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In Quest of the Father in the Narratives of Origin and Movement in Œdipus Tyrannus

Efimia D. Karakantza

Résumé

Cette lecture de la tragédie de Sophocle se fonde sur les notions lacaniennes concernant le Père comme symbole du discours du logos, la voix divine comme autorité, et le parcours téléologique de la vie d’un individu. Tandis que le logos du Père indique le chemin vers la découverte de la vérité sur la vie d’Œdipe (la question d’identité), la voix maternelle (représentée par Jocaste, le Sphinx, et tuchê) dirige le héros vers des fausses certitudes et une méfiance envers la voix oraculaire. Ainsi, tantôt le héros avance vers la vérité (en s’approchant du Père), tantôt il s’en éloigne, dérouté (quand il s’identifie avec la Mère). Le second outil méthodologique est l’analyse narratologique du texte. Celui-ci impose sa propre logique au déroulement des évènements, qui est parfois en contradiction avec la cohérence rationnelle. Le but est de créer une cohérence discursive qui s’avère plus puissante et convaincante.

The paper is a reading of the Sophoclean tragedy based on the Lacanian postulates on the notion of Father representing the discourse of logos, the authoritative divine voice, and the teleological course in a person’s life. While the logos of the Father points to the discovery of the truth of Oedipus’life (the question of identity), the maternal voice (represented by Iokaste, the Sphinx, and tuchê) misleads the hero towards false certainties and misbeliefs in the oracular voice. Thus, at times the hero moves towards the truth (approaching the Father), at other times is led astray (when identifying with the Mother). The second methodological tool is the narratological analysis of the text that superimposes its own logic on the course of events. This sometimes violates the rational coherence in order to create a discourse coherence that proves more powerful and convincing.

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral

  • 1 Œdipus and the Fabrication of the Father; Œdipus Tyrannus in Modern Criticism and Philosophy, Balti (...)

1The present reading of Œdipus Tyrannus rests on the Lacanian postulates of the notion of Father and the opposing notion of the Mother. Although using interpretive tools so heavily colored by modern notions, as are these Lacanian concepts, is often futile and even perilous when applied to ancient Greek literary works, it seems that in this particular Sophoclean tragedy these postulates help in unraveling puzzling passages of the play, and add meaning to the myth of Œdipus as a whole. A good example of such a use is the book by Pietro Pucci Œdipus and the Fabrication of the Father,1 which offers new insights into the Sophoclean tragedy. It is apposite that a modern theory, building on the construction of the notion of the father, can elicit a better understanding of this tragedy, since even the most «traditional» reading cannot but acknowledge that the telos of the play comes with the revelation of the identity of Œdipus’ father. In this sense, Œdipus Tyrannus can be seen as a gradual and painful reconstruction of the figure of the father. If these interpretive lenses are used, then one can think of the plot of the tragedy as a succession of moves, initiated by the protagonist, sometimes edging him closer to the truth (the identity of the father) and at others leading him astray.

  • 2 ζητῶν ἑαυτὸν καὶ γένους φυτοσπόρον, Aristophanes the Grammarian, Argumenta fabularum Aristophani tr (...)

2Exactly how imperative the question of identity is for Œdipus is proven by the following events and ensuing questions that still puzzle the modern reader; it is precisely on these questions that the proposed reading hopes to shed light. In Œdipus Tyrannus, Œdipus regards Polybos, the king of Corinth, as his father, until, at a feast with his peers, becomes aware that this could be in doubt. When he asks the oracle of Delphi «who am I and who is my father?»2, he receives the answer «you will kill your father and wed your mother» (OT 791-793), as if he has asked a completely different question. Why, then, does Œdipus, an admittedly intelligent man, not see the disjuncture between his question and the god’s answer, and, instead of perhaps asking a second time, flees Corinth once again? Why, although beset with doubt about his origin, does he not pose this question again during his reign over Thebes? We should consider also the following questions that relate closely to those raised just now. Why is there in the Sophoclean text the major inconsistency regarding the number of the assailants at the Delphic crossroad, an inconsistency that is never resolved in the play and has never been adequately answered by modern scholarship? Why is Iocaste so openly skeptical about the veracity of the oracles, while a little later she proceeds, hands laden with offerings, to placate the gods? Why do both she and Œdipus fail to decipher the very similar oracle that they receive (at different times and places) regarding the killing of Laius?

  • 3 Vidal-Naquet supports the view that there is no definitive meaning for the reader to unravel in the (...)

3Of course, all these questions have been answered in a variety of ways by modern scholarship, to the extent that even a rough outline is beyond the scope of this paper3. What we intend to do in the present paper is first to build on specific insights elaborating further the Lacanian notion of the Father, so as to advance our understanding of the overall meaning of the tragedy. Second, we shall resort to the narratological logic of the text that sometimes predominates, through its own force, over the anticipated actions of the characters in the drama. Thus, the line of interpretation, advanced in the present study, runs as follows. The lack of knowledge about Œdipus’ origin is the major deficiency in his life that he seeks to correct by initiating a quest for his origin and father. The search for the father is the ultimate telos (end and purpose) of Œdipus’ endeavors in Œdipus Tyrannus and leads to gradual reconstruction of the paternal figure, who, although absent, has «ordained» (through the authoritative voice of the oracle) the teleological course of Œdipus’life. However, various forces, bent on deception, stemming from the maternal figure (Iocaste, the Spinx, and the Tyche as his mother on Cithairon), attempt to divert Œdipus from his teleological course. On this slippery ground Œdipus moves (physically or intellectually) towards the truth or is decoyed away from it, depending on whether he «reads» the paternal or maternal voice, until the last piece of information, that resisted revelation, falls into place. Seen thus, Œdipus Tyrannus is not only a drama of quest but also a strenuous antithesis between the paternal logos, expressing law, authority and telos, and the maternal voice that is misleading and fortuitous.

Framing the present reading

  • 4 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan, London, 2001 [original publication 1966], p (...)
  • 5 Op. cit., p. 72-73.
  • 6 Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight, Cambridge, 1987, p. 133
  • 7 The Father can acquire many faces because «in the chain of linguistic or symbolic substitution, any (...)
  • 8 Pucci, supra (n. 1), p. 4.
  • 9 Felman, supra (n. 6), p. 104.
  • 10 Pucci, supra (n. 1), p. 52.
  • 11 Op. cit., p. 5. Pythia, although female, is a medium for Apollo’s oracular utterances.
  • 12 Op. cit., p. 4.

4Starting with the notion of the father we should state that in Lacanian terms the Father is the symbol of the Law of incest prohibition, the primordial Law that superimposes the world of culture (as is regulated by marriage ties) onto that of nature (law of mating)4. It is in the «world of words» (or else, in the «order of language»)5 that a child conceptualizes the prohibitions of culture and its own social existence in relation to them. This is why it is not the Father, but the name of the Father (the linguistic symbol of the Father) that embodies the displacement of the desire for the Mother6. Advancing this argument further, Pucci argues that the Father in Œdipus Tyrannus is the figure of logos who by assuming many faces7, points out to the voice of authority uttering the oracles of the god, the authoritative voice of the laws and oracles, the rationality in a human life; he stands in opposition to the randomness, the fortuitous, deficiency, confusion and chaos8, that is the Mother, who primarily is identified with desire and love for oneself9. The Father marks the teleological course in one’s life, a course that is straight, truthful, inevitable and authoritative, heading towards a definite finality, a telos10. In Œdipus Tyrannus the Father takes up the contextual framework of four figures: the king as the father of the citizens (Œdipus at the opening scene of the tragedy), Polybos, Laius, Apollo (and his mouthpiece Teiresias)11. In the tragedy, the narratives of logos shape the figure of the Father and become entwined with the narratives of tuchê that mark the line of the Mother. The Father does not only create the son; he is also constructed by the son «in order to fill up an absence, to give it the force of an origin and a destination»12.

  • 13 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuits of Signs. Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, Ithaca/New York, 198 (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 174.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 174-175; see also the discussion of the relevant passage later in the course of the prese (...)
  • 16 Supra (n. 3), p. 43-44.

5Our second tool will be the narratological logic of the Sophoclean text that creates its own convergence of meaning, at times contradicting or leading astray the actions and thoughts of the dramatis personae, superimposing its own logic on the course of events and creating logical hiatuses in the story but, at the same time, a narrative coherence13. Œdipus in Œdipus Tyrannus yields to the «force of meaning, the interweaving of prophesies and the demands of narrative coherence» and, as a result, he leaps to the conclusion (along with every reader) that he is, in fact, the murderer of Laius, although the evidence of the witness to the murder could easily discount this possibility14. In the Sophoclean tragedy, as Culler puts it, it is the priority of meaning to event (and not the event to meaning) that produces the force of narrative that contradicts common logic («how does one equal many?» wonders Œdipus in OT 845)15. Dawe, in the preface to his edition of the play, refers meticulously to all the passages where there are logical inconsistencies or where the truth is on the verge of being revealed to the protagonists16. The author claims that up to line 1076 all the pieces of information given by Sophocles indicate Œdipus as the son of king Laius; even a less gifted mind than that of Œdipus would have made the necessary inferences leading to understanding the truth. The hero falls short of his renowned intellectual capacities as the solver of the Sphnix’s riddle. Besides the inability of the otherwise perceptive Œdipus to decipher the almost clear evidence lying before him there is the case of the «one or many robbers» of Laius that creates a logical inconsistency which is never resolved in the play. And lastly, when the sole witness to the murder is summoned to give his evidence to Œdipus, he is never asked to provide the one piece of information about the number of the assailants that would, in itself, terminate the investigation.

  • 17 Pietro Pucci, «The endless end of the Œdipus Rex», Ramus 20, 1991, p. 6.

6It has been said that Œdipus constantly constructs narratives about himself17; and surely Sophocles makes the text of his tragedy gyrate around various narrative clusters that intentionally blur or clarify a certain aspect of the story until we will be guided ultimately to the complete story of the hero.

Origin

  • 18 «… a person’s name (say Œdipus or Pentheus) is an omen and oracle of identity, then placing them in (...)
  • 19 The alleged lameness of Labdakos (used in the often cited analysis by Lévi-Strauss («The Structural (...)
  • 20 The shepherd found him in the «winding glens» of the mountain (trans. by Jebb) and saved him (εὑρὼν(...)

7Cithairon is the place where Œdipus was exposed to die, but instead it became the place of his re-birth and identity. It is there that Œdipus acquired his identity by virtue of his swollen feet; his pierced feet gave him the name, Oidi-pous (OT 1036)18, that accompanied him throughout his adult life and this οἴδημα linked him with his family line and his ancestors Labdakos and Laius19. In the analysis of the myth of Œdipus’ family by Lévi-Strauss we become aware that the issue under examination is the question of origin; does a man come from the same (a human being) or has he sprung out of the very earth of his birth place (the notion of autochthony)? Despite the objections due to the rudimentary and arbitrary nature of Lévi-Straussean mythemes, one cannot but agree that even in the most elaborated version of the myth, that of the Sophoclean tragedy, the question of origin tantalizes the hero. We all know that Œdipus was born from a woman’s womb — his mother was Iocaste. But his natural birth did not ensure him survival since the infant was exposed to die on mount Cithairon. Œdipus, although born in a palace of a noble origin, had to undergo another symbolic «birth» on Cithairon that signals his physical survival20. In the short euphoric interval of the third stasimon (1086-1109) the Chorus indeed welcomes Cithairon as the mother and the nurse to Œdipus (καὶ τροφὸν καὶ ματέρ᾽ αὔξειν, 1092). Cithairon links Œdipus through its all encompassing nature to the nymphs of the wild (1108), to Pan (1101), to Apollo (1102) or to Bacchus (1105). Thus Œdipous acquires a falsely divine parentage, a mother and a father in the sphere of the imaginary that fills, temporally and deceptively, the gap in his personal history. «I regard myself as child of Tyche that brought good fortune… She is my mother» (ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἐμαυτὸν παῖδα τῆς Τύχης νέμων/τῆς εὖ διδούσης…/Τῆς γὰρ πέφυκα μητρός 1080-2) cries out Œdipus when, shortly before the third stasimon, he realizes that he has been left without any firm knowledge as to his familial origin.

