The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book Eight - Oedipus At Colonus


Dear Henry,

Book Eight, Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here), is done! Let me tell you all about it.

The book Oedipus at Colonus was written around 406 BC, shortly before Sophocles's death. But, unfortunately, he never saw it performed. Instead, the play wasn't presented until 401 BC at the Festival of Dionysus and was presented by his grandson, who was also named Sophocles.  

The play starts many years after Oedipus the King, and Oedipus is old, blind, and in exile from Thebes and being cared for by his daughter Antigone. The scene opens with the pair in a grove outside of Athens. Oedipus and Antigone are resting at the grove when a stranger approaches and berates them for being there because the grove is sacred and dedicated to the Eumenides, or Furies (read about them in Aeschylus's play "The Eumenides)

When Oedipus hears where he is, he is excited and tells the stranger he is destined to be here. Then Oedipus demands to talk to the king.

Meanwhile, Ismene, Oedipus's other daughter, appears with the news that Creon (the brother of Oedipus's wife and mother, Jocasta) and Eteocles, one of Oedipus's son, is demanding Oedipus's return to Thebes, so Oedipus can bestow the title of king to Etocles and to avoid the curse that would befall Thebes if Oedipus didn't die there. Oedipus refuses.

The King of Athens, Theseus, then enters the grove, and Oedipus asks to remain, telling the King of Athens that he is destined to die in this grove and promising great blessings for the city if he is allowed to die and to be buried there. King Theseus agrees.

Suddenly Creon and his men appear and demand that Oedipus return. Creon takes Antigone and Ismene hostage to force Oedipus's agreement. King Theseus intervenes, rescues Oedipus's daughters, and drives Creon away. Next, Oedipus's other son, Polynices, enters the grove and demands the same thing Creon was demanding for Oedipus's son, Eteocles. Once again, Oedipus refuses to return to Thebes and foretells Eteocles and Polynices' deaths by each other's hand. Finally, Polynices returns to Thebes and prepares to go to war against his brother Etocles for the kingship of Thebes.

And then, suddenly, there is a thunderstorm. Oedipus announces that the storm is the portend for his death. He leads King Theseus, Antigone, and Ismene further into the grove., where Oedipus completes his death rites and says goodbye to his daughters. Then leaving his daughters, Oedipus and King Theseus head further into the forest, where he dies and disappears, fulfilling the prophecy that he would die in Colonous that he had received from Apollo when he was younger. 

Antigone and Ismene ask King Theseus to take them to their father's grave. King Theseus refuses, keeping his promise to Oedipus that he will never reveal the location of his death, and, in any case, he has disappeared. As a result, Athens receives the blessings bestowed by the gods, and Thebes falls under a curse.

The play closes with Antigone and Ismene heading to Thebes to try and prevent a civil war between their brothers.

Once again, like Oedipus the King, the central theme is fate and how it is entirely unavoidable. Oedipus was fated to die in Colonus, and so he did. But there are a few other interesting points.  

Oedipus, the King Oedipus, became exiled at the end of the play, and it is strongly suggested in Oedipus at Colonus that his sons banished him from Thebes. There is neither forgiveness nor love lost between Oedipus and his sons, and I wonder about that.  

Oedipus's exile was punishment for the crime of killing his father and marrying his mother. Which he did completely unwittingly, having defended himself from his father's attack and winning his mother's hand in marriage (as well as his kingship of Thebes) from the Spinx. I am reminded of the old adage, "Just because you don't know the law doesn't mean you aren't responsible when you break it." The story of Oedipus is a good reminder to always double-check the specifics and fine print of any situation you are in. But it also makes Oedipus an unfortunate character, one who inadvertently broke a significant taboo with his incestuous relationship with his mother and who inadvertently committed patricide and had to suffer the curse of doing both, despite the unfairness of it.  

If his sons truly felt the wrongness of their parentage, they would have also given up the throne. However, neither one did, and, worse, Etocles defied tradition and pursued his older brothers' rightful claim to the throne of Thebes. Neither was particularly fussed about exiling their father, and both only tried to welcome their father back when it was clear that they would receive their father's curse. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until the next of Sophocles's play, Antigone, before we learn how the war between brothers pans out.

This play felt slow, and there was not enough detail on the front end of the story, but the Athenian audience may have had a better idea of what exile entailed.

Next up, Antigone. We will see if the girls avert the war.

xoxo a.d. elliott


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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