E. E G..

The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece online

. (page 66 of 112)
Online LibraryE. E G.The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece → online text (page 66 of 112)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

two sons, Polyneikes and Eteocles. Arrived at man's estate, they would share
the sovereignty of Thebes between them, and to this intent drive forth from
the city the father who might, perchance, stand in the way of their ambitious
plans. Bent down with suffering and sorrow, feeble and blind, (Edipus is
turned adrift to ask of the charity of strangers the means of supporting bare

His daughters alone are faithful to him. Antigone will not leave him ;
Ismene remains at Thebes, but only in order that she may minister to his
wants as opportunity offers and keep him informed of the course of events.

For weary months, and may be years, the old man and Antigone have
led this wandering life, dependent on the bounty of strangers (CEd. Col., 5),
" asking for little, and receiving less." At length they have reached a resting-

^ See ante, p. 287. '


place. Behind them is the dreary way to Thebes, with its mournful memories,
its strifes and rivalries ; before them is a lovely spot, set apart and sacred to
some deity. The air is full of sweet scents and sights and sounds ; golden
crowns and narcissus, heavy with dew, shine out amidst the grass ; vine and
laurel and olive cast around a pleasant shade ; the voice of the nightingale
hidden among the clustering ivy, and the murmuring flow of the Cephissus-
stream, with its never-slumbering waters, strike sweetly upon the ear,
bidding the wanderers softly welcome. A House of God it is, a peace ful, k
gentlg._spfltHJr»d-irer0~ttIF Wearied, troubleci soul oi LtJdipu^ iS destined to hnd I
re^L- —

*' Child of the blind old man, Antigone!" he says {(Ed. Col., 14 et seq.^
668 etseq.), " what country have we reached ? What city ? Who this day will
welcome with scant gifts the wanderer (Edipus ? Little he asks, and still
less receives, yet this suffices me, for sufferings and long time, and my own
true heart, have taught me therewith to be content. ^ But see, child, if there
be not here some resting-place — one open to all comers, or sacred to the gods."

Antigone describes the scene before them, adding that in the distance there
rise the towers of a city, which she knows to be Athens. The wanderers take
their seat beneath the shady trees ; but hardly have they done so when they
are accosted by a man, a native of the place, who has perceived their move-
ments, and, hastening to them with all speed, bids them arise and withdraw.
The place wherein they sit is sacred, holy ground that may not be trodden by I
foot of man, for it is consecrate to the fearful deities, daughters of Earth and I
Darkness, known to the Athenian folk as Eumenidae, gracious goddesses ; to
all other peoples of Hellas by a name which may not be outspoken — Erinyes,
Furies, the deities who bear in remembrance and punish sin.

(Edip us receives the inte llig ence wit h a. s^.ii'^T^gft-^y. " Now," he saysi
*' may they graciously receivelEne suppliant, for from this place do I go forthl
no more." Not in vain has he been led thus to take shelter within the sacredl j
spot — he recognises in this the fulfilment of a promise of Apollo, that when hell
shall have reached the last land, taken up the suppliant's seat, and beenV
hospitably received at the shrine of the venerable goddesses, his sufferings and I
his w anderin gs g^qj]! \]h^^^ ^r\ f^r^

Yes! CEdipus, reviled by vulgar minds as "parricide" — and worse — now
stands under the protection of the very powers who seek out and avenge blood-
guilt.. The spirit has once more triumphed over the letter of the law,^ andl
G^dipus is free from curse and penalty. Pathos matlios, learning by suffering J
has done its w ork, and, purified by long years of calamity nobly borne, QEdipual
i¥ accepted o]r~t^e Invk-il?!© Justice. And not accepted merely. The Divine
justice does nothing by halves. CEdipus has honoured it by patient submission
under the penalty of his own " self-chosen woe." Now the Divine j.ustice will
honour him openly and in the sight of all men. Xwb Oracles have gone forth
concerning (Edipus — one, that of the contending factions in TTLebes, that party
alone can triumph which has with it (Edipus, the despised and rejected ; the
other, that his very grave shall be a gain to the land which hospitably receives
him at the last^ — an ate, self -chosen " ruin," to the land which thrusts him out.

In the feeble, sightless old man, therefore, centre the " fates " of two States
great in Hellas — according to their treatment of defenceless CEdipus shall be
their lot in time to come.

1 This is hardly to be understood in St. Paul's sense. (Edipus is content with little because
his own nature, his gennaton, literally his noble descent, forbids his seeking or asking for the
more that would be grudged him.

2 See ante, under ** ^schylus," p. 378.


Tl^1 > IS tke turning -point in the dr ama ; the question of " fate " now takes
a wider range, and is seen skaping itself "in the conduct of the representatives
of these States, Theseus of Athens and Kreon of Thebes, no less than in that of
the family of CEdipus. (Edipus as yet only knows one of these Oracles, but
that is enough ; and we can understand the eagerness with which he inquires
the name of the place at which he has arrived, the goal so momentous to him,
and of its ruler. The place is Colonus, the ruler Theseus, replies the peasant
who has warned him before as to the character of the sanctuary wherein he
sits. CEdipus earnestly begs that one of the townsfolk may be sent to summon
the king : his message shall be to this effect — that, " for a little present
succour, a great reward awaits him." What reward has a blind man to offer ?
demurs the man ; but there is something about the stranger that overawes
him, and he departs to do his bidding. Will the king -b^jequally willing, and
give his succour to this stranger, whose sole claim to his protection is — his
weakness, thaJtaclthat he is a suppliant ? Time will show.

After the messenger has gone, the elders of the community appear, in hot
haste, upon the scene. CEdipus, however, has vanished from sight. Warned
by past experience, the hapless old man and his defenceless guide have retreated
amid the trees, hiding themselves until they can judge from the tone of the
new-comers whether or not they may safely venture forth. The elders pour
forth their lament over the stranger who has presumed to tread the enclosure
of goddesses so easily roused to ire, whose very name they fear to speak aloud,
past whose sanctuary they themselves are wont to hasten, speechless and

Upon hearing this, CEdipus comes forward and claims their pity. The
elders are moved with compassion by his appearance, but they insist upon his
withdrawing from the grove — they will hold parley with him only where it is

(permitted unto mortals to speak.
CEdipus is sore distressed. He stands where he does with the sanction of
Apollo, under the protection of the goddesses ; and now these peasants will
drag him forth from this, his last refuge. H^e tu rns piteousl^y t o Antigone :
" What shall I do, my daughter? "

Antigone, with the quick tact which experience has taught her, urges him
f to follow the wishes of the townsfolk, and CEdipus yields. //The incident,
trifling as it appears, sujSices to show the once impetuous CEdipus in the light
of the pathos matlios. He leaves his secure retreat w^ithout further remon-
strance, only bidding the townspeople do him no injustice, since he is trusting
himself to them ; whereupon, like true Athenians, they assure him of his perfect
safety in their care. CEdipus then bids Antigone guide him to a spot where
reverence will allow of his speaking and listening ; he will not " fight against
necessity." He is, however, to be yet more tried, for they insist upon learning
his name.

Again he turns to Antigone with the despairing cry : . " My child, what
will become of me ? " and again Antigone urges him, now that the worst has
come, to yield to the wish of the people. No sooner, however, have the super-
stitious old men heard his name and lineage than they order him forthwith to
leave the town. The story of CEdipus with its horrors has travelled fast, and
they fear lest his presence there should bring a curse upon them. Antigone pleads
for her father and for herself ; she implores them by all that they hold dear to have
pity upon them. In vain — the peasants are inexorable ; they do pity both father
and daughter, but still, forth they must go. CEdipus then, with a biji'st-of
indignajit sporn, appeals to their patriotism. What then is fair fame? he asks.
To what purpose is the repute of Athens — that she of all States is most God-


fearing, that she alone is strong to save the stranger in distress, that she alone
is rich to help — if, trembling at a name, they would now drive him forth ? "jihen
f ollows t^p' pat>ipi t,i(;^ ag(;!ount of his life ■ "All unknowing I went — whither I
went." fLet them take heed, they who profess to honour the gods, lest they
now angfer the gods, for he comes among them holy and God-fearing, and
bearing a blessing to the citizens. / Let them await the arrival of their ruler —
then they will understand all.

To this the elders, moved — despite their fear — by reverence, readily agree.
That the king will know what to do in the matter is enough for them.

The decision is not made a moment too soon, for some one on horseback is
seen approaching. It is Ismene come to warn her father of impending danger.
The two sons of (Edipus are engaged in"arHea3Ty"s^iFe. "nErreocIes'lhe'youngef,
has seized the throne, and driven forth the first-born, Polyneikes, who has fled
to Argos, married into the royal house, and made there a league (the famous
League of the Seven Princes) with the chieftains of Peloponnesus. He is
resolved, with the help of his allies, either to regain Thebes for himself or to
destroy the city.

