The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

  Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Abridged edition 2019.

Hour 19. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and heroic pollution

The meaning of miasma

19§1. The key word for this hour is miasma, meaning ‘pollution, miasma’, a noun derived from the verb miainein, meaning ‘pollute’. In the last hour, we saw that Oedipus in the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles needed to perform libations to the Eumenides in order to free himself of pollution, which was preventing him from becoming the cult hero of Colonus in particular and of Athens in general. In this hour, as we consider the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, we will see how Oedipus became polluted in the first place. (I should note here that many experts have been tempted to link the historical context of this drama with the great plague that devastated Athens in 430 BCE and that flared up intermittently in the years that followed. But the fact remains that the date for the production of the Oedipus Tyrannus is unknown.)
19§2. The essentials of the story as told in the Oedipus Tyrannus are well known: Oedipus unintentionally killed his own father and unintentionally had sex with his own mother. The action that started the pollution was the actual killing, even though Oedipus did not know that Laios, the man he killed in a fit of rage at a crossroads, was his real father – and that Iocasta, the woman he married after he immigrated to Thebes, was his real mother. The fact that the actions of Oedipus were unintended did not mitigate the fact that these actions – killing the father and having sex with the mother – caused him to become polluted.
19§3. These negative actions committed by Oedipus, along with the pollution they caused, are typical of the heroic age. As we saw already in Hour 16§6, where I went through the grim exercise of summarizing the central myths concerning the men and women who belonged to the dynastic family known as the House of Atreus, some of the actions committed by those male and female he- {525|526} roes in the heroic age were likewise shockingly negative. In this hour, we will see that the pollution caused by such negative actions of heroes in the heroic age needed to be purified by way of ritual re-enactment in the drama of Athenian State Theater, featuring tragedies composed by such eminent state poets as Aeschylus and Sophocles. For the moment, however, I concentrate on the negative actions themselves, and on the pollution that they caused. And I continue to highlight the parallelisms we can find in the negative actions committed by Oedipus and by the heroes stemming from the dynastic family of Atreus. As in the case of Oedipus, the heroes of the House of Atreus were guilty of committing such negative actions as the slaughter of blood relatives and incest. We already saw this in the summary of events I presented in Hour 16§6. And, as we also saw, there was even cannibalism in that family.
19§4. So, when we consider patterns of behavior that are typical of the heroic age, the actions of Oedipus in killing his father and having sex with his mother are hardly exceptional. Shocking, yes, but not exceptional. Granted, heroes of the heroic age perform mostly positive actions, and these actions are extraordinary. A hero like Oedipus performs extraordinarily positive actions: after all, as we will see, he becomes the savior of the city of Thebes by way of solving the Riddle of the Sphinx and thus saving his new community from destruction. This action of Oedipus is properly glorified in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles (35-39). But the point is, the heroes of the heroic age are also capable of performing negative actions, and these actions too are extraordinary. In fact, they are not only extraordinary: they also cause pollution. And, as we will now see, such polluting actions as performed in heroic times are considered to be analogous to polluted thoughts and feelings that may be afflicting citizens in the historical times of Athenian State Theater.
19§5. So, how do the citizens of Athens experience polluted thoughts and feelings? My answer is, they do so by channeling, as it were, the polluted thoughts and feelings of tyrants.

The pollution of tyrants

19§6. In this book, the last time I used the word tyrant for purposes of my own argumentation was in Hour 13§47, which was the last paragraph of that hour. Back then, I was interpreting a passage in Theognis (1081–1082b), Hour 13 Text L, where the speaker was referring to a hypothetical dictator of a hypothetical city-state. In that context, I said that such a dictator was the equivalent of a tyrant. This word tyrant comes from the Greek noun turannos, which has a long {526|527} and complicated history that I studied in great detail in other work. [1] I will now attempt a formulation that summarizes all that work, focusing here on what the word turannos meant in the political context of Athens in the second half of the fifth century BCE, the era of Sophocles:

A turannos, translated as ‘tyrant’, is a ruler who has seized power in a state by resorting to actions that turn out to be tainted, that is, polluted. The tyrant may seem to be a very accomplished and even charismatic king, modeling himself on the hero-kings of the heroic age, but he is really a dictator, polluted by his actions just as the hero-kings of the heroic age were polluted by their own actions. The pollution is a sign of hubris or moral ‘outrage’ – which is the opposite of dikē or ‘justice’. In moralizing stories about tyrants, such hubris is destined to be punished by divine sanction. And the two most common metaphors for expressing such a sanction against a tyrant’s hubris are shipwreck and sterility.
19§7. A model for such a turannos is the hero-king Oedipus, and that is why the tragedy we are now considering has the title Oedipus Tyrannus, written here in its latinized form, and not Oedipus Rex, since Latin rēx is the word for a legitimate ‘king’, not for a ‘tyrant’. [2]
19§8. In Athens, the form of government that came to power in 508 BCE and that eventually became known as a dēmokratiā or ‘democracy’ was shaped by political leaders who tended to demonize as turannoi the leaders of the dynasty that preceded them, namely, the powerful family of the Peisistratidai, who had dominated the city both politically and culturally for most of the second half of the sixth century BCE. [3] By the time we reach the second half of the fifth century BCE, which is the era of Sophocles, the dangers posed by the very concept of a tyrant are still a preoccupation for the State, as we can see from the deeply probing explorations of such dangers in the poetry of Athenian State Theater.
19§9. As we will see from the wording of the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, the dangers of tyranny threaten the citizens of Athens not from the outside but rather from inside their own city. And that is because such dangers can emanate from the thoughts and feelings of the city’s own citizens.
19§10. That said, I return to the formulation I offered already in §5: the citi – {527|528} zens of Athens in the time of Sophocles will experience polluted thoughts and feelings if they channel the polluted thoughts and feelings of tyrants. And, in terms of this formulation, the polluted thoughts and feelings of tyrants are modeled on the polluting actions of heroes in the heroic age.
19§11. In the Republic of Plato, such polluted thoughts and feelings are analyzed in terms of a psychology of the unconscious. The pollution of a citizen’s thoughts and feelings is something that can happen, as we will soon see, when he is dreaming. Here is how it works: when the citizen is awake, he has civic thoughts and feelings, but when the citizen is asleep, he can dream the kinds of dreams that translate into the polluting actions of dysfunctional heroes. I will now quote the relevant text, where Plato’s Socrates speaks about various kinds of pollution caused by various epithumiai or ‘desires’ and hēdonai or ‘pleasures’ experienced in sleep:

