Oidipous: Devotee of Apollon

Apollon of Olympia

photo: Alinari/Art Resources, NY

Having watched my crops die on the plain, I drifted up into the mountains. I was in a mountain valley, and the wind was blowing with the strength that one expects in such valleys. The wind was blasting against me and I couldn’t bear it, the way a junkie can’t bear that kind of thing. I was not involved in any kind of drug, my problem was that the wind was real and I could feel it, and I couldn’t bear that— I couldn’t bear that the wind was real and that I could feel it. And a moment came, and at that moment I knew without any doubt what I had to do. I dropped my work, I went back to my cabin, and I began to write. I hadn’t written anything for months and nothing but garbage for considerably longer than that, and what I wrote now would probably not have been impressive to anyone else. But that was irrelevant, because for the first time I was hitting the mark. I have never felt as if I were faced with a multiplicity of choices or pathways. I can choose between following the path or doing nothing at all, between being what I am or being nothing. Now, for the first time, I was being exactly who I am, and I knew exactly what needed to be done and I was doing it. I wouldn’t have known how to talk about this "mark" I was hitting, and there was nothing I could point to that would show I was hitting it. At that point I didn’t even know where this new knowledge had come from, but on the other hand I had no doubts—how can you doubt when you know?

Now the reason I knew what to do at that point was that I had just read Sophokles, Oidipous the King, Oidipous at Kolonos and Antigone, for the first time, once through, in mediocre translations, and I had understood them in the deepest possible sense. But my understanding of this matter was almost entirely formless and instinctive, and so I devoted the next eight years to making that understanding as conscious and as close to the surface as possible. This is my account of it:


Greek religion of the classic age was completely different from the modern "higher" religions; it did not take the form of what we would now call a "cult." It was not joined, it was not believed, it was not submitted to, it was not obeyed, it did not set the individual apart from anything he would naturally experience. It involved sacrifice and song; nearly all its rites took the form of song. It was not believed but sung. Its truths took the form of what we would now call "art"—a classic Greek would call it "Religion." Such truths are not agreed with but understood in the way that one understands a work of art.

One of the most, and probably the most important aspect of the truths so transmitted was what the Greeks called Apollon (Apollo). I was planning to stick with the Anglicized word "Apollo," but since the Greek concept "Apollon" has no real modern equivalent I think I will use "Apollon" from now on. Besides, A-pol-lon is a beautiful word.

Apollon was a certain balance. He had a part in all music and song, and together with the Muses he was the patron of poetry and poets.200 Apollon was the classic balance, he was the content of all the best classical art, especially tragedy. There were many different ways of looking at "Apollon." The Pythagoreans’ patron was Apollon and obviously was very different from this. The conservative priesthood of fifth-century Delphi also saw him differently, and so presumably did the werewolf cults of Apollon in Italy.201 All war Gods were called Ares, all love Goddesses were called Aphrodite, all Deities of wine and ecstasy were called Dionysos. Any approach that had anything to do with knowledge or consciousness would have been called"Apollon." But I am speaking here of Apollon as he was understood in Athens during the tragic age; this conception was not confined to Athens but it was typical of Athens and strongest in Athens. The philosophical "Apollon" of later antiquity, which I will not be speaking of here, seems to have something to do with moderation, self-control, thought, objectivity, lack of emotion and"God-like"indifference, coolness an good manners. If you were devoted to thought that had meaning only in a specialized artificial environment and your aim was to neutralize the world of experience as much as possible, then that was your Apollon. But that was not the classic Apollon, and that had nothing to do with the Apollon of the tragedies.

The tragic Apollon was a God. He can be associated with cognitive thought, but like anything real he is known through experience and no other way. He exists outside our egos, our wills and ourimaginations. If we try to reduce him to analytical abstractions, we will succeed in feeling as if we are in control and miss his point entirely. Tragedies were religious rites in the form of narrative songs. We will here look at the tragic songs made by Sophokles about Oidipous, we will find that everything Oidipous did had to do with Apollon, and we will find classic Apollon to be quite different from the Apollon of the philosophers. We will not be dealing with our familiar "Oedipus" but with the Greeks' Oidipous (pronounced oy-deh-pous), and we will find him to be definitely a figure from pre-philosophic thought. In his songs we will find the perfect balance that made the classic age worth its name, and it is likely that we will find this balance to be something very different than we expected.

200 Hesiod, Theogony, 94-95, & Homeric Hymn XXV, To the Muses and Apollo, & Pindar, Pythian I, 1-2, & Nemean V,
42-44, & Odyssey, VIII, 488.

201 Karl Kerényi, Apollo, pg. 56. Kerényi notes that the Italian Apollo was darker and more obviously irrational than the Greek, and much more closely associated with wolves. Kerényi also notes that Apollo took the form of a raven in one myth, a point that will become significant directly.


The Goddess Leto came from the North Country. She was very moderate and clear-minded, and suffered little from the hatreds and vanities that other Goddesses were subject to. Her name meant Purity. But she was a shape-changer and was known to take the form of a wolf, and she was closely associated with Lykia, the country of the WolfPeople. And it was in her wolf shape that she came to the Aegean island of Delos and gave birth to the God Apollon. It is possible that she was associated with the first light before dawn, the light that is neither nightnor day but the Edge. The Hellenes called it "wolf-light."202

Her son Apollon was Lord of Knowledge and Light and Order. But there was another, seemingly very different aspect to his character, and like his mother he was a shape-changer and Lord of Wolves. He was Lord of Knowledge and Light and all of Time and Fate was clearly visible to him. He wished to found an oracle so that those who honored him could receive his advice in the light of his knowledge. He did that in the place we now call Delphi. But Delphi was already a place of power. The power that was there was born from the earth, it was female, it was serpentine, and it was monstrous, and according to the existent account, impure.

