Earth's Fairest Haven


When Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Kolonos in 406/405 BC he was nearly ninety years old, and Athens was being worn down by its long war with Sparta – in every way possible the future looked bleak and uncertain. There is a story that Sophocles wrote this final play to prove that he was still the master of his faculties and the playwright’s art, although he must have wondered whether it would ever be performed. As events transpired it was to be four years before that first performance, and the Greek world was to be transformed in the intervening period: Sparta triumphed absolutely, Athens surrendered and was forced to endure the terror of an imposed tyranny, and then finally a rebellion overthrew the tyrants and restored the democracy. When the Athenians took their seats for that first performance in 401 BC it must have seemed little short of miraculous that they were still able to conjure up the spirit of the old days – those happy times when they had enjoyed the plays of the great masters in peace and prosperity. But here they were, watching the final work by the late, great Sophocles, and the play duly passed into the pantheon of those few select works which have survived to the present day. The question is – what was it about the play which impressed people enough to make them think it worth preserving? In fact there is a more fundamental question – what exactly is the play about?

The common view nowadays is that it is about the acceptance of fate, and the working through of prophecies. Those who expound it say the same of Oedipus Tyrannos – that this earlier play was about Oedipus struggling to maintain the shreds of human dignity in the face of unchallengeable fate. We are led to believe, therefore, that in the darkest hours of 405 BC, as Athens faced imminent collapse, Sophocles sought merely to urge his fellow citizens to accept whatever fate threw at them without complaint – a sort of proto-stoicism as their world came to an end.

Well, accepting the worst that fate can offer is certainly a thread that runs through the plays, and it was undoubtedly part of the message that Sophocles offered to the Athenians. But we have already seen in Oedipus Tyrannos that there was a much more immediate and relevant message being presented to its audience, one that had everything to do with power and politics – subjects close to the hearts of the Athenians. Oedipus is caught up in the unfolding of the prophecy about him because he is who he is – a son of the house of Labdakos, the ruling house of Thebes. Sophocles presents the curse on the descendants of that house as the inevitable consequence of their overweening ambition and tyrannical tendencies. Oedipus is a classic tragic hero – a man with a flaw – and the flaw in this case is his quick temper, and his tendency to take sudden, drastic action. He killed his father in a brutal frenzy at the ill-fated crossroads, and in the same way he sets himself on the path to ruin by throwing all his energies into finding the cause of the plague afflicting Thebes. The curious aspect about this play is how so many modern commentators overlook the darker side of Oedipus’s character, and see only what is heroic about him, but in doing so they miss the key message of the play. What Sophocles was saying was “beware the leader who harbours the vice of tyranny, because one day he too might become a plague upon his city”. The Athenians were to experience the truth of that message all too brutally during the short-lived but blood-soaked regime of Kritias in 404/403BC.

But what of the final play, Oedipus at Kolonos, which was written shortly before Athens descended into its nightmare period? Is there a similarly clear-cut message within that play? On the surface, one would have to conclude that there is not: the subject matter – Oedipus turning up as a blind beggar at Kolonos near Athens, where he is eventually taken down into the underworld by the Eumenides (the Furies) – seems to offer little that we in the modern world can really relate to. At first sight it does seem to be all about prophecies, and arcane religious beliefs, and it is hard to see what relevance it can possibly have to the rational world of the twenty-first century. However, once one starts to analyse the structure of the play, and the themes contained in it, and then to relate these to the themes of Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone, a clear and powerful message begins to emerge. The fact that we cannot see it nowadays is not due to its lack of contemporary relevance – far from it – the problem is that, like Oedipus as king in Thebes, we are blind to what is staring us in the face. So, what was it that so impressed ancient audiences, and convinced them that this was one of Sophocles’ greatest works?

Let us start by analysing the skeleton upon which the dramatic action is hung – the prologue and the five choral episodes. The play starts with Oedipus, now a blind old beggar, and his daughter Antigone arriving at Kolonos near Athens. This rural settlement was actually the birthplace of Sophocles, and there appears to have been some kind of legend associating it with the final resting place of Oedipus. The question is – what did Sophocles see in this ancient legend which prompted him to use it as the basis for his final play? A number of things are made clear immediately in the prologue: Kolonos is sacred to the Furies, the “austere and fearful goddesses...all-seeing Eumenides...anger-prone maidens...sweet daughters of darkness” (in the translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker). These strange deities – the ‘kindly’ ones who also took it upon themselves to wreak terrible vengeance on those guilty of the worst crimes – turn up memorably in the final play of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. There, they are persuaded by Athena to give up their dreadful pursuit of Orestes in return for being established in honour at Athens – their fearsome powers turned to the protection of the city, rather than against it. The metaphor is clear: the spirit of vengeance is harnessed to the law to make Athens a place of justice and fairness, where all citizens have the chance to live in peace. Sophocles actually alludes to these sentiments in the prologue to Kolonos when he mentions that at Kolonos Oedipus has come to the Threshold of Brass – one of the sacred foundations of Athens. The implication is clear: one of the pillars of Athens is its acknowledgement and worship of these goddesses.

The inhabitants of Kolonos (the chorus) are horrified that Oedipus has worked on this holy ground, but he is unabashed: he tells them the prophecy that his final resting place will be in a spot sacred to the Eumenides – his long, painful wanderings are over at last. The prophecy, in fact, goes further – by choosing Athens as his burial place he will confer a divine protection on the city, and he requests the citizens to fetch Theseus, King of Athens, from the city so that he can explain it to him. Sophocles is enlarging on his opening statement: not only do the Furies help keep the peace within the city, they will also help protect it from its enemies without. Written as it was in the terrible year of 405BC this is significant stuff. We will return to the anger-prone maidens later.

In the second chorus Sophocles gives us the wonderful choral ode to his birthplace:-
Here, stranger, in this land of fine horses
You come to Earth’s fairest haven
Kolonos, shimmering, bright.
Where comes – no stranger – the nightingale
Her clear voice rising from green glades.
Amidst the ivy dark as wine she dwells
And by the god’s sacred pathways
Dark and bounteous, sealed in impenetrable calm.
This was the rural idyll of Kolonos, lying a short way outside the walls of Athens – a sacred place protected by the city which was a beacon of hope in the world, a home to justice and fairness, ally to its friends and stern admonisher of its enemies. Or at least it could have been had not the long years of the Peloponnesian War ground it down, so that there frequently seemed little to choose between Athens and the militaristic Spartan state it opposed. And Kolonos itself had suffered, the frequent Spartan incursions into Attica leaving little of the arcadian tranquillity the ode describes. But Sophocles evidently thought it worth including in his play, even in that dark year of 405 BC, and we need to ask why.

The answer is given in the third chorus: here the battle between Theseus and the Athenians, trying to rescue the daughters of Oedipus, and the Theban raiding party is described. Sophocles is in no doubt that Theseus is right to lead his men into battle on behalf of the suppliants snatched from under their noses, and he has Oedipus bemoaning the fact that he is too old and frail to join in. The parallels are obvious, with the almost ninety year-old Sophocles watching impotently as Athenian manhood is sacrificed to the war with Sparta. Athens may no longer have been the shining city on the hill as described in his choral ode, but it was still worth fighting for. Had he been young enough he would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with the his fellow citizens.

In the fourth choral episode the mood darkens further, with the chorus ostensibly pitying Oedipus for his old age and decrepitude. Again the parallels are clear, and these lines must have come straight from the heart of Sophocles. Better to never reach old age if all that you can look forward to is humiliating decline and death, especially – as he could have added – if you have to watch the death throes of your city at the same time. The latter parts of the play become increasingly multi-layered as Sophocles overlays the story of Oedipus with reflections on his own life, blending the two seamlessly in a brilliantly virtuoso display.

Finally, in the fifth chorus, the end approaches: Oedipus has received the summons to descend into the Earth, and Sophocles – we must assume – likewise realised that he had little time left. The only thing left to wish for is a swift and painless passage into the underworld, and to hope that those who are left behind (whether the daughters of Oedipus or the people of fifth-century Athens) can somehow pull through their respective crises. If this was the final scene it would have to be one of the most downbeat endings of all time but, fortunately, there is one final dramatic episode to come, and in the space of that one scene Sophocles manages to transform the whole play. But before we come to that we need to consider what has befallen Oedipus in the preceding scenes.

