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Oidipous: Devotee of Apollon - Short Version

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When we encounter Apollon (I'll call him the anglicized "Apollo" here for the benefit of the search engines.) in the Iliad he is simply an anthropomorphic "guy," like a character in a Marvel comic book, holding up his end of the plot. When we encounter him in the tragedies he is something completely real and concrete, that we can understand as we understand anything else in the natural world—he is consciousness. That is why he is so dangerous and heavy and uncompromising, that is why there is no comfort or shelter in him, that is also why he is everything that is highest and purest in us, and that is why we cannot be human without him. He simply is what is, regardless of what we want, of what we would choose, of what we would protect or love or cherish. He simply is what is. Oidipous (Oedipus) was chosen by him and was given an opportunity to choose him in return, and Oedipus chose Apollo.

Apollo's mother Leto was very moderate and clear-minded and felt little of the hatreds and vanities that other Goddess suffered from, but she was a wolf and it was in her wolf shape that she gave birth to Apollo, and like her he was a shape-changer and a wolf. He was conscious of all of Time and Fate, and he wished to found an oracle at Delphi so that he could advise men in the light of his knowledge. Delphi was already a place of knowledge, and a monstrous snake was there. But Apollo killed the snake and made the oracle his own, and he had to become the servant of a mortal for eight years as penance for the murder. We usually see Apollo as the opposite of Dionysos, but in fact the two were intertwined and ultimately inseparable. They will permeate the lives of the descendants of Kadmos.
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Kadmos (Cadmus) was a Canaanite who was wandering far from home in search of his lost sister, and he went to Delphi to ask Apollo how he could find her. Apollo replied that he would never find her, that he should drive a cow before him until the cow dropped from exhaustion, and there he and his followers should found a city. He did that, and the cow dropped in the place that came to be called Thebes, in Boeotia. But there was already something there, a huge serpent, a child of Ares the War God. The serpent killed some of his men, Kadmos killed it in turn, and Kadmos had to serve Ares for eight years as penance for the killing. As we shall see in "Gods Jadar," Apollo had not conquered and replaced the serpent he killed when he took over Delphi, he had merged with it. And Kadmos too had not destroyed the serpent he had killed, it would permeate his life and the lives of his family for generations to come. In ancient Greece and throughout old Europe, the snake was the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge.

The Gods gave him a wife named Harmonia, like the snake, a child of Ares. All the Gods came to their wedding, and they lived long joyous lives, and at the end they changed into snakes and lived in the Blessed Islands forever. They had four daughters and a son. Of the daughters, Semele burned alive in Kadmos' palace when it was struck by God's lightning. But her son was the God Dionysos, who brought her back to life and made her immortal. Another daughter, Agave, went mad and tore her son's head off. Another daughter, Ino, tried but failed to kill her stepson. Her husband in turn killed one of her sons and tried to kill the other, but she leaped into the sea with her living son and both were drowned. The profane part of her died, and the Holy part lived on as a kindly Sea Goddess. The last daughter, Autonoe, had to gather up her son's fresh bones, as he had been torn to pieces and eaten by his dogs.

Kadmos' grandson Pentheus became king of Thebes after Kadmos and at a very young age, but it was he who was torn apart by his mother, Agave, in a Dionysiac frenzy. Kadmos' son, Polydoros, took over the throne next, but he too died young. Then Polydoros' son Labdakos took the throne, and like Pentheus he was torn apart by followers of Dionysos. Dionysos himself was another grandchild of Kadmos, and he was torn apart as well. Then Labdakos' son Laios took over the throne. Laios had been warned by Apollo at Delphi that his Fate was not yet sealed. If he could refrain from having children he would be safe, but if he had a child, that child was Fated to kill him. He could not refrain, and when a son was born he gave the child to a shepherd to expose in the wilderness. The shepherd did not do that, he gave the child to another shepherd from Corinth. The Corinthian shepherd took the child home, and in the end the king of Corinth raised him and he was called Oedipus.

One night a man who had drunk too much told Oedipus that his "father," the king of Corinth, was not his father. Oedipus traveled to Delphi to ask Apollo whether this was true. Apollo did not answer Oedipus' question; Apollo told Oedipus that it would be Oedipus' Fate to kill his father and marry his mother. After this answer, Oedipus wished to go anywhere but Corinth, so he struck out on the eastern road, towards Thebes.

Meanwhile Laios was on the same road, headed west. Out of nowhere, a monster had appeared outside Thebes. It arrested anyone it met and asked them a riddle, and it murdered those who couldn't answer. The riddle was, "What walks on four legs, then walks on two legs, then walks on three legs?" If anyone could correctly answer, the monster would die, but no one could. This sent Laios on the road to Delphi to ask Apollo how to deal with the monster. Oedipus and Laios met, having no idea who they were. They both had the same sort of violent, impatient personality typical of many northern legendary figures (see "A Baltic Pattern"), there was a disagreement as to who would pass first and when it was over, Laios and all of his party save one were dead.

The survivor reached Thebes and said that the King and his party had been killed by a band of men— since he was ashamed to say that he and his friends had been so far overmatched by a single man. Oedipus neared Thebes and met the monster, and he answered the monster's riddle with ease, with suspicious ease. Oedipus answered, "A man. Because a man begins crawling on four legs, then walks upright on two legs, then finishes his life walking with a cane, on three legs." The monster died. Oedipus, who had killed the monster, was made king by acclamation, and so he was given Laios' wife as his queen as a matter of course. The king had supposedly been killed by a band of men, and when the survivor saw who would be the new king he made himself extremely scarce. So no one thought of connecting Oedipus with Laios' death, and no one suspected that Oedipus' new wife, Iokaste, was also his mother.

All the descendants of Kadmos were torn apart in body or in soul. They were all marked out and chosen to some extent, but probably none so obviously and definitely as was Oedipus. He had no choice, he was chosen; everything that happened to him had inexorably channeled him into this situation. And one more such thing happened. A plague appeared in Thebes and as king he had to do something about it, so he asked Apollo in Delphi, what he could do to stop the plague. Apollo tells him that the murderer of Laios lives still in Thebes, and when this man is found and the pollution of his presence removed the plague will cease. Apollo says further that the murderer will be found if he is sought, but if he is not sought he will remain unknown.
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Everything that has happened to him has led him to this moment, now it is all up to him, he can do whatever he chooses. Apollo has chosen him, and now he is being asked if he will chose Apollo. And everyone constantly tells him not to. The survivor of Laios' party is still alive, the shepherd is still alive, the picture begins to unfold. But there is still much room for doubt, and no one wants to know but him. Stop, they say, there is no profit in knowing, there is no happiness in knowing, nothing good will come of this. And they are right, nothing good will come of this. The monster's riddle turns out to have been a superficial version of the Riddle of Life, and answering it seemed to make him "every inch a king," it seemed to make him the savior and protector of his people. But the truth is, he is only now being asked the Riddle of Life, and the truth is that he is far from a being a king that slays monsters. The truth is, he is a monster. And after he uncovers that truth, he is put in an underground room so that he will not pollute the sun as it shines on him. Like Apollo and Kadmos, he does not kill his monster but merges with it. That merger is worth examining:

Silenos was the companion of Dionysos. Silenos was half animal, half God and constantly drunk. The legendary Midas, king of the Phrygians, captured him on one occasion and asked Silenos: What is mankind's greatest good? For a long time Silenos refused to answer. Finally he said, "The greatest good for you would be not to know. But since you force me, I will tell you that mankind's greatest good is never to have been born, and the second greatest good is to die swiftly." Kleobis and Biton were heroes from Mycenian times, they had shrines at Argos and also at Delphi, and Herodotos tells us a story about them. Their mother was a priestess of Hera and she was supposed to be at a temple at a certain time for an important festival. Ritual required that she go in her ox-cart, but at the last moment the oxen were unavailable. The cart was very heavy and it really needed two healthy oxen to pull it, but Kleobis and Biton hitched themselves to the cart and pulled their mother to the temple on time. She was so immensely proud of having such fine strong sons who were so good to her that she prayed to the Goddess that they be given the greatest gift a human being could receive. She left the judgment of what that gift should be to the Goddess. Her sons fell into a peaceful sleep and never woke up.