8From the moment that the shepherd releases his ankles from the fetters (OT 1034) Œdipus’ life is marked with movement (unintentional or intentional), that signals the long search for his identity. While still an infant, he is taken to Corinth, from where he sets out — when he reaches adulthood — to investigate his question of origin (OT 787-8). The road to Delphi is literally the road to the Father: to Apollo (the oracular voice of authority) and to Laius (his biological father).

Delphi, the Road to the Father

  • 21 For this major discrepancy as a force that advances the story of Œdipus see also J. Lacan, Le sémin (...)

9We have stated earlier that the gap of the identity, linked to the question of origin, is the major deficiency of Œdipus21, only to be cured when the father figure is found or constructed. Thus the second movement of Œdipus — from Corinth to Delphi — marks the first purposeful attempt to fill up this gap in identity, since a crack in the certainty of his origin has been produced at a feast in Corinth (779-780, 785-786):

ἀνὴρ γὰρ ἐν δείπνοις μ᾽ ὑπερπλησθεὶς μέθης
καλεῖ παρ᾽ οἴνῳ πλαστὸς ὡς εἴην πατρί.
ὅμως δ᾽ / ἔκνιζέ μ᾽ αἰεὶ τοῦθ᾽·ὑφεῖρπε γὰρ πολύ.

  • 22 All translations of OT, unless otherwise stated, are by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Sophocles I, Loeb Classic (...)

At dinner a man got drunk, and over the wine charged me with not being my father’s child… this continued to vex me, since it constantly recurred to me22.

10Corinth was the place where an illusion of normal parentage was built; now it is time to search for the real father.

11Delphi was not quite as expected. To the anxious Œdipus’question «who am I», the god gives the terrifying answer that Œdipus will sleep (μειχθῆναι, 791) with his mother, thus engendering a brood abhorrent for human beings to look upon (γένος δ᾽ ἄτλητον ἀνθρώποισι δηλώσοιμ᾽ ὁρᾶν, 791-2). In the authoritative word of the divinity, Œdipus was also destined to kill his father (φονεὺς δ᾽ ἐσοίμην τοῦ φυτεύσαντος πατρός, 793). The terror produced by the divine logos makes the hero forget the original question («who am I») and sets him on the road again, in flight from the threatened pollution. And in that split second of decision to set off for the second time, Œdipus erases the uncertainty of his origin and suppresses the only meaningful question for him for the entire Theban period of his life, until it resurfaces again as a byproduct of the search for Laius’ killer.

12Œdipus, in the meantime, meets his father, as directed obliquely by the god, who has given both (Œdipus and Laius) the oracle predicting the patricide on different occasions. Thus father and son «meet» in the authoritative divine word, even before they meet at the Delphic crossroad. In the dialogue between Iocaste and Œdipus, in the second epeisodion, the two oracles are stated in close textual proximity (Œdipus for himself: 791-3, Iocaste for Laius: 853-4) and yet none of the persons involved realises the conjunction of identity, although at that moment Œdipus is nearly revealed as the killer of Laius.

  • 23 We have to admit that the witness lies (Segal, supra [n. 3], p. 88) out of fear or shame (Dawe, sup (...)
  • 24 Segal, supra (n. 3), p. 113. Especially in passages where, although the interlocutor speaks about m (...)
  • 25 Perhaps, this inconsistency lies within the framework of the elimination of differences common in Œ (...)
  • 26 Knox, supra (n. 3), p. 154, p. 157.
  • 27 Op. cit., p. 150.

13The intellectual step needed to bridge the gap is minute, but it is never made because here one of the most intriguing and enigmatic textual devices comes into play: many, not just one were Laius’ killers according to the testimony of the only survivor uttered in front of the entire city (842-50, and earlier in the statement of Creon 122-3; and also 107, 292, 304-9). Why was such false information embedded in the Sophoclean text? Interestingly enough, this piece of information was used to ease the tormented mind of Œdipus as to his guilt about the regicide, but never used to expunge the most crucial crimes of patricide and incest. When the Theban herdsman comes, no one asks him to verify the truth of his testimony. Had he been lying all along out of fear or shame23? But nowhere does the text discredit him. Could this information be a Freudian slip of the tongue for an action known to, but long forgotten by Œdipus24? However, we cannot ascribe to the author an intention never spelt out. Why, then, would Sophocles use a narrative that contradicts broadly human logic (οὐ γὰρ γένοιτ᾽ ἂν εἷς γε τοῖς πολλοῖς ἴσος, 845)? Under which circumstances does one equal many25? It has been argued that the mistaken numbers form a nexus of mathematical equations upon which the whole tragedy is built: equation of the oracles to reality, equation of a person to Œdipus the just king and to Œdipus the accursed26. At a time when human intelligence was celebrated as the prime cause of anthropological progress and Protagoras put forward the view that man is the measure for all things it seemed fitting to resort to mathematical methods, such as «calculation of time, measurement of age and number, comparison of place and description»27 in order to solve the riddle(s) of Œdipus Tyrannus.