As mentioned above, the play opens with Oedipus and Antigone arriving at the sacred grove of the Eumenides at Kolonos. The locals are initially horrified that he should have trespassed on sacred ground, but he quickly convinces them that it is his destiny to do so, and that Athens will benefit from granting him refuge. At this point his other daughter, Ismene, arrives bringing news of events in Thebes, which are not good. His two sons, Polyneikes and Eteocles, are at the point of open warfare as they contest the crown. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law Kreon is on his way to Athens in an attempt to persuade Oedipus to return with him. However, this is no gesture of forgiveness but a cynical ploy to benefit from the prophecy that the city which guards his burial place will enjoy divine protection. To add insult to injury, even though the Thebans want Oedipus to return he will not be allowed back into the city itself on account of his original crime of killing his father.

There are powerful emotions at play in this first scene as the attitudes of the various members of Oedipus’s family towards him are contrasted. While his two daughters are pillars of filial support, Kreon and his sons are portrayed as being interested solely in the advantage to be gained by having him in their power. While they won’t deliberately harm him, they will be perfectly happy if it is merely his dead body that ends up outside the walls of Thebes. Contrasted with these two extremes is the attitude of the inhabitants of Kolonos and, once he arrives, Theseus. Whilst initially hostile to the perceived sacrilege against the goddesses, they quickly put this aside and show pity on the old man. Theseus himself goes further, stating that having been in exile once himself, he will not turn away a suppliant – even one with such a past as Oedipus. His words are in accord with the Athenian policy, frequently expressed by ancient writers, of accepting refugees. Whether through altruism or kindness, perceived religious duty or a cool-headed calculation that such an influx could be potentially beneficial, the policy was undoubtedly an enlightened one, and Sophocles is reminding his audience that this too was one of the foundation stones of the city. Although at first they may seem uneasy bed-fellows, kindness and the anger-prone maidens can apparently coexist – as the name Eumenides suggests, of course.

In the next scene we are presented with a dramatic confrontation between Oedipus and Kreon, who has come ostensibly to persuade the old man to return to Thebes. Although he starts off civilly enough, it quickly becomes apparent that he intends to achieve what he wants by any means he can. When Oedipus rejects his request, accusing him of acting in blatant and cynical self-interest, Kreon responds with threats – telling Oedipus that he has had his daughters kidnapped. At this point Theseus intervenes, warning Kreon that he will lead out the Athenians to retrieve the girls by force – setting the scene for the third choral episode. One interesting point to note, though, before we move on is that Theseus makes it clear that his dispute is not with the city of Thebes, but its corrupt rulers. “It wasn’t Thebes which taught you to behave like this,” he chides Kreon, and in giving him these words Sophocles provides a clue as to one of the messages contained in the play: he is taking aim at corrupt rulers, and he is not making any distinction as to where they come from – a significant point when Athens was still mired in its war with Sparta.

In the brief third scene Oedipus is joyous at the return of his two daughters, liberated by the victorious Theseus and his Athenian soldiers, who have risked their lives for a wretched family of suppliants. But his joy is short lived when he is told that his son Polyneikes has turned up, and is requesting an audience with him. Although he is persuaded to see the young man, he makes it clear that he has no pleasure in doing so.

The fourth scene is key to understanding the meaning of the play, especially as it reflects themes which have run through all three of the Theban plays. Polyneikes has come to ask forgiveness of Oedipus for the wrongs done to him in the past. Driven from Thebes by his younger brother, he has assembled an army to try to win back the crown by force and, like Kreon, he wants to have Oedipus on his side to gain the advantage of the divine protection this will confer. Oedipus, though, is having none of it, and he curses both of his sons with the prophecy that they will die by each other’s hands in the thick of battle. He will offer no forgiveness for the evil done to him, not even when it is members of his own family who will suffer as a consequence. Antigone makes a final attempt to persuade Polyneikes to give up his hopeless attempt to conquer Thebes, but to no avail – in Greek tragedy characters remain true to their deepest compulsions even in the face of certain disaster, and by doing so reveal to us their innermost natures. Polyneikes could have seen sense on this occasion and backed down, but eventually his obsessive ambition will be the death of him – that is a key character trait of all the Labdakids, after all. The brilliance of Sophocles is in constructing his play such that a few short scenes and choral episodes are sufficient to seamlessly pull together so many different themes.