Solon, the founder of the Athenian constitution and famous for his wisdom, had an interview with Kroesos the proverbially wealthy king of Lydia. Kroesos was then the most powerful and revered man in that part of the world. Kroesos asked Solon, "Who is the happiest of all men?"

Solon's first answer was an obscure Athenian who had died painfully but gloriously in battle, who had suffered no great dishonor or heartache in his life, whose sons had grown to be fine honorable men, and who was now safe from all disasters being dead.

Kroesos asked who was the second happiest. Kroesos thought that his own position was the most enviable in the world, and that the answer should be himself.

Solon replied that nothing remains the same. And he perhaps could not think of a second example, because he answered with the story of Kleobis and Biton.

The poet Bakchylides told the story of Silenos and his answer to Midas. Pindar tells us that two brothers named Trophonios and Agmedes built a temple for Apollo, when they asked for a reward Apollo gave them a peaceful sleep from which they never awakened. The poet Theognidos (Theogins) made the same statement that Silenos did, and the same statement can be found in the post-classic poem, The Contest between Homer and Hesiod. The Contest is post-classic and the poet does not mean anything by this statement, he uses it because it is a well-known saying. Numerous other Greek poets made similar statements, notably Aeschylos in an otherwise unknown tragedy: "We who will die are not just in hating death, which is our greatest protection against evil." Plato made a somewhat washed-out version of the statement in the Apology. And we meet the statement again in Sophokles, in Oidipous at Kolonos.. As Oedipus is about to voluntarily walk into the afterworld, the chorus sings: "Never to have been born, that is greater than anything that can be thought. The second best is a brief walk in the sunlight, then return to whence one came. And do it quickly."

Apollo is consciousness, and there is no comfort or shelter in consciousness. Consciousness is simply what is—regardless of what we want, regardless of what we would choose, regardless of what we would protect or love or cherish. What is, is. And what is can be good sometimes and in some ways, but it has nothing to do with what we want and it could never be confused with anything that could be described as The Good. All modern religions are an attempt to grasp some version of The Good, and so all modern religions must seek this Good in something inhuman, something outside the human condition. Life is not painful because it happens to take one form rather than another, Life is painful because it is Life. There is nothing to be found in the human condition, as it actually is, except one's own humanity. The foundation of all civilizations is not humanity, but an attempt to grasp the Good. All evil is an attempt to grasp the Good.

The second time Oedipus is asked the Riddle of Life— when he is really asked it— he does not answer. The Buddha had an answer. The Buddha said that since life, existence is painful, then the absence of pain must be found outside life and existence. The answer therefore is to eliminate desire, and thereby to eliminate life and existence. Plato had an answer. Plato said that life and existence are less evil and painful than unreal, that evil and pain are the result of ignorance, and that the way to eliminate evil and pain is to dispel ignorance by becoming aware of the real world of abstract forms. Oedipus did not have an answer. He looked his Fate in the teeth, and he found that it could not be conquered and that it had no answer. Answers are the opposite of consciousness. He chose to be conscious above everything, even if it meant knowing that the Gods are not Good. Before he would be good or honorable, before he would be king, before he would be a "hero," before all else he would be conscious. He did not face the monster as a king or a hero, he faced it naked, as you and I must, without wisdom, without power and without an answer. But if he faced the monster without an answer, he faced it with open eyes. And if we find ourselves thinking of him as a hero, that is because he did not require one.

At the end of his life he became Holy, and it was precisely his Fate and what he did in its face that made him so. As painful and evil as it seemed to be, his Fate was itself a Sacred thing. Oedipus was like Achilleus in that the power that destroyed him made him Holy. Oedipus ended his life on Holy ground, at the shrine of the Furies at Kolonos near Athens. He did not fall into death in the ordinary way, but calmly walked into the afterworld.

And he purified the country he died in.

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