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To Help one’s Friends and Harm one’s Enemies A Study in the Oedipus at Colonus

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

D.A. Hester*
University of Adelaide


The most commonly held interpretation of this play has been well summed up as follows: ‘Ismene utters in the words addressed to Oedipus in line 394 “Now the gods are setting you right; previously they ruined you” the object of our play.’ On this view, the main theme of the play is the divine restoration of Oedipus. ‘He whom the gods have smitten as a criminal, whom men have rejected as impious, is seen rehabilitated, venerated, glorified almost equally to a divine being, and will find a compensation for his undeserved sufferings in an apotheosis which will make of him the benign genius of a country.’ Oedipus’ sufferings have taught him humility: ‘I ask little, and get even less than that little, but this suffices me, for my suffering, my companion the length of time, and my nobility have taught me patience.’ ‘Precisely because he is a hero, he is humble.’ The combination of moral exaltation and physical degradation generates a new spiritual power which becomes increasingly evident as the play progresses: ‘Foreknowledge of the future belongs to Oedipus because he is more than man... To Creon’s taunts he replies with a declaration of his own superior power. Only a hero can do this with assurance.’ The process culminates in his mysterious end, whether we can call it an apotheosis or not: ‘We do not know precisely what his state will be, but we can be sure that he will be conscious and active, rather as Protesilaus was believed to be able to punish the wrongdoer from the grave because the gods gave him special favour.’ He is thus a kind of anticipation of Christ.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1977

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1 This is the interpretation I call ‘orthodox’. See Appendix A for references; works there listed will be cited only by author’s name.

2 Schneidewin-Nauck, p.5.

3 See especially Bowra, pp.314–15 with parallels there cited.

4 Allègre, p.266; similarly Bowra, p.310; Campbell (1), p.282; Hegel (1), p.288; Masqueray, p.143 and many others. For the guilt or innocence of Oedipus see my article ‘Oedipus and Jonah’ PCPhS n.s.23 (1977), 32–61.

5 Lines 5–8.

6 Méautis (1), p.146.

7 1254–63.

8 Bowra, p.338.

9 Allègre, loc.cit., wisely qualifies the term in a footnote, but it is freely used — as are others such as immortality (Rosenmeyer, 107, 109) and transfiguration (Nietzsche, p. 74).

10 Bowra, p.354.

11 Nebel (1), p.235; cf. Méautis (1), p.171.

12 Nic. Eth. 1123 b.

13 See especially Ronnet, pp.301–2; Waldock, p.210; von Wilamowitz, pp.332–6; further references in Appendix C.

14 See Appendix B, especially note 6.

15 See Appendix B, note 1.

16 383–4.

17 389–90.

18 399–408, 450–4.

19 1211–48; so especially Dain-Mazon, Lesky, von Wilamowitz. See Appendix D.

20 On this see especially Linforth, 167–91 ; cf. 1446–60, 1583.

21 1521, 1552, 1612.

22 1656–65.

23 1628; cf. Bowra, p.310;Alc. 254–5.

24 For further arguments see Appendix A notes 3 and 4.

25 5–8.

26 1254–63.

27 Il. ix 410–16.

28 Ajax 646–83; cf. n.12 above.

29 Phil. 298–9.

30 Nic.Eth. 1123 b.

31 13.

32 37.

33 44–6.

34 84–110.

35 91; see LSJ s.v. κάμπτω II.

36 88: ίταδλαυ.

37 92–3, and schol. on 91 and 92.

38 Mem. ii 6.35: V-γνωκας ανδρός αρετής ehai νικν τούς μέν φίλους eh ποιοΰντα, τούς δ' έχΰρούς κακώς. Cf. Plut. Sull, fin., and see e.g. Bowra, pp.320–1 (with references); Whitman, p.200.

39 A controversial point, of course; but see my review of Kamerbeek in Mnem. 28 (1976), 201–5.

40 Rep. 331 e-336 a.

41 Matthew 5.38–42.

42 References in Appendix D.

43 226–36, 1132–6.

44 Esp. OR 813–34, 1184–5, 1340–6, 1360–6, 1397.

45 258–74,521–48,960–99.

46 èμιαράν, Poet. 1452 b 36.

47 On this scene see esp. Allègre, pp.229–35.

48 337–56; the lines should not be suspected (as by Meineke) in view of the parallel in Hdt. ii 35, any more than Hdt. iii 119 should lead us to delete Ant. 905–12. If there is direct borrowing the borrower need not be an interpolator.

49 72, 288.

50 389–90, 402.

51 385–6.

52 92–3, on which see above.

53 371–2, 421–2.

54 E.g. Aesch. Sept. 785–91, Eur. Phoen. 67–8, Schol. in OC 1375. The motivation for the curse varies; for a full discussion see Robert, pp.457–73.

55 418–19,425–30, 441–4. Sophocles encounters some difficulty in fitting the Coloneus on to the end of the Oedipus Rex, see e.g. Kolster, pp.255–69 and A. Mueller, pp.110–14; for the question whether the Oedipus Rex has been adapted to the Coloneus see ‘Oedipus and Jonah’ (note 4 above).

56 1265–6, 1354–66.

57 421–3, 1372–96.

58 431–41.

59 389–90, 399–407.

60 459–60.

61 461–509.

62 510–48.

63 551–68.

64 576–80.

65 621–3; there may well be a reference to the blood-offerings made to the dead, cf. Od. xi 34–7.

66 OC 667–719, Eur. Med. 824–45.

67 E.g. 396, 455, 653. See on this scene Appendix C.

68 728–60.

69 783–6; cf. 399–407.

70 814–19.

71 883.

72 Poet. 1452 a 1–7.

73 The disputed cases in this generalization would be the Electro among the late plays and Antigone among the early ones; see my articles in Mnem. 24 (1971), 11–59 and 28 (1976), 201–5.

74 It is (as Jebb points out) for this dramatic utility rather than for references outside the play that 919-31 are to be interpreted; see Appendix B note 5.

75 939–59.

76 960–99.

77 1003–13.

78 1044–95.

79 1119–38.

80 1139–49.

81 1150–1210.

82 So Reinhardt, pp.226–7.

83 Matthew 18.23–35.

84 1211–53.

85 See Appendix D note.

86 E.g. Ar. Frogs 82, Plat. Rep. 329 c-d; see e.g. Ronnet, pp.288–9.

87 For the alleged instances Ant. 332–375, OR 863–910 see my articles in Mnem. 24 (1971), 26–7 and PCPhS (see note 4 above).

88 1254–70; see on the whole scene Appendix C and note.

89 Allégre well comments (p.304): ‘Les contemporaines de Sophocle eussent difficilement compris qu’ Oedipe pardonnât, qu’ il mourût sans avoir “tiré sa raison”.’

90 Refs. in Bowra, pp.326–8.

91 1345–66, on which see below.

92 1284–1345.

93 1348–96.

94 See Appendix B note 6.

95 See note 54 above on 421 f., to which (pace the scholiast, Campbell, p.405 and Kitto, p.391) there is a clear enough reference in line 1375 (so e.g. Jebb, Rader-macher, Schneidewin-Nauck ad loc.).

96 Cf. for examples Ajax 835–44; there are many other instances.

97 Refs. in Appendix C note. Linforth, pp.124–9 and 147–51, sufficiently refutes these ideas; see also note 101.

98 See esp. Ronnet, pp.306–8; Festa, 121–7.

99 1404,1418–19,1426,1432–4.

100 1447–55.

101 1472–5. This knowledge, like his ‘gift of prophecy’, has been used as evidence of supernatural powers, but in fact Oedipus goes little beyond the oracles. If Antigone is given no answer on its source, we need expect none either. Sophocles is not over-cautious in these matters. There is a far worse problem of ‘knowledge’ in the unexplained development of Neoptolemus’ knowledge inPhil, 112–14, 191–200, 839–42 and 1326–47, but I don’t think that anyone has sought to ascribe supernatural powers to Neoptolemus.

102 1461, 1473, 1521, 1548, 1551–2.

103 1489–90,1508–9, 1518–35; compare 72, 288, 308, 459, 576, 626, 647.

104 1526.

105 See Cunliffe, R.J., A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (repr. Norman, 1963), p.183 with refs.Google Scholar For the code of the agathos see Adkins, chap, iii; for mortality see e.g. Il. i 4–5. Adkins, p.139, applies this also to our play.

106 See e.g. Eur. Bacchae, Homer Od. xi 488–91 and 602–4, Pindar Nem. i 69–72, Soph. Trach. 1270.

107 See Appendix B note 1. Linforth, as often, is best.

108 E.g. Méautis (2), 9, relying on Paus. i 43 (but even there a previous death is assumed); similarly Bowra, pp.313–30 with refs.

109 So e.g. Orestes at Argos (Hdt. i 68), Theseus at Athens (Plut. Cim. 8, Thes. 36), and Eurystheus at Athens (Eur. Heracl. 1026–44). There is also the power to harm, e.g. Protesilaus (Hdt. ix 120); Bowra, p.354, is quite wrong in asserting that this implies any kind of conscious activity in the dead man. See Dodds, E.R., The Ancient Concept of Progress (Oxford, 1973), p.153.Google Scholar In the predominant ancient view, it is the body, not the psyche, that is the real man (see e.g. Homer Il. i 4); Plato (Phaedo 115 c-d) finds it necessary to argue this point.

110 1522–32, 1545–6, 1643–5, 1758–69; cf. above note 65. Sophocles of course does not discuss the unpoetical topic of bone-snatching.

111 Murray, p.7; cf. Paus. vi 9.6–8.

112 Methodist Hymn Book no. 241.

113 1540–8,1586–9.

114 1556–67; see note 20 above.

115 1606–22,1638–44.

116 1623–37; see note 23 above.

117 Cleomedes also vanished, but in a manner more reminiscent of a conjuring trick ( 9.8).

118 To which Schol. ad 1669 takes unreasonable exception; see my article ‘Very much the Safest Plan’, Antichthon 7 (1973), 8–13.

119 1704.

120 On the oracles see especially Linforth, pp.82–92, who perhaps underemphasizes their religious significance; which is not to say that we should go to the other extreme (with Ronnet, p.309) and speak of the ‘triumph of fatalism’.

121 See e.g. OR 442–3.

122 As this article was going to press I read Redling, J., The Dramatic Function of Philia in the later plays of Sophocles (diss. Michigan, 1971), pp.127–84,Google Scholar which could be taken as a useful ‘balance’ to this article, since in arguing against the orthodox view I have had to stress the element of echthra.

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