The scene ends with a crack of thunder heralding the gods’ readiness to receive Oedipus into the underworld. The truth of the various prophecies is about to be confirmed: Oedipus will be received by the Eumenides and become a protecting force for Athens, while his two sons will destroy each other in battle. The girls, meanwhile, will prepare themselves to return to Thebes and the final chapter in the drama which Sophocles had detailed in his play Antigone some forty years before. The only thing which remains for us, the audience, is to work out what all of this means. Yes, the working through of prophecies, and the dignity or otherwise of mortals as they square up to their fates is part of it, but it seems perverse to argue that this is all. One could equally argue that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is merely the account of a prophecy or premonition being fulfilled, and ignore the interplay of all the characters in between. All Greek playwrights used prophecies to frame their stories – as many writers do nowadays, in a more secular form – but we need to look beyond this to see what else they were saying.

Kolonos is a difficult play to interpret because Sophocles overlays a number of strands on top of one another. The basis is the mythical tale of Oedipus and the rivalries of the house of Labdakos, but he then uses this to give some very clear advice to the Athenians of 405 BC, which we will come to in a moment. The final strand is a very personal account of how it felt to be an aged playwright at the end of his career and life, forced to watch as his city is ground down by implacable enemies without, and by the self-interest and machinations of various groups within. The despair and dejection that he felt stands out from the pages, and inspires and informs the story he is telling. But, amazingly, the final message is upbeat – forming part of what must be one of the most amazing endings to any play ever written.

So, what is the message of the play? Not surprisingly, the central message follows on from the themes of Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone: bad leaders are a plague upon their people, and it is the duty of the people to oppose them. If you allow a tyrant to establish himself in power you will end up suffering for it, and you will only have yourself to blame. Given the murderous regime that followed the end of the Peloponnesian War in Athens we can only assume that Sophocles saw this, or something like it, as being a distinct possibility. His message to the Athenians is absolutely unequivocal: it is the duty of the citizens of the polis to oppose those who would rule unjustly, even if it means laying down your life in the attempt. In fact, the sin of tyranny is so bad that you must even turn against members of your own family if they are guilty of it, even to the extent of summoning up the anger-prone maidens to guide your actions. Tyranny offends the gods, and without their support the polis is nothing. This was the message Sophocles was giving to the Athenians in 405 BC, and although the play was not produced until four years later, they had by that time followed his instructions and restored the democracy.

It has been pointed out that the three Theban plays span some forty years, and each one was written under very different circumstances, with Sophocles inevitably changing his ideas slightly as the sequence progressed. This is undoubtedly true, and he has to engage in some nimble footwork to allow Kolonos to be consistent with the events in Antigone. However, in one sense the later play pick up one of the themes of the earlier one and takes it further forward. In Antigone, we have the two sisters united at first in their condemnation of Kreon’s actions over the body of Polyneikes. His refusal of burial for it is sacrilegious and, although Antigone’s actions are criminal in terms of the collective responsibilities of the polis, Sophocles points out that this is one of those occasions where individuals must consider more fundamental moralities. The problem is that Kreon and Antigone are Labdakids through and through, and so there will be no compromise or reconciliation, and disaster will ultimately ensue. What is interesting, though, is the treatment of Ismene, who vainly tries to pull Antigone back from the brink of fatal confrontation. It has been noted that, following Antigone’s rejection of her for faltering in her support, she disappears from the rest of the play. This is only really understandable if we understand that by acting out of character for a Labdakid, she has effectively removed herself from the drama that subsequently destroys the ruling house. It is one of the clearest hints Sophocles gives us that the play is all about reckless ambition: if you are one of the vast majority who know when enough is enough, and are prepared to compromise at times, then you are not going to end up sharing the fate of the Labdakids.

