Saturday, June 01, 2013

“They Are My Sons!”
Oedipus and His Daughters

Oedipus and his Daughters
at Colonus

In a previous posting I looked at the working of fate in the Theban plays of Sophocles.1 There I looked at Greek ideas concerning fate and how the idea of the “tragic flaw” that dooms the protagonist of Oedipus the King is in itself flawed given that what actually works out in the play is a tragic fate doomed by our protagonist to suffer from before he was born. Here I will examine another aspect of the plays or more specifically the one called Oedipus at Colonus that is Oedipus and his children.

In this case Oedipus’ relationship with his daughter's Ismene and Antigone. But before I go into that an overview of the plot will be helpful.

To recap developments before the events of Oedipus at Colonus let us start with Oedipus’ father Laius and his wife Jocasta. Laius had been told by the gods not to have a son. If Laius disobeyed than the child would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Terrified of the prophecy Laius and Jocasta leave the child on a mountain side to die with the child’s ankles pierced so the child can’t crawl away.

A shepherd finds the child and rescues it. The shepherd brings the child to the King and Queen of Corinth. They raise the child as their own, naming the child Oedipus which means swollen foot. Years later Oedipus grows up and seeking to find his fate he goes to the Oracle of Delphi. There the oracle denounces him as someone who will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus decides against returning to Corinth, terrified of doing those things in Corinth because he believes the King and Queen of Corinth are his parents.

Meanwhile Thebes is being plagued by the Sphinx a lion with a women’s head that kills people when they can’t answer her riddle. King Laius decides to go to Delphi to get some advice from the oracle. On the way Laius runs into Oedipus who kills him in self defence.

Oedipus then, just outside Thebes encounters the Sphinx. He answers her riddle correctly. Completely mortified the Sphinx kills herself because a mere mortal solved her riddle. Oedipus is acclaimed a great hero in Thebes and in gratitude is made king and married to Laius’ widow Jocasta, The marriage is happy and they have four children; sons Eteocles and Polynices and daughters Ismene and Antigone.

The events of Oedipus the King now begin. The gods have cursed Thebes because the Thebans have not found and punished an incestuous patricide. With Thebes on the edge of destruction unless Oedipus can find this person Oedipus embarks on his detective investigation. Oedipus little realizes that he is the incestuous patricide. However he duly finds out. In horror at the revelation Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. Thebes is saved but at a cost.

Creon, Jocasta’s brother and now king of Thebes decides to wait for confirmation from the oracle of Delphi before banishing Oedipus. This is long delayed.

Eventually many years later Oedipus is finally banished, just when he is getting comfort in his misery living with his children.

Oedipus’ two sons start to quarrel over the kingship of Thebes and abandon their father Oedipus; meanwhile Oedipus’ two daughters stay loyal. The younger Antigone accompanies her father on his wonderings and the elder Ismene stays in Thebes to watch developments and visits Oedipus and Antigone from time to time to bring help and news.

Polynices and Eteocles together managed to force Creon to give up the kingship but they soon fall to quarrelling among themselves. Polynices lost out and went to Argos where he married the king’s daughter and put together an army to invade and take Thebes from his brother.

Meanwhile the Thebans want Oedipus, or at least his body back, so they can bury it near Theban land because of an oracle which says that there will forever be peace between Athens and Thebes if this is done. They are led by Creon.2

The older traditional versions of the Oedipus legend appear to involve him dying either shortly after the revelation or in battle after continuing to reign in Thebes after the revelation. Then supposedly Oedipus dies in battle.3

At this time Oedipus and Antigone have wandered to the small settlement of Colonus near Athens. This is where the action of the play starts.

Now Colonus appears to be the birth place of Sophocles and further it appears that to a large extent the mythological events of the play are at the very least a minority version of the Oedipus tale if not an invention of Sophocles.

There Oedipus and his daughter Antigone meet the country men of Colonus who tell them:

To tell you as much as I know, it is sacred ground, All of this; the great god Poseidon, and the giant Prometheus, The Lord of Fire, possess it. The spot you stand on is called the Brazen Threshold, the Rock of Athens. This rider is Colonus, known to the country around As her lord and master, whose name her people bear. It is not such a place as is famed in song and story, But its name is great in the hearts of those that live here.4

A rather heartfelt tribute to his birthplace by Sophocles.

Oedipus has unknowing trespassed into a sacred grove sacred to the dread goddesses of earth and night. The Elders of Colonus send word to Theseus King of Athens about the stranger and in the meanwhile Oedipus tells them that he is fated to die here.

Still guided by Antigone Oedipus tells the elders of Colonus about his tragic fate. At first they want him to go because they view him as accursed but Antigone intervenes:

Yet have some pity for me, I beseech you! Only for my father’s sake I am pleading. Let my eyes speak for him, mine to yours, As it might be a child of your own flesh speaking, Asking for pity for one in trouble.5

Oedipus then pleads his case that his wicked deeds were done unwittingly for has he says:
I did not know the way I went. They knew;6
They being the gods and implacable fate.

The Elders at Colonus tell Oedipus that they will wait to hear King Theseus’ decision in the matter.

Meanwhile Ismene, Antigone’s sister and Oedipus’ daughter shows up with news. And the three greet each other:

Antigone: Your daughter! My sister! My eyes cannot deceive me, And you shall soon believe your ears.
Ismene: Father! And sister! O dearest ones! I have found you at last, And now can hardly see you through my tears.
Oedipus: My child is it you?
Ismene: My poor unhappy father!
Oedipus: Are you come at last?
Ismene: At last and with what trouble.
Oedipus: Touch me, dear child.
Ismene: A hand for each of you.
Oedipus: Sisters together.
Ismene: O this poor sad life!
Oedipus: My life and hers?
Ismene: And mine; three joined in sorrow.
Oedipus: Why did you come, my child?
Ismene: Thinking of you.
Oedipus: With longing?
Ismene: Yes, and I had things to tell you By my own mouth, so had to come alone. With the only faithful servant that I have.7

Ismene then recounts how Oedipus’ sons Polynices and Eteocles have started fighting over the crown and that Eteocles has driven out Polynices who now seeks an army to conquer Thebes.

Oedipus condemns his sons for his sons have:
...let you two Bear all the burden of my calamities.8
Ismene further informs her father that the people of Thebes want Oedipus, or at least his body back for the sake of an oracle promising safety for Thebes from Athens. Ismene also informs her father that Creon will try to take him back for burial near Thebes.

Ismene also informs that her brothers and Oedipus’ sons want Oedipus’ blessings and body and as Oedipus tartly notes:

Villains, then they would rather have their kingdom Than have their father back!9

Then he says regarding his two daughters:

Only these two, my daughters, have done all that women could, to give me what I need, Food, and safe conduct, and their loving care.10

Then the Elders of Colonus tell Oedipus that he needs to propitiate the deities he has offended. Ismene agrees to go and make the necessary sacrifices. For she says:

I’ll go. Look after our father here, Antigone. We cannot grudge our pains when parents need us.11

Then Oedipus tells the sad story of his fate to the Elders of Colonus. Then king Theseus shows up and Oedipus simply asks to be buried. Theseus grants the request.

Then Creon shows up. After an heated exchange with Oedipus. Oedipus retreats into the sacred grove. Creon to compel Oedipus to go with him seizes Antigone and informs Oedipus that he has taken Ismene while she was performing the sacrifices. An action considered pretty  bad by Greeks of the day.

Creon then boasts:

So much for those two props of your infirmity – Henceforth you walk without them.12

Creon tells Oedipus he will see his daughters again only if he leaves the sanctuary and goes with him. The Elders of Colonus block Creon’s exit  and are enraged by his actions. Creon then moves towards the sanctuary to seize Oedipus as a hostage in order to escape.

Before Creon can seize Oedipus Theseus returns. Oedipus informs Theseus about what has happened. Theseus full of anger at this flouting of the rules of hospitality goes in search of the two women dragging Creon along with him.

Theseus shortly returns with Ismene and Antigone. The reunion is has follows:

Antigone: Father! O that some god could make you see This brave good man who has brought us back to you.
Oedipus: Child, is it you?
Antigone: Yes, it was those strong hands of Theseus that saved us, with his trusty friends.
Oedipus: Come to me child. Let me embrace the body I never thought to touch again.
Antigone: You shall It is what I long for too.
Oedipus: Where are then?
Antigone: We are both together with you now.
Oedipus: My Darlings!
Antigone: The love in a father’s heart!
Oedipus: So lost without you…
Antigone: All we have shared together…
Oedipus: Mine again… Now I could die happy with you beside me. Stay close, one to each arm, and cling again To your loving father. I was lost and lonely.13

Oedipus is informed that his son Polynices wants to speak to him. Oedipus doesn’t want to hear it but on being entreated by Antigone, who is seconded by Ismene and Theseus Oedipus agrees to hear Polynices' request.

Polynices makes his pitch for his father’s blessing for his attack against Thebes. Oedipus listens and then pronounces his curse. Oedipus says:

Listen scoundrel! You held the scepter and the royal throne before your brother seized them, and it was you that drove your father out of doors. You made him a homeless vagabond; this is your gift, …14

Then Oedipus disinherits and denies his son Polynices:

You banished me, you taught me how to beg; You would have seen me dead, but I had daughters Whose never-failing care has nursed my life. They are my sons; you are some other man’s.15

Then Oedipus lays a curse on both of his sons:

These are my weapons – that you may learn the lesson Of piety to parents, and repent Your insults to my blindness; you – such sons! How different from those daughters! … ‘Supplication’? ‘Claim to the throne’? My curse be on them too, If old eternal justice reigns with God. Away! You have no father here, vile brute! And take this malediction in your ears; May you never defeat your motherland; May you never return alive to Argos; May you, in dying, kill your banisher, And, in killing, die by him who shares your blood. This is my prayer. In the name of the Father of Darkness and the bottomless pit. Where he shall house you; in the name of the Goddesses Whose ground we stand on; in the name of the Lord of Destruction Who flung you into mortal strife. Now go: And tell it out in all the streets of Thebes, And tell your trusty friends, what benefactions King Oedipus has bestowed upon his sons.16

Antigone begs Polynices to not attack Thebes Polynices replies that it is too late to turn back now but requests both Ismene and Antigone to ensure that he is properly buried after his death. Antigone states that she could not bear losing Polynices and hopes there is a way out. Polynices says that there is not and leaves.

Then comes the scene in which Oedipus passes from the earth.17

Antigone and Ismene mourn the passing of their father. Ismene says:
…O that I could lie In death beside him, and not live The life that will be mine.18

Antigone says:

I never knew how great the loss could be Even in sadness; there was a sort of joy In sorrow, when he was at my side. Father, my love, in your shroud of earth We two shall love you for ever and ever.19

Antigone laments that she cannot leave her father and wishes to see the grave in the end she relents and accepts that it is forbidden and her father’s wish. On that note the play ends.

In the play Antigone is the more emotional, feeling daughter whereas Ismene is the more practical and sensible one. Ismene is more likely to accept how things are whereas Antigone is more likely to rebel in the name of feeling and virtue.20

It is important to remember that in Sophocles' Athens sons were much more highly valued than daughters. It was sons on which a man was expected to rely on in his old age. Society in Greece at the time was bound by rules of obligations between sons and fathers. Daughters married outside the family and were simply not expected to take part in carrying for aged, sick or crippled parents. That was the responsibility of sons.

Thus Oedipus’ sons utter failure to take care of their father along with them both driving him out without succor and support would have been considered a heinous breach of filial duty to a parent. Thus Oedipus’ sons would have been thought quite deserving of Oedipus’ curses and contempt.

In this play it is Oedipus’ daughters who carry out the masculine duty of sons to care for their fathers. It is they who provide to the best of their ability the support that should be the responsibility of sons.

Hence in the play Ismene and Antigone are Oedipus’ real sons because they fulfill the masculine duty of support and succor for Oedipus in his misery. In fact Ismene even performs masculine sacrifices on behalf of her father a duty that would usually fall to sons if the father cannot do it. This twisting of the natural order is due to the failure of Oedipus’ actual sons to carry out their filial duty. This leaves it to the daughters to carry out the filial duty in the place of the sons. Sophocles by showing women, especially daughters as acting as sons was being daring for his time.

Women including respectable daughters led fairly cloistered lives at this time in Greece. But in this play we have them engaged in guiding, protecting and feeding their father. We have them spying and traveling without male supervision all to help their father. In effect we have them engaged in activities that are, for the time, masculine / male. Antigone and Ismene are proactive they are not under the control of any man and act as free agents much like men in that society. And their assumption of such masculine prerogatives is in order to carry out the filial duties which their brothers have so signally failed to do.

Ismene and Antigone are basically honorary men, but it is not a honor they especially like or frankly want.

To a Greek audience at the time Oedipus’ categorical rejection of his sons as his sons and his declaration concerning his daughters, “They Are My Sons!”, is shocking. For it declares that what makes a son is not simply biological gender but right behavior. Polynices and Eteocles have signally failed to behave has sons, but Oedipus’ daughters Ismene and Antigone have stepped in and fulfilled the obligations of sons and so Oedipus damns Polynices and Eteocles and then declares his daughters to be his real sons.

The shocking nature of this statement in a society that highly valued sons and devalued daughters cannot be underestimated. For a father owed duties to his son as well, not just sons to fathers. By damning his sons Oedipus was cutting them off from himself spiritually and declaring them to be of no importance. And by declaring his daughters to be in effect sons he is raising them up to be those to whom his blessings and concern apply. Oedipus’ curse also indicates the extraordinary degree of provocation that Polynices and Eteocles have given him by their un-filial actions. They have both signally failed in their duty has sons to parents. And as such are deservedly damned. Whereas the daughters have not and so are praised. In fact they have gone beyond their duties as daughters and have carried out the duties of sons.21

I suspect we can only dimly perceive what a shock all this must have been to an Athenian audience of c. 405 B.C.E.

1. The previous posting is at Here.

2. Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, London, 1960, sec. 105 Oedipus. (I am using the electronic edition.), Gantz, Timothy, Early Greek Myth, v. 2, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1993, pp. 491-502. See also the variation of the Oedipus tale in Statius, Thebaid, Achilleid, Loeb Classical Library, London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1928. The Thebaid can be found at Theoi Here.

3. See Graves, s. 105, k, Gantz, pp. 501-502.

4. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus in The Theban Plays, Penguin Books, London, 1947, p.73.

5. IBID, p. 78.

6. IBID, p. 79.

7. IBID, p. 81.

8. IBID.

9. IBID, p. 84

10. IBID.

11. IBID, p. 86.

12. IBID, p. 97.

13. IBID, p. 105.

14. IBID, p. 112.

14. IBID, pp. 112-113.

15. IBID, p. 113.

18. IBID, p. 122.

19. IBID.

17. I described this and quoted the messenger’s speech in the posting referred to in Footnote 1.

20. This is made clear in Sophocles play Antigone.

21. For Greek attitudes towards women, daughters etc., see Finley, M. I., The Ancient Greeks, Penguin, London, 1987, See also Kreuls, Eva C., The Reign of the Phallus, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.

Pierre Cloutier 

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