In classical times it was usually told that Apollon killed the older power and made the oracle his own, and that he had to become the servant of a mortal for eight years to purify himself of the killing. Such hero-kills-monster stories were told of various heroes and various villainous monsters all over the Mideast, and other places as well. But if Apollon is to be thought of as a hero-protector, then we will find him a very unusual one. He did not in fact eliminate the older power but merged with it.

We have already seen that justice was not part of Apollon's sphere, his sphere was consciousness. People whom we would call yogins or shamans were always associated with him,203 witches and sorcerers, never. Many of the people closest to him were seers, who shared his knowledge of what would be. A seer did not he was simply conscious of what he knew. Such seeing is of course, still practiced all over the world.204 It can be aided by ingesting mild herbal substances, like laurel leaves at Delphi, but it is often done without any chemical help whatever.

Since Apollon was above all, consciousness, he was not only Lord of Purity but of Pollution and Filth as well, not only of Healing but of Disease. If he was Lord o the Lyre and of the Silver Bow, he was also Lord of wolves and sometimes killed in the shape of a wolf.205 Like his mother, he was Lord of the Edge.206 Apollon was associated with the edge of life and death, and the Hellenes customarily sang a paean to Apollon before a battle or whenever they knew they might face Death.207

Consciousness lies on the edge of things, and it is only on the Edge that we are completely awake. Purity exists only in the presence of filth; in the face of Death, one’;s life becomes real. Any idea of Apollon as a conventional hero-protector would have been grafted onto him at some point, it had only a marginal relationship to the rest of him. He was not particularly "Apollonian" in Nietzsche's sense,208 he was a certain balance.

The Hellenes universally believed that Apollon was also worshipped by people in Northern Europe209 and that these people habitually sent offerings to Apollon's sanctuary at Delos.210 The offerings were said to have been sent by the"Hyperboreans" who lived in the far North, who then gave them to the Scythians who then gave them to other peoples who passed them along in turn until they reached the Adriatic, where they were sent south to Dodona in Northwestern Greece. Then they were carried overland to the region around Thermopylae, then to Euboea near Athens, and on from island to island until they reached Delos.

There is no doubt that these offerings actually did arrive, since the Athenians controlled Delos and were quite familiar with what did and did not happen there. They also controlled Euboea at the time this was recorded and the other islands on the route and had close ties with Dodona, so offerings did arrive at Dodona from the North Adriatic. Did someone send them from the Adriatic and cook up this story as a joke? that they kept up for centuries? On the other hand a great deal of amber was sent south from the Baltic down the Vistula river in Poland, and that area was inhabited by a mix of Germans and other peoples, both settled and nomadic but all fairly similar culturally.211 These are Herodotos’"Scythians." From there the amber went over the Carpathian Mountains into the lands of proto-Keltic peoples and from there to the Illyrians of the North Adriatic, who used large quantities of Baltic amber and who continued to do so throughout antiquity,212 so the story that offerings followed this same route is completely plausible. They would have been carried down the Adriatic to Dodona by either Greek or Illyrian merchants, and there were plenty of the former in the North Adriatic though Athenians never went there and knew little about the region.

Moreover, Herodotos says that Hyperboreans visited Delos and that seven of them were buried there 213 and certainly Greeks visited what broadly was Hyperborea. Diodoros Siculus describes an island in the Far North beyond the lands of the Kelts, not smaller than Sicily and with a mild climate.214 He bases his account on actual Greek voyages to and obviously around Britain, and he claims that Greeks had visited the island from time to time for centuries. He says the "Hyperboreans"of Britain were very religious, which they were, that their principal deity was what he called Apollon, that Leto was born in Britain, and that the Hyperboreans had a very large circular temple to Apollon— that would be Stonehenge. It is also worth noting that these offerings, which actually were sent and probably were sent from the Far North, were respected all along the route. Probably none of the major Greek deities were completely unique to the Greek world, and Apollon seems to have been no exception, more on this point later. He was in fact extraordinarily similar to the Northern European God, Odin.215

202 Karl Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, pg. 131. The definition of lyk-ayges,Greek text, "wolf-light," can be found in any dictionary of ancient Greek.

203 E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, chapter 5, & Mircea Eliade,Shamanism, pp. 388-389, & Michael Grant, The Rise of the Greeks, pp. 308-309. Greek shamanism had to do with Apollon, never Dionysos, and was associated with the Thracians and Scythians to the north.

204 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 98, 176, 184, 197, 228, 257, 349, 362, 370-371, 382, 391, 462.
Shirley Nicholson, Shamanism, pp. 135-136, 140, 142, 291- 292. Michael Harner,
The Way of the Shaman
, pp. 109-112. Etc.

205 Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. I, Chapter 54, pg. 188.

206 He was, among other things, the patron of adolescence, the Edge in every possible sense of the word. The kouroi statues may have been of Apollon as he was always portrayed, a blond-haired adolescent at the height of physical perfection and not quite old enough to grow a beard. And indeed it is in late adolescence, say 18 or 20 or so, that most people come closest to the Edge and to the balance I will describe. As far as I have seen everyone experiences something like it at least briefly, it is generally a miserable time but it is the time when people are most alive. By the way, I should mention that the first person I ever heard speak of the Edge as a discrete concept was Hunter Thompson. You can look at the Edge from a billion different angles, but after all there's only one Edge and what he is talking about is it. See Hunter Thompson, Songs of the Doomed, "Midnight on the Coast Highway," pp. 110-111. This is one of the better pieces of writing that anyone has ever done.

