its meaning, hence a notion of a “double” cleansing arises. Both meanings are embedded in Jocasta’s use of the word, in the context of her (now) pious offerings and prayer to Apollo. This piety, however, stands on shaky foundations given her repudiation of the validity of oracles at the end of the preceding episode and the moral desolation of the following, equally famous second stasimon (863–910), with its bleak portrayal of a world devoid of divine oracles, divine justice, and human piety. As argued earlier, Jocasta’s relationship with Apollo is seriously compromised. How could one evince pious reverence to the god, but reject his servants, bearers of his will to mortals? This piety is laced with skepticism, even renunciation of one of the most important channels of communication between the gods and mortals. Oedipus Tyrannus is not only about the breakdown in communication between Oedipus and his interlocutors; it is also about the rupture in Jocasta’s communication with Apollo. [202]

Crucially, the messenger arrives as a surrogate of Apollo, not simply as the divine response to Jocasta’s prayer. The wording used in the communication with him comprises the marked terms σημαίνω and σημεῖα, which are known descriptors of the ways of Apollo, who, in his oracles, rather than predicting, gives signs, σημαίνειν. In the dialogue that follows, the cognate words σημῆναι and σημάντωρ γενοῦ (or σημήνας γενοῦ) [203] articulate the questions addressed by Jocasta and Oedipus to the messenger in exhorting him to deliver his message. “Tell me what you wish to say, indicating with signs,” says Jocasta (ἀλλὰ φράζ’ ὅτου / χρῄζων ἀφῖξαι χὤτι σημῆναι θέλων, 932–933), while Oedipus, some twenty lines later, repeats the question (957): “What are you saying stranger? You yourself be the indicator,” (or, “be the informant of the signs of the event” (σημάντωρ γενοῦ); [204] or, if we accept the variant σημήνας γενοῦ, “stranger, tell me with signs.” The periphrasis σημήνας γενοῦ is legitimate [205] and preferred by both Pearson and Lloyd-Jones and Wilson in their editions. I think, however, that the semiotic connotations in the σημάντωρ γενοῦ (preferred by Jebb, Dawe, and Finglass) from the Homeric usage are strong and exciting: [206] σημάντορες are the commanders of subdivisions of the army who give the signal to join battle, but, most importantly, to maintain the order of the formation: when they are absent, disorder, fear, and transgression hold sway (Iliad 15.325, Odyssey 19.314). Consequently, the absence of a σημάντωρ engenders fear, for the army or groups of people are left without guidance. When Apollo looked the Greeks full in face, in Iliad 15, they lost their nerve, as if they had become a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep, left without a σημάντωρ (Iliad 15.323–327):

οἱ δ’ ὥς τ’ ἠὲ βοῶν ἀγέλην ἢ πῶϋ μέγ’ οἰῶν
θῆρε δύω κλονέωσι μελαίνης νυκτὸς ἀμολγῷ,
ἐλθόντ’ ἐξαπίνης σημάντορος οὐ παρεόντος,
ὣς ἐφόβηθεν Ἀχαιοὶ ἀνάλκιδες· ἐν γὰρ Ἀπόλλων
ἧκε φόβον, Τρωσὶν δὲ καὶ Ἕκτορι κῦδος ὄπαζεν.

A σημάντωρ signals, indicates, instills coherence, dispels fear, and maintains order. The exhortation to the messenger to become a σημάντωρ encompasses all these meanings so sought after by the troubled mind of Oedipus and the increasingly anxious mind of Jocasta. Both urge the messenger to deliver his message, but in reality they seek signs and guidance to clarify their dire situation. Initially, it is hard to understand why the royal couple resort to this wording, replete with cognates of σημαίνειν, until just before the end of the episode when Oedipus realizes that the various pieces of information given by the messenger are nothing other than signs to aid in discovering his origin (1058–1059):

οὐκ ἂν γένοιτο τοῦθ’, ὅπως ἐγὼ λαβὼν
σημεῖα τοιαῦτ’ οὐ φανῶ τοὐμὸν γένος.

It cannot be that when I have obtained such indications [σημεῖα] I shall not bring to light my birth.

“For the time has come,” Oedipus said to the members of the chorus a little earlier, “to learn who I am. So, please indicate to me [σημήναθ’[ε], 1050] whether you know the shepherd of whom the Corinthian messenger speaks.” [
208] It cannot be coincidental that in this episode the use of the verb σημαίνειν and its cognate σημεῖα converge, for it is in this episode that Jocasta attempts to re-establish communication with Apollo and Oedipus discovers the first indications of his origin. Apollo responds immediately by providing all the signs needed for Jocasta to understand clearly who Oedipus is. By the end of the episode she has killed herself, while the downfall of Oedipus is only minutes away. The λύσιν εὐαγῆ, the “solution to shake off pollution,” for which Jocasta prayed, sustains its double meaning: beneficial for the community, while expunging entirely the sources of the pollution.

“What have you said?” asks Jocasta, “is Oedipus’ father dead?” (πῶς εἶπας; ἦ τέθνηκε <Πόλυβος>; 943). The news triggers such an outpouring of relief that for the next fifty lines Jocasta and Oedipus exult over their riddance from the fear of parricide that has burdened the life of Oedipus. The exultation is intertwined with an unshakable (so they think) proof of the invalidity of the oracles of Apollo and the signs conveyed by the birds (964–972):

φεῦ φεῦ, τί δῆτ’ ἄν, ὦ γύναι, σκοποῖτό τις
τὴν πυθόμαντιν ἑστίαν, ἢ τοὺς ἄνω
κλάζοντας ὄρνεις, ὧν ὑφ’ ἡγητῶν ἐγὼ
κτανεῖν ἔμελλον πατέρα τὸν ἐμόν; ὁ δὲ θανὼν
κεύθει κάτω δὴ γῆς· ἐγὼ δ’ ὅδ’ ἐνθάδε
ἄψαυστος ἔγχους, εἴ τι μὴ τὠμῷ πόθῳ
κατέφθιθ’· οὕτω δ’ ἂν θανὼν εἴη ’ξ ἐμοῦ.
τὰ δ’ οὖν παρόντα συλλαβὼν θεσπίσματα
κεῖται παρ’ Ἅιδῃ Πόλυβος ἄξι’ οὐδενός.

Ah, ah, lady, why should one look to the prophetic hearth of Pytho, or to the birds that shriek above us, according to whose message I was to kill my father? But he is dead, and lies deep below the earth; and I am here, not having touched the weapon, unless he died from missing me; in that way I might have caused his death. But still Polybus lies in Hades, and with him have gone the oracles that were with us, now worth nothing.

In lieu of insolence in the rejection of oracles, I read an immense feeling of relief experienced by someone who has just been liberated from the fetters of fear. Jocasta described at the beginning of the episode the state of Oedipus’ mind, convulsed with every kind of grief (λύπαισι παντοίαισιν, 915), and how he is carried away by whoever incites fear by what he says (εἰ φόβους λέγει, 917). In cases such as this, a person becomes disoriented: first, he is no longer subject to rational thought: … οὐδ’ ὁποῖ’ ἀνὴρ / ἔννους τὰ καινὰ τοῖς πάλαι τεκμαίρεται, (“… and he is not interpreting new happenings by means of earlier ones like a rational man,” 915–916); and, second, he can seriously undermine the system within which he lives and in which he formerly wholeheartedly believed. Oedipus agrees with Jocasta in her questioning (and rejection) of the oracles (973–974):

ΙΟ. οὔκουν ἐγώ σοι ταῦτα προὔλεγον πάλαι;
ΟΙΔ. ηὔδας· ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ φόβῳ παρηγόμην.

J.: Did I not foretell this to you long ago? O.: You told me but I was led along by fear.

Oedipus is sincere in his desire to see the oracles refuted, but he is neither impious nor insolent, for he has proven his loyalty to the system from the outset of the play; he is merely a person transfixed by fear. With the father dead, the fear for the mother remains; the diction of the passage is replete with words related to fear for both parricide and incest (ὀκνεῖν, 976, 986; φοβοῖτ᾽, 977; φοβοῦ, 980; φόβος, 988; ἐκφοβεῖσθ’, 989; φόβον, 991; ὀκνῶν, 1000; φόβου, 1002; ταρβῶν, 1011; φοβεῖ, 1013; τρέμων, 1014). The Corinthian messenger has come to release him from his fears (1002–1003):

τί δῆτ’ ἐγὼ οὐχὶ τοῦδε τοῦ φόβου σ’, ἄναξ,
ἐπείπερ εὔνους ἦλθον, ἐξελυσάμην;

Why, since I have come in friendship, do I not release you [ἐξελυσάμην] from this fear [φόβου], my lord?

Now, these two lines combine everything that matters now in Oedipus Tyrannus, and they seem to be the direct answer to the λύσιν εὐαγῆ of the prayer of Jocasta. There is often a moment of high optimism in the Sophoclean plays when a happy resolution seems within reach; the incipient euphoria it brings only briefly precedes the unfolding of the plot leading to the catastrophic descent into the inevitability of destruction and death. Therefore, the ἐξελυσάμην of the messenger in line 1003, instead of releasing Oedipus from the fetters of fear, becomes ironically a textual sign to initiate the crucial cycle of questions that follow, leading to the gradual reconstruction of Oedipus’ identity. In this episode, Jocasta understands; but for Oedipus a fourth and final cycle of questions is needed (with Laius’ servant) to complete the puzzle of his self.

The barrage of questions triggered by the announcement of the death of the foster father runs as follows:

“What are you saying? Was not Polybus my father?” (πῶς εἶπας; οὐ γὰρ Πόλυβος ἐξέφυσέ με; 1017).
“But why did he call me his son?” (ἀλλ ἀντὶ τοῦ δὴ παῖδά μ’ ὠνομάζετο; 1021).
“Did you buy me or find me before you gave me to him?” (σὺ δ’ ἐμπολήσας, ἢ τυχών μ’ αὐτῷ δίδως; 1025).
“Why were you travelling in those regions <in Cithaeron>?” (ὡδοιπόρεις δὲ πρὸς τί τούσδε τοὺς τόπους; 1027).
“So you were a shepherd, wandering about in your servitude?” (ποιμὴν γὰρ ἦσθα κἀπὶ θητείᾳ πλάνης; 1029).
“<You said you saved me.> What trouble was I suffering from when you took me in your arms?” (τί δ’ ἄλγος ἴσχοντ’ ἐν χεροῖν με λαμβάνεις; 1031).

The investigation into Oedipus’ suffering (ἄλγος) leads to the only concrete feature of identity that is recognizable and unmistakable: “your ankles would bear witness to it” (ποδῶν ἂν ἄρθρα μαρτυρήσειεν τὰ σά, 1032), replies the messenger; “Ah, why do you speak of that ancient grief?” (oἴμοι, τί τοῦτ’ ἀρχαῖον ἐννέπεις κακόν; 1033), exclaims Oedipus. “When I released you, your ankles had been pierced” (λύω σ’ ἔχοντα διατόρους ποδοῖν ἀκμάς, 1034). “Yes, it was a dreadful brand of shame that I had from my cradle” (δεινόν γ’ ὄνειδος σπαργάνων ἀνειλόμην, 1035). “So that it was from that occurrence [τύχης] that you got the name you bear” (ὥστ ὠνομάσθης ἐκ τύχης ταύτης ὃς εἶ, 1036).

With these last sentences, the identity bound up with Oedipus’ name has been established: he is the baby whose ankles were pierced at birth. As argued earlier, [212] this cruel and seemingly unjustifiable act of physical branding is an indelible, unignorable, and irrefutable way to establish one of the traits of his identity; if everything else becomes unrecognizable, the scarring of the feet bears witness to the origin of the baby. Furthermore, the allusion in his name to Oedipus’ lameness links him with his forbears, Laius and Labdacus, in the renowned analysis of Lévi-Strauss, who sees the patrilineal descent in terms of a corporeal deficiency. It seems that Laius unwittingly, and ironically, fitted Oedipus, with his swollen feet, seamlessly into his family tree. Moreover, piercing the feet as an act of naming the baby is a gross perversion of the ritual performed in all individual oikoi to include the baby in the family a few days after birth. If, instead of inclusion, the father attempts to ensure the exclusion and destruction of the child, the child’s later capacity of acting properly as a citizen is crippled forever. Lastly, we should not forget that branding someone with cuts or burns on the body has been widespread since antiquity to indicate a social outcast. A person is stigmatized (in the current meaning of the term) to function as a warning or signal of his propensity to bring evil. The stigma gives the person a “spoiled identity” that accompanies him forever. The messenger indicated (σημαίνειν) the signs of this identity he was aware of, but in reality Oedipus’ pierced feet already signified a social outcast; this was the dreadful shame (δεινὸν ὄνειδος) that he carried from birth.

Neither the birth, nor the scars can be understood by Oedipus; it all seems cruel and unjustified. Thus his next question is “who did that to me? My mother or my father?” (ὦ πρὸς θεῶν, πρὸς μητρὸς ἢ πατρός; φράσον, 1037). The answer contains yet another pun on the name of Oedipus (1038): οὐκ οἶδ’· ὁ δοὺς δὲ ταῦτ’ ἐμοῦ λῷον φρονεῖ (“I do not know; the man who gave you to me knows it all better than I did”). And thus, with the participle ὁ δοὺς (which ironically here holds the position of the second component of the name Οἰδίπους) the servant of Laius is introduced, “suddenly and casually”: [218] “then did you not find me, but received me from another man?” (ἦ γὰρ παρ’ ἄλλου μ’ ἔλαβες οὐδ’ αὐτὸς τυχών; 1039). And then, a fusillade of questions follows:

“Who was that man?” (τίς οὗτος; 1041).
“<A servant of Laius?>. The same Laius, who was the king of this land?” (ἦ τοῦ τυράννου τῆσδε γῆς πάλαι ποτέ; 1043).
“Is the shepherd still alive?” (ἦ κἄστ’ ἔτι ζῶν οὗτος … ; 1045).
“Is there one among you who are standing by who knows the shepherd of whom he speaks?” (ἔστιν τις ὑμῶν τῶν παρεστώτων πέλας /ὅστις κάτοιδε τὸν βοτῆρ’ ὃν ἐννέπει, 1047–1048).
“Tell me, since it is time these things were found out!” (σημήναθ, ὡς ὁ καιρὸς ηὑρῆσθαι τάδε, 1050).

Oedipus, at the end of this episode erupts into a euphoric, and blissfully utopian, delineation of his genealogy—an ironic preamble to the euphoric choral song that will follow. This genealogy consists of Tyche as the mother, and the months as his relatives who raised him to greatness (1080–1085):

ἐγὼ δ’ ἐμαυτὸν παῖδα τῆς Τύχης νέμων
τῆς εὖ διδούσης οὐκ ἀτιμασθήσομαι.
τῆς γὰρ πέφυκα μητρός· οἱ δὲ συγγενεῖς
μῆνές με μικρὸν καὶ μέγαν διώρισαν.
τοιόσδε δ’ ἐκφὺς οὐκ ἂν ἐξέλθοιμ’ ἔτι
ποτ’ ἄλλος, ὥστε μὴ ’κμαθεῖν τοὐμὸν γένος.

But I regard myself as child of the event that brought good fortune, and shall not be dishonored. She is my mother; and the months that are my kin have determined my smallness and my greatness. With such a parent, I could never turn out another kind of person, so as not to learn what was my birth.

The members of the chorus reiterate the happy speculation about Oedipus’ origin. In the very short choral song that follows (third stasimon), they refer to Cithairon as the mother, nurse, and (most of all) as the fellow-native of Oedipus (1089–1091). Oedipus, the once celebrated king and the father of all the Thebans at the outset of the tragedy (note the very first line of the play, ὦ τέκνα, Κάδμου τοῦ πάλαι νέα τροφή; and again, τέκνα in line 6) has now become an infant bereft of parents (1098–1099): τίς σε, τέκνον, τίς σ’ ἔτι- / κτε (“who bore you, child”)? His paternal and authoritative status has been diminished to an infantile powerlessness. It takes some time to arrive at a conclusion regarding his origin that seems to be both promising and felicitous; and the chorus, now relieved, can reiterate the dances in honor of Apollo that were “interrupted” in the second stasimon (καὶ χορεύεσθαι πρὸς ἡμῶν [1093] vs. τί δεῖ με χορεύειν; [896] of the second stasimon).

There is, however, a crack in the narrative from which a plague of evils will burst forth. Jocasta’s silence as she rushes off stage is an omen and a token of the impeding catastrophe, a silence pregnant with evils. Sophocles has a penchant for these moments of silence, gravid with the menace of imminent catastrophe; they are usually attributed to women (Jocasta, Deianeira, and only exceptionally to Ajax), and they mark a complete collapse in communication. Silence fills the void when language fails to furnish the bridge between meaningful questions and meaningful answers. Jocasta has relinquished her desperate attempts to deter Oedipus because for her the narrative of his birth and life is now complete and coherent. She has no words left other than to pity him (1071-1072):

ἰοὺ ἰού, δύστηνε· τοῦτο γάρ σ’ ἔχω
μόνον προσειπεῖν, ἄλλο δ’ οὔποθ’ ὕστερον.

Ah, ah, unhappy one! That is all that I can say to you, and nothing any more!

Communication with Jocasta in this web of interlocution is irrevocably broken.

4.9 Questions with the Servant of Laius: Articulating the Truth

After all, even what happened before I was born might on one reading be seen as a part of the process of my becoming. Isn’t birth itself an arbitrary point?

Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self

In the short space of the fourth episode (1110–1185), Oedipus learns who he is. Jocasta’s silence on leaving the stage now breaks and a spate of evils bursts forth, as fearfully predicted by the chorus. The servant of Laius, now on stage, is asked by the Corinthian messenger the only meaningful question, into which all previous questions are now subsumed (1142–1145):

ΑΓ. φέρ’ εἰπέ νυν, τότ’ οἶσθα παῖδά μοί τινα
δούς, ὡς ἐμαυτῷ θρέμμα θρεψαίμην ἐγώ;
ΘΕ. τί δ’ ἔστι; πρὸς τί τοῦτο τοὔπος ἱστορεῖς;
ΑΓ. ὅδ’ ἐστίν, ὦ τᾶν, κεῖνος ὃς τότ’ ἦν νέος.

M.: Tell me now, do you remember giving me a child, so that I could bring it up as my own? S.: What? Why are you asking me this question? M.: This man, sir, is he who was once that child.

Laius’s servant implores the Corinthian messenger to silence (οὐ σιωπήσας ἔσῃ; 1146). However, silence is no longer an option. The inexorable point has arrived when Oedipus’ understanding of himself and his history will be recast into a new narrative. The whole episode is organized around two narrative modules; the infant (παῖδα, 1150, 1156) and his story (ἔπος / ἐννέπων / ἱστορεῖν, 1144, 1150, 1156, 1165). The fearful reluctance of the servant to become the instrument of reconstructing the last shreds of Oedipus’ life is confronted by the determination of the king to extract this last remaining piece of information, the missing link in his whole story. The central question around which the episode, the entire play, and finally the narrative of Oedipus’ life pivots is now articulated (1156):

τὸν παῖδ’ ἔδωκας τῷδ’ ὃν οὗτος ἱστορεῖ;

Did you give to this man the child he is asking about?

The answer is a “one-word admission”; [
223] the single piece of information that Oedipus yearned for is now irrevocably uttered (1157):


I did.

A barrage of questions follows in order to clarify this simple statement, since the kinship connection to Laius has yet to be established:

Where did you get it from? Was it your own, or someone else’s?” (πόθεν λαβών; οἰκεῖον ἢ ’ξ ἄλλου τινός; 1162)
From which of these citizens, and from which house?” (τίνος πολιτῶν τῶνδε κἀκ ποίας στέγης; 1164)
Was it a slave <of the house of Laius>, or one of his family?” (ἦ δοῦλος, ἢ κείνου τις ἐγγενὴς γεγώς; 1168)

Everything falls into place: the two prophecies, the exposure of the infant, the mother’s complicity. Now all the past events become comprehensible: the swollen feet, the killing of the father. All the illusions of the past collapse: the foster parents along with the false identity. Αt the end of the previous stasimon the question of birth was raised; now it is resolved: “if you are who he says you are, know that you were born to misery” (εἰ γὰρ οὗτος εἶ / ὅν φησιν οὗτος, ἴσθι δύσποτμος γεγώς, 1180–1181).

The before of the life of Oedipus is fully illuminated now and the line of events (previously ignored or misunderstood) become instantly coherent with Oedipus learning who he is and where he comes from. The after of the hero is still to be constructed, the after that follows on the heels of the revelation regarding his identity (1180 and onwards). Now the original question “who am I?” is answered with what seems to be a simple statement: “I am Oedipus.” Being Oedipus, however, is as convoluted (and painful) as was the process of reconstructing the scattered and cryptic fragments of his past. From line 1180 until the very end of the play things happen, decisions are made, and the action unfolds inexorably to culminate in two acts of new horror: the suicide of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus. The “I am Oedipus” now contains new elements that constitute his newly found identity: the very act of the self-blinding seals the Sophoclean Oedipus as we know him.

The after of Oedipus forces him to confront Jocasta (although he finds only her lifeless body) and blind himself; and then, in tortured lamentation, he engages in an excruciating dialogue with the members of the chorus, explaining why he has mutilated himself and how he sees his life as an accursed and stigmatized person in his polis. Despite the temptation, I will not consider Oedipus at Colonus as the after of Oedipus Tyrannus. For one thing, Oedipus at Colonus was staged some twenty-five years later. More importantly, however, Sophocles wishes us to consider the story he narrates within the short contours of a single tragedy. More often than not, the playwright ends his plays with an open ending, [233] not defining in any concrete way what is expected beyond the end of his play (with the exception of Philoctetes). Exile for Oedipus remains as yet unconfirmed at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, for Creon sends an envoy to consult the oracle once more to resolve the situation. Of course, we have the prediction of Teiresias in the first episode (454–456) that Oedipus will end up as an impoverished wanderer in foreign lands. But nothing is fixed yet, and we need no projections into the future to delineate the after of Oedipus; this has been all too well established in our tragedy. Oedipus has been transformed into a sightless outcast within the confines of his own polis; his close family and the citizens of Thebes recognize him as the embodiment of the truth of his own narrative, which now, finally, makes sense.


[ back ] 1. Cameron 1968; Dugdale 2015; Euben 1990:96–129.

[ back ] 2. Dodds 1966:48.

[ back ] 3. See below, chapter 5, sections 2 and 3, pp. 125–147

[ back ] 4. Cameron 1968:32–33.

[ back ] 5. Taylor 1989:48; see also chapter 3 above, pp. 36–37.

[ back ] 6. MacIntyre 2007:203–204.

[ back ] 7. See also the examination of the play by Finglass (2018:40–82) under a number of (overlapping) headings, responding to the initial question of the Introduction to chapter 4: “What Kind of Play is This?”: 1. Suppliant drama 2. Recognition tragedy 3. Nostos-play 4. Foundling narrative 5. A work of theodicy and 6. Tragicomedy.

[ back ] 8. Taylor 1989:27.

[ back ] 9. Taylor 1989:35, my emphases.

[ back ] 10. Reminiscent of (but not congruent with) the Lacanian introduction to language through the Name of the Father. For the latter, see also section 4.2, p. 53.

[ back ] 11. Taylor 1989:29; see also section 4.2, pp. 52–53.

[ back ] 12. Taylor 1989:14–15; consider also a similar formulation: every orientation in life is necessarily an orientation to the good, as we take a stance “on questions of what is good, or worthwhile, or admirable, or of value” (Taylor 1989:27).

[ back ] 13. “The very way we walk, move, gesture, speak is shaped from the earliest moments by our awareness that we appear before others, that we stand in public space, and that this space is potentially one of respect or contempt, of pride or shame” (Taylor 1989:15).

[ back ] 14. Taylor 1989:5.

[ back ] 15. Taylor 1989:28.

[ back ] 16. Ibid.

[ back ] 17. Taylor 1989:27.

[ back ] 18. Taylor 1989:48.

[ back ] 19. “We take as basic that the human agent exists in a space of questions” (Taylor 1989:29).

[ back ] 20. See chapter 5.3 below.

[ back ] 21. Karakantza 2011b:149–164.

[ back ] 22. “The Structural Study of Myth,” in the first volume of Structural Anthropology (1963:227–255), presents the grid of the structural analysis of the myths related to the family of Oedipus—the only Greek myth ever analyzed by Lévi-Strauss. Although very often cited, I will give here a concise résumé of the major postulates of the analysis: starting with the Spartoi Thebans through the last generation of the children of Oedipus, Lévi-Strauss breaks down the relevant narratives into the smallest possible segments, the so-called mythemes (from French mythèmes, mythe + ème), and locates them on four columns, in respect also to the diachronic and synchronic axis of the narratives; this is the grid the structuralist analyst has to form before the actual analysis. The first two columns comprise the mythemes denoting the positive (column I) and negative (column II) aspect of the idea of kinship ties: overrating (for example, the marriage of mother and son) and negation (the mutual killing of the brothers). The last two columns explore the idea of autochthony, similarly in its negation (column III) and acceptance (column IV); an example of the former is the killing of the autochthon dragon by Cadmus; of the latter, the swollen feet of Oedipus. The motivating question of the entire analysis is the origin of man: do we come from the union of a man and a woman (as human experience proves) or do we spring from the very earth of our native land? Myths do not give a positive answer to either possibility, Lévi-Strauss claims, but oscillate between the bipolar divisions/distinctions inherent in human societies, denoting the way that the human mind works. This last statement epitomizes the structural motto in approaching myths in general. The major criticism against structuralism is its ahistorical dimension. For ancient Greek culture, the scholarship of the French School presents one response to that critique (see below). For a full analysis of the approach, its advantages and shortcomings, and its reliance on structural linguistics, see Karakantza 2004:147–178, with relevant bibliography at 220–222.

[ back ] 23. Ferdinand de Saussure and his seminal book Cours de Linguistique Générale (Course in General Linguistics) published posthumously in 1916 by Saussure’s students from their notes on his seminars in Geneva (1906–1911). Although not a systematic exposition of principles, the book exerted a huge influence in shaping structuralism and semiotics by introducing the notion of the linguistic sign and the precedence of the synchronic analysis of a text over the diachronic.

[ back ] 24. For a detailed analysis of the Herodotian narrative by Vernant, see also chapter 4.7 below.

[ back ] 25. Etymologicum Magnum 199.25–27: Ὁ δ᾽ Ἐτυμολόγος, ὁ τοὺς πόδας ἐπὶ τὰ ἔξω διεστραμμένος, καὶ τῷ Λ στοιχείῳ ἐοικώς. Διὰ τοῦτο καὶ Λάμβδα ἐκαλεῖτο ἡ γυνὴ μὲν Ἠετίωνος, μήτηρ δὲ Κυψέλου τοῦ Κορίνθου τυράννου. See also Delcourt 1944:20–21. For lameness as a mythic motif, see further Vernant 1988:209–212; Delcourt 1957; and Delcourt 1986 on physical deficiencies in myth.

[ back ] 26. Later, in the second volume of Anthropologie Stucturale (1976:31–35), Lévi-Strauss revisits the Oedipus myth and connects the riddle of the Sphinx (a question to which the answer should remain apart) with the incest (a relation in which two persons should remain apart) as two situations that bear internal and logical similarities. And, lastly, in Mythe et oubli (1975:294–300), he connects lameness, lisp, and oblivion as themes used by myths to express the breakdown of communication on various levels of social life. See also Karakantza 2011b:154–155 n19.

[ back ] 27. The latter was remedied by Jean-Pierre Vernant and the French School that introduced into structuralism the consideration of the polis and its ‘structures’ of thought, ethics, and behavior.

[ back ] 28. Apropos of ritual flogging in the festival of Artemis Ortheia in Sparta (1985:262).

[ back ] 29. It should be noted here that naming a male child after the paternal grandfather is a tradition that is still strongly adhered to in modern Greece. It is one of the symbolic gestures in social and cultural anthropology that shows remarkable conservatism through time.

[ back ] 30. This is the ritual of Amphidromia, “to which a sacrifice at the hearth belongs” (Burkert 1985:255). Equally important for the right of citizenship is the three-day ancestral festival of Apatouria, during which the father, together with two witnesses from the same dêmos, registers the male child as a genuine descendant to the phratria; see Burkert 1985:255 and Parker 1996:105.

[ back ] 31. See below, section 4.7, pp. 85–88.

[ back ] 32. Of course, “the body is the main element of identity, a sense of the self and belonging to society” (Makrinioti 2004:27).

[ back ] 33. Goldhill 2012:20, 25–37.

[ back ] 34. 1990:96.

[ back ] 35. Taylor 1989:36.

[ back ] 36. Taylor 1989:35.

[ back ] 37. Taylor 1989:35.

[ back ] 38. Lacan 2001:73.

[ back ] 39. Across a wide spectrum of studies—ranging from feminist economics, psychoanalytic studies, and cinematic studies, to religion, literature, sociology of gender, and classics—critics have revisited and criticized the phallocentric Name of the Father, that is, the law of the phallus and male sexuality as the maker of meaning, and, consequently, the formation of the female sexed subject of difference. I will refer the reader to only a few, but significant, studies regarding the re-evaluation and reconfiguration of the Lacanian position on sexual politics: Banwell and Fiddler 2018; Cavanagh 2017; Leeb 2017; Kostikova 2013; Hook 2006a and 2006b; Hewitson 1999; Beattie 1999; Brodribb 1992; Lorraine 1990; Gallop 1982. The refutation of my own earlier reading of Oedipus, resting on the Lacanian postulate of the Law of the Father, with the mother as the seductive voice of disorder (Karakantza 2011b) can be read below, in chapter 4.5 “Questions with Jocasta: Dislocating the Origin or Jocasta’s Body and Mind.”

[ back ] 40. See especially pages 71–78 of section 4.5.

[ back ] 41. Taylor 1989:35–36.

[ back ] 42. Taylor 1989:36

[ back ] 43. Taylor 1989:35.

[ back ] 44. Taylor 1989:36.

[ back ] 45. I cannot present an exhaustive overview of the scholarship on the nature of oracles in Oedipus Tyrannus, in Sophocles, or in Greek tragedy. Oracles in Sophocles are of “labyrinthine nature” (Pucci 1994:33). In regard to the thorny issue whether (or to which extent) oracles dictate the action in a play, Kamerbeek states rightly that: “… a stronger case can be made for the oracles as interpretation of the events than for the events as the result of the oracles. And indeed Sophocles, who did not alter the main data of Oedipus’ life, did alter the oracle given to Laius in a very important respect (cf. the guilt of Laius), or at least did not use Aeschylus’ version of the oracle” (1965:31). A concordant idea, that of prophecy as the narratological voice of the poet himself, is articulated by Peradotto in his “Disauthorizing Prophecy.” Understandably, works that deal with Apollo, and “his ways” in Oedipus Tyrannus, also refer to the nature and function of the oracles. For the relevant discussion and bibliography, I refer the reader to chapter 5.2 below, pp. 115–130.

[ back ] 46. Karakantza 2011b:150.

[ back ] 47. “The oracle has warned him not to beget a son, for the son that should be begotten would kill his father; nevertheless, flushed with wine, he had intercourse with his wife” (χρήσαντος τοῦ θεοῦ μὴ γεννᾶν (τὸν γεννηθέντα γὰρ πατροκτόνον ἔσεσθαι) ὁ δὲ οἰνωθεὶς συνῆλθε τῇ γυναικί, Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.7; trans. Frazer). In line with this tradition, Euripides in his Phoenician Women (17–20) has Jocasta retelling the oracle after Laius inquired about his childlessness: “But Phoebus replied, ‘King of Thebes, city of fair horses, do not keep sowing the child-begetting furrow against the gods’ will: if you sire a son, your own offspring will kill you, and the whole house will be embroiled in bloodshed’ ” (trans. Kovacs). Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus gives the following account from the mouth of Jocasta (711–714): “An oracle once came to Laius … , saying that it would be his fate to die at the hands of the son who should be the child of him and me”—this account resembles an indirect warning rather than an open prohibition by the god.

[ back ] 48. Which I analyze below, in section 4.5.

[ back ] 49. Taylor 1989:91–92.

[ back ] 50. Finglass ad 810–813: “… retribution that exceeds the original offense is a fundamental principle of ancient justice.”

[ back ] 51. Lacan 2001:73.

[ back ] 52. In The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth (1989).

[ back ] 53. Jebb ad loc.

[ back ] 54. Jebb’s translation, slightly modernized.

[ back ] 55. Jebb ad 261.

[ back ] 56. Goldhill 2012:26–27; and especially the second part of his chapter 1 ,“Analysis of Sophoclean Irony” (25–37). See also Finglass ad 264–268: “The irony in ὡσπερεὶ τοὐμοῦ πατρός, which in other contexts might have seemed rather obvious … , thus forms a culmination of the unusually intense dramatic irony in this passage, and of Oedipus’ desire to connect himself as closely as possible to his predecessor.”

[ back ] 57. Taylor 1989:35.

[ back ] 58. Or as Segal puts it (1981a:151): “Continually breaking down, this communication either ceases prematurely because of fears or knowledge that cannot be spoken or runs to excess because of passion and anger.”

[ back ] 59. Taylor 1989:91.

[ back ] 60. Renger 2013:9–22, 27–31; see also Edmunds 1985:13n60; Edmunds and Dundes 1983:147–173.

[ back ] 61. Asclepiades in Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 10.83.38 (my translation). The Scholiast on Euripides (Phoenissae 50.8) has τρισσοῖσιν ἐρειδόμενον.

[ back ] 62. Euben 1990:113.

[ back ] 63. The “one and the many” riddle as a major inconsistency of the drama is further elaborated below, in 4.6 “Contesting Human Intelligence: The One and the Many.”

[ back ] 64. See above, pp. 36–37, 44–45.

[ back ] 65. Taylor 1989:47.

[ back ] 66. Ibid.

[ back ] 67. Taylor 1989:97.

[ back ] 68. Pucci 1991:6.

[ back ] 69. Karakantza 2011b:154.

[ back ] 70. Cameron 1968:57.

[ back ] 71. Liapis 2012:86; Bain 1979:132–145.

[ back ] 72. Liapis 2012:86.

[ back ] 73. Oedipe, tragédie par Monsieur de Voltaire. Followed by Lettres écrites par l’ auteur qui contiennent la critique de l’ Oedipe de Sophocle, de celui de Corneille et du sien; see also Liapis 2012:89; Dawe 2006:7.

[ back ] 74. Edmunds 2000:34–73.

[ back ] 75. The famous, although controversial in translation, line containing the vox Sophoclea τρέφω: τἀληθὲς γὰρ ἰσχῦον τρέφω (“the truth I nurture has strength,” Lloyd-Jones; “I have a champion—the truth,” Kitto; “in my truth is my strength,” Jebb; “I nourish the strength of truth,” Finglass; “my strength lies in truth,” my own).

[ back ] 76. ΤΕ. λεληθέναι σέ φημι σὺν τοῖς φιλτάτοις / αἴσχισθ’ ὁμιλοῦντ’, οὐδ’ ὁρᾶν ἵν’ εἶ κακοῦ. / ΟΙ. ἦ καὶ γεγηθὼς ταῦτ’ ἀεὶ λέξειν δοκεῖς; / ΤΕ. εἴπερ τί γ’ ἐστὶ τῆς ἀληθείας σθένος (T.: “I say that you are living unawares in a shameful relationship with those closest to you, and cannot see the plight in which you are.” O.: “Do you believe that you will continue to repeat such things and go scot-free?” T.: “Yes, if the truth has any strength”).

[ back ] 77. Edmunds 2000:55. Edmunds also acknowledges other functions of the scene, such as its metatheatricality, which constructs, so to speak, “today’s version of the myth” (42).

[ back ] 78. Lattimore 1975:106.

[ back ] 79. Trans. Kitto.

[ back ] 80. Foucault in his essay “Truth and Juridical Forms” (2000) interprets the whole play as a criminal investigation using symbola; the whole truth is possessed only by Apollo and Teiresias. See 4.7 below, “Intermezzo: Scholarship Thinks Oedipus is a Tyrant” for a detailed discussion of Foucault’s approach, focusing on the interrelation between knowledge and power (pp. 93–99).

[ back ] 81. 1979:132–145.

[ back ] 82. Bain 1979:138; consider also: “We cannot be sure that an audience will at that stage in the play take it for granted that Sophokles is using the version he is using or that they will be aware of all the details that Sophokles is later to reveal about Oidipous’ early life” (141).

[ back ] 83. Bain 1979:137.

[ back ] 84. Along with the other misconceptions that see Oedipus as the “guilty,” the “puppet,” or “in need of psychotherapy,” Bain 1979:133.

[ back ] 85. Bain 1979:141.

[ back ] 86. Liapis 2012:86.

[ back ] 87. Ibid.

[ back ] 88. See the remarks of Vayos Liapis (2012:88), whο cοmpares Edgar Allan Poe’s short detective story “The Purloined Letter” (published in 1844) to the episode with Teiresias. In Poe’s story an important letter was stolen by the unscrupulous Minister D and was hidden in “plain view” in his room, so as to fool the French police who searched his premises meticulously.

[ back ] 89. Liapis 2012:88.

[ back ] 90. Teiresias’ accusations “sound as outrageous fabrications” (Liapis 2012:88).

[ back ] 91. Liapis 2012:86; Finglass 2018 ad 447–462.

[ back ] 92. “Λαΐειον in place of an expected nominal genitive (264-8n) emphasises the solemnity of the moment” (Finglass 2018 ad loc.).

[ back ] 93. Jebb ad loc. with relevant examples; see also Finglass 2018 ad 449–452.

[ back ] 94. Here in active form = τὴν αὐτὴν σπείρων (Jebb ad loc.).

[ back ] 95. See also the very interesting remark by Finglass (2018 ad 457–460) regarding the three two-part predicates assigned to Oedipus by Teiresias (brother/father, son/husband, fellow-sower/murderer): “As if to prevent the sentence from becoming too balanced and schematic, the phrase accompanying each of these double predicates stands each time in a different syntactical relationship (dative, genitive with relative clause, genitive with definite article); the ruptures within Oedipus’ family are reflected in unusually complex language.”

[ back ] 96. As is beautifully shown by Foucault (2000:1–89 passim); see also 4.7 below.

[ back ] 97. See p. 104.

[ back ] 98. I will consider a part of this debate below, in 4.7: “Intermezzo: Scholarship Thinks Oedipus is a Tyrant.”

[ back ] 99. My thinking is informed by the observations of many scholars, and especialy Sheila Murnaghan (2012:221), who remarks on the multiplicity of roles, and the fluidity of functions, of the choral singers in Sophocles: “… Sophocles used the chorus with great versatility, assigning it multiple forms of connecting to the main characters—as concerned observers, anxious dependants, sympathetic friends, or complicit allies—and taking advantage of the different types of choral participation built into tragic form: conversational exchanges … ; discrete odes … ; and lyric dialogues … .” Also indispensable are Griffith 1999 ad 332–377; Goldhill 2012:81–108; Foley 2003; Budelmann 2000; Battezzato 2005; and Murnaghan 2011.

[ back ] 100. Trans. Finglass 2018 ad 707–709.

[ back ] 101. I am referring, of course, to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté, published in 1949 and translated into English as The Elementary Structures of Kingship in 1969. There the exchange of women between different tribes or clans in aboriginal societies constitutes a wide network establishing the laws of kinship; women are seen as exchangeable values or commodities, alongside other valuable and exchangeable products. These basic observations have been used by contemporary feminist thinkers to trace and criticize the kinship laws on which the patriarchal order is based.

[ back ] 102. What Judith Butler calls the “heteronormative hegemonic practices” that establish the “heterosexual imperative” (1993:2).

[ back ] 103. Wyke 1998:3.

[ back ] 104. Butler 1993:2; see also Athanasiou 2006:103.

[ back ] 105. In Judith Butler’s “Variations on Sex and Gender” (1986:515). The work edited by Foucault, to which Butler refers, is Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century Hermaphrodite (1980).

[ back ] 106. Trans. Finglass 2018 ad locc.

[ back ] 107. The other metaphor is, of course, the (in)hospitable harbor (Oedipus Tyrannus 420–423): βοῆς δὲ τῆς σῆς ποῖος οὐκ ἔσται λιμήν, / ποῖος Κιθαιρὼν οὐχὶ σύμφωνος τάχα, / ὅταν καταίσθῃ τὸν ὑμέναιον, ὃν δόμοις / ἄνορμον εἰσέπλευσας, εὐπλοίας τυχών; (“What harbour will there be for your cries, what of Cithaeron will not soon resound in accompaniment to them, when you perceive the wedding-song, the one without anchorage in your house, which you sailed into, having come upon sailing weather? [trans. Finglass 2018 ad loc.]).

[ back ] 108. Trans. Lloyd-Jones.

[ back ] 109. “… if kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws” (2000:82); see also Karakantza forthcoming (a).

[ back ] 110. Honig 2013:10, 21, 31.

[ back ] 111. The first important reclamation of Antigone for political agency, contrary to the Hegelian and Lacanian readings, was made by Luce Irigaray in 1989, Le Temps de la Différence: Pour une Révolution Pacifique. Irigaray was a pupil and adherent of the Lacanian psychoanalytic circle. However, she distanced herself from the phallocentric Freudian and Lacanian theories by criticizing the exclusion of women from philosophy and psychoanalytic theory in her first major publication in 1974: Speculum de l’ Autre Femme. This created such a controversy within the Lacanian School that she lost her teaching post at the University of Vincennes at the instigation of Lacan himself. This also caused her expulsion from the École Freudienne de Paris, founded by Lacan (see the opening remarks of her work Je, Tu, Nous. Pour une Culture de la Différence, 1990). Despite these tribulations, Irigaray has become an influential author in contemporary feminist theory and continental philosophy. For Antigone as political agent, see also Butler 2000:82; Honig 2013; Söderbäck 2010; Karakantza forthcoming (a).

[ back ] 112. Karakantza 2011a:26–27, with notes 13–14.

[ back ] 113. To use Foucault’s words from the first volume of his History of Sexuality (1990:5).

[ back ] 114. Leonard 2006:131–132.

[ back ] 115. Rick M. Newton as late as 1991 refers to the role of Jocasta in binary and socially constructed gendered terms: “Oedipus’ Wife and Mother.” He sees in her the “motherly preoccupation with αἰδώς” (41) and he thinks that Jocasta behaves “as a mother reprimanding her child” (40). In tune with this he argues: “in the previous episode Jocasta revealed a motherly preoccupation with avoiding disgrace. Her new emphasis on τύχη and her expressed goal of living an easy life, however, are more in keeping with the wifely ‘survival philosophy’ voiced by such figures as Tecmessa and Andromache” (43).

[ back ] 116. Butler 1988:525; and earlier in 1986:505–516.

[ back ] 117. 1993:2.

[ back ] 118. I am referring to the famous statements of Ajax (Ajax 479–480): ἀλλ’ ἢ καλῶς ζῆν ἢ καλῶς τεθνηκέναι / τὸν εὐγενῆ χρὴ (“the noble man must live with honour or be honourably dead”) and of Deianeira (Trachiniae 721–722): ζῆν γὰρ κακῶς κλύουσαν οὐκ ἀνασχετόν, / ἥτις προτιμᾷ μὴ κακὴ πεφυκέναι (“for a woman whose care is to be good cannot bear to live and to enjoy evil repute”; trans. Lloyd-Jones).

[ back ] 119. Trans. Kitto.

[ back ] 120. See also the similar piece of information about Teiresias knowing Oedipus’ parents, which is also “wasted” in the course of the narrative, and the manipulation of the information by Sophocles, in section 4.4 above, p. 70.

[ back ] 121. See the relevant discussion in section 4.6.

[ back ] 122. Voltaire 1719 (see section 4.4 above, p. 64n73).

[ back ] 123. For the relevant bibliography, see Karakantza 2011b:157n25.

[ back ] 124. Segal 2000:158.

[ back ] 125. 1963 ad 845.

[ back ] 126. Knox 1957:154, 157; Karakantza, 2011b:158.

[ back ] 127. Knox 1957:150; Karakantza 2011b:158.

[ back ] 128. 1973:31–35; Karakantza 2011b:154n19.

[ back ] 129. See also section 4.9 below, pp. 110–113.

[ back ] 130. Segal 2000:90–91; Dawe 2006:7; Bollack 1990 ad 122.

[ back ] 131. Culler 1981:172-175; Karakantza 2011b:158.

[ back ] 132. Goodhart 1978:67.

[ back ] 133. Goodhart 1978:67.

[ back ] 134. The first is “The Lame Tyrant. From Oedipus to Periander” and the second is “Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex”; also renowned are “Oedipus Without the Complex,” and Vidal-Naquet’s “Oedipus in Athens”—all of these essays are now published in the collection Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece.

[ back ] 135. My intention in this chapter is not to tackle the issue of the tentative hybris of Oedipus, nor to get into the long, so far unresolved, discussion about whether the second stasimon refers Oedipus as hybristes or tyrant. The disparagement of divine laws and practices expressed in this stasimon is a response to Jocasta’s call to discredit the divine oracles in the preceding episode; her intention is to appease the tormented mind of Oedipus. In section 4.5 above, I have dealt at length with the doubting of the oracles as part of a wider undermining of the patriarchal order; the prohibition of incest, one of the founding principles of patriarchy, as well as faith in oracular voices, collapse in Jocasta’s body and mind.

[ back ] 136. Thomas Gould’s essay, extending to three parts (published between 1965–1966), titled “The Innocence of Oedipus: The Philosophers on Oedipus the King,” presents the views of the ancient philosophers (mainly Aristotle’s) on Oedipus. See also Miriam Leonard’s chapter on “Oedipus and the Subject of Philosophy” from her Athens in Paris (2005:22–32), where she claims: “The question of when Oedipus becomes a figure of philosophy cannot stand in isolation. Oedipus’ re-entry into the tradition of the Western thought is inextricably linked to the emergence of a philosophical preoccupation with ‘the tragic’ and the wider question of how the reception of the Greeks came to play such a determining role in the development of European philosophy” (23).

[ back ] 137. Segal argues that there are two principal classes of interpreters of Oedipus Tyrannus: the “humanists” and the “theologizers” (2001:168). The “humanists” see in Oedipus the incessant quest for human knowledge, often performed with a certain arrogance bordering on hybris (see the argument in the present chapter).

[ back ] 138. Vernant 1988a:222.

[ back ] 139. Vernant 1988a:209.

[ back ] 140. Ibid.

[ back ] 141. The oracle received by Eëtion reads as follows (5.92.11–13): Ἠετίων, οὔτις σε τίει πολύτιτον ἐόντα. / Λάβδα κύει, τέξει δ’ ὀλοοίτροχον· ἐν δὲ πεσεῖται / ἀνδράσι μουνάρχοισι, δικαιώσει δὲ Κόρινθον (“Eëtion, worthy of honor, no man honors you / Labda is with child, and her child will be a millstone / which will fall upon the rulers and will bring justice to Corinth”; trans. de Sélincourt/Burn).

[ back ] 142. Ὁ τοίνυν Περίανδρος κατ’ ἀρχὰς μὲν ἦν ἠπιώτερος τοῦ / πατρός, … , / πολλῷ ἔτι ἐγένετο Κυψέλου μιαιφονώτε- / ρος (5.92.5).

[ back ] 143. Thucydides (1.20; 6.56–57) in his narrative “corrects” the motives of Harmodius and Aristogeiton from political to personal; see also Aristotle Athenaiōn Politeia 18.

[ back ] 144. Beautifully shown at Seaford 2008:49–65.

[ back ] 145. Seaford 2007:26–27.

[ back ] 146. Seaford 2007:27.

[ back ] 147. Seaford 2007:23.

[ back ] 148. Seaford 2007:26–27.

[ back ] 149. Vernant 1988:222.

[ back ] 150. Ὁ δὲ χρησμὸς ὅδε ἦν· / Ὄλβιος οὗτος ἀνὴρ ὃς ἐμὸν δόμον ἐσκαταβαίνει, / Κύψελος Ἠετίδης, βασιλεὺς κλειτοῖο Κορίνθου, / αὐτὸς καὶ παῖδες, παίδων γε μὲν οὐκέτι παῖδες (“the prophesy went like this: ‘Fortunate is he who steps down into my house / Cypselus, son of Eetion, lord of famous Corinth: / Fortunate he and his sons, but not the sons of his sons’ ”; trans. de Sélincourt/Burn).

[ back ] 151. Vernant 1988a:226.

[ back ] 152. Vernant 1988a:227.

[ back ] 153. Among the specialists in the study of classical myth, it is unanimously accepted that every retelling of a traditional narrative is a new version of the story; for details on this scholarship, see Karakantza 2004:32–33, 201–205.

[ back ] 154. In 2002 Lowell Edmunds in his paper titled “Oedipus as Tyrant” identifies several of the characteristics we have mentioned earlier in the paper with Athenian and panhellenic ideology about the tyrant and his regime. However, there are extra or heterogeneous ingredients in the tyranny of Oedipus that differentiate it from the expected parabola of the regime: his intelligence, the plague, and the curse. As for the fall οf the tyrant, this is “oddly inconclusive” (97).

[ back ] 155. Vernant 1988b:113–140. Observe the following formulation: “It is this axis on which the divine king occupies the highest point and the pharmakos the lowest that governs the whole series of reversals that affect the figure of Oedipus and turn the hero into a ‘paradigm’ of ambiguous, tragic man” (125).

[ back ] 156. This is a symbolic plague, not a mirroring of the plague of the Peloponnesian War as is often suggested. Of course, the historical plague, as was vividly described by Thucydides and experienced by Sophocles himself, could provide imagery that could be grist to the playwright’s mill (provided, of course, that the staging of the play post-dates the outbreak of the plague in Athens). And again, the imagery does not relate so much to the physical symptoms (which were very diverse), but rather to the bleak picture of widespread death and the general disruption of civic life.

[ back ] 157. Karakantza 2004:79–84.

[ back ] 158. On René Girard, see Karakantza 2004:103–105; Girard 1972:143–144.

[ back ] 159. Knox 1957:61.

[ back ] 160. Knox 1957:59–60.

[ back ] 161. Knox 1957:63.

[ back ] 162. Knox 1957:67–77.

[ back ] 163. Vidal-Naquet 2003:46.

[ back ] 164. Vidal-Naquet 2003:46.

[ back ] 165. Taxidou argues that eradicating the Sphinx “signifies the end of ritual repetition” (2004:49).

[ back ] 166. Goux 1993:141.

[ back ] 167. Goux 1993:142.

[ back ] 168. Hegel, as quoted by Goux (1993:142), records another exception to the Athenian rule for Socrates: his non-initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

[ back ] 169. Taxidou 2004:45.

[ back ] 170. Goux 1993:143. “Deprojection” is the reverse process of a projection in which the original figure is reproduced.

[ back ] 171. Goux 1993:148.

[ back ] 172. Ibid.

[ back ] 173. Foucault 2000:31–89, “Truth and Juridical Forms.” I am deeply indebted to Miriam Leonard for bringing this lecture of Foucault’s to my attention through her book Athens in Paris (2005). Her assessment on this “forgotten” reading of Oedipus is as follows (2005:71): “It is not only integrally part of Foucault’s intellectual biography, it also reveals a fascinating moment in the encounter between ‘French theory’ and post-war French Hellenism. From its sustained dialogue with the work of Vernant, to its re-evaluation of the anti-psychoanalytic project of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipe, [La Vérité et les Formes Juridiques] charts a period in French intellectual history which, despite its rooting in a dialogue with antiquity, has largely been ignored by classicists.”

[ back ] 174. James D. Faubion in his Introduction to Foucault 2000:3.xii; see also Leonard 2005:73. This period of intellectual activity coincides with Foucault’s intense activity as a political militant; in 1971 he co-founded (with Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Jean-Marie Domenach) the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP) in his attempt to break the penal system open to criticism and reform.

[ back ] 175. 2000:2.

[ back ] 176. Foucault 2000:4; and see, too: “There cannot be particular types of subjects of knowledge, orders of truth, or domains of knowledge, except on the basis of political conditions that are the very ground on which the subject, the domains of knowledge, and the relations with truth are formed” (15).

[ back ] 177. Foucault 2000:3.

[ back ] 178. Foucault 2000:5.

[ back ] 179. Foucault 2000:17.

[ back ] 180. Ibid.

[ back ] 181. Foucault 2000:20.

[ back ] 182. Foucault 2000:22.

[ back ] 183. Indeed, Oedipus declares himself unable to set out on the path of investigation for lack of a symbolon, a token that can be used to initiate it (οὐ γὰρ ἂν μακρὰν / ἴχνευον αὐτός, μὴ οὐκ ἔχων τι σύμβολον, 220–221).

[ back ] 184. Foucault 2000:24.

[ back ] 185. Ibid.

[ back ] 186. Translation as found in the text of Foucault (2000:28). The entire passage (Oedipus Tyrannus 628–630) is rendered by the philosopher as follows: “You’re wrong; you identify with this city where you were not born, you imagine that you belong to this city and that it belongs to you; I belong to this city as well, it’s not yours alone.” The rendering is more explanatory of the thesis of Foucault than a literal translation. The Greek runs as follows: ΚΡ.: εἰ δὲ ξυνίης μηδέν; ΟΙ.: ἀρκτέον γ’ ὅμως. /ΚΡ.: οὔτοι κακῶς γ’ ἄρχοντος. ΟΙ.: ὦ πόλις, πόλις. / ΚΡ.: κἀμοὶ πόλεως μέτεστιν, οὐχὶ σοὶ μόνῳ (Cr: “But if you understand nothing?” Oed: “Nonetheless, I have to rule.” / Cr: “Not if you rule badly!” Oed: “Think of the city, the city!” / Cr: “But I too have a share in the city, not you alone.”)

[ back ] 187. Foucault 2008:28.

[ back ] 188. Foucault 2000:29.

[ back ] 189. Ibid.

[ back ] 190. Foucault 2000:30.

[ back ] 191. Ibid.

[ back ] 192. Ibid.

[ back ] 193. Foucault 2000:32; both in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Plato’s Republic.

[ back ] 194. Ibid.

[ back ] 195. Foucault 2000:33. I do not share Leonard’s reservations about Foucault not mentioning the structures of democratic Athens and the ideology and rhetoric of the polis; and consequently, making his Oedipus “as historically indeterminate as his Freudian counterpart” (2005:85). In addition, Leonard charges that in his analysis of Oedipus as tyrant, contrary to the Vernant’s tyrant who is well rooted in the historical reality of ancient Athens, Foucault has in mind the analyst “who works at the service of our ‘carceral society’ ” (2005:88), thus aligning himself with the anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari, who point at analysts as a bourgeois/capitalistic mechanism to control and “discipline” the individual. However, as I have been arguing in these pages, Foucault does not mention explicitly (or in terminology familiar among Hellenists) the polis and its ideology; but, he describes succinctly in his analysis the very transition from the autocratic, solitary knowledge of the tyrant (who consequently controls and governs using this knowledge), to the knowledge acquired by experience of members of “lower” classes who gain the right to judge and to tell the truth. This is a huge difference between the previous autocratic tyrannical rule and one that is easily recognized as democratic. Foucault’s tyrant might not be as well rooted in the Greek polis as Vernant’s, but he is well rooted in what the philosopher calls the power relations that change exactly at that very moment that the new concept of Athens and Athenians is consolidated through the reforms and institutionalized actions that brought about the Athenian radical democracy.

[ back ] 196. Foucault 2000:2.

[ back ] 197. Chapters 2 and 3.

[ back ] 198. Foucault 2000:17.

[ back ] 199. Goldhill 2012:14.

[ back ] 200. I suggest this translation if we focus on the negative meaning of the second component ἄγος (see the discussion later this chapter). There is a general agreement among critics on translating the passage: Jebb translates as “riddance from uncleanness,” Goldhill (2012:13) “holy release” and “an undefiled solution,” Lloyd-Jones “cleansing solution,” Kitto “delivery and peace,” Finglass “blessed release.”

[ back ] 201. Goldhill 2012:15; the telling title of the relevant chapter is “Undoing Lusis and the Analysis of Irony.”

[ back ] 202. Of course, as I argued in section 4.5, Jocasta’s impiety is a side effect of her attempt to manipulate a precariously delicate psychological situation when Oedipus begins to be haunted by his worst fears, as the outpouring of terms denoting fear at the beginning of the third episode with the Corinthian messenger demonstrate.

[ back ] 203. The first hand in L wrote σημήνας, a corrector has changed it to σημάντωρ. Jebb, Dawe, and Finglass prefer the σημάντωρ γενοῦ, while Pearson, Bollack, and Lloyd-Jones and Wilson the σημήνας γενοῦ; Kamerbeek also claims that σημάντωρ has to be rejected (ad 957).

[ back ] 204. Finglass 2018 ad 957: “the grand nominal phrase σημάντωρ γενοῦ suits a message of high importance.” He translates: “What are saying stranger? You yourself be the signifier to me.”

[ back ] 205. According to Dawe 2006 ad 957; for the counter-arguments, see Finglass 2018 ad 957.

[ back ] 206. I wrote this part of my argument based on my preference for σημάντωρ γενοῦ rather than σημήνας γενοῦ, before Finglass’s commentary on Oedipus the King was published. When I was able to consult it, I was happy to realize that we both agree on σημάντωρ γενοῦ. It is interesting to see the other route through which I have reached the same conclusion: semantics and Homeric tradition. This latter corroborates my firm belief that Homeric diction and ideology were well rooted in the minds of the poets and spectators of classical drama; both of the latter were in constant dialogue with the Homeric tradition.

[ back ] 207. Trans. Murray/Wyatt.

[ back ] 208. Free rendering of the lines 1047–1050: ΟΙ. ἔστιν τις ὑμῶν τῶν παρεστώτων πέλας / ὅστις κάτοιδε τὸν βοτῆρ’ ὃν ἐννέπει, / εἴτ’ οὖν ἐπ’ ἀγρῶν εἴτε κἀνθάδ’ εἰσιδών; / σημήναθ, ὡς ὁ καιρὸς ηὑρῆσθαι τάδε.

[ back ] 209. Segal 1981b:151; see further Pucci 1988:131–154; Pucci 1991:10; Peradotto 1992:6; Calame 1996:31; lastly, Budelmann’s The Language of Sophocles (2000) and Goldhill’s Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (2012) corroborate this fact.

[ back ] 210. Goldhill 2012:14.

[ back ] 211. Also Finglass (2018 ad 927–928): “The word order of 928 allows the sense ‘this woman is his wife and mother’ until the final three words clarify the significance of the ‘mother’.”

[ back ] 212. See section 4.1, pp. 46–52.

[ back ] 213. In a forthcoming (b) publication “Beauty and the Beast: A Reading of Sophocles’ Trachiniae.

[ back ] 214. Davies 1999 ad 555–556.

[ back ] 215. Goldhill 2012:26.

[ back ] 216. Jebb ad 555: “ἀρχαίου because he lived long ago; the emphasis on the past is natural in one who is looking back sadly to the days of her youth, and speaking to young maidens for whom Nessus is only a legendary name.” Easterling 1982 ad loc: “Nessus is described as ἀρχαῖος because to D’s audience he is a figure of the past.” Lloyd-Jones translates: “I had an ancient gift from a monster long ago” transposing the meaning of ἀρχαίου to the gift and that of παλαιοῦ to Nessus. Jebb’s translation is closer to the original text: “I had a gift, given to me long ago by a monster of olden time … .”

[ back ] 217. Jebb 1892 ad 559; also, “the older name of the river, Λυκόρμας, expressed the ‘wolf-like’ rush of the river” and “the name Nessos symbolizes the roar of the angry torrent” (ad 557f).

[ back ] 218. Finglass 2018 ad 1038.

[ back ] 219. Emendation and translation by Finglass 2018.

[ back ] 220. Taylor 1989:35–38.

[ back ] 221. The Elders of the chorus remark that the Queen left the stage driven by “wild” chagrin: ὑπ’ ἀγρίας /… λύπης, 1073–1074.

[ back ] 222. Trans. Finglass 2018.

[ back ] 223. Finglass 2018 ad 1157.

[ back ] 224. Taylor (1985:24–25) writes about linguistic articulacy as a necessary part of the process of evaluating our preferences in life: “There is the beginning of a language in which to express the superiority of one alternative, the language of higher and lower, noble and base, courageous and cowardly, integrated and fragmented, and so on”; a strong evaluator is capable of a reflection that is more articulate. Taylor also supports the necessity of linguistic articulacy for the good to exist (1989:91). He also argues that “the obvious point to begin with is that the goods … only exist for us through some articulation. … A vision of the good becomes available for the people of a given culture through being given expression in some manner. The God of Abraham exists for us (that is, belief in him is a possibility) because he has been talked about, primarily in the narrative of the Bible but also in countless other ways from theology to devotional literature. And also because he has been talked to in all the different manners in liturgy and prayer. Universal rights of mankind exist for us because they have been promulgated, because philosophers have theorized about them, because revolutions have been fought in their name, and so on.” And finally, articulacy is about depth: “where there is articulacy there is the possibility of a plurality of visions which there was not before” (Taylor 1985:26).

[ back ] 225. 2018 ad 1169. To which Oedipus replies: “And I in my hearing, but nevertheless I must hear” (Finglass 2018 ad 1170).

[ back ] 226. Taylor 1989:91–97; Taylor 1985:24–26, 59. If we wish to advance this argument further, we should note that classical Greek thought sees reason in the notion of “linguistic articulacy,” for it considers logos as part of the telos of human beings. This is an ethical question in its broader sense, since it relates to the issue of making sense of one’s life (Taylor 1989:92).

[ back ] 227. Which normally signals “a tightening of emotional tension,” Finglass 2018 ad 1173–1176.

[ back ] 228. Edmunds 1985:47–57; Segal 200:24-32; Jebb 1887:xi–xix.

[ back ] 229. 1968:57.

[ back ] 230. Foucault 1974:48.

[ back ] 231. Ibid.

[ back ] 232. Foucault 1974:49, 48.

[ back ] 233. More often than not, Sophocles leaves the end of his plays open; that is to say, without a definite closure according to the programmatic statements of the beginning, and the consequent unfolding, of the play. Pietro Pucci, in reference to Oedipus Tyrannus, wonders whether this is due to “the vagaries of tuchê or to the drifting of Sophoclean writing” in combination “with Sophocles’ intention to leave the ending of the play open” (1991:3). My belief is that the playwright intentionally leaves the ending of his plays “suspended”; in Ajax the hasty and unheroic burial of Ajax simply saves the body from defilement; in Electra, the spectators (and the readers) wonder whether there are more evils to fall on the house of Atreus (and when?); in Antigone, there is not any foreseeable solution to the play (all protagonists are either dead or mentally and psychologically destroyed); lastly, in Oedipus Tyrannus, nothing is decided at the end: Oedipus goes back to his palace, and whether he will be exiled or condemned to death (as the original oracle dictated, 100–101) remains to be decided after a new consultation of the oracle. The end of Oedipus Tyrannus is so inconclusive that scholars athetize lines (or a group of lines) from the exodos of the play (see Kovacs 2009a:53–55; further on the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, see Budelmann 2006:43–61).