  • 28 Culler, supra (n. 13), p. 172-175.
  • 29 Sandor Goodhart, «Λῃστὰς ἔφασκε: Œdipus and Laius’many murderers», Diacritics 8.1, 1978, p. 67.
  • 30 Ibid.

14Yet, equations that present discrepancies (the number of the attackers is but one of them) need to be smoothed out by an internal logic that is supported by the text itself. It seems plausible that dramatis personae and the readers of the Sophoclean text confront discursive forces that create their own meaning contrary to other narratives. In this case, the narrative that could have erased the guilt of Œdipus (many robbers killed Laius) is suspended in favor of another discursive force that imposes itself through the anticipation raised by the original oracles about the guilt of Œdipus. Rationality becomes ineffective as the coherence of events becomes secondary to the coherence of the discourse which determines afresh significance and ultimately brings about the revelation of the truth28. It has been stated, rightly, that «one arbitrary fiction comes to assume the value of truth»29. It is the «oracular logic»30 and not the factual evidence that finds Œdipus guilty. This, of course, will happen later (1149 sq.), when the old servant is summoned for questioning. At present (lines 842-50), the narrative of many robbers is used as a textual device to disorient Œdipus and Iocaste from the question of origin strongly stated a few lines earlier.

Father and Son, Mother and Son

  • 31 Translation by Stephen Berg & Diskin Clay Sophocles, Œdipus the King, New York/Oxford, 1978.
  • 32 Translation by David Kovacs, Euripides V. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge Mass., 2002.

15As already recounted, father and son meet at a crossroad (ξυνηντίαζον 804) when the son is about to initiate yet another flight (τὴν Κορινθίαν ἄστροις τὸ λοιπὸν ἐκμετρούμενος χθόνα ἔφευγον, I fled Corinth, measuring my progress by the stars31, 794-6); on foot (στείχων, 798) Œdipus arrives at the place (ἱκνοῦμαι τούσδε τοὺς χώρους, 798) where three roads intersect and is confronted by a small company of travellers. The passage is narrow and the herald together with the «old man» (Laius) «tries to drive [him] from the road by force» (πρὸς βίαν ἠλαυνέτην, 805), while the driver of the carriage tries to turn him back (ἐκτρέποντα, 806). Œdipus keeps walking alongside the carriage (ὄχον παραστείχοντα, 808) despite the efforts made to force him aside. In Euripides’ Phoinissai the description of the encounter focuses explicitly on the podes of father and son (καὶ ξυνάπτετον πόδα ἐς ταὐτὸν ἄμφω Φωκίδος σχιστῆς ὁδοῦ, 37-8). Œdipus is asked to «get his feet out of the way of the king» (τυράννοις ἐκποδὼν μεθίστασο, 40). And for a second time in the story of Œdipus the father (Laius) causes the tendons of his son’s (Œdipus’) feet to bleed (πῶλοι δέ νιν χηλαῖς τένοντας ἐξεφοίνισσον ποδῶν, and the horses’ hooves bloodied the tendons of his feet32, Ph. 41-2) in an interesting duplication of the original trauma inflicted on the son to bring about his death. Laius, in Œdipus Tyrannus, strikes his son violently on the head; and in return, receives a more violent blow that kills him. Father and son quarrel over a strip of land, the right to a free passage, the exercise of power. One could interpret the demand for free passage as the right to be born, the right to exist (a basic right that was denied to Œdipus by his father); but definitely the exercise of power is associated with the father’s voice of authority. The son, unable to recognize it, tried instead to assume the place of the father (810-3):

o μὴν ἴσην γ᾽ ἔτεισεν, ἀλλὰ συντόμως
σκήπτρῳ τυπεὶς ἐκ τῆσδε χειρὸς ὕπτιος
μέσης ἀπήνης εὐθὺς ἐκκυλίνδεται
κτείνω δὲ τοὺς ξύμπαντας.

Yet he paid the penalty with interest; in a word, this hand struck him with a stick, and he rolled backwards right out of the wagon, and I killed them all.

16All the major issues in Œdipus’ life are associated up with important localities: Corinth, the locus of an illusion; Delphi: the voice of the Father; the triple junction at the Delphic crossroad: the attempt to supplant the father and assume his power. The failure to recognize the Father (be it an oracular voice or his physical presence) deepens the gap and allows other powers (matrilocal this time) to fill it. The tuchê and the female lead Œdipus astray as the authoritative voice of the Father is replaced by the deceptive, riddling voice of the Mother. The question of origin is asked again, not by Œdipus but of Œdipus. The female Sphinx — a harsh female singer (σκληρᾶς ἀοιδοῦ 36, ποικιλῳδὸς Σφὶγξ 130, ῥαψῳδὸς κύων 391), poses a riddle to the passers-by that costs them their lives; of all the possible riddles that can be asked, the aoidos has chosen one concerning the ages of human existence: infancy, adulthood and old age; and of all the human features that could mark the passing of time, the ainigma centers on podes, the human feet and the ability or otherwise to walk; a fitting intellectual exercise for Œdipus, forever bearing the mark of his birth tying him to the earth — to the locality of his native place.

17So Œdipus, who has failed to «read» the voice of the Father, opens up to the voice of the Mother to which he readily answers: the tetrapous, dipous and tripous creature is a human being similar to him; Œdipus deciphers the riddle because he recognizes himself. On the road from Delphi, on the outskirts of Thebes, he rejects the firm personal identity offered by the oracular voice of the Father; instead he accepts the challenge posed by the female voice of the Sphinx, directing him to investigate not his own identity but that of the human beings in general. Moving from personal to general, from the one to many, Œdipus seems to reject (or miscomprehend) the nature of the Father in favor of the one represented by the female voice; the latter is for Œdipus familiar and readable, enabling him to solve the ainigma with great ease. This is where he fills the void with an identity that is confusing, misleading and undifferentiated, resembling the all encompassing nature of the female (be it Kithairon, the natural mother or the Sphinx). The Sphinx is defeated but Œdipus incorporates the maternal knowledge and descends to Thebes to be rewarded with his own mother as a prize for his intelligence.

18For a long time, sojourning in Thebes suppresses all the anxiety and uncertainty that Œdipus carried earlier in his life. The Sophoclean text draws the picture of a just, intelligent and successful leader, beloved by his people: he is like a father to them ( τέκνα is the very first words of Œdipus in the opening of the tragedy, repeated again in line 6). Thus, in the most turbulent times for the polis (the ravages of the plague) the people resort to him, for he alone can succor them in the misfortunes of life and appease the gods (ἀνδρῶν δὲ πρῶτον ἔν τε συμφοραῖς βίου/κρίνοντες ἔν τε δαιμόνων ξυναλλαγαῖς, because we judge you to be the first of men, both in the incidents of life and in dealing with the higher powers, 33-34); a benevolent, pious leader who is asked to exert his benign influence to save the city again (ἀνόρθωσον πόλιν, 46, 51). Œdipus is a father figure, the incarnation of law, justice and piety; he has assumed temporally the place of his real father, the king Laius. At one point the Sophoclean text becomes extremely poignant as to the identity that oscillates between father and son (OT 258-265):

νῦν δ᾽ ἐπεὶ κυρῶ τ᾽ ἐγὼ
ἔχων μὲν ἀρχὰς ἃς ἐκεῖνος εἶχε πρίν,
ἔχων δὲ λέκτρα καὶ γυναῖχ᾽ ὁμόσπορον
κοινῶν τε παίδων κοίν᾽ ἄν, εἰ κείνῳ γένος
μὴ ᾽δυστύχησεν, ἦν ἂν ἐκπεφυκότα
νῦν δ᾽ ἐς τὸ κείνου κρᾶτ᾽ ἐνήλαθ᾽ τύχη
ἀνθ᾽ ὧν ἐγὼ τάδ᾽, ὡσπερεὶ τοὐμοῦ πατρός,
ὑπερμαχοῦμαι κἀπὶ πάντ᾽ ἀφίξομαι,
ζητῶν τὸν αὐτόχειρα τοῦ φόνου λαβεῖν,

But now, since I chance to hold the power which once he held, and to have a marriage and a wife in common with him, and since had he not been unfortunate in respect of issue our children would have had one mother — but as things are he has been struck down by fortune; on account of this I shall fight for him as though he had been my father, and shall go to every length in searching for the author of the murder done.

19This ironic confusion will not last for long as the riddle of Œdipus’ identity is gradually unraveled.

20Almost in the middle of the tragedy, in line 754, Œdipus cries out: alas, now all is crystal clear (αἰαῖ, τάδ᾽ ἤδη διαφανῆ) thinking that it has become clear that he himself is the killer of Laius. He has come to this conclusion by reading the unmistakable signs of the topography of the scene of the crime and the number of the persons in the company he encountered. Still, he believes that the conclusive evidence will be provided by the old servant who accompanied Laius and is the only survivor. The sign of his panic-stricken behavior on seeing Œdipus take over Laius’ throne and wife (OT 758-762) has escaped both Œdipus and Iocaste. In the course of the following lines Œdipus narrates — as if for the first time — his life in Corinth, his doubts about his identity, his trip to Delphi, the oracle of Apollo, the killing at the Delphic crossroad (774-833) — in short his entire life unfolds as a text for Iocaste and himself to «read» and decipher. This narrative contains the first utterance of the oracle about the patricide and the incest that should have alarmed Iocaste who knew about Laius’ oracle; the similarity of the two oracular utterances could hardly be accidental and should not have gone unnoticed. On the other hand, in the narrative that Œdipus constructs for himself there is a statement that should have appeased his anxieties; the brutal killing by Œdipus left no survivors, although we know from earlier statements that there was a survivor. How could it be the same scene of crime since there are two important points of disjunction (the one survivor, the many robbers) between the two narratives? These points could function as reassuring textual signs for Œdipus. However, both protagonists ignore the signs since Sophocles manipulates the narratological threads so as to direct their attention elsewhere. Instead of reading the factual evidence, Œdipus and Iocaste expect the servant to come forward and provide the evidence to exculpate Œdipus.

  • 33 The meaning and function of the second stasimon is one of the riddles of Œdipus Tyrannus. See the r (...)

21In the meantime, Iocaste departs more seriously from the readable text and even commits sacrilege in order to ease the troubled mind of Œdipus; she goes as far as discrediting the very validity of the oracle given to Laius and of the oracles in general (853-8), thus challenging the paternal voice in its very existence. Œdipus eagerly assents to the reassuring maternal voice (καλῶς νομίζεις, 859), despite the dangers that such a rejection will engender — dangers that the choral song that follows (the second stasimon) exemplifies33. The pious community of elders wonders about the destabilizing effects that the rejection of the teleological framework of the Father will produce. If divine justice is obliterated, then why should I participate in sacred dances (τί δεῖ με χορεύειν; 896)? The religious edifice collapses (ἔρρει δὲ τὰ θεῖα, 910).

22The triumph of the maternal voice will reach its apogee in the third epeisodion when the news of Polybos’ death breaks. Both mother and son believe that the defeat of the father is final. Œdipus says to Iocaste (964-968, 973-974):

Φεῦ φεῦ, τί δῆτ᾽ ἄν, γύναι, σκοποῖτό τις
τὴν Πυθόμαντιν ἑστίαν, τοὺς ἄνω
κλάζοντας ὄρνεις, ὧν ὑφ᾽ ἡγητῶν ἐγὼ
κτενεῖν ἔμελλον πατέρα τὸν ἐμόν; δὲ θανὼν
κεύθει κάτω δὴ γῆς,…
Τὰ δ᾽ οὖν παρόντα συλλαβὼν θεσπίσματα
κεῖται παρ᾽ Ἅιδῃ Πόλυβος ἄξι᾽ οὐδενός.
IO:
Οὔκουν ἐγώ σοι ταῦτα προὔλεγον πάλαι;
ΟΙ: Ηὔδας ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ φόβῳ παρηγόμην.

Ah, ah, lady, why should one look to the prophetic hearth of Pytho, or to the birds that shriek above us, according to whose message I was to kill my father? But he is dead, and lies deep below the earth,… But still Polybus lies in Hades, and with him have gone the oracles that were with us, now worth nothing. Iocaste: Did I not foretell this to you long ago? Œdipus: You told me; but I was led along by fear.

23Tuchê brought about Polybos’ death says Iocaste (πρὸς τῆς τύχης ὄλωλεν οὐδὲ τοῦδ᾽ ὕπο 949) when the messenger from Corinth arrives; bitter irony that bridges the father, the foster father and the nature of the mother — a fatal and impossible combination that collapses a hundred lines later (1060 sq.). To the anxious question of Œdipus: «was not Polybus my father?» (οὐ γὰρ Πόλυβος ἐξέφυσέ με ; 1017) a series of revelations follow in which the notion of tyche interconnects with the real issue of origin. The Korinthian messenger found by chance the infant (τυχών 1025, 1039) that was named Œdipus — a name that bears witness to the tyche (fate) of his swollen feet (ὥστ᾽ ὠνομάσθης ἐκ τύχης ταύτης ὃς εἶ, 1036). Iocaste, the female voice par excellence, celebrated few lines earlier the randomness of human life in an anti-teleological manifesto (977-979):

Τί δ᾽ ἂν φοβοῖτ᾽ ἄνθρωπος, τὰ τῆς τύχης
κρατεῖ, πρόνοια δ᾽ ἐστὶν οὐδενὸς σαφής;
εἰκῇ κράτιστον ζῆν, ὅπως δύναιτό τις.

But what should a man be afraid of when for him it is the event (tyche) that rules, and there is no certain foreknowledge of anything? It is best to live anyhow, as one may.

  • 34 ΟI: Κακὸν δὲ ποῖον ἐμποδών, τυραννίδος/ οὕτω πεσούσης, εἶργε τοῦτ᾽ ἐξειδέναι ; ΚP: ποικιλῳδὸς Σφὶ (...)

24A well stated father-mother antithesis as Iocaste claims that the life of mortals is determined by accidental events and not by careful planning and thought. At this point (when mother and father seem to occupy the poles of the antithesis between tuchê and telos) it is interesting to note that at the beginning of the tragedy Creon claims that it is the Sphinx that has obstructed the discovery of the murderer of king Laius; it (mis) directed the citizens of Thebes from finding the truth34 in the still unsolved mystery of Laius’ murder by presenting them with another riddle to solve.

25Going back to the critical moment of Œdipus Tyrannus just before the revelation of the true identity of the hero, we realize that while Œdipus and the messenger speak in the foreground, Iocaste remains in the background and listens. At last, says Œdipus, it is time to discover my origin (ὡς καιρὸς ηὑρῆσθαι τάδε, 1050) — no matter how base it is. And while Œdipus, once again, entertains the possibility of being purely a child of tuchê, who won his way to the throne thanks to his intelligence, Iocaste understands. She understands clearly and violently because she reads the only unmistakable sign of Œdipus identity: his swollen feet (1032-6). For the mother the story ends here; she goes off to kill herself thus extinguishing the traces of the maternal line that have brought confusion and chaos to the order of things.

Summing up

26The voice of the Father prevails, despite the temporary domination of the narratives of the mother: Cithairon, the Sphinx, Iocaste, all constructed their own narratives that offered an alternative to the legitimacy, authority and truth of the Father. All movements of the tragedy point to the uncovering and revelation of the identity by constructing narratives that sometimes approach and sometimes keep their distance from the teleological course ordained by the Father. When, at last, Œdipus fills the gap in his identity he is able to recover the shattered pieces of information regarding his father. This re-construction is as painful as the self blinding of the hero, coming, as it does, at a moment when Œdipus sees more clearly than ever before. The truth and its revelation becomes esoteric — it is subsumed now in the person of Œdipus initiating his last movement, the long wanderings of the beggar-Œdipus that lead him to his resting place at Hippios Kolonos, in Athens. Thus the long quest of his life that started on Mount Cithairon ends in the hospitable Athenian land thus completing his narrative; a narrative that constantly and obstinately spins around the issues of origin and movement.

Notes

1 Œdipus and the Fabrication of the Father; Œdipus Tyrannus in Modern Criticism and Philosophy, Baltimore, 1992, especially chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 9.

2 ζητῶν ἑαυτὸν καὶ γένους φυτοσπόρον, Aristophanes the Grammarian, Argumenta fabularum Aristophani tributa 4.4.

3 Vidal-Naquet supports the view that there is no definitive meaning for the reader to unravel in the classical tragedies. We are fated to be for ever distanced from the meaning the play had for the ancient audience and the real thoughts of the ancient writer («Ο Οιδίπους στην Αθήνα», in Jean-Pierre Vernant & Pierre Vidal-Naquet (ed.), Μύθος και Τραγωδία στην Αρχαία Ελλάδα, v. II, transl. by A. Tatti, Athens, 1991 [original publication 1986], p. 207-208). Even the systematic analysis of the diction, the institutions and the political activity contemporary to the writing of the plays does not reveal any privileged comprehension of the «meaning», hence the many and — at times — and contradictory interpretations of the play. Yet, there are many works that give valuable insight into the meaning of OT and which provide the groundwork for any further study of this tragedy: the indispensable commentaries by Richard C. Jebb, Sophocles: The Plays and the Fragments, Part I: Œdipus Tyrannus, Cambridge, 1887 (several reprints); Jan C. Kamerbeek, The Plays of Sophocles. Commentaries. Part IV: The Œdipus Tyrannus, Leiden, 1967; Roger D. Dawe, Sophocles: Œdipus Rex, Cambridge, 1984; Jean Bollack, L’Œdipe Roi de Sophocle. Le texte et ses interprétations, 4 vols, Villeneuve d’Ascq, 1990. The books by Cedric H. Whitman, Sophocles. A Study in Heroic Humanism, Cambridge, 1951; Alfred J. Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatist, Cambridge, 1951; Bernard M. Knox, Œdipus at Thebes; Sophocles Tragic Hero and his Time, New-Haven/London, 1957 (new preface 1998); Cecil M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy, Oxford, 1945; Gordon M. Kirkwood, A Study in Sophoclean Drama, Ithaca/NewYork, 1958; Reginald P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles; An Interpretation, Cambridge, 1980; Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 1986; Charles Segal, Œdipus Tyrannus; Tragic Heroism and Limits of Knowledge, Oxford, 2000 2; Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Greek Tragedy and Philosophy; Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles’Theban Plays, Cambridge, 2009; Simon Goldhill & Edith Hall, Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition, Cambridge, 2009. These books are complemented by a plethora of papers. In a short paper published by Eric R. Dodds in 1966, titled «On Misunderstanding Œdipus Rex» (Greece & Rome 13, p. 37-49) the scholar expresses his humanistic view about the meaning of OT: «To me personally, the Œdipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles — even the last riddle, to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion» (48). Of course, says Dodds, we «do not know how far Sophocles intended that» — to go back to Vidal-Naquet’s statement. Nonetheless, critics have never stopped producing interpretations alongside the humanistic stratum (as the one stated by Dodds), or inclined towards moralizing (the question of guilt), the deterministic (the question of destiny) and the artistic (OT as good drama); (for the above classification see William H. Race, «The Limitations of Rationalism: Sophocles’ Œdipus and Plato’s Socrates», Syllecta Classica 11, 2000, p. 89). For the major question of Œdipus’ guilt see the following approaches: OT is a tragedy of destiny (Bowra, p. 39). Œdipus is innocent (Whitman, Waldock, Knox, Kirkwood). Œdipus is a free agent (Ingram, p. 174) and suffers a destiny consistent with his character and actions (Ingram, p. 177; Bowra, p. 88); or, simply, the futility of asking these question at all (Segal 2001, p. 85). For Œdipus and (his) polis see: Vidal-Naquet (1991); Victor Ehrenberg Sophocles and Pericles, Oxford, 1954; Knox (1957); Jasper Griffin, «Sophocles and the Democratic City», in Jasper Griffin (ed.) Sophocles Revisited; Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oxford, 1999, p. 73-94; Lowell Edmunds, «Œdipus as Tyrant Sophocles’ Œdipus Tyrannus», Syllecta Classica 13, 2002, p. 63-103.

4 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan, London, 2001 [original publication 1966], p. 73. Throughout my paper I write Father (with an upper case F) when referring to the Lacanian concept of the father; in all other cases, I use the lower case letter. The same applies to the notion of the mother.

5 Op. cit., p. 72-73.

6 Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight, Cambridge, 1987, p. 133

7 The Father can acquire many faces because «in the chain of linguistic or symbolic substitution, any word or symbol < can be used > metaphorically or metonymically» to denote the Father’s name, Felman, supra (n. 6), p. 134.

8 Pucci, supra (n. 1), p. 4.

9 Felman, supra (n. 6), p. 104.

10 Pucci, supra (n. 1), p. 52.

11 Op. cit., p. 5. Pythia, although female, is a medium for Apollo’s oracular utterances.

12 Op. cit., p. 4.

13 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuits of Signs. Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, Ithaca/New York, 1981, p. 172-176.

14 Ibid., p. 174.

15 Ibid., p. 174-175; see also the discussion of the relevant passage later in the course of the present paper.

16 Supra (n. 3), p. 43-44.

17 Pietro Pucci, «The endless end of the Œdipus Rex», Ramus 20, 1991, p. 6.

18 «… a person’s name (say Œdipus or Pentheus) is an omen and oracle of identity, then placing them in some narrative that mentions their parents and ancestors, where they come from and now belong, and where they stand in the world. In these terms, to identify someone is to locate them within a set of coordinates of time and space», J. P. Euben, «Identity and the Œdipus Tyrannus», in J. Peter Euben (ed.), The Tragedy of Political Theory, Princeton/New Jersey, 1990, p. 96.