At this crisis Delphi has sent forth the Oracle with which we are already
acquainted. The sons must seek him whom they have cast out — alive or dead he
must be found ; on this depend their prosperity and safety. Thus, as Ismene
truly says (CEd. Col., 394) : They who overthrew (Edipus (in the days of his
pride) — the gods — now exalt him, for the salvation of Thebes hangs upon her
winning him.

Ismene then informs her father that Kreon is on his track, and will
speedily appear as ambassador for Eteocles, the younger son, and for Thebes.
He comes, however, not to carry out the Oracle in the spirit — to honour the
old man by restoring him to his home and to the throne. No ! the intention
is simply to fulfil the letter of the decree — to gain possession of the person of
CEdipus and keep him in captivity on the outskirts of the State. Its borders
he shall not be permitted to pass, lest he should prove a stumbling-block in
the way of ambitious plans.

" Will they shroud my limbs in Theban dust?" asks the old man quietly —
i.e. will they honour me in my death, if not in my life ?

This last poor token of respect, Ismene rejoins, is also to be withheld.
On the plea of the blood-guilt which he has incurred, (Edipus is to be cast
out from the sepulchre of his fathers.

" Does either of my sons know of this?" inquires the old man again with
that same calmness.

Alas ! both know of it ; and both know also that if (Edipus passes to
the unseen world unreconciled to them, without having forgiven them, it will
be the ruin of themselves and of Thebes. They know this, and yet, in the
madness of their lust for power, they set their ambition before their father.
The decision of (Edipus is quickly made ((Ed. Col., 419). Never shall they
gain possession of him ! And in the bitterness of his soul he utters a prayer
which shows how far apart are ancient notions of the pathos matJws from
the Christian ideal. (Edipus is indeed purified and cleansed from his own
blood-guilt, yet he now prays that the gods may never extinguish the " fated "
feud which rages between the unnatural brothers. May he who in Thebes now
possesses throne and sceptre not abide therein ! May he who has gone forth
never return thither !

The feud between the brotheifs is in the popular legend what (Edipus
calls it" in the drama, a " destined " ieud—pepro7nenen, ordained of fate ; but
what the "fate" is, his next words show. For, turning to the elders of


Colonus, who have overheard all that has passed between father and daughter,
he tells the pitiful sto ry of his exil e — how, when he who had begotten them
was driven forth shamefully ^rom his fatherland, his sons sought not either
to keep or to defend him. No ! they suffered him, their father, to be
proclaimed an outlaw by the herald's voice. Nor did this happen in the
hot zeal of that fateful day when death itself was coveted by CEdipus. No !
when the slow course of years had soothed his woe, and taught him that h is self-
inflicted punishment exceeded his involuntary sin^lLbis_3ms.Jjll:£jifflil£Eosen^^^^
the State to banish him, and those who could have prevented it, his sons, would
not even luill the effort. Rather than speak the little word that would have saved
him, they suffered him to be cast forth — a beggar, blind, homeless, and forsaken.
But for his daughters CEdipus must have perished. These maidens, so far as their
feeble strength allowed, have provided him with the means of life and safety.
As for his sons, they have chosen before the honour, nay, the very life of
their father, sceptre and throne and pomp of power. Therefore never shall
they have that father for an ally, never will he fight upon their side ; nor
will the sovereignty in Thebes bring advantage to them. This CEdipus knows,
for Phoebus, god of light, has revealed it to him. And they know it. No
god is needed to reveal the truth that the grave of an outraged and rejected
father must be, to sons like these, a danger. Their own hearts could tell them
that {(Ed. Col., 403).

Is then the '' destined " feud between the brothers the result of a terrible
fate, a mysterious and awful something, which they have had no power to
avoid or avert? We know not. The "little word" of filial indignation, of
manly pleading on behalf of him wlio once had saved Thebes, would have saved
QEdipus, and, in restoring to him his rightful place in Thebes, have saved
themselves. Not " fate," but retribution it is that now hangs over them.

CEdipus has still to face his own impending danger. The citizens of.
Colohus, now thoroughly enlisted on his side, urge him to conciliate the vener-
able deities into whose sanctuary he had ventured. CEdipus is willing to do
this, although he knows that he is accepted of the invisible Power behind the
deities. The rites to be gone through, as it proves, are impossible for the
sightless, worn-out man ; he cannot himself perform them, but sends Ismene
with the words so full of meaning, which we already know : —

" One soul can make conciliation for ten thousand, if it approach with pure

Ismene goes, and shortly afterwards appears Theseus the king, the Sopho-
clean embodiment of all the chivalry and nobleness of Athens. His character
will engage our attention later. Here we need only say that spontaneously,
of his own generous nature, he offers help to CEdipus, and makes the God-
given office which he holds, defender of the suppliant, a reality. Wijihhim
CEdipus finds that protection in life, that honour in death, which are denied
him by his own children and his countrymen.

Not too soon is the covenant made, for Kreon is seen approaching with a
troop of followers — Kreon the sophist, the hypocrite, the man " noble in words
but in deeds deceitful." He concludes a long and artfully worded address to
the men of Colonus and to CEdipus by urging the latter to return to his father-
land and to his home. CEdipus is too well acquainted with the nature of the
man and with the scheme to fall into the trap. He receives the oily words
with an outburst of the old fire. Home ! thou comest to take me with thee,
but not home. And therefore the avenging spirit of CEdipus shall indeed go
with him, but the coveted bodily presence he shall not have.

When Kreon sees that smooth words avail not, he has recourse to threats,


and then to violence. He bids his attendants seize the maidens and carry
them off by force. Deprived of his " double staff," the hapless old man will
be fain to follow. Kreon, however, has reckoned without his host. He has
sent away his bodyguard, thinking that he has to do with CEdipus alone ; but, on
advancing to lay hold on the old man, he finds himself a prisoner in the hands
of the elders of Colonus. Their shouts and cries for assistance speedily reach
the ears of the king, who is engaged in offering sacrifice at a neighbouring
altar. In a twinkling Theseus understands the situation, and horsemen are
sent off to guard the mountain-passes, through which alone the fugitives can
make good their flight into Boeotia. The stratagem succeeds, and a£ter short
rlpila.y th ft fl.grnnis(^r| fa.thpir regains his treasures, his all, his " Cjes" through
whom -h©~s^©s. -and. holds communion with the outer world.

This incident seems to make clear a point which it was necessary that
Sophocles should take into account in a version of the legend intended primarily
for Athenians. In his time the existence of the hidden grave of CEdipus
somewhere at Colonus was popularly believed to be a "fact"; and it was
regarded as a fact of importance to Athens, inasmuch as the presence of the
grave of the old Theban king in their midst was supposed to ensure success to
Athens in the skirmishes which took place between her and her Theban rivals.
But how came it that the old Theban king was buried in their midst? Answer :
Cast out ungratefully by his fatherland, Athens, protector of the weak, received
him. And his " protection " the poet emphasises in the scene which we have
just witnessed — the rescue and restoration of the old man's "double staff" by
Theseus, a parable in which are set forth, truthfully enough, the national
characteristics of the two peoples.

Modestly withdrawing from the mutual rejoicing and tearful thanks of the
little group, Theseus, before he leaves, announces that another suppliant has
claimed his protection. A man from Argos sits by the altar of Poseidon
petitioning that he may have a few words with CEdipus, and thereafter be
allowed safe conduct to his own country. When CEdipus learns that the
new-comer is from Argos he divines that it can be none other than his own
son, his eldest-born, Polyneikes. Hi7n, he affirms, he cannot, will not see.

Theseus, who, as ruler and protector, is bound impartially to both suppliants
alike, intercedes for Polyneikes that he may at least have the interview which
he desires, and warns CEdipus that in rejecting the request he may himself be
leaving a higher consideration out of the account ((Ed. Col., 11 79).

" When the seat (i.e. of the suppliant) demands it, look well that thou
respect the providence of the god."

Antigone joins her petition to his, and pleads nobly with all the force of
yet another of the great unwritten laws (Qi!d. Col., 1189) : —

" Thou didst beget him, father ; therefore, and were he guilty of the worst
of crimes against thee, it is not laioful for thee loith evil to requite himr Jjt-is
not themis^to reciuite^ evil with evil in the f amily — a noble anticipation of the
Christian tJiemis in the larger fami!y~of the human race.