207 Aeschylos, The Persians, 392-393, & Thukydides, VI, 32, & VII, 44, 6.

208 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy.

209 Pindar, Olympian III, 16, and Pythian X, 23-39, and Alkaios in GreekLyric, Vol. I, pp. 354-355.

210 Herodotos, IV, 32-35. Pausanias reports a second set of offerings that came from the Hyperboreans, across the steppes, to the Black Sea, and then roughly along the grain route to Attica, and thence to Delos. (Pausanias, I, 31, 2.) This is not quite as definite as the Adriatic route, since it was not recorded until the second century AD. Herodotos' account, however, is from the fifth century BC, it was exposed to the scrutiny of fifth century Athenians (through public readings, etc.) who were familiar with Delos, and it is completely above question.

211 Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans, pp. 25-26.

212 John Wilkes, The Illyrians, pp. 224-225

213 Herodotos, IV, 33.

214 Diodorus Siculus, II, 47.

215 The sources for Odin are the Elder or Poetic Edda and the Younger or Prose Edda, plus some others that we will discuss in the next chapter.


Odin was thought of as the ruler of the northern Gods, yet he was not the strongest—he was intelligence. For civilized peoples God is authority and power, for the northern barbarians God was intelligence.216 Tacitius identified Odin with Mercury-Hermes,217 presumably because Odin dealt with situations by means of his wisdom, knowledge and craft rather than with his less-than-invincible strength. Odin was the power of every possible kind of knowledge. He was a shaman and a magician and an aesthetic, he was a knower of runes and of what we would call "scholarly" knowledge, and every event on the earth was known to him and all of Time and Fate. Including his own; he was Fated to be killed by a monstrous wolf.218 Odin could see the monster coming, but he had no power against it. Unlike Zeus he had no time in which his Fate was not yet sealed, northern mortals were known to have such a time but God apparently did not.219

And of course Odin was the power of poetry. He was thought of as dispensing the knowledge that becomes poetry in the form of a drink made from the blood of Kvasir, the wisest man who ever lived and the first teacher.220 Odin was the patron of sorcerers, of shieldbiting berserkers, of hanged men and of all who die in battle. He conversed with the living dead, he was called "Worker-of-Evil" and his companions were wolves. He was also called "High One;" his most treasured son was Balder, Absolute Purity; he was patron of wisdom, song and spirituality; he was patron of those who are highest and noblest. Like Apollon, Odin offered little comfort or reassurance to his worshipers, and like Apollon he has no association with justice but with the Edge. Odin is different from Apollon in important ways but they are both a response to things and they are both specifically the same response. In the next chapter we will be looking at this response as it is identified with Odin and as it is found in the story of Sigurd and the House of Volsung.

In this chapter we will look at this response as it is identified with Apollon and as it is found in the story of Oidipous, but in fact the story of Oidipous is just one part of the story of the House of Kadmos. I will recount the story of the House of Kadmos and we will find that it covers several generations of a particular family, that Apollon is an essential part of the story and a character in the story, we will find that Apollon and the response that is Apollon is what the story as a whole is about, that there are certain plot patterns repeated over the generations and that one of these is that the Kadmians are destroyed and sometimes sanctified. None of these things are common to Greek stories in general, they are characteristics of this particular story. And the centerpiece of the whole story will be Oidipous.

Unfortunately we still tend to think of Oidipous in terms of literary clichés—a noble man with a tragic flaw, a man who was destroyed because he was blind, willful, immoderate, a man who destroyed himself through hubris, etc. In short, we still think Oidipous got into trouble because he did something wrong. Aristotle established this standard interpretation221 and it has lasted for nearly 2,500 years. That is ironical to say the least, since it would be difficult to imagine anyone less suited for understanding either Sophokles or Oidipous than Aristotle. In fact Oidipous is older than any literary cliché, and the point of his legend is that he acted in exactly the proper manner, he "hit the mark." He was not destroyed because he did something wrong, he was destroyed because something touched him. He was not flawed, he was chosen. He was chosen, and just as importantly he made a choice. And by looking at this choice and this response, we will see the balance that is Apollon.

216 The principal God of the Kelts in Ireland, Britain and on the continent was Lugh Longhand, Master of all Arts. (For his surviving stories, see Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, pp. 37-70.) Lugh was intelligence, craft, technique, magic and knowledge, and was a Sun Deity. It would have been Lugh that Julius Caesar identifies with "Mercury" as being the Gauls' chief God. This would be why offerings from Germany to Delos and Apollon had no trouble passing through Keltic territory. (Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, VI, 17.)

217 Tacitus, Germania, IX, 1.

218 Prose Edda, (Young trans.), pp. 87-88, Gylfaginning, LI, & Poetic Edda, Prophecy of the Seeress, 52.

219 Njal's Saga, 55 & 75.

220 Prose Edda, (Young trans.), pg. 100, Skáldskaparmál, V.

221 Aristotle, Poetics, XIII, 5.


Io was the first priestess of Hera at Argos, and Zeus became enamored of her with the usual result. This happened at the dawn ofhistory as the Greeks understood history. Io's brother Phoroneus founded Argos, and Argos was considered to be the oldest city in the Greek world.

Io was caught between the lust of Zeus and the jealousy of Zeus' wife, the goddess Hera. Io was transformed into a cow, and in that form she was driven all over the world by unimaginable torments. But her pain ceased at last and she found peace and rest in Egypt. There she bore Zeus' son, Epaphos, who became ruler of Egypt. Epaphos had a daughter, Libya. Poseidaon (Poseidon) became enamored of her and she bore him twin sons, Agnor and Belos. Agnor left Egypt for the land of the Canaanites, and there founded the city of Tyre. He had one daughter, Europa, and three sons, Phoenix, Kilix and Kadmos. Zeus became enamored of Europa. He appeared to her on the seashore in the form of a white bull. He seemed gentle and beautiful and she climbed on his back. He swam out to sea with her, and she disappeared into the horizon and never returned.

Her father told his sons to go into the horizon and return either with Europa or not at all. They obeyed, each taking a separate direction. After years of wandering, Kadmos and the band of Tryians who followed him came to Delphi and asked Apollon's oracle how they could find Europa. The God answered that they would never find her, that they should drive a cow before them and wherever the cow dropped from exhaustion, they should cease their wanderings and found a city in that place.

The cow dropped, and that is where Kadmos founded the city of Thebes in Boeotia. But as soon as he had arrived there, some of his followers went to a nearby spring to fetch water. They never returned. The place was Sacred to the War God, and a power was there. This power was born of the War God, it was male, it was serpentine and it was monstrous. But Kadmos had the blood of Poseidaon and of Zeus in him, and he killed the monster with a huge boulder. Kadmos had killed a Sacred monster, the child of Ares, the War God. Ares was primarily a Thracian God and he had very little part in Hellenic cult and Sacred literature. Both Homeros and Hesiodos treat him superficially and unsympathetically.222 He was probably very different in his native Thrace, and this Boeotian "Ares" is obviously much more complex than the simple, bloodthirsty Ares whom we find in the Iliad. Kadmos had to serve the War God for eight years to atone for his guilt. It was said that he had killed the monster as Apollon was supposed to have done, but as we shall see Kadmos' serpent was no deader than Apollon's. Kadmos had merged with it.

The Gods gave Kadmos a wife and this was Harmonia, the mortal daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, the War God. All the Gods attended their wedding. They lived well and for a long time, and at the end of their lives they changed into serpents and went to the Blessed Islands to live forever. According to one account, all the descendants of Kadmos and Harmonia bore a visible serpent-mark on their bodies.223 Funny little mark, perhaps it wasn't even visible. There certainly didn't seem to be any harm in it.

Kadmos and Harmonia had four daughters and a son. The daughters were Semele, Agave, Ino and Autonoe. Semele burned alive in Kadmos' palace when it was struck by the God's lightning. But this was the same Semele who was the mother of Dionysos, and Dionysos brought her back from the dead and made her immortal. Agave went insane and tore her son's head off. The Gods might have been merciful and allowed her to remain mad and unknowing. They were not; she became lucid again. Ino tried unsuccessfully to kill her stepson. He rplots were exposed and in the end her husband murdered one of her sons and tried to kill the other. She took her living son in her arms and leaped into the sea to their deaths. The profane part of her died and she became a kindly Sea Goddess. Antonoe was not directly involved in any catastrophe, or if she was it has been forgotten. She only had to gather up her son's fresh bones, as he had been eaten alive by his dogs.

Kadmos' grandson Pentheus224 became king of Thebes at a very young age, but it was he whom his mother Agave tore apart. Kadmos' son Polydoros then took over the kingship, but he too seems to have died young because we hear of two different regents, Nykteus and Lykos, holding the throne for Polydoros' son, Labdakos, who was still too young to rule after Polydoros' death.225 Labdakos became king, and he was torn apart by the followers of Dionysos just as Pentheus had been.226 It would be Dionysos' Fate to be torn apart as well; we have already noted Dionysos' close connection with Apollon and Delphi and we will recall that Dionysos too was a Kadmian. Before Labdakos was killed, he had a son named Laios.

Laios became king of Thebes in his time227 and married Iokaste. The God at Delphi warned him three times not to have a child, because it was Fated for that child to kill him. He and Iokaste could not refrain and a son was born. Laios gave the baby to a shepherd who was to expose it on a mountain top in winter. The shepherd did not obey, he gave the baby to a Korinthian shepherd. And in the end the baby was raised by the king of Korinth who called him Oidipous. Oidipous means "swollen foot," Laios had pinned his feet together with a nail in order to hasten his death. Oidipous became a man. He was at a party, and a man who had drunk too much told him that the king of Korinth was not his father. Oidipous went to Delphi to ask the God whether this was true. Apollon did not answer his question, but told him it would be his Fate to kill his father and marry his mother.228 Horror was not the word for what Oidipous felt. Naturally he had no thought of ever going back home to Korinth. He had to go somewhere and he took the road east, towards Thebes.

A monster had appeared in Thebes, or rather it had appeared on a mountain nearby, and it killed whoever tried to enter or leave the city. According to most versions this was a monstrous, female beast, according to one version it was a band of robbers led by a woman.229 In either case it was female and murderous and it appeared suddenly. Laios was traveling towards Delphi to ask the God what he could do about the monster. He and Oidipous met at a place called "the split." It was a place where three roads joined, such places were considered sinister and were associated with the witch-Goddess, Hekate. Laios was tyrannical and impatient, Oidipous was hardly easy-going. There was a question of who would pass first. Oidipous was struck, and when it ended Laios was dead and his servants were dead or running. Oidipous continued on to Thebes. He met the Monster and killed it with ease, with suspicious ease. The lone survivor of Laios' servants was ashamed to admit that he and the king's whole party had been defeated by a single man. When he returned he told the Thebans that their king had been killed by a band of robbers, so no one even thought of connecting the killing with Oidipous. By acclamation, the Thebans gave the vacant throne to he who had rid them of the monster, and when the lone servant saw who it was who would be the new king he made himself extremely scarce. The Thebans gave Iokaste to the new king as his wife; this was customary. Oidipous and Iokaste lived together as man and wife, completely unconscious of who they were.

Clearly the descendants of Kadmos were not dealing with the Furies, this was something quite different. In the first place, Apollon, Consciousness, was at war with the Furies of guilt in the Orestea. But this serpent power was something he had merged with. The people in the Orestea were caught up in guilt and vengeance and what could be called "crimes against nature." The Furies were not absent in the House of Kadmos, neither were crimes against nature. But among the Kadmians, these things are quite clearly a result rather than a cause, and for the cause we need not look farther than Delphi. We will recall that it was Apollon who had guided Kadmos to his encounter with the serpent in the first place. It was Apollon who deliberately refused to answer Oidipous' question and instead told him something that sent him on the road east rather than back to Korinth. And it was Apollon who drew Laios onto the same road headed towards Delphi and to the Split. Apollon did not do anything arbitrarily or willfully, he was part of Fate and part of Nature. Something Holy followed the lives of the Kadmians. Some of them had already been destroyed, and more would be destroyed in the generation after Oidipous. Something Holy touched the Kadmians and some of them became pure, amid the ruins of their blasted lives.more on Apollon

222 Iliad, V, 840-906, & XXI, 391-417, and Odyssey, VIII, 281-366, and Hesiod, The Shield of Herakles, 57-79, 96-101, 356-367, 443-466.

223 Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. II, Chapter 106, pp. 18-19.

224 Euripides, Bacchae, 44, and Apollodoros, III, 5, 2.

225 Pausanias II, 6, 2.

226 Apollodoros, III, 5, 5.

227 His reign was interrupted for a time by the usurpation of Nykteus' grandsons. One of these, Amphion, was married to Niobe who insulted Leto, mother of Apollon and Artemis. Apollon and Artemis killed twelve of Niobe's fourteen children; then Zeus turned Niobe into stone in answer to her prayer and as a kindness.

228 Sophokles, Oidipous the King, 788-794.

229 Who was also Oidipous' half-sister. (Pausanias, IX, 26, 2-4.)


Conventional literary criticism cannot easily be applied to literature of the tradition of Homeros and Sophokles, because literary criticism assumes clearly defined, self-contained "works" and the older tradition did not. We have already seen how this led to the inclusion of much optional material in the Iliad, now we find that critics who remain strictly within the boundaries of Oidipous the King tend to leave much essential material out. The truth in a story in the older tradition was not neatly confined within a single "work" or telling, but was found in the basic story or cycle of stories, older than memory and re-told countless times. A fifth century listener to Oidipous the King would have understood this without having to think.

We have mentioned that most tragedies had a political aspect, and Oidipous the King is no exception. It was written just after the death of Perikles (430 BC) and just after the plague that was caused by Perikles' decisions and that killed one third of everyone in Athens.230 Sophokles followed the traditional stories closely,231 but we see that in Oidipous the King's fragment of the story Oidipous refuses well-meant advice and is destroyed in the process—that is all that is actually portrayed, other events are described but only this fragment is actually shown. Thus Sophokles manages to make two very different points at the same time; he makes his comment on Perikles and still makes the point of the story. The fact that Sophokles recounts enough of Oidipous' history to make it clear that Oidipous did not fall into his Fate through his own error but through the family he was born into, whereas the focus of the on-stage action gives a contradictory impression, might explain why Oidipous the King failed to win a first prize. There was no question of this contradiction confusing Sophokles' contemporaries, but it completely threw Aristotle who lived a hundred years later and in a completely different world, and if we look only at Oidipous the King it could throw us as well.

In fact the story of Oidipous was much told, and there are a great many variations. The oldest known and the farthest from that of Sophokles is alluded to in the short passage in the Iliad,232 which mentions that Oidipous was buried with great honor in Thebes. In that case he would have committed suicide and would not have been exiled. In one version of his story, the Thebans would not allow him to be buried at Thebes and his body eventually found rest at Eteonos where he had a shrine.233 In another account he was buried in Thebes and bones thought to be his do seem to have been there, because at a certain point, probably after the sack of Thebes in 335 BC, they were moved from Thebes to Athens.234 Clearly, the Athenians considered him to be very important. In the version the Athenians told he did not die at Thebes at all but was exiled and eventually came to Kolonos, near Athens. Something extraordinarily important happened to him there and he had a shrine there,235 but the Athenians never claimed that he was buried there, as we shall see. Oidipous the King and Oidipous at Kolonos are the only fairly complete version of the story that we have, but a fifth century Athenian would have been aware of a galaxy of versions— tragedy alone had provided more versions than he could count. There were more Athenian tragedies about Oidipous than any other subject,236 Oidipous would seem to be the tragic character par excellence.

230 Philip Whaley Harsh, A Handbook of Classical Drama, pp. 111 & 120

231 Athenaeus, VII, 277, E.

232 Iliad, XXIII, 679.

233 Edmunds, " The Cults and the Legends of Oidipous," pg. 224.

234 Pausanias, I, 28, 7.

235 Pausanias, I, 28, 7.

236 Philip Whaley Harsh, A Handbook of Classical Drama, pp. 113-114.


The great age of tragedy lasted roughly a hundred years. The tragic contests at the Great Dionysia began sometime before 500 BC, and it is obvious that impressively good songs in the tragic form had been produced consistently for some time before that or they would not have been made an important part of an important festival. It seems reasonable to assume that great tragic songs were made with some regularity after 500 BC, and of course they continued to be made through the fifth century, right down to the end. Euripides was at his height just before his death in 406; Oidipous at Kolonos was produced in 401; in 405 Iophon, son of Sophokles, was writing, or at least producing, tragedies good enough to expose him to the charge of plagiarizing from his father.237 Classic-quality tragedies may well have been produced even in the opening years of the fourth century. After that, people were no longer capable of making them.

There were nine tragedies produced at the Great Dionysia every year for one hundred years, there were an additional four tragedies produced at the Lanaia every year for the last forty years of the century, and an unknown but probably small number of tragedies were produced at smaller Dionysia outside of Athens.238 That is 900 plus 160 which equals 1,060 tragic songs during the great age of tragedy; out of 1,060 tragedies we know 32 by three poets. These three, Aeschylos, Sophokles and Euripides, were the three most famous, and we usually consider all other tragic poets minor. But though no one produced the quantity of good tragedy that the big three did, it is worth remembering that many of the "minor" tragic poets would not have seemed the least bit minor to their contemporaries and we should think very carefully before we consider them as such from this distance, seen through the eyes of people such as Aristophanes and Athenaeus. No one can argue with the quality of Prometheus Bound, and many scholars now believe that it was made not by Aeschylos but by one of these "minor" poets. Further, there would have been poets who made a few superb tragedies, songs that would easily rank with the surviving songs of Sophokles or Aeschylos, and then nothing more. The existent literature rarely records even the names of such people; it is interested in personal reputation, not in the quality of individual songs.

237 Aristophanes, The Frogs, 73-79.

238 These "Rural Dionysia" were very common in the fourth century, but there were some in the fifth century as well. (Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens, pg. 52.)

Plato mentions a poet named Tyrrichos who had made a paean that Plato called one of the best songs ever written—not one of the best paeans, but one of the best songs.239 Tyrrichos wrote it apparently near the beginning of the fifth century or the end of the sixth, he seems to have been of the generation before Aeschylos. His paean was still extremely popular in 435 BC, when the events described in the dialogue Ion were supposed to have taken place, and Plato said all this about it in the fourth century, one hundred years after the paean was made. Aeschylos was once asked by the priests at Delphi to make them a paean, and he replied that Tyrrichos had already made one and he was afraid that any paean he wrote would be shallow by comparison.240 Tyrrichos made this one song, obviously one of the greatest compositions of the classic age, and nothing else worth mentioning. Tyrrichos' paean was certainly more important than any single tragedy, yet we know that he and his song existed only because the literature mentions them twice in passing. There are 32 tragic songs with which we are familiar and there are 1,028 about which we know little or nothing. The evidence we have indicates that Oidipous was the most common of all subjects for those 1,028 tragedies, and many of them will have been of the highest possible quality. Oidipous the King had the highest reputation of all the Oidipous tragedies in later antiquity, but it is not at all certain that this was the case in the fifth century–when people had some understanding of the Oidipous legend. It is worth remembering that Oidipous the King won only a second prize when it was originally produced, the first prize having been won by a poet named Philokes. It is quite possible that there were other tragedies that told the story of Oidipous, as opposed to Perikles, more clearly and unambiguously than did Oidipous the King. We have lost 1,028 tragedies out of 1,060, all we can do is be glad that we can never know how much we have lost, and try to see as clearly as possible with what we have.

Although what we have seems pretty good. Though Sophokles' political purposes make Oidipous the King potentially confusing, he would never dream of altering the meaning and he does not. Sophokles did not make up Oidipous in Oidipous the King in 430 BC. And we are not looking for the thought of Sophokles, for a personal stance that Sophokles took, we are looking for an archetypal truth that Sophokles tried to transmit. Sophokles clarified the story of Oidipous and brought out its essential elements, and he did that better than anybody that we know of. As we shall see, Oidipous decidedly expressed something that Sophokles was, not as an individual with a personal life, but something of what he was as a human being. And it is his version, found in Oidipous the King and Oidipousat Kolonos that we are following here, with a few added details from other sources.

239 Plato, Ion, 534, D.

240 Porphyrius, On Abstaining from Animal Food, 2, 18.


Oidipous met Death on the road to Thebes. It came in the form of a monster called the Sphinx. "Sphinx" means "Strangler," Aeschylos called it the "Ker," the death spirit.241 It had appeared to travelers and asked them the riddle of life. None knew the answer, all were overcome by Death. Oidipous found the answer and overcame the monster, he thereby became a hero and a savior and a king. But in fact his victory was an illusion, in fact his people were not saved and neither was he. The real monster still awaited him.

In one version of the story the truth came out almost immediately, 242 but Sophokles tells us that Oidipous and Iokaste lived happily together for fifteen years and had four children. Now the fifteen years of peace were a memory, and there was something in the air. The crops began to die in the fields, the herds dwindled, the unborn children died in their mother's wombs. Oidipous was the king and the protector of his people, he vowed that whatever it was that was so terribly wrong, he would use all the power he had to make it right. He asked Apollon what was causing the plague. The God said that a murderer lived in Thebes, the man who had killed King Laios, and that when the pollution of this man's presence was removed, the plague would end. The God said further that the pollution would be found if it was sought, but if it was not sought it would remain unknown.243

Oidipous was the king, and the people were his children. He would fight this evil that was killing his people and he would destroy it as utterly as he had destroyed the Sphinx. He would find the truth, whatever the cost might be, he held nothing back, he spared nothing and no one.

And he did not spare himself. The seer Teiresias warned him in the beginning that he should stop, that what he would find was too painful to be looked at. He did not stop. Then Teiresias told him in detail exactly what he would find if he insisted on looking.

Oidipous became angry. Teiresias was a liar, conspiracies were everywhere, but Oidipous went on. The stories began to unravel and Oidipous began to see what he was going to find in the end. Then Iokaste began to see it too. She begged him to stop, there was no profit and no joy in the truth, it would not do anything to enhance their personal lives. They should go on living thoughtlessly, unconsciously, day to day. There is no profit in consciousness; the truth will bring only pain and horror.

He could have stopped when Teiresias warned him, he could stop now. There was still room for doubt, no one wanted to know but him. If he stopped now the matter would be forgotten. And the plague would go on. Apollon had told him that the truth would not be found if it were not sought, that if he hadn't the power to change his Fate, he at least had the power to be unconscious of it.

He could easily have chosen not to go on, all he had to do to make such a choice was become someone besides Oidipous. Iokaste was right, he had everything to gain by stopping, now. But he must act according to his Nature, not according to his advantage, and so he must know. He let in the light, and he saw that he was not a hero who slew monsters as he had thought. He had not slain the monster, he had merged with it. He was a monster.

He lost his wife and his mother in the same moment. Iokasta hanged herself from the rafters of her bedroom. He cut her down and laid her on the floor. He took the two golden pins that held her robe and tore out his eyes. He was not full of the desire to see at that moment.

He begged for death, he was denied that. He was forced to remain in the place where he had been king, among people who now regarded him as a fungus. Everything he did and everything he felt was sickness and horror, the only desire he had left and the only request he made was to be allowed to see his children. He was denied that. He begged to be allowed to leave, blind and alone. He was denied that. He was kept in an underground room because it was felt that he would pollute the sun if it should shine upon him.244 The years passed, and so did his desire for death. His thoughts began to rest more and more on the knowledge that what had happened had not been his fault. He grew contented to pass what was left of his life in the surroundings he knew. He was denied that. It was finally decided that his presence polluted the whole countryside, and he was driven out of Theban territory forever.

The one part of his life that had been worth anything to him was his children. His two sons were grown now and had great political influence, they became kings eventually. They agreed to his exile. He was blind and physically broken, he could not stand for long, he could barely walk. Most of the world considered him an abortion and would not come near him. His two daughters were loyal, that and nothing else remained to him. His oldest daughter Antigone went into exile with him, she was never more than a short distance away from him for the rest of his life. It was she who kept him alive long enough to fulfill his destiny.

Oidipous has repeated the pattern of Apollon and Kadmos. He had killed a monster and now he would have to do penance to cleanse himself of the resulting pollution. But Oidipous' monster was Death itself, and like Apollon and Kadmos he did not kill his monster but merged with it. That merger is worth examining.

241 Aeschylos, Seven Against Thebes, 777.

242 Pausanias, IX, 5, 10-12, and Odyssey, XI, 274. In this version Oidipous' four children were by a different mother, not Iokaste.

243 Sophokles, Oidipous the King, 110-111.

244 Sophokles, Oidipous the King, 1424-1428.


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."245

Kleobis and Biton were heroes from Mycenian times, they had shrines at Argos and also at Delphi, (plate 16). 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.

Herodotos tells the story of Kleobis and Biton.246 He says that Solon, the founder of the Athenian constitution 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 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 the two brothers named Trophonios and Agmedes built a temple for Apollon, when they asked for a reward Apollon gave them a peaceful sleep from which they never awakened.247 The poet Theognidos (Theogins) made the same statement that Silenos did,248 and the same statement can be found in the post-classic poem, "The Contest between Homer and Hesiod."249 The Contest is post-classic and the poet does not mean anything by the statement, he uses it because it is a well-known saying. Numerous other Hellenic 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."250 Plato made a somewhat washed-out version of the statement in the Apology.251 And we meet the statement again in Sophokles, in Oidipous at Kolonos:"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."252

The chorus sings this. Oidipous is about to die and the chorus observes that Oidipous, and everyone, has little reason to cling compulsively to life. It was a common statement during the classic age and it touches the essence of things. Things are not painful because they exist in a certain form, things are painful because they exist. The Buddha said this at about the same time. He did not say that life is painful in certain forms or under certain circumstances, he said that life itself is painful. We might say that life itself is painful because it is not a dream, because it is the opposite of that. We want a particular thing, and the thing that we want is of course not tangible, but a mental image. It is something we want to be there, it is not there. This image is more or less relevant to some situation in the perceivable world. But in the first place it cannot match anything that we perceive exactly, because we have already decided that the perceived world is not satisfactory and that we want that which is not. And in the second place it is innately separate from that which we perceive. The object of our desire is the image itself, not anything that we perceive. When the perceivable world actually begins to match this image, then we move on to something else. The tangible situation that originally sparked this image is rarely our main concern, the object of our desire is the image itself. The image is fulfilling in itself, like a serpent that devours its own tail. That which is not an image is not fulfilling in this sense, it simply is. We dwell on the objects of our desire precisely because they are a dream, because they can never touch us or harm us as deeply as that which we actually perceive.

The question is, "If life, existence, is painful, how can one find what is good and desirable?" The "Good,"' the absence of pain, must necessarily be found outside life, outside of all that is perceivable and tangible. The Buddha seems to have seen this quite clearly. The Buddha said that life is evil and painful and that life is born of desire. The answer is to eliminate desire and thereby eliminate life and existence. The Good is to be found in the void. 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 pain and evil is to dispel ignorance by becoming aware of the real world of abstract forms.

Oidipous did not ask the question, let alone answer it, neither did Achilleus, neither did Orestes and neither, as we shall see, did Antigone. These people did not ask how to eliminate pain and evil, they did not ask what might make them happy, they did not ask what might be painless or good or desirable, they did not ask where lay the Good.They were not consumers, and their questions were different from that. Achilleus asked about his friend, Antigone asked about her brother, Orestes asked about his father and mother, Oidipous asked about the truth.

Oidipous did not ask for mercy or oblivion, or deliverance from pain; he did not ask for the Good. He asked for the truth, he asked for consciousness, and that is what he received. He did not become petty and defeated. He did not grasp desperately at whatever seemed to promise relief. His grief could have shattered him or made him bestial, but he made his decision and it was final.

245 Bakchylides, Lyra Greaca, Vol. III, pp. 208-211.

246 Herodotos, I, 31.

247 Quoted in Plutarch, A Letter to Apollonion, 109, A: in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. II.

248 Theogins, I, 425-428; see Greek Elegy and Iambus, Vol. I, pp. 280-281.

249 The Contest between Homer and Hesiod, 315; see Hesiod, the HomericHymns, and Homerica, pp. 572-573.

250 Quoted in Aeschylus, Vol. II, under " Fragments of Uncertain Plays" 191, (353), pg. 491, and in Plutarch’s, Letter to Apollonion, 106, C. In the Letter,Plutarch quoted several anonymous poets who said similar things: "Oh Death, healer physician, come," 106, D, and "Let no one fear death, which is a release from toils,"108, E.

251 Plato, Apology, 42, A.

252 Sophokles, Oidipous at Kolonos, 1225-1228.

Lamia had been a queen of Lybia. The Goddess Hera killed all of Lamia's children and then killed each new child as it was being born. Lamia became insanely envious, the women around her had children and she was empty. Finally, she became a monster who lived in a cave and ate children. Lamia sought the Good.

Oidipous did not. He remained fully aware of the horror of his situation. He did not turn away, he did not wish for something different, he did not rebel against his Fate, he did not ask to be saved.

All modern religions impel the believer towards some version of the Good, though how far the individual believer actually goes in this direction is another question. This Good is always conceived as something non-human, and that is not surprising. The human condition is good sometimes and in some ways, but it could never be confused with anything that one could reasonably call the Good. Whatever the Good is, it must be sought outside the human condition, there is nothing to be found in that except one's own humanity. All evil is an attempt to grasp the Good.

All modern religions, and especially all modern Oriental religions, assume that pain and conflict are due to imperfections in the soul. If you suffer and experience conflict, that means you are doing something wrong and you need to get yourself straight. Or worse yet, it is assumed that you have done something sinful or morally wrong or impure; the perfect soul that dwells completely within the Sacred knows no pain or conflict in this life or any other. On the other hand in the Hellenic Sacred legends, contact with the Sacred is always painful. I believe there are no significant exceptions to that. The Hellenes saw quite clearly that contact with anything worth the name "Holy" or "Sacred" will necessarily cause pain, and it did not occur to them to confuse the Sacred with the Good.

Oidipous the King and Oidipous at Kolonos were made only a hundred years after the Book of Job, if indeed they were not contemporary with it.253 Oidipous differed from Job in that he did not call the powers to account, he did not ask, "Why?" he did not rebel against his Fate.

The Buddha said "Life is suffering," therefore eliminate life and anything that causes suffering.

A pre-philosophic Greek would say, "All Fate's gifts are Holy. Do not rebel against them, but accept them as they are."

An orthodox Buddhist would then say, "The most important thing in life is to solve 'The Matter,' 'The Great Matter,' 'The Problem,' etc., to separate oneself from the wheel of Fate and to get off it, to no longer be effected by it."

A pre-philosophic Greek would say, "Fate is the source of all significance, of all poetry, of all worth, of all truth."

An orthodox Buddhist would then say, "Then eliminate significance, poetry, worth and truth."

A pre-philosophic Greek would then reply, "Solve all the problems you can, but never try to solve 'The Problem,' never rebel against anything real. Leave our song just as it is."

Unlike the Buddha, Oidipous did not provide answers the questions of old age, decay, suffering and death. Oidipous was tragic, he was the tragic figure par excellence. He looked his Fate in the teeth and 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 tragic hero, that is because he did not require one.

And 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. Oidipous was like Achilleus in that the power that destroyed him made him Holy. Oidipous 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.

253 The theme of the righteous man persecuted by God is an ancient one. Most people put the date of Job's version of this story at the sixth or fifth century BC.


Justice is not part of the sphere of Apollon. He is Consciousness, Lord of Light, Lord of the Lyre and of Song, Lord of Purity and Filth, Lord of Wolves, Lord of the Edge. The other aspect of Apollon that we should mention, besides consciousness, is the Mean, to the extent that it is really a separate aspect. The Mean, To Metron, is that by which all things are measured. We meet the Monster, and we find that we have no answer and no power against it. So what do we do?

One thing we can do is sing; that was the purpose of tragic songs. When things fall apart, when everything you have ever counted on, when everything you have ever loved disappears, what do you do? If you are Nietzsche you don't commit suicide in that situation, you write Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the greatest intellectual leap you have ever taken and the clearest and most powerful work you have ever written. If you are Mozart in that situation, you write The Magic Flute, the expression of your whole life and the most beautiful music you have ever made. And if you are Sophokles, at the age of ninety, amid the ruins of your people and your culture and at the height of your poetic power, you write Oidipous at Kolonos, the last clear song of the classic age.

The Mean is the opposite of salvation. The Mean is the perfect balance, the perfect tension that gives the clear, true note. 254 It cannot be understood, it must be sung. That's what I heard in the mountains.

more on Apollon

254 H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks, the last page.