Oedipus on a Pale Horse, Journey through Greece in Search of a Personal Mythology Novelsmithing, The Structural Foundation of Plot, Character, and Narration The Mysteries - Daughter of Darkness  The Mysteries - The Dadouchos 

The Death of Oedipus

Following the terrible revelations and suicide of his mother/wife, Oedipus leaves Thebes and wanders about Greece as an exile. At the end of his life, Oedipus’ wandering comes to a conclusion at Colonus, a small hamlet just north of Athens. This sets the stage for our next tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus.

(If interested, the student my take a look at a chapter of my paperback book titled Oedipus on a Pale Horse at this point. The chapter "Colonus" takes place at modern Colonus. My website oedipusonapalehosrse.com contains a considerable number of pictures of the place. Click here.)

The Children of Oedipus and Jocasta

Oedipus and Jocasta had four children: two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After Oedipus blinded himself and left Thebes to wander the countryside with Antigone as his guide, and Ismene stayed at Thebes and brought messages to her father from time to time. The two sons later decided to share the throne at Thebes on alternate years, but once Eteocles became king he wouldn’t relinquish the throne to his brother. Polyneices then went into exile in Argos and raised an army to try to overthrow Eteocles. This is the situation as Oedipus at Colonus opens.

Theseus, King of Athens

Athena, from whom the name “Athens” comes, was the protectress of Athens and the bringer of civilization, inventor of the plow. She was also fearsome at war. Athena aligned herself with her father, Zeus, and was known of the goddess of wise counsel.

The king of Athens during the time period of Oedipus at Colonus was Theseus. Theseus was the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon, but his mother lay with the god and a mortal on the same night, the son of the mortal king of Athens, Aegeus for whom the Aegean Sea is named. After growing to manhood at Troezen in the Peloponnese, Theseus came to Athens and met his mortal father. At that time Athens paid a yearly tribute to Crete, because of a past transgression, in the form of seven maids and seven youths. Theseus went to Crete as a part of this tribute.

There he met the king of Crete, Minos, who was the son of Europa, Cadmos’ sister for whom Cadmos had searched years before. Minos ruled the city of Knossos which is reckoned to have had a population of 80,000. The Athenian youths and maids who were sent to Crete were always fed to the Minotaur, a hideous half-bull, half-man beast who lived within the Labyrinth from which no one ever returned. The Minotaur had been born from the hideous union of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, and Minos’ favorite bull. Thus the name “Minotaur,” meaning Minos’ Taurus (bull). But Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a golden thread by which he found his way out of the Labyrinth after he killed the Minotaur.

Ariadne, as the princess of Crete, was no ordinary woman. She was mistress of the Labyrinth. On Crete the greatest deity was the Great Goddess, and representations of her showed her standing in a flowing skirt with an open bosom that exposed her breasts, snakes coiled about both arms. This was Gaia, the goddess Earth herself. In Crete she was the primal mother, the goddess and source of zoë, eternal life.

When Theseus left Crete, he took Ariadne with him. But Dionysus appeared to Theseus and told him that Ariadne belonged to him. (This makes absolute sense because Dionysus was zoë.) Theseus then left her on the islet Dia (some say it was Naxos) just north of Crete. Dionysus then married Ariadne and took her with him to heaven. Dionysus then beget a son upon Ariadne. Ariadne as a mortal was the priestess of Earth, Earth's earthly manifestation. Ariadne, “holy” and “pure,” is a surname for the queen of the Underworld. But the Mistress of the Underworld is Persephone, so in actuality Dionysus has taken his mother to wife, zoë mating with the source of zoë. Since Persephone is Dionysus’ mother, Dionysus has doubled back on his own life to beget himself, much the same as did Oedipus by coupling with his own mother.

When Theseus returned to Athens, he forgot to hoist a sail to tell his father, Aegeus that he was successful in his quest to kill the Minotaur. Aegeus, believing Theseus had failed and been killed, killed himself by jumping from the Akropolis. Thus Theseus, with his father the king dead, became king of Athens himself. Such is the situation with the throne of Athens when Oedipus comes to Athens (Colonus) at the end of his wanderings.

Having thus introduced Theseus, I'll refer you to the biography of him written in the 2nd century AD by Plutarch as presented in the Classics Archives. This is the source for most of our information on Theseus outside the tragedies. Click on the following link to view the text. Remember that you'll have to find your own way back to this location.

The Deepening Layers of the Dionysus Myth

When we look deeper into the Dionysus’ myth, particularly as it was told on Crete, we discover even more similarities to other myths. Dionysus was the god who doubled back on his own life to mate with his mother and give birth to himself. Karl Kerenyi, in his book Dionysus, The Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, connects Dionysus, as known in Crete, together with the myth of Pasiphae and Ariadne with that of Demeter and Persephone.

… “Hades,” “Plouton,” or the “subterranean Zeus” were only cover names for the ravisher. Fundamentally he too was a great anonymous god. To the version in which the scene of the rape was Sicily, Nonnos in his Dionysiaka appended an account of the snake marriage. Demeter leaves Crete with her virgin daughter Persephone and hides her in a cave near the spring of Kyane. Thither comes Zeus, the bridegroom in the form of a snake:

… through marriage with this heavenly dragon 

Persephone’s womb became fruitful, prepared

To give birth to Zagreus, the horned infant.

Aeschylus bears witness to the contradictory identity of Zagreus, on the one hand with a “subterranean Zeus,” on the other with his subterranean son. “Zagreus,” “he who captures alive,” was also a cover name, a circumlocution for a great god, in fact the greatest god of all time. He visits his hidden daughter in a cave, and she bears him to himself as his own son. … Taking his mother or daughter to wife, the son or husband begets a mystic child who in turn will court only his mother. To such involvements the snake figure is more appropriate than any other. It is the most naked form of zoë absolutely reduced to itself. … [The Great Mother] assumes it for the original generation of her son, but this form is eminently suited to a male, a son and husband, who forces his way uninterruptedly down through the generations of mothers and daughters—the generations of living beings—and so discloses his continuity just as zoë does.


… The child in whose birth this first act culminates is horned; the bull, either as such or in a partly human form, dominates the second act. The ritual form of this act, the rending of a bull or some other horned sacrificial animal, most often a he-goat, became a Dionysian sacrifice. This sacrificial act, with all the details representing the indestructibility of life amid destruction, can be reconstructed; it gave rise to Greek tragedy and remained throughout antiquity the least striking, but most universal, of Dionysian rites.

… In Greek mythology … the “two goddesses of Eleusis,” were also mother-daughter dualities, in which the daughter was merely a detached half and younger repetition of the mother. As the Persephone of the original Cretan myth, Ariadne must surely have been the daughter…. It was only in the humanized version of the myth that she acquired Pasiphae as a mother. Here again we have a mother-daughter duality in the Greek style; like …Demeter and Persephone, the two are almost or wholly identical.

All this should then tell us a great deal about Oedipus children, and it does. All three ancient tragedians describe the children with epithets containing the symbolism of unity. The four children of Oedipus and Jocasta form a strange unity that we shall uncover in the coming plays.

The Ancients’ Perception of the Gods

The ancient Greek did not view his gods as necessarily moral creatures. They were not the creators of the universe but occupants within it just as are we, though their capabilities greatly exceeded our own. They were spirits who inhabited the earth. Remember that Earth was born from Chaos and then gave birth to the rest of the gods. They had human characteristics, but lived eternally, at least when compare to the life span of mortals. They were viewed as creators of mankind, Prometheus fashioning us from the ashes of the Titans when Zeus struck them with lightening to send them to Tartarus.

The word “metaphor” comes from the ancient Greek metaferw, which meant to carry over, transfer and to use a word in a changed sense, much as it does today. The ancient Greeks thought in terms of metaphor, and the gods represented that part of life that was inexplicable, and they dealt with them metaphorically. By doing this they learned to deal with their own subconscious as well as the natural forces at work in the world.

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes

Toward the end of Oedipus at Colonus, the god Hermes will appear on stage. In keeping with the above perception of the gods, Hermes is one of the more human of the pantheon. He is the master thief, a murderer, the protector of travelers, and guide of souls in the Underworld (psychopompos). You can’t get all of this from the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, however. In coming reading assignments, I’ll provide more information on this god.

Having thus introduced the major and minor characters in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, we proceed to the play.

Discussion of Oedipus at Colonus.

An interesting aspect of Oedipus at Colonus is that Sophocles was born, raised and died at Colonus. His father was a blacksmith there. Sophocles was from a well-to-do but not aristocratic family. He believed in the power of the people as opposed to Aeschylus who believed in a more aristocratic form of democracy. Sophocles was a friend of Pericles and a general in times of war. He was the consummate Athenian citizen. In 420 BC when the god Asclepius was brought to Athens in the form of a snake to cleans the city of plague, Sophocles was chosen to house the illustrious guest until a temple for him (beside the Theatre of Dionysus) was completed.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was ninety and died before it was produced. While he was writing it, his sons tried to have him pronounced mentally unsound, so they could gain control of his financial affairs. In his defense, Sophocles read the choral ode in Scene III, which he’d just written. This ode is Sophocles’ final tribute to the hamlet he considered home. Needless to say, he proved himself innocent of the incompetence charge, and this confrontation with his sons may have left a bad taste in his mouth and colored his presentation of Oedipus’ retaliation against his own sons in the play. When Sophocles died in 406 BC, Dionysus himself was said to have guarded his funeral train along the road to Decelea north of Colonus. Athens was under siege by Sparta at the time, but the enemy allowed the cortege to pass unharmed. Athens eventually succumbed to Sparta, so that Sophocles’ attempt to protect Athens, by evoking the Oedipus myth during its most trying time, failed.

Now that we’ve read both tragedies where Oedipus plays a central role, we must look back on the action and ask ourselves, What was Sophocles getting at? In short, was Oedipus guilty of his crimes? Or was he innocent because of his “divine” ignorance?

My own personal opinion of the Oedipus myth as I believe Sophocles saw it is that it had everything to do with Dionysus. Remember that this tragedy was presented in the Theatre of Dionysus and represented worship of the wine god. Dionysus was not only twice-born, as was Oedipus, but also the suffering god. Something Dionysian is always at work behind the Oedipus myth, from the Bacchiac stupor of Laius when he begat Oedipus upon Jocasta, to the wine-drunk man at the banquet who lets the cat out of the bag and causes Oedipus to leave Corinth. Sophocles point is that we all suffer because of our dual nature, and we are all under the gods’ yoke as it states twice in the Hymn to Demeter.

Sophocles makes it ever so obvious by concentrating on Oedipus’ suffering all through Oedipus at Colonus during which Oedipus receives his just reward in the Afterlife. Sophocles’ point is also that no one suffers like the great suffer because the ways to punish them are more plentiful since they have so far to fall. We suffer because we are blind and unable to see our own dual nature, the Dionysian nature of our existence. Oedipus by blinding himself could then see his Dionysian element and therefore had internal sight. We believe all we are is known to us, but a full half of the human experience is hidden because we are blind to our second nature. Sophocles has Teiresias play on this theme constantly.

So was Oedipus innocent? And my answer is both “yes” and “no” because we occupy a dual world. He was innocent in the reality of the “real” world but guilty in the Dionysian reality.

In the coming tragedies, we’ll see that others shared Sophocles’ opinion of Oedipus’ life. In particular, Euripides reflected on the dual nature in Oedipus’ dual set of children, two boys and two girls. Indeed each individual offspring contained an aspect of Oedipus’ own nature. Remember that Dionysus was the god who doubled back on his own life to begat himself, and that he had both a masculine and feminine nature since he was raised by Ino as a girl to escape Hera’s wrath. Oedipus’ own children may then be viewed as four aspects of Oedipus.

When they return to Thebes, both Oedipus and Dionysus are looking for a home where they might belong. Oedipus has been on a long journey that started three days after his birth: Thebes, Corinth, Delphi, Thebes, Colonus, the Underworld. Dionysus wandered much further, even to Egypt and Asia, but then he was a god. Some want to give Oedipus a home betwixt and between, a place that will be home and not home, returned and not returned. But the patricide can never be repatriated. We as human beings are always somewhat outcasts who drift looking for some place that will satisfy our longing. As Plutarch stated in the 2nd century AD, “… the soul has come here from elsewhere … an exile and a wandered, driven forth by divine decrees….”

The “death” of Oedipus is a reenactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This is Oedipus in search of a home and reminiscent of Demeter’s wanderings that brought her to a “home away from home” with the family at Eleusis. Oedipus travels back into the fold of the feminine, Demeter/Persephone, to meet his death. Just as he came from the body of the mother, now he returns to her (Gaia) in death and is met at the gate to the Underworld by Persephone and Hermes, guide of souls. Oedipus has lived out the three phases of life according to the Sphinx’ riddle.

Now that we have read about the complete life of Oedipus, we can discuss these two plays relative to Freudian and Jungian psychology. I’ve included as a part of your reading assignment an essay by James Hillman from the book Oedipus Variations. In this essay Hillman uses the myth of Oedipus to describe the processes involved in psychotherapy. Perhaps you’ll remember in my first lecture on myth, I referred to a statement by Thornton Wilder to the effect that, “Myths constitute the dreaming subconscious soul of the race telling its story.” Hillman’s essay provides a discussion this and what it means to us in terms of our own individual psychology.

But the story of Oedipus' family is far from over. We have four more plays to read before we finish with them. Next will be Seven Against Thebes, a play written by Aeschylus.

Copyright © 2000-10 by David Sheppard. The material in this website may not be reproduced in whole or in part by any means without permission. Contact the author at: