THE BIRTH OF OEDIPUS,
HIS YOUTH, HIS FLIGHT,
AND THE MURDER OF HIS FATHER
LAIUS, son of Labdacus, of the line of Cadmus, was king of Thebes. For many years he had been married to Jocasta, daughter of Menoeceus, a noble of that city, yet she had borne him no children. Because he longed so deeply for an heir, he questioned the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and was given this answer: “Laius, son of Labdacus, you desire a child. Well then, you shall have a son. But Fate has decreed that you shall lose your life at his hands. This is the will of Zeus, son of Cronus, who heard the curse of Pelops, whom you once robbed of his son.” Laius had committed this wrong in his youth, when he had been forced to flee from his own country, had taken refuge with King Pelops, and then repaid the kindness of his host with rank ingratitude. For at the Nemean games he had carried off Chrysippus, Pelops’ beautiful son.
Since Laius was well aware of what he had done, he believed the oracle and lived apart from his wife for a long time. But the great love they had for each other drove them into each other’s arms again in spite of the warning they had received, and in due time Jocasta bore her husband a son. When the child was before their eyes, they remembered the utterance of the oracle, and in an effort to escape the decree of Fate, decided to expose the newborn infant in the mountainous region of Cithaeron, his ankles pierced and bound with a thong. But the shepherd who had been chosen to carry out this cruel command had pity on the innocent boy and handed him over to a fellow herdsman who, on the slopes of those same mountains, pastured the sheep of Polybus, king of Corinth. Then he went home and pretended to have done as he had been told. The king and his wife Jocasta were certain the child must have died of hunger and thirst or been torn to pieces by wild beasts, and that the oracle, therefore, could not possibly be fulfilled. They eased their conscience with the thought that, by sacrificing the child, they had saved him from murdering his father, and resumed the course of their days with lighter hearts.
In the meantime the shepherd of Polybus loosed the bonds of the child he had accepted, not knowing who he was or whence he came, and because his ankles showed wounds, he called the boy Oedipus, or Swollen-Foot. Then he took him to his master, the king of Corinth, who had compassion on the foundling and bade his wife Merope rear him as if he were her own son, and the court and the entire country did, indeed, regard him as such. He grew into young manhood as a prince, never doubting that he was the son and heir of King Polybus, who had no other children. But chance shattered his joyful self-assurance. Once at a banquet, a citizen of Corinth who bore him a grudge from sheer envy, grew heated with wine and called to Oedipus, who was reclining on the couch opposite him, that he was not the king’s true son. The youth was so deeply disturbed by this taunt that he could hardly wait for the end of the feast. All that day he kept his doubts to himself, but the next morning he confronted the king and queen and asked for the truth. Polybus and his wife were indignant at the miscreant who had allowed such words to slip from him, and tried to quiet the youth with evasive replies. He was calmed by the love which shone through all they said, but from that time on suspicion gnawed at his heart, for the words of his enemy had made a deep impression on him. He resolved to leave the palace secretly, and without the knowledge of his foster parents he set out for the oracle of Delphi, hoping to hear the sun-god give the lie to what he had been told. Phoebus Apollo did not deign to reply to his question. Instead he revealed a new and far more terrible misfortune than the one Oedipus feared. “You will slay your father,” said the oracle. “You will wed your own mother and leave loathsome descendants behind in the world.” When Oedipus heard this, he was struck with horror, and since he still regarded Polybus and Merope as his father and mother, he did not dare return home, for fear that Fate might guide his hand against the king, and the gods afflict him with madness so wild that he would wickedly wed his mother.
He left the oracle and took the road to Boeotia. While he was still between Delphi and the city of Daulia he came to a crossroads and saw a chariot rolling toward him. In it sat an old man he had never seen, and with him were a herald, a charioteer, and two servants. The charioteer and the old man impatiently crowded the wayfarer from the narrow path. Oedipus, who was quick to anger, lunged out at the charioteer, and at that the old man brandished his goad at the insolent youth and brought it down on his head. This roused Oedipus to senseless rage. For the first time he used the great strength the gods had given him, lifted the staff he carried on his journey, and struck the old man so that he toppled backwards from the chariot. A fight ensued, and the youth had to defend his life against three assailants. But he was younger and stronger than they. Two he killed. One escaped and ran away, and Oedipus continued on his journey.
He did not dream that he had done anything but take revenge on some common Phocian or Boeotian who had tried to harm him. For there had been nothing about the old man to show that he was a dignitary or of noble birth. In reality he was Laius, king of Thebes, his father, who had been bound on a journey to the Pythian oracle. And so Fate fulfilled the prophecy given to both father and son, the prophecy both had so zealously sought to evade. Damasistratus, a man from Plataea, found the bodies lying on the ground, was moved to pity, and buried them. Hundreds of years later, travellers could still see the monument: a heap of stones, lying in the fork of the road.
OEDIPUS IN THEBES
Not long after this, a fearful monster appeared before the gates of Thebes, a winged sphinx, whose forepart was that of a maiden while the hindpart had the shape of a lion. She was one of the daughters of Typhon and Echidna, the serpent-nymph whose fruitful womb had borne so many monsters, and a sister to Cerberus, the hound of Hades, to the Lernean Hydra, and the fire-spewing Chimaera. This sphinx settled on a cliff and asked the people of Thebes all sorts of riddles the Muses had taught her. If a man could not hit upon the answer, she tore him to pieces and devoured him. This affliction came upon the city just as the people were mourning their king, who had been slain on a journey—no one knew by whom. Creon, Queen Jocasta’s brother, had become ruler in his stead, and the sphinx grew so bold that she consumed his own son, to whom she had posed a riddle he could not solve. This last blow decided King Creon to proclaim that whoever freed the city of the monster should receive the realm in reward and his sister Jocasta to wife. At the very moment the crier was calling out these words, Oedipus entered the city of Thebes. Both the danger and the prize challenged him, and besides he did not place too high a value upon a life so shadowed by gloomy prophecy. He climbed the cliff where the sphinx had taken up her abode and offered to solve a riddle. The monster was determined to confront this bold stranger with one she considered quite impossible to guess. She said: “In the morning it goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening on three. Of all creatures living, it is the only one that changes the number of its feet, yet just when it walks on the most feet, its speed and strength are at their lowest ebb.”
Oedipus smiled when he heard this riddle, which did not seem at all difficult to him. “It is Man,” he replied. “In the morning of his life, when he is a weak and helpless child, he crawls on his two hands and two feet. At the noon of his life he has grown strong and walks on his two feet, but when he is old and the evening of his life is come, he needs support and takes a staff for a third foot.” This was the correct answer, and the sphinx was so ashamed of her defeat and so enraged that she threw herself from the cliff and died on the instant. Creon kept his promise. He gave Oedipus the kingdom of Thebes and married him to Jocasta, who was his mother. Through the years she bore him four children: first the twin boys Eteocles and Polynices, and then two daughters, the elder of whom was Antigone, and the younger Ismene. But these four were not only his children but also his sisters and brothers.
For many years the dreadful secret remained hidden, and Oedipus, who was a good and just king, though he had his faults, ruled Thebes together with Jocasta and was loved and honored by his subjects. But in due time the gods sent a plague upon the land which wrought havoc among the people and against which no remedy could prevail. The Thebans regarded this pestilence as a punishment and sought protection from their king who, they believed, was a favorite of the immortals. Men and women, the aged and the children, came to the palace in a long procession led by priests with olive branches in their hands, seated themselves all about and on the steps of the altar standing before the palace, and waited for their king to appear. When Oedipus heard their clamor, he came out and asked its cause, and why the entire city fumed with the smoke of offerings and resounded with lament. The eldest among the priests answered in behalf of all: “You can see for yourself, O master,” he said, “what wretchedness we are forced to endure. The hills and the fields are burned with drought and heat; the plague is raging in our homes. The city cannot lift its head through the waves of blood and destruction. And so we have come to take refuge with you, our beloved king. Once before you freed us from the tyranny of the Asker of Riddles. Surely this did not come to pass without the help of the gods. And so we put our trust in you, believing that either through gods or men you will find help for us again.”
“My poor children,” Oedipus replied, “I know the cause of your prayers. I know that you are wasting with disease. But my heart is sadder than yours, for I do not mourn this one or that one, but the entire city. To me your coming is no sudden awakening, as though I had slept! I have brooded over your distress and cast about for some cure, and I think I have found it at last. For I have sent my own brother-in-law Creon to Delphi, to the oracle of Apollo, to ask by what deed or what other means the city can be set free!”
Even as Oedipus spoke, Creon appeared in the throng and reported the oracle to the king before all the people. But it was not very consoling. “The god bade us thrust out an evil the land is harboring,” said Creon, “and not to cherish that for which no purification can atone. The murder of King Laius weighs as bloodguilt upon the land.” Oedipus, who did not guess that the old man he had killed was the very one for whose sake the wrath of the gods was visited upon his subjects, had them tell the story of the murder, but still his spirit was blind to the truth. He declared that he regarded it as his duty to deal with this matter himself, and dismissed the assembled people. Then he had proclaimed throughout the land that anyone who knew of the murderer of King Laius should report all he had learned; that if one dwelling in another land knew anything, the city of Thebes would give him thanks and reward for his information; but that he who kept silence to shield a friend, or to hide his complicity, should be excluded from all religious services, from the sacrificial feast, and even from intercourse with his fellow citizens. As for the murderer himself, he cursed him with awful imprecations and called down on him misery and need for all the days of his life, and in the end utter destruction. He was not to escape disaster, even if he were hiding in the palace itself. In addition to all this, Oedipus dispatched two messengers to the blind seer Tiresias, who almost matched Apollo in his power to probe the unknown and behold the unseen. Soon after, the aged seer came before the king and the assembly of the people. A boy led him by the hand. Oedipus told him of the misfortune which had fallen on the country and begged him to use his gift of prophecy to help find the murderer of King Laius.
But Tiresias broke into lament and, stretching his hands out toward the king as if to ward off some terrible thing, he exclaimed: “Awful is the knowledge that brings sadness to him who knows! Let me go home! O king, bear your burden and let me bear mine!” These veiled words only made Oedipus more and more insistent, and the people themselves fell on their knees to beg the seer to speak. When he refused to make his meaning clear, Oedipus grew angry and taunted Tiresias with being the confidant or perhaps even the helper of the murderer, saying that only the old man’s blindness kept him from thinking that he himself had committed the crime. This accusation loosened the prophet’s tongue. “Oedipus,” he cried, “obey the orders you yourself proclaimed! Do not speak to me, do not speak to anyone of your people. It is you who are the evil that taints the city! Yes, it is you who murdered the king and live in guilty union with those dear to you!”
And still the mind of Oedipus was closed to the truth. He called the soothsayer a knave and a trickster and accused both him and Creon of plotting against the throne, of weaving a network of lies in order to drive him, who had liberated the city, from power. But Tiresias replied by calling him—unambiguously now—the slayer of his father and the husband of his mother, and then groped for his little guide’s hand and went away in anger. Meantime Creon had heard of the accusation launched against him and hastened to confront Oedipus. A violent quarrel broke out between them, and Jocasta’s attempts to calm them were of no avail. They parted unreconciled and rankling with bitterness and hatred.
Jocasta herself was blinder than the king himself; hardly had she heard that Tiresias had pointed him out as the slayer of Laius, when she protested against the seer and his vaunted powers. “It just goes to show,” she said scornfully, “how little these prophets know! Take an example: An oracle once told my first husband Laius that he would die at the hands of his son. But actually he was killed by robbers, at a forking of the road, and our only son was tied by the feet and exposed in a waste mountain region when he was only three days old. That is how oracles are fulfilled!”
The queen laughed mockingly, but her words had a very different effect from that she had intended. “At a crossroads?” Oedipus asked, his heart shaken with fear. “Did you say that Laius fell at a crossroads? How old was he then? How did he look?”
Jocasta answered readily, unaware of her husband’s agitation. “He was tall, and his hair was just turning white. He was not unlike you.”
And now Oedipus was seized with real terror. It was as if a flash of lightning had split the darkness of his mind. “It is not Tiresias who is blind!” he cried. “He sees, he knows!” And though in his soul he recognized the truth, he asked question after question, hoping for answers which would prove his discovery a mistake. But the replies only established it more firmly, and at last he learned that a servant had escaped, come home, and told of the murder; that when Oedipus ascended the throne, this man had begged to be set as far as possible from the city, to the farthest pastures of the king. Now he was summoned, but just as he arrived, a messenger from Corinth entered the palace to announce to Oedipus the death of Polybus, his father, and to call him to the vacant throne.
When she heard this, the queen said triumphantly: “O divine oracle, where are the truths you utter! The father Oedipus was supposed to slay has just died peacefully of old age.” But King Oedipus, who had greater reverence for the gods, thought otherwise. He wanted to believe that Polybus was his father, yet could not bring himself to think that an oracle might be false. And he hesitated to go to Corinth for still another reason. There was the second part of the oracle to consider! Merope, his mother, was living, and Fate might drive him into marriage with her. What doubts he still had were soon dispelled by the messenger, the very herdsman who, many years ago on Mount Cithaeron, had accepted the infant from a servant of Laius and loosed the thongs which bound his pierced feet. It was an easy matter for him to prove that Oedipus, though heir to the throne of Corinth, had been only the foster son of Polybus. And when the king of Thebes now asked for the servant who had delivered him to the herdsman, he discovered that it was he who had escaped death when King Laius was murdered and had been tending the king’s cattle at the borders of the realm.
When Jocasta heard this, she left her husband and the assembled people with loud wails of despair. Oedipus, who still was trying to evade the inevitable, explained her going in this way: “She is afraid,” he said to the people. “She is a proud woman and fears that I may turn out to be of humble birth. As for me, I regard myself as the son of Good Fortune, and I am not ashamed of a family tree such as that.” And now the herdsman was brought, and the messenger from Corinth at once recognized him as the servant who had put the child into his hands. The old man paled with terror and stammered denials, but when Oedipus had him fettered and threatened him, he told the truth: that Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, that the oracle predicting he would slay his father had caused them to expose the child, but that he, out of pity, had saved his life.
JOCASTA AND OEDIPUS INFLICT PUNISHMENT UPON THEMSELVES
And now everything was revealed in awful clarity. Oedipus fled from the great hall and ran through the palace asking for a sword to strike from the face of the earth the monster who was both his mother and his wife. But there was no one to answer him, for all scattered before this apparition of madness and rage. At last he reached his bedchamber, smashed the locked door, and broke into the room. He was halted by the sight which met his eyes. High above the bed hung Jocasta, her hair framing her face in tangled strands, a rope tightened about her throat. For a long time Oedipus stared at the corpse, and grief rendered him speechless. But then he cried aloud and lowered the rope until the body touched the floor. From her robe he tore the golden clasps, clutched them in his hand, raised them high, and bidding his eyes never more see what he did or suffered, pierced the balls until a stream of blood gushed from the sockets. He asked the servants to open the gates and lead him out to the people of Thebes, that they might see the slayer of his father, the husband of his mother, a monster on earth, one hated by the gods. They did his bidding, but his subjects, who had loved and revered their ruler for so long, felt only compassion for him. Even Creon, whom he had accused unjustly, did not make mock of him or rejoice in his misfortune. He hurried to remove from the sight of the populace this man laden with the curse of the gods, and put him in the care of his children. Oedipus was moved by so much kindness. He made his brother-in-law keeper of the throne for his young sons, requested that his ill-omened mother be buried, and put his orphaned daughters under the protection of the new ruler. For himself he demanded exile from the country he had tainted with his twofold crime. He wanted to live or die, according to the will of the gods, on Mount Cithaeron, where his parents had exposed him so long ago. Then he called for his daughters, whose voices he yearned to hear one last time, and laid his hand on their heads. He blessed Creon for all the undeserved love he had shown him, and fervently prayed that—under their new king—the people of Thebes would enjoy the favor of the gods he himself had been denied.
Creon led him back into the palace, and now Oedipus, whom many thousands had obeyed, whose glory as the liberator of Thebes had spread over the world, this man who had solved the most difficult of riddles and found the key to his own life’s enigma all too late, prepared to go through the gates of his city like a blind beggar, and set out on the journey to the very borders of his realm.
OEDIPUS AND ANTIGONE
In that first hour, when Oedipus had discovered the truth about himself, the swiftest death would have been welcome. Had the people risen against their king and stoned him, he would have exulted. Since the boon of death had been denied him, he had begged to be exiled and accepted his banishment as a welcome gift. But when he sat in his room in utter darkness, when his frenzy abated, he began to conjure up the terrors of wandering through alien regions, blind and poor. The love of home stirred in his heart, and with it the feeling that, by the loss of his wife and his sight, he had already atoned for wrongs committed unknowingly; nor did he hesitate to voice his wish to remain in Thebes to Creon and to his sons Eteocles and Polynices. But now it appeared that Creon’s kindness had been prompted by a very passing impulse, and that the two boys were selfish and hard of heart. Creon compelled his ill-starred kinsman to keep to his first decision, and the sons, whose foremost duty should have been to assist their father, refused him their aid. There was barely an exchange of words. They thrust a beggar’s staff into his hand and forced him to leave the palace.
Only his daughters had pity on him. Ismene, the younger, stayed behind in her brothers’ house in order to further her father’s cause. The elder, Antigone, shared his exile and guided the steps of the blind old man. She accompanied him on a journey full of hardships. On bare feet she walked, and she, so delicately reared, suffered hunger, the heat of the sun, the lash of the rain, and was content, if only her father had enough to eat. At first he planned to court wretchedness or find death in the barren region of Cithaeron. But because he loved the immortals, and did not want to take this step without knowing their will, he made a pilgrimage to the oracle of Pythian Apollo. And here he was given a small measure of comfort. The gods knew that Oedipus had sinned against the laws of nature and the most sacred laws of human society without his own knowledge or wish. So grave a fault had to be atoned for, even though it was done in ignorance, but the punishment was not to last forever. After a long time, so the oracle foretold, he was to be absolved, and this was to be when he reached the land appointed by Fate, the land where the stern Eumenides would grant him a refuge. Now the name of Eumenides, or Well-Wishers, was one which mortals had given to the Erinyes, or Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, in order to honor and placate them. Thus the oracle was obscure and strange. The Furies were to give Oedipus peace and absolution for his sins against nature! But Oedipus trusted the gods and, leaving to Fate the fulfillment of that peculiar prophecy, he wandered through Greece. His daughter led and tended him, and he lived on the alms of the compassionate. He always asked only little and received only little, but it sufficed him, for his long exile, his sorrow, and his noble spirit had taught him to do without all but the barest necessities.
OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
After long wanderings through lands inhabited and waste, one evening Oedipus and Antigone came to a pleasant village set in a grove of tall trees. Nightingales flitted through the boughs, and the air stirred with their song. The blooms of the vine breathed fragrance, and the rough gray rocks which strewed the region were half hidden by the foliage of olive and laurel. Even though Oedipus was blind, his other senses conveyed to him the loveliness of the scene, and from his daughter’s description he concluded that they must be in some holy place. The towers of a city were visible on the horizon, and Antigone, upon asking, had learned that these belonged to Athens. Weary of the day’s journey, Oedipus seated himself on a stone. But a villager, passing by, bade him rise, since this was sacred earth, not to be profaned by mortal foot. Then he told the travellers that they were in Colonus and had come to the grove of the all-seeing Eumenides, a name by which the Athenians honored the Furies. And now Oedipus knew that he had reached the goal of his wanderings and that his tangled destinies would soon unravel themselves. His bearing gave the villager pause, and he decided not to drive the stranger from his resting-place until he had told his king of the incident.
“Who is the ruler of your country?” Oedipus asked him, for he had been on the road so long that he no longer knew what went on in the world.
“Have you not heard of Theseus, our noble and mighty king?” the villager asked in return. “Why, his fame has spread through all the land!”
“If your ruler has, indeed, so noble a spirit,” Oedipus replied, “then be my messenger and beg him to come to this place. Tell him that for so small a favor I pledge him a very great reward!”
“What has a blind man to offer a king?” said the peasant and smiled at the stranger half in pity, half in scorn. “And yet,” he added thoughtfully, “were you not blind, the stateliness of your form and the majesty in your face would compel me to give you honor. And so I shall do as you say and bear your request to the king and my fellow citizens. Remain here, until I have done my errand. Then let the others decide if you may stay or must go on.”
When Oedipus was once more alone with Antigone, he rose, threw himself on the ground, and poured his heart out in fervent prayer to the Eumenides, the dread daughters of darkness and Mother Earth, who had chosen this quiet place for their habitation. “You who inspire terror and yet are merciful too,” he prayed, “fulfill the words of Apollo! Show me the course my life is to take, and tell me whether I must suffer still more misery than I have already endured. Have pity upon me, O Children of Night! O city of Athens, have pity on the shadow of King Oedipus which stands before you, for he himself is dead, even though he still breathes.”
They were not alone for long. The news of a blind man of noble bearing who had sat down to rest in the grove of the Eumenides, where no mortal is allowed to set foot, had alarmed the village elders, and they came and gathered about him to hinder him from further desecration of holy ground. They were still more perturbed when it became plain that the blind man was pursued by Fate, for they feared that the wrath of the gods would descend on them as well if they permitted one whom the immortals had branded with their displeasure to remain in this sacred place. They told him to leave on the instant. Oedipus implored them not to banish him from the goal of all his wanderings, which the voice of a god had foretold, and Antigone too beset them with pleas. “If you have no compassion upon my father’s gray hair,” she said, “accept him for my sake, for the sake of one who is forsaken without any guilt on her part. Grant us what we have almost ceased to hope for, grant us your favor!”
The villagers were still hesitating between pity for the strangers and fear of the Erinyes, when Antigone saw a girl coming toward them. She was seated on a small horse and her face was shaded by a hat, such as travellers wear. A servant rode behind her. “It is my sister Ismene!” she cried in surprise and happiness. “She is bringing us news from home!” And it was, indeed, the youngest child of King Oedipus who dismounted and stood before them. She had left Thebes with one servant of proved loyalty and had come to tell her father of conditions in the realm he once had ruled. It seemed that his sons were on the verge of a disaster which had been brought upon themselves. At first they had intended leaving the kingdom to Creon, their uncle, for the curse on their family loomed threateningly before them. But as the memory of their father faded, they regretted their earlier impulse and burned with the lust for power and a king’s glory and magnificence. Envy rose up between them. Polynices, invoking the rights of the eldest, took his turn at kingship first, but Eteocles, the younger, not content to alternate with him as he had suggested, goaded the people to insurrection and dethroned and banished his brother. Polynices had fled to Argos, in the Peloponnesus, so rumor had it in Thebes. There he had married the daughter of King Adrastus, won friends and allies, and was now threatening his native city with conquest and revenge. In the meantime, a new oracle had been proclaimed: that the sons of King Oedipus could do nothing without their father; that if they had their welfare at heart they must look for him and find him, living or dead.
This was the news Ismene brought her father. The people of Colonus listened in amazement, and Oedipus rose to his full height. “So that is how it is!” he said, and his blind face was radiant with kingly majesty. “They are asking help of an exile, of a beggar! Now, that I am nothing, I am the one they desire!”
“Yes,” said Ismene and continued her tale. “Because of this oracle, our uncle Creon will be here soon. I was in great haste to get here before him. For he is out to talk you over, or to capture you and take you to the border of Thebes so that your presence may fulfill the oracle in favor of himself and Eteocles, and yet not profane the city.”
“Who told you this?” asked her father.
“Pilgrims, on the way to Delphi.”
“And if I die near Thebes, will they bury me in Theban earth?”
“No,” answered the girl. “Your bloodguilt will deter them.”
“Then they shall never have me!” the old king declared in bitter resentment. “If my sons lust for power more than they love me, may the immortals keep alive their fatal enmity. And if the judging of their feud rests with me, then he who now has the scepter in his hands shall not remain on the throne, nor shall he who is exiled ever see his native land again. Only my daughters are my true children. Let my guilt not be visited upon them! For them I implore the blessings of the gods, for them I ask your protection! Give them and me your help, and your city shall have gain and glory!”
OEDIPUS AND THESEUS
The people of Colonus were filled with deep reverence for blind Oedipus, whose kingliness clung about him through poverty and exile, and counselled him to pour a libation to atone for desecrating the sacred grove. Not until then did the village elders learn the name and the inadvertent crimes of the king, and who knows but that their horror at his deed might not have hardened their hearts again, had not Theseus, whom the message had called from the city, now joined their circle. He approached the blind stranger with courtesy and awe and spoke to him compassionately. “Unhappy Oedipus, I know of your fate, and those eyes which you yourself put out would be enough to tell me whom I am addressing. Your misfortunes move my soul. And now tell me why you have sought out my city and why you had me summoned. Whatever you ask would have to be terrible, indeed, for me to refuse you. I have not forgotten that, like you, I also grew up in alien lands and suffered hardship and danger.”
“In these few words you have spoken,” said Oedipus, “I recognize a noble soul. I have come to you with a request which is also a gift. I give you my weary self, an insignificant and yet precious possession. You shall bury me and harvest a rich reward for your kindness and charity.”
“The favor you ask is slight,” said Theseus in amazement. “Ask something more, something better, and it shall be yours.”
“The favor is not as slight as you believe,” Oedipus continued. “You will have to wage a war for this wretched old body of mine.” And now he told the story of his exile and his kinsmen’s subsequent attempts to recover him for selfish reasons of their own. Then he implored Theseus to give him a hero’s aid.
Theseus listened attentively. “If only because my house is open to every guest,” be said solemnly, “I would not cast you out. How then could I deny hospitality to one whom the gods have guided to my hearth, who promises blessings for me and for my country?” Then he gave Oedipus the choice of accompanying him to Athens or remaining in Colonus as his guest. Oedipus chose to stay, since Fate had decreed that he should conquer his foes in the place where he was at the moment, and there live his life to an honorable and glorious end. The King of Athens pledged him ample protection and returned to the city.
OEDIPUS AND CREON
Soon after this Creon, king of Thebes, invaded Colonus with armed followers and hastened to Oedipus. “You are astonished that I have come to Attica,” he said to the assembled villagers. “But there is no cause for excitement or anger. I am not young enough to enter lightly into battle with the strongest city in all Greece. I am old and have come only because my fellow citizens have dispatched me to urge this man to come back to Thebes.” Then he turned to Oedipus and in carefully chosen words expressed false sympathy with the sad lot he and his daughter had suffered.
But Oedipus raised his staff and held it out before him as a sign that Creon was not to approach more closely. “Shameless traitor!” he cried. “If you took me away with you, this would be the drop to brim the cup of my sorrows! Give up all hope that through me you will ward punishment from your city, for that punishment will surely come. I shall not go with you; in my stead I shall send the demon of vengeance. And my two unfilial sons shall have only so much of Theban earth as they need for their graves!”
Now Creon tried to take the blind king by force, but the citizens of Colonus resisted and, citing Theseus as their authority, would not let Creon carry out his purpose. He, the while, had signed to his men, who now snatched Ismene and Antigone from their father and dragged them off in spite of the protest of the villagers. Then Creon said mockingly: “At least I have taken your staves from you. Now try your luck, blind old man, and wander on!” And emboldened by success he went up to Oedipus once more and was about to lay hands on him when Theseus, who had received word of the armed invasion of Colonus, appeared on the scene. As soon as he saw and heard what had happened, he sent servants on foot and on horseback up the road the Thebans had gone with the two girls. Then he declared to Creon that he would not release him until he had given Oedipus back his daughters.
“Son of Aegeus,” Creon answered with feigned humility, “truly I have not come to make war on you and your city. I did not know that your people were so zealously devoted to that blind kinsman of mine, whom I meant to do a kindness, or that they prefer to shelter one who murdered his father and married his mother, rather than return him to his native land!”
But Theseus bade him be silent and instantly tell him where the girls were concealed. After a little, Antigone and Ismene were reunited with their father. Creon and his men had left.
OEDIPUS AND POLYNICES
Even so Oedipus was to have no rest. From his brief journey in pursuit of the daughters of his guest, Theseus brought word that one who was close kin to Oedipus, though he had not come from Thebes, had set foot on Colonus and prostrated himself as a suppliant before the altar in Poseidon’s temple where Theseus had only just made offering.
“That is my son Polynices,” Oedipus said angrily, “my son who merits nothing but my hatred. It would be intolerable to me even to talk to him!” But Antigone, who loved this brother because he was the gentler and kinder of the two, succeeded in soothing her father’s wrath and gained his consent at least to hear his unhappy son. First Oedipus begged his protector to be ready to aid him in case an attempt were made to lead him away by force. Then he had his son summoned before him.
From the very outset, Polynices bore himself very differently from his uncle Creon, and Antigone did not fail to draw her father’s attention to this. “I see someone approaching,” she cried. “He comes alone. Tears are streaming from his eyes.” Oedipus only turned his head away, asking, “Is it he?” “Yes, dear father,” she answered. “Your son Polynices stands before you.”
Polynices threw himself at his father’s feet and clasped his knees. He looked up at him, and grief ate at his heart when he saw his beggar’s dress, his empty eyes, and his gray hair blowing unkempt in the wind. “Too late I see all this!” he moaned. “I confess—I accuse myself—I forgot my father. What would have become of him, had my sister not given him care! Father, I have wronged you! Can you forgive me? You are silent? O speak, and do not turn from me in such relentless anger! Help me, my sisters, to unclose those bitter lips!”
“First tell us what brought you here,” said Antigone gently. “Perhaps your own words will cause him to break his silence.” And Polynices told how his brother had driven him from Thebes, how Adrastus, king of Argos, had received him and given him his daughter to wife, and that there he had won seven princes with their forces as his allies in a just cause; that these had already encircled the region of Thebes. Then he begged his father to go with him, promising that once his malicious brother had been dethroned, he, Polynices himself, would put the crown in his father’s hands.
But his son’s penitence could not soften a spirit so deeply offended. “Infamous wretch!” Oedipus cried and made no move to raise the suppliant from the ground. “When the throne and the scepter were yours, you drove your father from the land. You yourself put on him this beggar’s cloak which moves you to pity, now that you have had to endure like hardships. You and your brother are not my true children. Had it depended on you, I should have been dead long since. But the vengeance of the gods awaits you. You will fall in your own blood and your brother in his. This is the reply you may take to those princes who have declared themselves your allies.”
Antigone hastened over to her brother, who had risen from his knees in horror and recoiled from his father. “Obey my most fervent wish, Polynices,” she besought him. “Return to Argos with your host! Do not make war on your native city.”
“That is impossible,” he answered after a moment’s hesitation. “Flight would mean disgrace for me—more than disgrace—destruction. Though both of us be doomed to perish, we brothers still cannot be friends.” And he freed himself from his sister’s embrace and left with a troubled spirit.
Thus Oedipus resisted the tempting promises held out to him by both factions of his kinsmen and yielded them up to the gods of vengeance. And now the arcs of his destiny closed to their full circle. Crash after crash of thunder sounded from above, and the old man understood this voice from heaven and called for Theseus with urgency and longing. The darkness of impending storm crept over the land, and the blind king trembled with the fear that he might die or his reason be impaired before he could utter to his host his gratitude for all the kindness he had received at his hands. But Theseus came, and Oedipus gave his solemn blessing to the city of Athens. Then he asked its king to obey the call of the gods and conduct him to where he could die, untouched by the hands of any mortal, and beheld only by the eyes of Theseus. To no one should he point out the place where Oedipus had left the earth. Never should the grave which held him be revealed, for in this way it would defend Athens against her foes more than spear or shield or the strength of many allies. His daughters and the people of Colonus were permitted to accompany him part of the way, and the train wound into the shadow of the grove of the Erinyes. No one was allowed to touch Oedipus, and he, the blind man, who had been guided thus far, seemed of a sudden to see. He walked erect and strong in the van of the procession and led the way to the goal Fate had appointed for him.
In the middle of the grove of the Erinyes the earth gaped, and the opening was rimmed with a threshold of bronze, the mouth of many winding paths. Legend, taking shape from various ancient tales, had it that this cave was an entrance to the underworld. Oedipus chose one of the twisting ways, but he did not let his retinue accompany him to the grotto itself. Under a hollow tree he halted, sat down on a stone, and undid the belt of his stained beggar’s dress. Then he called for water from a flowing stream, cleansed himself of the dust of his long wanderings, and donned a festive robe which his daughters brought him. When he rose refreshed and renewed, thunder rumbled up from the bowels of the earth. Tremulously Antigone and Ismene clung in his arms. He kissed them and said: “Farewell, my children. From this day on you will be orphaned.” But while he was still clasping them close, a voice like a clapper striking on bronze vibrated, none knew whether from heaven or the heart of earth, saying: “Why do you loiter, Oedipus? Why do you delay?”
The blind king heard and knew that the god was demanding his own. He loosed the fingers of his children and laid them in the hand of Theseus to show that he put them in his care for the rest of their lives. Then he bade all turn their backs on him and leave. Only Theseus was permitted to approach the threshold of the opening. His retinue and his daughters obeyed him and did not look back until they had gone a long way. When they did, a miracle had come to pass. There was no longer any sign of King Oedipus. No flash of lightning split the sky, no thunder crashed, no stormwind swept the grove. The air was quiet and serene. The dark doors of the underworld had opened noiselessly, and the old man, purified and free from pain and regret, had descended into the depths, as though borne on the wings of gentle spirits. Theseus stood alone, shading his eyes with his hand, as if a vision too awesome and divine had dazzled his sight. They saw him lift his arms to Olympus and then throw himself on the earth, making supplication both to the immortals in heaven and to the gods of the underworld. After this brief prayer, the king returned to the daughters of King Oedipus and assured them of his protection. In unbroken silence, his spirit filled with holy divinings, he went back to Athens.