Hour 19 Text A

I am talking, I [= Socrates] said, about those [desires and pleasures] that are awakened when one part of the soul [psūkhē] sleeps – I mean the part that is rational [logistikon] and domesticated [hēmeron] and in control [arkhon] of the other part, which is beast-like [thēriōdes] and savage [agrion]. Then, [when the rational part is asleep,] this other part, which is glutted with grain [sīta] or intoxicants [methē], starts bolting [skirtāi] and seeks to push aside sleep and to satiate its own ways of behaving [ēthos plural]. When it is like this, it dares to do everything, released as it is from all sense of shame [aiskhunē] and thinking [phronēsis]. It does not at all recoil from attempting to |571d lay hands on his own mother in order to have sex with her – or to lay hands on any other human or god or beast – and to commit whatever polluting [miasma-making] murder, or to eat whatever food. In a word, there is nothing in the realm of consciousness [noos, pronounced as nous in Plato’s time] and shame that it will not do.
Plato Republic 9.571c-d [4] {528|529}
19§12. Up to now I have nowhere translated psūkhē simply as ‘soul’, except for the stretch of paragraphs in Hour 10 (§§32-50) where I spoke about a journey of a soul in the Homeric Odyssey. And now I make another exception as I once again make use of that translation ‘soul’ in the general context of Plato’s overall theorizing about a psychology of the soul. Granted, in the specific context of the text I have just quoted, I could just as easily have translated psūkhē as ‘mind’, since Socrates here speaks of a division between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind. Still, I chose ‘soul’ because, as we will soon see, Sophocles uses this same word psūkhē in contexts where the hero Oedipus himself is speaking about his own mind. And that usage is relevant to what Plato’s Socrates is saying in the passage I have just quoted, which is, that there are polluting actions just waiting to be released from inside the psūkhē whenever its unconscious part starts to wake up, as it were, in the dreams that are dreamed during sleep – while the conscious part continues to sleep. And such a release leads to thoughts and feelings about polluting actions. The word miaiphoneîn in the text I have just quoted means ‘to commit polluting [= miasma-making] murder’, and it implies the taboo topic of killing one’s own blood-relatives. As for the wording that I translate ‘to eat whatever food’, it implies the taboo topic of cannibalism. And as for the taboo topic of having sex with one’s own mother, it is not even made implicit in this text. It is quite explicit, and even the ‘it’ that refers to the unconscious part of the psūkhē now becomes a ‘he’ that seeks to have sex with ‘his’ mother.

A look inside the psūkhē of Oedipus

19§13. Of the three taboo topics mentioned by Plato’s Socrates in analyzing the desires and the pleasures of the mind, or, to say it his way, of the psūkhē, all three of them apply to a wide variety of heroes in the heroic age, and two of them apply directly to Oedipus in the Oedipus Tyrannus. So, the psūkhē of this hero must surely have an unconscious part, which is the part that drove him to kill his father and to have sex with his mother. But it also has a conscious part, which can be described as ‘rational [logistikon] and domesticated [hēmeron] and in control [arkhon] of the other part, which is beast-like [thēriōdes] and savage [agrion]’ – if I may borrow the words used by Socrates. We see this rational side of Oedipus most clearly when he reacts to the news brought to him by Creon about the response of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi: {529|530}

Hour 19 Text B

|91 {Creon:} If you want to hear in the presence of these people here, |92 I am ready to speak: otherwise we can go inside.
|93 {Oedipus:} Speak to all. I say this because the load I am carrying for the sake of these people here, |94 that sorrow [penthos], is more than the load I carry for my own soul [psūkhē].
|95 {Creon:} I should tell you what I heard from the god: |96 we have been given clear orders by Phoebus [Apollo] the lord |97 to take the pollution [ miasma ] that he said has been nurtured in the land, |98 in this one, and to expel it, not continuing to nurture it till it cannot be healed.
|99 {Oedipus:} To expel it [= the pollution] by using what kind of purification [ katharmos ]? What is the kind of misfortune that has happened?
|100 {Creon:} To expel it [= the pollution] by expelling the man, or by paying back bloodshed with bloodshed. |101 That is the solution, since it is the blood that brings the tempest to our city [polis].
|102 {Oedipus:} And who is the man whose fate [tukhē] he [= Apollo] thus reveals?
|103 {Creon:} We once had, my king, Laios as the leader |104 of this land here before you started being the director [ = euthunein, ‘to direct’, literally means ‘to make straight’] of this city [polis] here.
|105 {Oedipus:} I know it well – by hearsay, for I never saw him.
|106 {Creon:} The man is dead, and now the god gives clear orders |107 to take vengeance against those, whoever they are, who caused his death with their own hands.
|108 {Oedipus:} Where on earth are they? Where will this thing be found, |109 this dim trail of an ancient guilt [aitiā]?
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 91-109 [5] {530|531}
19§14. In the words of Oedipus, the collective burden of lamentable ‘sorrow’ or penthos that is carried by his suffering people is added to the individual burden carried by his own larger-than-life psūkhē, which thus suffers beyond all suffering (93-94).

The pollution caused by Oedipus

19§15. In the Hesiodic Works and Days, as I analyzed it in Hour 12§33, we saw a prophetic vision of two cities: one was the city of dikē or ‘justice’, while the other was the city of the opposite of justice, hubris, which is moral ‘outrage.’ Whereas the city of dikē abounds in fertility (225–237), the city of hubris is afflicted by sterility (238–247). Zeus punishes the city of hubris with famine (243), with the barrenness of its women (244), and with the diminution of household possessions (244). Moreover, the city of hubris is afflicted with shipwrecks in seastorms brought on by Zeus himself (247), whereas the fortunate inhabitants of the city of dikē do not have to sail at all (236–237), since the earth bears for them plentiful karpos or ‘fruit’ (237). In this catalogue of multiple calamities that afflict the city of hubris, I focus on two: shipwreck and sterility. As I already noted at the beginning of this hour, §6, shipwreck and sterility are likewise the two most common metaphors for expressing the idea of divine punishment for the hubris of a tyrant. And now we will see the same two metaphors as symptoms of the pollution unknowingly caused by Oedipus. Here is how it is said, by the priest of Zeus:

Hour 19 Text C

|14 Oedipus, ruler of my land, |15 you see the ages of those who are seated |16 at your altars: some, nestlings that cannot yet get very far |17 by flying, they don’t have the strength, while others are weighted down with age. |18 The priest of Zeus, that is who I am, while these others are from the ranks of young men, |19 specially selected. The rest of the people, wearing garlands, |20 are seated at the place of assembly [agorai], at the twin buildings of Athena, |21 temples, where Ismenos gives prophetic answers with his fiery ashes. |22 This is all because the city [po – {531|532} lis], as you yourself see, is very much |23 afflicted with a seastorm now, and it cannot lift its head |24 any longer out of the depths of the murderous churning of the sea. |25 Something that makes things wilt [phthinein] has descended on the buds containing the fruit [karpos] of the land. |26 Yes, making things wilt [phthinein], it has also descended on the herds of cattle grazing in the pastures. And on whatever is produced |27 from women, which has become lifeless. And the flaming god |28 has swooped down. He is a most hateful plague, afflicting the city [polis]; |29 because of him the house of Cadmus is emptied, while black |30 Hādēs is enriched with sobs and laments [gooi].
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 14-30 [6]

Oedipus as savior

19§16. In the Oedipus Tyrannus, the story of the pollution as signaled by the priest of Zeus is preceded by another story. In this preceding story, also signaled by the priest, Oedipus was the sōtēr or ‘savior’ of the people of Thebes:

Hour 19 Text D

|31 It is not because we rank you [= Oedipus] equal [isos] to the gods |32 that I and these children are suppliants at your hearth, |33 but because we think of you as the first among men in life’s shared fortunes, |34 judging [krinein] you that way, and first also in dealings with superhuman forces [daimones]. |35 You freed us when you came to the city of the Cadmeans [= Thebans], |36 ridding us of the tribute we had to keep on giving to the harsh female singer of songs, |37 and though you knew no more than anyone else, |38 nor had you been taught, but rather by the assistance of a god [theos], |39 it is said and it is thought that you resurrected [orthoûn, ‘make straight’] our life. |40 Now, as we all address your most powerful head, the head of Oedipus, as we touch it, |41 we, your suppliants, implore you as we turn to you |42 to find some {532|533} protection [alkē] for us, whether from one of the gods |43 you hear some prophetic wording [phēmē], or learn of it perhaps from some man. |44 I say this because those who are experienced, |45 thanks to the advice they give, can make – I see it – even accidental things have the power of life. |46 Come, best [aristos] among mortals, resurrect [an-orthoûn, ‘make straight’] our city [polis]! |47 Come! And do be careful, since now this land here |48 calls you a savior [sōtēr], thanks to your willingness to help in the past. |49 And, concerning your rule [arkhē], do not let it happen that our memory of it will be |50 that we were first set up straight [es orthon] and then let down, falling again. |51 So, give us safety and resurrect [an-orthoûn, ‘make straight’] this city [polis]! |52 With a favorable omen of birds was the past good fortune |53 provided by you for us, and so become now the same person, equal [isos] to who you were, |54 since, if in fact you are to rule this land just as you have power over it now, |55 it is better to have power over men than over a wasteland. |56 Neither tower nor ship is anything, |57 if it is empty and no men dwell [sun-oikeîn] inside.
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 31-57 [7]
19§17. The word sōtēr or ‘savior’, as used here at line 48, applies to Oedipus in the context of the greatest and most glorious action performed by this hero for the people of Thebes: by using his superior intelligence, the hero solved the riddle of the Sphinx and thus freed those people (35) from the harsh afflictions caused by that ‘female singer of songs’ (36). By freeing those people, Oedipus had set them up ‘in standing position’, es orthon (50), by contrast with their dejected prone position, when they had abjectly fallen down because of the {533|534} Sphinx, and now they do not want to be ‘falling down again’ (50) – because of the pollution. Nor do the people of Thebes want their own city to ‘fall down again’ because of this same pollution, and that is why they implore Oedipus, now that the city has in fact ‘fallen down again’, to ‘raise it up again’, an-orthoûn (51). I must add that this word an-orthoûn can also mean ‘make straight’, and that this idea conjures the metaphor of straightness as applied to dikē or ‘justice’, as opposed to the metaphor of crookedness as applied to hubris or ‘outrage’. We have already seen in Hour 12§12 some striking examples of these two antithetical metaphors. Moreover, the verb an-orthoûn can mean, in a mystical sense, the ‘resurrecting’ of the dead through some superhuman agency, as we see in the case of Theocritus 1.139, where the goddess Aphrodite wants to an-orthoûn or ‘resurrect’ the beautiful dead hero Daphnis; [8] in that same context, in a concurrently mystical sense, Aphrodite wants not only the hero’s ‘resurrection’ but also his ‘erection’. [9] Similarly in line 39 of the Oedipus Tyrannus, as I have just quoted it, Oedipus is both said to have and thought to have ‘resurrected’, orthoûn, the very life of the people of Thebes when he had saved them from the Sphinx. So, now, he is implored at lines 46 and 51 to an-orthoûn or ‘resurrect’ once again the city of the Thebans. And, to complete the circle, it is only by way of ‘resurrecting’ that city once again that Oedipus will become once again the sōtēr or ‘savior’ – which is what he had been when he had saved Thebes from the Sphinx.
19§18. But the fact is, Oedipus will not become the savior of the Thebans once again. He will not be able to save them from the pollution in an active way – which is how he had saved them from the Sphinx. The only way for Oedipus to remove the pollution from Thebes will be a distinctly passive way – to be removed, expelled. But then he will go on to purify his own pollution, as we already saw in the Oedipus at Colonus, not in Thebes but in Athens. This way, as we have seen in Hour 18§24, Oedipus will become an active ‘bringer of salvation’, a sōtērios, for the whole community of Athens (487), and this will happen because he will actively purify himself of his pollution by pouring a libation to the Eumenides. Further, as we have seen in Hour 18§32, Oedipus will thus become a cult hero of the Athenians, and he will even be called their own sōtēr or ‘savior’ (460; see also 463).
19§19. So, the application of the word sōtēr or ‘savior’ to Oedipus at line 48 of {534|535} the Oedipus Tyrannus is misplaced in this context. The people of Thebes are treating him as a cult hero in return for the action of Oedipus in saving them from the Sphinx, but he cannot be a cult hero for them in the context of the pollution that he himself unknowingly caused for himself and also for his whole community. Moreover, there is something very wrong in the application of this epithet in the larger context of the pollution, since the god Apollo himself is called a sōtēr or ‘savior’ by the priest at line 150, who utters here a short prayer to the god, asking him to free the people from the pollution caused by the plague. Similarly at line 304, Oedipus himself says that he is relying on Teiresias the seer, devotee of Apollo, to be a sōtēr or ‘savior’ of the city by freeing Thebes from the plague. So, the application of this same word sōtēr to Oedipus himself at line 48 indicates the beginning of an antagonistic relationship between this hero and the god Apollo. And here I return to my general formulation in Hour 1§50 about god-hero antagonism: The hero is antagonistic toward the god who seems to be most like the hero; antagonism does not rule out an element of attraction – often a “fatal attraction” – which is played out in a variety of ways.

A second look inside the psūkhē of Oedipus

19§20. The pollution that afflicts both Oedipus and the whole community of Thebes takes the form of a plague, and this plague is pictured as a sickness that afflicts the body. So, the need for purification can be pictured correspondingly as a need for a medical cure – not only for the body but also for the body politic. The metaphor that we see at work in this English expression body politic is most apt here, since Oedipus in the Oedipus Tyrannus is the king of the whole community that is Thebes. And here I return to the anthropological formulation of the very idea of a king, as I presented it in Hour 6§13: the king is an incarnation of the body politic, of society itself, which needs to be renewed periodically by being purified of pollution. This formulation can be applied to what is being said by Oedipus at lines 93-94 of the Oedipus Tyrannus, quoted in Text B: as he contemplates the burden of lamentable ‘sorrow’ or penthos that is carried by his suffering people, the hero says that this collective burden is added to the individual burden carried by his own larger-than-life psūkhē, which thus suffers beyond all suffering. I now show an earlier passage in the Oedipus Tyrannus where Oedipus is already describing this burden of his psūkhē – and already prescribing a remedy for the suffering caused by the pollution: {535|536}

Hour 19 Text E

|58 My piteous children, I know – they are not unknown to me – |59 the desires you have as you come to me. You see, I know well that |60 you are all sick, and that, sick as you are, when it comes to me, |61 there is not a single one of you who is as sick as I am. |62 You see, your pain [algos] goes into each one of you |63 alone, all by yourself, and into no other person, but my |64 soul [psūkhē] mourns for the city [polis], for myself, and for you – it does it all together. |65 So, you are not awakening me from sleep; |66 no, I want you to know that I have by now wept many tears, |67 gone many ways in the wanderings of my thinking. |68 After giving it some good thought, I came up with one and only one remedy [iasis], |69 and I acted on it. You see, the son of Menoikeus, |70 Creon, my wife’s brother, was sent to the Pythian place, |71 sent by me to the dwellings of Phoebus [Apollo], so that he could find out what |72 I should do [drân] or say to save this city [polis] here. |73 And now, when the lapse of days is reckoned, |74 it bothers me what he might be doing, because it is beyond my expectation, |75 how much longer he is gone past the fitting length of time. |76 But when he does arrive, I will be worthless [kakos] |77 if I do not do [drân] all the things indicated by the god.
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 58-77 [10]

Purifying the pollution in tragedy

19§21. The iasis or ‘remedy’ (68) found by Oedipus for noseîn, ‘being sick’ (60-61: the word noseîn occurs three times within this stretch of two lines), is pictured here as a medical solution. But this remedy is not only for being sick. It must also be a remedy for being polluted. Pollution is the basic problem, and {536|537} this pollution is clearly indicated by the word miasma, as we saw it used at line 97 of the Oedipus Tyrannus, quoted in Text B. And, as we also saw at line 99 of the same text, the basic remedy in tragedy for this basic problem of pollution is purification, as expressed by the word katharmos.
19§22. As the oracle of Apollo ordains at line 100, quoted in Text B, the purification of the city of Thebes must take the form of expelling the man who was guilty of killing the king Laios and whose guilt had caused the pollution; alternatively, as we see in the same line, the blood-guilt for the killing of Laios must be paid back with the shedding of the killer’s blood.
19§23. Such a purification, even though it is hardly a medical remedy for an individual body, is seen nevertheless as a collective cure for the body politic of the people of Thebes. And such a mentality of a collective cure can extend from the body politic of the Thebans in myth all the way to the audience of tragedy in the ritual complex of State Theater in Athens. In such an Athenian context, what I have been describing up to now as the audience represents in its own way the body politic.
19§24. In the myth of Oedipus as retold in the Oedipus Tyrannus, we have seen from the wording of Text B that the antidote to miasma or ‘pollution’ (97) is katharmos or ‘purification’ (99). In the ritual complex of drama as brought to life in Athenian State Theater, on the other hand, we see another word for ‘purification’, and that is katharsis, conventionally latinized as catharsis. I have already highlighted this word in Hour 8e§3: there I quoted a celebrated formulation of Aristotle, who links katharsis with mīmēsis – a word that I defined there as ‘re-enactment’. I now quote this formulation again, in the context of analyzing tragedy as a ritual process:

Hour 19 Text F = Hour 8 Text N

Tragedy, then, is the re-enactment [mīmēsis] of a serious and complete action. It has magnitude, with language embellished individually for each of its forms and in each of its parts. It is done by performers [drôntes] and not by way of narrative, bringing about through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] the purification [katharsis] of such emotions [pathēmata].
Aristotle Poetics 1449b24-28
19§25. From the standpoint of the myth of Oedipus, as retold in the drama Oedipus Tyrannus, purification takes the form of eliminating pollution by ex- {537|538} pelling the one who is guilty, or even by shedding his blood. From the standpoint of the ritual of drama, the corresponding purification takes the form of eliminating the same pollution. But what exactly is the pollution that gets eliminated? In terms of Aristotle’s formulation, tragedy works at eliminating the pollution that resides in one’s own world of emotions. By engaging with the larger-than-life emotions of a larger-than-life hero like Oedipus, the audience in the role of the body politic can purge its own emotions, especially the emotions of fear and pity. [As Oedipus also purges his own emotions.]
19§26. As I noted in the Introduction to Part III (§9), a choice word for such heroic emotions is pathos, which can be seen as an all-encompassing Passion in comparison with any emotions experienced by any ordinary person – even though the same word pathos applies here as well.
19§27. If the Passion of a larger-than-life hero like Oedipus dwarfs the emotions of ordinary persons, then a vitally important question arises about the miasma or ‘pollution’ that causes all the suffering, as highlighted in the wording I quoted in Text B from the Oedipus Tyrannus (97). The question is, can we say that this pollution is likewise larger-than-life? And the answer is, yes: the pollution caused by a hero’s actions is so enormous that it can only be remedied by a purification performed by the entire population. In the myth of Oedipus as it plays out in the Oedipus Tyrannus, the purification ultimately takes the ritual form of a public expulsion, to be performed by the people of Thebes. Such a Greek ritual of expulsion is analogous to the Hittite ritual of elimination as I analyzed it in Hour 6§18. On the other hand, in the myth of Oedipus as it plays out in the Oedipus at Colonus, we saw in Hour 18 that the purification of the pollution takes the ritual form of a libation, first performed by the hero himself for the Eumenides before he dies and then performed thereafter, at the right recurring time, notionally for all eternity, by the people of Athens, who have by now become the hero’s worshippers. And these worshippers will perform the libation not only for the Eumenides but also for Oedipus himself, who has by now become a new cult hero in Athens by way of demonstrating to his new countrymen how to perform the libation. The mentality of the actual demonstration is straightforward: do as I do.

The reaction of Oedipus to his own pollution in the Oedipus Tyrannus

19§28. By contrast with the Oedipus at Colonus, the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles dramatizes the immediate reaction of Oedipus to the reality of his own pollution, once he finally recognizes it. And, once this recognition happens, the {538|539} world that had been illuminated for Oedipus by his own intellectual brightness, rivaling the solar supremacy of the god Apollo himself, tragically comes to an end. The same man who could confidently speak as a solar agent, declaring at line 132 of the Oedipus Tyrannus, ‘I will shed light’ on the matter, egō phanô (ἐγὼ φανῶ), will in the end put out the light of his own eyes, which had failed to shed light – as the sun would have shed light – on the dark pollution that had already enveloped the hero. When he sees the lifeless body of his mother and wife, who has just committed suicide, Oedipus reacts to this sight, marked by fear and pity, by taking out his own eyesight:

