previous next

In the Oedipus Tyrannus a man is crushed by the discovery
Relation of the Coloneus to the Tyrannus.
that, without knowing it, he has committed two crimes, parricide and incest. At the moment of discovery he can feel nothing but the double stain: he cries out that OT 1345"he has become most hateful to the gods."” He has, indeed, broken divine laws, and the divine Power has punished him by bringing his deeds to light. This Power does not, in the first instance, regard the intention, but the fact. It does not matter that his unconscious sins were due to the agency of an inherited curse, and that he is morally innocent. He has sinned, and he must suffer.

In the Oedipus Coloneus we meet with this man again, after the lapse of several years. In a religious aspect he still rests under the stain, and he knows this. But, in the course of time, he has mentally risen to a point of view from which he can survey his own past more clearly. Consciousness of the stain is now subordinate to another feeling, which in his first despair had not availed to console him. He has gained a firm grasp, not to be lost, on the fact of his moral innocence. He remembers the word of Apollo long ago, which coupled the prediction of his woes with a promise of final rest and reward; and he believes that his moral innocence is recognised by the Power which punished him. Thinking, then, on the two great facts of his life, his defilement and his innocence, he has come to look upon himself as neither pure nor yet guilty, but as a person set apart by the gods to illustrate their will,—as sacred. Hence that apparently strange contrast which belongs to the heart of the Oedipus Coloneus. He declines to pollute his benefactor, Theseus, by his touch,—describing himself as one with whom “"all stain of sin hath made its dwelling" (1133). Yet, with equal truth and sincerity, he can assure the Athenians that he has come to them 287"as one sacred and pious,"”—the suppliant of the Eumenides, the disciple of Apollo (287).

In the Oedipus Tyrannus, when the king pronounces a ban on the unknown murderer of Laïus, he charges his subjects that no one shall make that man “"partner of his prayer or sacrifice, or serve him with the lustral rite"(239 f.). Ceremonial purity thus becomes a prominent idea at an early point in the Tyrannus; and rightly so; for that play turns on acts as such. In the Oedipus Coloneus we have a description of the ritual to be observed in the grove of the Eumenides; but, as if to mark the difference of spirit between the two plays, it is followed by the striking words of Oedipus, when he suggests that a daughter shall officiate in his stead:—“"I think that one soul suffices to pay this debt for ten thousand, if it come with good-will to the shrine"(497). When eternal laws are broken by men, the gods punish the breach, whether wilful or involuntary; but their ultimate judgment depends on the intent. That thought is dominant in the Oedipus Coloneus. The contrast between physical blindness and inward vision is an under-note, in harmony with the higher distinction between the form of conduct and its spirit.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1133
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 239
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 287
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 497
    • Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 1345
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: