previous next

The Oedipus-myth at Colonus.

The connection of Oedipus with Colonus was no invention of Sophocles. He found the local legend existing, and only gave it such a form as should harmonise it with his own treatment of the first chapter in the Oedipus-myth. It is unnecessary to suppose that, when he composed the Oedipus Tyrannus, he contemplated an Oedipus at Colonus. As a drama, the former is complete in itself; it is only as an expression of the myth that it is supplemented by the latter.

But why, it may be asked, should the King of Thebes have been connected by an ancient legend with this particular place in Attica? The primary link was a cult of the Eumenides at Colonus, which must have been still older than the association of Oedipus with that spot. This cult was itself connected, as the play indicates, with the existence at or near Colonus of a rift or cavernous opening in the ground, supposed to communicate with the under-world. The worship of the Eumenides at Colonus was identical in spirit with their worship at the Areiopagus, where a similar "descent to Hades" was the physical origin. The ancient rigour which required that bloodshed, whether deliberate or not, should be expiated by blood, was expressed by the older idea of the Erinyes, the implacable pursuers. The metamorphosis of the Erinyes into the Eumenides corresponds with a later and milder sense that bloodshed is compatible with varying degrees of guilt, ranging from premeditated murder to homicide in self-defence or by accident. Athenian legend claimed that this transformation of the Avengers took place in Attica, and that the institution of the court on the Areiopagus marked the moment. The claim was a mythical expression of qualities which history attests in the Athenian character, and of which the Athenians themselves were conscious as distinguishing them from other Greeks. It was Athenian to temper the letter of the law with considerations of equity (τοὐπιεικές); to use clemency; to feel compassion (αἰδώς) for unmerited misfortune; to shelter the oppressed; to restrict the sphere of violence; and to sacrifice,—where no other Greeks did,—at the altar of Persuasion1. This character is signally impressed on the Oedipus Coloneus, and is personified in Theseus. The first session of the tribunal on the Hill of Ares was, in Attic story, the first occasion on which this humane character asserted itself against a hitherto inflexible precedent. Orestes slew his mother to avenge his father, whom she had slain; and the Erinyes demanded his blood. He is tried, and acquitted,—but not by the Erinyes; by Athene and her Athenian court. The Erinyes are the accusers, and Apollo is counsel for the prisoner. Then it is,— after the acquittal of Orestes,—that Athene's gentle pleading effects a change in the defeated Avengers2. They cease to be the Erinyes: they become the Benign or Majestic goddesses (Eumenides, Semnae), and are installed, as guardian deities of Attica, in a shrine beneath the Areiopagus. Henceforth they are symbols of the spirit which presided over the Attic criminal law of homicide (φόνος),—so remarkable for its combination of the unbending religious view, in which bloodshed was always a pollution, with a finely graduated scale of moral guilt, and with ample provision for the exercise of clemency.

Oedipus was a passive Orestes,—like him, the instrument of an inherited destiny, but, unlike him, a sufferer, not a doer; for his involuntary acts, as he could justly say, were in reality sufferings rather than deeds. The Eumenides of Colonus could not refuse to admit his plea, commended to them, as it was, by Apollo. His was a typical case for the display of their gentler attributes. And, as Greek religion was prone to associate the cult of deities with that of mortals in whom their power had been shown, it was natural that the Eumenides and Oedipus should be honoured at the same place. A chapel which Pausanias saw at Colonus was dedicated jointly to Oedipus and Adrastus, —a further illustration of this point. For Adrastus was another example of inevitable destiny tempered by divine equity; he shared in the Argive disasters at Thebes; but he was personally innocent; and, alone of the chiefs, he survived.

1 Isocr. or. 15 § 249.

2 In the recent performance of the Eumenides by members of the University of Cambridge a beautiful feature was the expression of this gradual change. Dr Stanford's music for the successive choral songs from v. 778 onwards interpreted each step of the transition from fierce rage to gentleness; and the acting of the Chorus was in unison with it throughout. We saw, and heard, the Erinyes becoming the Eumenides.

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 (2 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Aeschylus, Eumenides, 778
    • Isocrates, Antidosis, 249
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: