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Some Deceptive Oracles: Sophocles, Electra 32-7

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

D.A. Hester*
University of Adelaide


Oracles, and especially the Delphic oracle, are notorious for the ambiguous and deceptive nature of their responses. Fontenrose has recently suggested that this notoriety is undeserved, firmly labelling ‘quasi-historical’ the celebrated anecdotes of Herodotus on which, above all, the reputation of the Delphic oracleis based. I do not intend to enter into controversy on the historical Delphic oracle; this paper deals exclusively with the literary Delphic oracle, enshrined in the pages of Herodotus; of its reputation there can be no doubt.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1981

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1 See Parke, H.W. & Wormell, D.E.W. The Delphic Oracle (Oxford 1956) (2 vols.), esp. 2.2328;Google Scholar Crahay, R. La littérature oraculaire chez Hérodote, Bibl. de la Fac. de Philos, et Lettres de Liège, Fasc. 138 (Paris 1956);Google Scholar Fontenrose, J. The Delphic Oracle (Berkeley 1978), esp. 5870.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Discussed RE 2.61; Fontenrose 108–10, 357.

3 Aeschylus, Choephorí and Eumenides , esp. Cho. 270–96;Google Scholar Euripides, Electra and Orestes; cf. Pindar, Pyth. 11.9–37. Alexanderson, B.On Sophocles Electra’, C&M 21 (1968), 81 Google Scholar goes too far in suggesting that, in Sophocles, Orestes may not have had killing in mind and that Apollo prescribed as well as endorsed it; what else could Orestes have intended in asking the question?

4 Sheppard, J.T.In defense of Sophocles’, CR 41 (1927), 29 and 163–5;Google Scholar followed by Perrotta, G. Sofocle (Messina 1935), 299404,Google Scholar esp. 299–307; Kells, J.H. ed. (Cambridge 1973), esp. 112,Google Scholar and (without significant discussion) Wellein, L.T. Time Past and the Hero (diss. Washington/Seattle 1959), 93148, esp. 106–8Google Scholar and Markantonatos, G.Dramatic Irony in the Electra of Sophocles’, Platon 28 (1976), 147–50.Google Scholar

5 E.g. Aylen, L. Greek tragedy and the modern world (London 1964), 95–8;Google Scholar Kamerbeek, J.C. Commentary (Leiden 1974), 1720(p. 25 rejects S.);Google Scholar Kitto, H.D.F. Greek Tragedy (London 1971), 131–7 (p. 132–3 S.);Google Scholar Johansen, H.F.Die Elektra des Sophokles’, C&M 25 (1964), 832;Google Scholar MacGregor, M. Studies and Diversions (New York 1937), 89114;Google Scholar Newiger, H.J.Hoffmannsthals Elektra und die griech. Tragôdie’, Arcadia 4 (1969), 138–63;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Winnington-Ingram, R.P.The Electra of Sophocles’, PCPhS n.s.3 (1954/5), 206 Google Scholar and Sophocles (Cambridge 1980), 217–47 (p. 236 S.). This was the original position of Sheppard, CQ 12(1919), 80–8

6 Kirkwood, G.M. A Study of Sophoclean Drama (New York 1958 = Cornell Studies ,31), 247–87.Google Scholar

7 Oed. Rex 60–1, 264–5.

8 Oed. Rex 371, cf. 1331–9; 873–82; 919–72; 1086–109; cf. Ant. 1115–52.

9 Trach. 205–24; 436–69, cf. 531–54; 1046–63.

10 Aj. 91–118; Ant. 221–331, 365–83; Phil. 219–974, esp. 839–42, 902–16, 974.

11 Cf. W. Sale, trans. (Englewood Cliffs 1973), 89: ‘In interpreting these lines (32–7) it should be clearly understood that Apollo implies complete consent to the matricide; attempts by scholars to argue otherwise are mere reflections of their own moral sentiments.’

12 See esp. 121–250, 788–933, 1098–219.

13 634–73, 1442–74.

14 Possible doubtful cases: the legend of Oedipus (so Kirkwood, but it is in Odyssey 11 ); that Deianeira would kill Heracles (but surely those who did not know their Bacchylides or Hesiod would have had a sufficient clue in her name). By contrast, Athena in the Ajax obligingly provides us with a running commentary on what is happening.

15 Most recent and best, Erbse, H.ZurElektra des Sophokles’, Hermes 106 (1978), 284300;Google Scholar see also Bowra, C.M. Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford 1965), 212–60, esp. 215–18;Google Scholar Gellie, G.H. Sophocles (Melbourne 1972), 106130, esp. 107;Google Scholar Hester, D.A. review of Kamerbeek, Mnew 28 (1975), 201–5;Google Scholar Letters, F.J.H. The Life and Work of Sophocles (London 1953), 231–60, esp. 246–7;Google Scholar Linforth, I.M.Electra’s day …’, Uni. of California Pubi, in Class. Phil. 19.2 (1963), 89125, esp. 91;Google Scholar Maddalena, A. Sofocle (Torino 1956), 155223, esp. 156–61;Google Scholar Ronnet, G. Sophocle (Paris 1969), 205–36, esp. 233;Google Scholar Steinweg, C. Sofokles (Halle 1924), 525, esp. 23–4;Google Scholar Stevens, P.T.Sophocles: Electra, doom or triumph?’, G&R 25 (1978), 111–20;Google Scholar Torrance, R.M.Sophocles’, HSCPh 69 (1965), 307–14, esp. 313–14;Google Scholar Turolla, E. Saggio sulla poesia di Sofocle (Bari 1934), 143–60;Google Scholar Wolf, E. Griechische Rechtsdenken 2 (Frankfurt 1952), 232–47;Google Scholar Woodard, F.Electraby Sophocles’, HSCPh 68 (1964), 163205; 70 ( 1966), 195–233, esp. 215–27Google Scholar (in part reprinted in his Sophocles [Englewood Cliffs 1966], 125–45). Of course, these authors would not necessarily accept my view. Cf. also footnotes 3,5, and 11 above.

16 See RE 2.74–5; Crahay 20; Fontenrose 43, 248.

17 See Crahay 99–101; Fontenrose 418–19.

18 See RE 1.380–2; 2.16–17; Crahay 97–9; Fontenrose 118–19, 299.

19 So Crahay and Fontenrose; to the contrary RE. There are other versions of the Glaucus story (references Fontenrose 118).

20 Od. 1.28–43, 298–300; 3.193–8, 303–10.

21 Cf. Aylen 96: ‘I may be naive, but I believe it is wrong to kill one’s mother. I am sure Sophocles thought so too.’ His first statement is not naive, but his second may be.

22 A shorter version in Apollodorus 3.7.5; see RE 2.85; Fontenrose 370.

23 Il. 22.395–403; 23.175–6.

24 Od. 22.465–77.

25 Od. 13.256–75.

26 Laws 9.872–3.

27 Cho. 269–96. 1029–33.

28 Aj. 835–44.

29 Aj. 1266–88, 1332–45.

30 Oed. Coi. 1383–96.

31 E.g. Solon, fr. 5.5 (Gaisford); Theog. 337–40; Xen. Mem. 2.4.35; Plat. Rep. 332 tr Plut. Sol. 38.4.

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