CEdipus yields, and Polyneikes is allowed to come in person and plead his
own cause. In the magnificent scene which ensues the interest of the drama
culminates. PoIyneTEes appears in tears, which are probably genuine, inas-
much as he himself is now also in misfortune. Shall he begin, he asks, by
lamenting his own fate, or theirs to whom he finds himself united in misery,
strangers in a strange land ? He is aghast at the tei^rible aspect of his
father — the miserable, travel-stained dress, the unkempt hair fluttering around
"tEe~eyeless head. And he, alas ! sees it all too late. He himself, the worst of
men, bears witness against himself of this his fault ; his father shall hear of


his repentance from none other's lips. But beside Zeus on the throne, helper
in every work, is seated the Aidos — mercy. " Let her, my father, stand also
by thy side. Wherein I once transgressed against thee, for that there still is
healing, but not renewal of the sin. Thou art silent? Speak but a word to
me, my father ! turn not from me. Thou wilt not answer ? wilt spurn me, wilt
let me go without a word to tell me why thou art thus wroth ? "

GEdipus still remains ominously silent — not a sound escapes his lips — and
Polyneikes implores his sisters to intercede for him that he, the suppliant,
protected of the god, be not dismissed without reply.

Antigone bids him proceed and tell the object of his visit, for many words,
she says, awakening joy or grief or pity, have even to dumb lips often given voice.

Thus encouraged, Polyneikes unfolds the tale with which we are already
acquainted. He relates how he has been driven out of Thebes — he, the elder-
born — by his younger brother Eteocles, who has gained the crown, not by
force of eloquence nor yet of arms. No ! simply because he won the people —
a true sign to Polyneikes (read in the light of the recent Oracle) that the event
had " its root in the Erinys," the avenger of his father's cause. Ejected from
Thebes, he had gone to Argos in the Dorian land, married the sister of
Adrastus, prince of Argos, and won as allies all who in Peloponnesus were
held as first in rank and best of spearmen. Already the seven bands of the
Sevenfold League with their chieftains encompass the plain of Thebes, and
all as suppliants turn to QEdipus and beg most humbly for his help, since,
if Oracles are to be believed, the victory shall be with those on whose side
CEdipus is found. All implore him, therefore, that he will desist from his
heavy wrath against one who is himself taking up arms to avenge injustice,
to punish the brother who has driven him from the fatherland. " I beseech
thee by the ancestors, by the gods of our race, that thou yield to me in this.
O see ! we are beggars and strangers ; thou thyself art in like case ; we live
by fawning upon others, thou and I, ruined by the same fate. And he —
miserable I ! — he plays the king at home in luxury, makes open scorn of us.
Him, if thou wilt but lend thine aid, I shall cast down without delay or trouble,
and in restoring thee to thine own halls I shall restore myself, and thrust him
out by force. These things I shall accomplish by thine aid ; without thee, for
me is no salvation."

From the foregoing it will be seen that the " many words" of Polyneikes
do not flow, as Antigone had fondly hoped, from a repentant heart; neither
joy nor grief nor pity could they arouse — nothing but disgust and indig-
nation. Ecpm first to last the ego is predominant : " I, wretched I, am a
beggar ; he lives in hixury. ... In restoring thee I restore myself." "N[ot the
desire to fulfil the command of the Invisible Justice by h on ouring hi s father,
but to make use of the letter of the Oracle for his own purposes, is evident
throughout. And not only so, but he would associate his father probably with
his own contemptible career : " We are ruined by the same fate ; we live by
fawning upon others." What ! (Edipus live by fawning upon others, wheedling,
cajoling others ! CEdipus, whose own noble nature has bid him abstain from
asking more than the mere crust that has kept him in life ! CEdipus, who has
submitted patiently to his " fate," nor even dreamt of avenging himself by
taking up arms against his fatherland — he to be now dragged down to the level
of a selfish hypocrite like this !

We are amazed at the calmness with which CEdipus begins his reply. Not
a word would have escaped his lips, he says, but for the intercession of Theseus.
For his sake Polyneikes shall have an answer, but such an one as shall never
gladden his life.


" Thou evil-doer," he proceeds, addressing himself to his son, ** when throne
and sceptre yet were thine in Thebes, then didst thou thyself drive out thy
father, madest him homeless, forcedst him to wear this robe, at sight of which
thou weepest, noiv that like misery hath come upon thyself. Not to be wept
over is't by me, but to be borne so long as life shall last in memory of thee,
the murderer. 'Tis thou hast brought me into this distress ; 'twas thou who

Online LibraryE. E G.The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece → online text (page 66 of 112)