But does this theme re-emerge in Kolonos? It does, undoubtedly, and in fact it is expanded and enlarged on: in rejecting the advances of both Kreon and Polyneikes, Oedipus is starting from Ismene’s position in the earlier play and then going way beyond it. It is no longer enough simply to call for rapprochement between the warring factions – things have gone too far for that – and now he must summon divine retribution upon them. It is no coincidence that having delivered his rejection of his son he is immediately summoned by the gods: his work on Earth is done and, with the house of Labdakos about to destroy itself, he can be brought to their side. And in terms of the plot of Kolonos, Sophocles has no more to say about him – his dramatic purpose in the play is done.

But that is not quite the end: we are treated to an account of his apotheosis, which Theseus alone is allowed to witness as otherwise the protection of Athens offered by the gods will be put at risk. Even his daughters are not allowed to know the whereabouts of his tomb. This is a difficult section to analyse, though it presumably made more sense to the Athenian audience in 401 BC. Here in the twenty-first century, though, we struggle to understand the significance of the various references, and simply have to accept that Sophocles was making some sort of point about the long-term survival of Athens. What is less in doubt, though, is the meaning of the three speeches right at the end of the play, by Antigone, Theseus and the Chorus, ans we will consider them in turn.

First Antigone accepts that she cannot see her father’s grave, and asks instead that she be allowed to return to Thebes to try to stop the bloodshed between her brothers. We know that as far as the legend goes this is a disastrous decision, but the purpose of the speech at this point is more subtle. Sophocles is presenting us with the actions of a dutiful daughter and, although the curse on the Labdakids will mean that she fails, the Athenians should still take her words as an example. Sophocles could see the parallels between mythical Thebes and contemporary Athens, and he wanted to point the Athenians in the right direction.

Next, Theseus declares that he will honour his promise to support Antigone and Ismene. They came to Athens as suppliants and the city will uphold its sacred duty to offer sanctuary. This is a striking message to have been written in 405 BC. Sophocles is portraying the legendary king of Athens – the figure who reputedly appeared at the height of the battle at Marathon and led the Athenians to victory – as saying that he will not fail to do his duty by the enlightened policies of the city. If this sentiment was widespread in the city in 405 BC it is perhaps not surprising that the Athenians had managed to restore a civilised regime by 401 BC.

Finally, the Chorus speaks – but the interesting question is with whose voice do they do so? Theseus in the previous speech had referred to the man who had so recently died, and as far as the storyline goes he is clearly referring to Oedipus. But is this Sophocles sending a message from beyond the grave? Did he realise that the play would probably not be performed in his lifetime, and so added this final speak as his valedictory address to the Athenians? Certainly, many of those watching the play in 401 BC must have seen it in that way. The message is short, direct and utterly astonishing:-
No more tears
Everything is in hand.
To the audience it must have seemed like a bolt of lightning from the heavens – did Sophocles somehow foresee everything that was going to take place after he had written the play? Because, when you consider it, the message could have been penned that very day: the Athenians did indeed need to put the past behind them, and lay aside all their grief, and simply try to get on with their lives. And what of the final comment – everything is in hand? What was that supposed to mean? Was Sophocles really saying that Athens was somehow privileged in enjoying the protection of the gods? It was not such an extraordinary thing to believe in those days, of course, but in 405 BC? Sophocles must have had a huge amount of faith in the future to write those words in such a difficult time.

And, of course, events have largely proved him right: Athens survived to see most of its major rivals – Sparta, Corinth and Thebes – humbled and brought low. It declined drastically but something of its spirit lived on. Like Sophocles himself, classical Athens died of old age rather than the sword.

In the end, Oedipus at Kolonos is about a prophecy, but it is not a mythical one delivered by some actor playing a god – it is a message from Sophocles to the Athenians written in the dark days of 405 BC. First he outlined what was special about Athens which, for all its faults, still paid due acknowledgement to the Eumenides and other gods, and continued to uphold the ideals of sanctuary and fairness. Then he told the citizens to do their duty to the polis – that beacon of hope in a suffering world – by opposing those who tried to subvert the ideals of the city for their own ends. Finally he offered them hope that things would get better and the city would survive. 
No more tears 
Everything is in hand.

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