Hour 19 Text G

|1266 … And when, on the ground, |1267 that wretched person was lying there, terrifying were the things to be seen from that point onward. |1268 For he [= Oedipus] tore from her clothing those gold-worked |1269 brooches of hers, with which she had ornamented herself, |1270 and, holding them high with raised hand, he struck his own eyeballs, |1271 uttering words like these: that they should not see him |1272 either experience such things as he was experiencing [paskhein] or doing [drân] such things – |1273 but, from now on, in total darkness, those persons whom he ought never |1274 to have seen, they could see them now, and, as for those persons whom he needed to know, they would fail to know them now. |1275 Uttering such incantations, many times and not just one time |1276 did he strike with raised hand the spaces where the eyes open and close. And, at each blow the bloody |1277 eyeballs made wet his bearded cheeks, and did not send forth |1278 sluggish drops of gore, but all at once |1279 a dark shower of blood poured down, like hail. |1280 These evil happenings burst forth, coming out of the two of them together, not from only one of them. |1281 No, they were mixed together, for both the man and the woman, these evil happenings. |1282 Their old prosperity [olbos] was once |1283 true blessedness [olbos], and justly [dikaiōs] so. But now on this day here |1284 there is the groaning of lamentation, there is aberration [atē], there is death, there is shame; of all the evil things |1285 that can be named, all of them, not one is missing.
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 1266-1285 [11] {539|540}
19§29. By depriving himself of his own eyesight, Oedipus puts out the light that illuminated his world of intellect. It is as if the inner fires that fueled this light had been extinguished:

Hour 19 Text H

|1327 {Chorus:} You who have done [drân] such terrible things, how could you bring yourself |1328 to extinguish [marainein] your eyesight? Who among the superhuman powers [daimones] urged you on?
|1329 {Oedipus:} It was Apollo, dear ones [philoi], Apollo |1330 who brought to fulfillment [teleîn] these evil, evil experiences [pathos plural] of mine. |1331-1334 But no one with his own hand did the striking. I myself did that, wretch that I am! Why was I to see, |1335 when eyesight showed me nothing sweet?
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 1327-1335 [12]
19§30. The verb that is used here to express the idea of ‘extinguishing’ the eyesight of Oedipus is marainein, in the active voice. Aristotle (On the Heavens 305a11) notes that the middle voice of this verb, marainesthai, is used with reference to situations where a fire goes out by itself; by contrast, in situations where a fire is put out by human agency, another word is used, sbennusthai in the passive voice, by opposition to sbennunai in the active voice, which refers to situations where someone puts out a fire. This distinction, as noted by Aristotle, helps us understand the peculiarity of using the active voice, marainein, with reference to the agency of Oedipus when he puts out the fires, as it were, that fuel the light of his eyesight. Ordinarily, the active form sbennunai would be used with reference to situations where someone puts out a fire, just as the passive form sbennusthai refers to situations where the fire is put out by someone. So, how could the middle form marainesthai, which refers to situations where a fire goes out by itself, be converted to an active form with reference to an extraordinary situation where Oedipus puts out his own eyesight? {540|541} It is as if the agency of Oedipus here were no agency at all. I find a similarly extraordinary situation in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, where the god Hermes makes the first fire and then puts out that first fire at line 140: when he puts the fire out, the active form marainein is used. Again, it is as if the agency of Hermes were no agency at all. But that is not so: although there is no human agency at work here, there is divine agency. The fire goes out by itself because it was started by divine agency, which means that the fire, to human eyes, had also started by itself, animated by the divine force of the god Hermes. I think there is something similarly extraordinary in the use of the active voice of marainein when Oedipus puts out his eyes at line 1328 of the Oedipus Tyrannus. The agency is not human. It is beyond the human. The self-blinding of Oedipus will lead this hero into an existence that transcends the human. {541|542}


[ back ] 1. PH 174-175, 181-188; 229-231; 264-269; 274-313 = 6§§54, 64-76; 8§§22-23; 9§§21-29; 10§§1-54.
[ back ] 2. PH 309 = 10§50n158, following Knox 1954.
[ back ] 3. In PH 382-413 = 13§§1-65, I explore at length and in detail the cultural domination of Athens by the Peisistratidai.
[ back ] 4. Τὰς περὶ τὸν ὕπνον, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, ἐγειρομένας, ὅταν τὸ μὲν ἄλλο τῆς ψυχῆς εὕδῃ, ὅσον λογιστικὸν καὶ ἥμερον καὶ ἄρχον ἐκείνου, τὸ δὲ θηριῶδές τε καὶ ἄγριον, ἢ σίτων ἢ μέθης πλησθέν, σκιρτᾷ τε καὶ ἀπωσάμενον τὸν ὕπνον ζητῇ ἰέναι καὶ ἀποπιμπλάναι τὰ αὑτοῦ ἤθη· οἶσθ’ ὅτι πάντα ἐν τῷ τοιούτῳ τολμᾷ ποιεῖν, ὡς ἀπὸ πάσης λελυμένον τε καὶ ἀπηλλαγμένον αἰσχύνης καὶ φρονήσεως. μητρί τε γὰρ ἐπι |571d χειρεῖν μείγνυσθαι, ὡς οἴεται, οὐδὲν ὀκνεῖ, ἄλλῳ τε ὁτῳοῦν ἀνθρώπων καὶ θεῶν καὶ θηρίων, μιαιφονεῖν τε ὁτιοῦν, βρώματός τε ἀπέχεσθαι μηδενός· καὶ ἑνὶ λόγῳ οὔτε ἀνοίας οὐδὲν ἐλλείπει οὔτ’ ἀναισχυντίας. This text of Plato is most deftly applied by Clay 1978:17 to the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles.
[ back ] 5. |91 {ΚΡ.} Εἰ τῶνδε χρῄζεις πλησιαζόντων κλύειν, |92 ἕτοιμος εἰπεῖν, εἴτε καὶ στείχειν ἔσω. |93 {ΟΙ.} Ἐς πάντας αὔδα· τῶνδε γὰρ πλέον φέρω |94 τὸ πένθος ἢ καὶ τῆς ἐμῆς ψυχῆς πέρι. |95 {ΚΡ.} Λέγοιμ’ ἂν οἷ’ ἤκουσα τοῦ θεοῦ πάρα. |96 Ἄνωγεν ἡμᾶς Φοῖβος ἐμφανῶς ἄναξ |97 μίασμα χῶρας ὡς τεθραμμένον χθονὶ |98 ἐν τῇδ’ ἐλαύνειν μηδ’ ἀνήκεστον τρέφειν. |99 {ΟΙ.} Ποίῳ καθαρμῷ; τίς ὁ τρόπος τῆς ξυμφορᾶς; |100 {ΚΡ.} Ἀνδρηλατοῦντας, ἢ φόνῳ φόνον πάλιν |101 λύοντας, ὡς τόδ’ αἷμα χειμάζον πόλιν. |102 {ΟΙ.} Ποίου γὰρ ἀνδρὸς τήνδε μηνύει τύχην; |103 {ΚΡ.} Ἦν ἡμίν, ὦναξ, Λάϊός ποθ’ ἡγεμὼν |104 γῆς τῆσδε, πρὶν σὲ τήνδ’ ἀπευθύνειν πόλιν. |105 {ΟΙ.} Ἔξοιδ’ ἀκούων· οὐ γὰρ εἰσεῖδόν γέ πω. |106 {ΚΡ.} Τούτου θανόντος νῦν ἐπιστέλλει σαφῶς |107 τοὺς αὐτοέντας χειρὶ τιμωρεῖν τινας. |108 {ΟΙ.} Οἱ δ’ εἰσὶ ποῦ γῆς; ποῦ τόδ’ εὑρεθήσεται |109 ἴχνος παλαιᾶς δυστέκμαρτον αἰτίας;
[ back ] 6. |14 Ἀλλ’, ὦ κρατύνων Οἰδίπους χώρας ἐμῆς, |15 ὁρᾷς μὲν ἡμᾶς ἡλίκοι προσήμεθα |16 βωμοῖσι τοῖς σοῖς, οἱ μὲν οὐδέπω μακρὰν |17 πτέσθαι σθένοντες, οἱ δὲ σὺν γήρᾳ βαρεῖς, |18 ἱερεύς, ἐγὼ μὲν Ζηνός, οἵδε τ’ ᾐθέων |19 λεκτοί· τὸ δ’ ἄλλο φῦλον ἐξεστεμμένον |20 ἀγοραῖσι θακεῖ, πρός τε Παλλάδος διπλοῖς |21 ναοῖς, ἐπ’ Ἰσμηνοῦ τε μαντείᾳ σποδῷ. |22 Πόλις γάρ, ὥσπερ καὐτὸς εἰσορᾷς, ἄγαν |23 ἤδη σαλεύει, κἀνακουφίσαι κάρα |24 βυθῶν ἔτ’ οὐχ οἵα τε φοινίου σάλου, |25 φθίνουσα μὲν κάλυξιν ἐγκάρποις χθονός, |26 φθίνουσα δ’ ἀγέλαις βουνόμοις τόκοισί τε |27 ἀγόνοις γυναικῶν· ἐν δ’ ὁ πυρφόρος θεὸς |28 σκήψας ἐλαύνει, λοιμὸς ἔχθιστος, πόλιν, |29 ὑφ’ οὗ κενοῦται δῶμα Καδμεῖον, μέλας δ’ |30 Ἅιδης στεναγμοῖς καὶ γόοις πλουτίζεται.
[ back ] 7. |31 Θεοῖσι μέν νυν οὐκ ἰσούμενός σ’ ἐγὼ |32 οὐδ’ οἵδε παῖδες ἑζόμεσθ’ ἐφέστιοι, |33 ἀνδρῶν δὲ πρῶτον ἔν τε συμφοραῖς βίου |34 κρίνοντες ἔν τε δαιμόνων ξυναλλαγαῖς, |35 ὅς γ’ ἐξέλυσας ἄστυ Καδμεῖον μολὼν |36 σκληρᾶς ἀοιδοῦ δασμὸν ὃν παρείχομεν, |37 καὶ ταῦθ’ ὑφ’ ἡμῶν οὐδὲν ἐξειδὼς πλέον |38 οὐδ’ ἐκδιδαχθείς, ἀλλὰ προσθήκῃ θεοῦ |39 λέγῃ νομίζῃ θ’ ἡμὶν ὀρθῶσαι βίον. |40 Νῦν τ’, ὦ κράτιστον πᾶσιν Οἰδίπου κάρα, |41 ἱκετεύομέν σε πάντες οἵδε πρόστροποι |42 ἀλκήν τιν’ εὑρεῖν ἡμίν, εἴτε του θεῶν |43 φήμην ἀκούσας εἴτ’ ἀπ’ ἀνδρὸς οἶσθά του· |44 ὡς τοῖσιν ἐμπείροισι καὶ τὰς ξυμφορὰς |45 ζώσας ὁρῶ μάλιστα τῶν βουλευμάτων. |46 Ἴθ’, ὦ βροτῶν ἄριστ’, ἀνόρθωσον πόλιν· |47 ἴθ’, εὐλαβήθηθ’· ὡς σὲ νῦν μὲν ἥδε γῆ |48 σωτῆρα κλῄζει τῆς πάρος προθυμίας· |49 ἀρχῆς δὲ τῆς σῆς μηδαμῶς μεμνώμεθα |50 στάντες τ’ ἐς ὀρθὸν καὶ πεσόντες ὕστερον, |51 ἀλλ’ ἀσφαλείᾳ τήνδ’ ἀνόρθωσον πόλιν. |52 Ὄρνιθι γὰρ καὶ τὴν τότ’ αἰσίῳ τύχην |53 παρέσχες ἡμῖν, καὶ τανῦν ἴσος γενοῦ· |54 ὡς, εἴπερ ἄρξεις τῆσδε γῆς ὥσπερ κρατεῖς, |55 ξὺν ἀνδράσιν κάλλιον ἢ κενῆς κρατεῖν· |56 ὡς οὐδέν ἐστιν οὔτε πύργος οὔτε ναῦς |57 ἔρημος ἀνδρῶν μὴ ξυνοικούντων ἔσω.
[ back ] 8. HC 303 = 2§250n248.
[ back ] 9. HC 304-305 = 2§253.
[ back ] 10. |58 ὦ παῖδες οἰκτροί, γνωτὰ κοὐκ ἄγνωτά μοι |59 προσήλθεθ’ ἱμείροντες· εὖ γὰρ οἶδ’ ὅτι |60 νοσεῖτε πάντες, καὶ νοσοῦντες ὡς ἐγὼ |61 οὐκ ἔστιν ὑμῶν ὅστις ἐξ ἴσου νοσεῖ. |62 Τὸ μὲν γὰρ ὑμῶν ἄλγος εἰς ἕν’ ἔρχεται |63 μόνον καθ’ αὑτόν, κοὐδέν’ ἄλλον, ἡ δ’ ἐμὴ |64 ψυχὴ πόλιν τε κἀμὲ καὶ σ’ ὁμοῦ στένει. |65 Ὥστ’ οὐχ ὕπνῳ γ’ εὕδοντά μ’ ἐξεγείρετε· |66 ἀλλ’ ἴστε πολλὰ μέν με δακρύσαντα δή, |67 πολλὰς δ’ ὁδοὺς ἐλθόντα φροντίδος πλάνοις· |68 ἣν δ’ εὖ σκοπῶν εὕρισκον ἴασιν μόνην, |69 ταύτην ἔπραξα· παῖδα γὰρ Μενοικέως |70 Κρέοντ’, ἐμαυτοῦ γαμβρόν, ἐς τὰ Πυθικὰ |71 ἔπεμψα Φοίβου δώμαθ’, ὡς πύθοιθ’ ὅ τι |72 δρῶν ἢ τί φωνῶν τήνδε ῥυσαίμην πόλιν. |73 Καί μ’ ἦμαρ ἤδη ξυμμετρούμενον χρόνῳ |74 λυπεῖ τί πράσσει· τοῦ γὰρ εἰκότος πέρα |75 ἄπεστι πλείω τοῦ καθήκοντος χρόνου. |76 Ὅταν δ’ ἵκηται, τηνικαῦτ’ ἐγὼ κακὸς |77 μὴ δρῶν ἂν εἴην πάνθ’ ὅσ’ ἂν δηλοῖ θεός.
[ back ] 11. |1266 … ἐπεὶ δὲ γῇ |1267 ἔκειθ’ ὁ τλήμων, δεινὰ δ’ ἦν τἀνθένδ’ ὁρᾶν. |1268 Ἀποσπάσας γὰρ εἱμάτων χρυσηλάτους |1269 περόνας ἀπ’ αὐτῆς, αἷσιν ἐξεστέλλετο, |1270 ἄρας ἔπαισεν ἄρθρα τῶν αὑτοῦ κύκλων, |1271 αὐδῶν τοιαῦθ’, ὁθούνεκ’ οὐκ ὄψοιντό νιν |1272 οὔθ’ οἷ’ ἔπασχεν οὔθ’ ὁποῖ’ ἔδρα κακά, |1273 ἀλλ’ ἐν σκότῳ τὸ λοιπὸν οὓς μὲν οὐκ ἔδει |1274 ὀψοίαθ’, οὓς δ’ ἔχρῃζεν οὐ γνωσοίατο. |1275 Τοιαῦτ’ ἐφυμνῶν πολλάκις τε κοὐχ ἅπαξ |1276 ἤρασσ’ ἐπαίρων βλέφαρα· φοίνιαι δ’ ὁμοῦ |1277 γλῆναι γένει’ ἔτεγγον, οὐδ’ ἀνίεσαν |1278 φόνου μυδώσας σταγόνας, ἀλλ’ ὁμοῦ μέλας |1279 ὄμβρος χαλάζης αἵματός τ’ ἐτέγγετο. |1280 Τάδ’ ἐκ δυοῖν ἔρρωγεν, οὐ μόνου, κακά, |1281 ἀλλ’ ἀνδρὶ καὶ γυναικὶ συμμιγῆ κακά. |1282 Ὁ πρὶν παλαιὸς δ’ ὄλβος ἦν πάροιθε μὲν |1283 ὄλβος δικαίως· νῦν δὲ τῇδε θἠμέρᾳ |1284 στεναγμός, ἄτη, θάνατος, αἰσχύνη, κακῶν |1285 ὅσ’ ἐστὶ πάντων ὀνόματ’, οὐδέν ἐστ’ ἀπόν.
[ back ] 12. |1327 {ΧΟ.} Ὦ δεινὰ δράσας, πῶς ἔτλης τοιαῦτα σὰς |1328 ὄψεις μαρᾶναι; τίς σ’ ἐπῆρε δαιμόνων; |1329 {ΟΙ.} Ἀπόλλων τάδ’ ἦν, Ἀπόλλων, φίλοι, |1330 ὁ κακὰ κακὰ τελῶν ἐμὰ τάδ’ ἐμὰ πάθεα. |1331-1334 Ἔπαισε δ’ αὐτόχειρ νιν οὔτις, ἀλλ’ ἐγὼ τλάμων. Τί γὰρ ἔδει μ’ ὁρᾶν, |1335 ὅτῳ γ’ ὁρῶντι μηδὲν ἦν ἰδεῖν γλυκύ;