19 The alleged lameness of Labdakos (used in the often cited analysis by Lévi-Strauss («The Structural Study of Myth», in Structural Anthropology, transl. by C. Jacobson & G. Schoepf, New York, 1967 [original publication 1958], p. 227-255) to connect him with Laius and Œdipus through a corporal deficiency or sign) is based on the meaning of the letter lambda (or labda) and the similarity of his name to Labda, the Lame, who was the mother of Kypselos, the tyrant of Corinth and the founder of the long line of political leaders of the city. See also the Etymologicum Magnum 199. 24 – 31: Βλαισός: Παραλυτικός. Οὕτως εἰς τὸ Ῥητορικόν. δ᾽ Ἐτυμολόγος, τοὺς πόδας ἐπὶ τὰ ἔξω διεστραμμένος, καὶ τῷ Λ στοιχείῳ ἐοικώς. Διὰ τοῦτο καὶ Λάμβδα ἐκαλεῖτο ἡ γυνὴ μὲν Ἠετίωνος, μήτηρ δὲ Κυψέλου τοῦ Κορίνθου τυράννου. Εἴρηται δὲ βλαισὸς ὁ βεβλαμμένος τὸ ἶσον τῶν ποδῶν. Τὸ ἐναντίον γοῦν, ὁ ἐπὶ τὰ ἔσω ἔχων τοὺς πόδας, καλεῖται ῥαιβός, ὁ διερραισμένος (ἤτοι διεφθαρμένος) τὸ ἶσον τῆς βάσεως. Also Marie Delcourt, Œdipe ou la légende du conquérant, Paris, 1944, p. 20-21. On the other hand, Laius has a body maimed on its left side (from λαιός = left sided). Later, in the second volume of Anthropologie Structurale II (Paris, 1973, p. 31-35), Lévi-Strauss «revisits» the Œdipus myth and connects the riddle of the Sphinx (a question to which the answer should remain apart) with incest (a relation in which the two persons involved should have stayed apart) as two situations which bear internal and logical similarities. And, lastly, in «Mythe et oubli» (in Julia Kristeva, Jean-Claude Milner, Nicolas Ruwet (éd.), Langue, Discours, Societé. Pour Émile Benveniste, Paris, 1975, p. 294-300), he connects lameness, lisp and oblivion as themes used by myths to express the breaking down of communication on various levels of the social life. For lameness in the Œdipus myth see further Vernant, «Ο κουτσός τύραννος. Από τον Οιδίποδα στον Περίανδρο» [1991, supra (n. 3), p. 57-85]; as a mythic motif in general see Marie Delcourt (Héphaistos, ou la légende du magician, Paris, 1957) and physical deficiencies in myth Marie Delcourt, Stérilités mystérieuses et naissances maléfiques dans l’antiquité classique, Paris, 1986.

20 The shepherd found him in the «winding glens» of the mountain (trans. by Jebb) and saved him (εὑρὼν ναπαίαις ἐν Κιθαιρῶνος πτυχαῖς, OT 1026).

21 For this major discrepancy as a force that advances the story of Œdipus see also J. Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre II. Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse, Jacques-Alain Miller (éd.), Paris, 1978, p. 245: «Tout se déroule en fonction de l’oracle et du fait qu’il est réellement un autre que ce qu’il réalise comme son histoire — il est fils de Jocaste et de Laius, et il part dans sa vie en l’ignorant (italics mine). Toute la pulsation du drame de sa destinée, de bout en bout, depuis le commencement jusqu’à la fin, tient à ce voilement du discours, qui est la réalité sans qu’il le sache».

22 All translations of OT, unless otherwise stated, are by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Sophocles I, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge Mass., 1994.

23 We have to admit that the witness lies (Segal, supra [n. 3], p. 88) out of fear or shame (Dawe, supra [n. 3], p. 27) trying to hide his cowardice (Bollack, supra [n. 3] l. 122).

24 Segal, supra (n. 3), p. 113. Especially in passages where, although the interlocutor speaks about many robbers, Œdipus replies by stating only one, as if he recalled past knowledge (OT 139, 293). Kamerbeek, supra (n. 3) on 124, remarks that «even if (as is probable) we have to take the singular as referring to the plural as an idiomatic collective use, the wording is ominous». For various interpretations on this shift in line 124 see Bollack, supra (n. 3) on 124-6; his personal view is that the shift to singular serves an explicit dramatic purpose: the scene is set for the next encounter with Teiresias.

25 Perhaps, this inconsistency lies within the framework of the elimination of differences common in Œdipus story (such as the differences between father-son, mother-wife, children – brothers/sisters etc.). For Sophocles, as for Plato, «the relation of the One to the Many is the focal point for man’s understanding of himself and the universe» (Segal, op. cit. [n. 3], p. 158). Kamerbeek (ad loc.) remarks that not «the one to the many», but the «reverse is to become true: for Laius’son, Laius’ murderer and Laius’ successor will prove to be one and the same person. On the other hand this peremptory statement sheds light on the repeated ambiguous shifts from singular to plural and vice versa wherever the murderer or murderers are alluded to».

26 Knox, supra (n. 3), p. 154, p. 157.

27 Op. cit., p. 150.

28 Culler, supra (n. 13), p. 172-175.

29 Sandor Goodhart, «Λῃστὰς ἔφασκε: Œdipus and Laius’many murderers», Diacritics 8.1, 1978, p. 67.

30 Ibid.

31 Translation by Stephen Berg & Diskin Clay Sophocles, Œdipus the King, New York/Oxford, 1978.

32 Translation by David Kovacs, Euripides V. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge Mass., 2002.

33 The meaning and function of the second stasimon is one of the riddles of Œdipus Tyrannus. See the relevant discussion in all major works on Œdipus Tyrannus (supra n. 3) but especially Winnington-Ingram, «The fall of Œdipus», p. 179-204

34 ΟI: Κακὸν δὲ ποῖον ἐμποδών, τυραννίδος/ οὕτω πεσούσης, εἶργε τοῦτ᾽ ἐξειδέναι ; ΚP: ποικιλῳδὸς Σφὶγξ τὸ πρὸς ποσὶ σκοπεῖν/ μεθέντας ἡμᾶς τἀφανῆ προσήγετο (128-3).

Auteur

University of Patras

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