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Wounded HeroesVulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy$

Marina Berzins McCoy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672783

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.001.0001

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Oedipus and Theseus at the Crossroads

Oedipus and Theseus at the Crossroads

(p.37) 2 Oedipus and Theseus at the Crossroads
Wounded Heroes

Marina Berzins McCoy

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter two examines Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. In the first play, vulnerability to ignorance constitutes a danger to the community, as Oedipus’ self-assurance about his own righteousness contributes to his city’s and family’s downfall. Oedipus initially refuses to accommodate weakness and vulnerability to uncontrollable forces into his vision of human life, and his refusal has grave consequences for those whom he rules and those whom he loves. However, Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus suggests an alternative approach to vulnerability, as Theseus displays compassionate hospitality for the stranger. The figure of Oedipus as a xenos in Colonus reconciles the split between his identity as a polluted man and as a political protector. His incorporation and elevation to protector of Athens displays the Athenian ideal of the polis as the dwelling of all together (synoikismos), in which receptivity to the outsider and even to weakness becomes constitutive of the city’s good.

Keywords:   Sophocles, Oedipus, King, Colonus, Rex, Theseus, compassion, blindness, ignorance, hospitality, stranger, xenos, pollution, sight, wisdom, vulnerability, Antigone, speech

Oedipus Rex is a play about the limits of human wisdom, one that explores the themes of ignorance, knowledge, and knowledge of one’s own ignorance as a kind of wisdom through multiple metaphors. One such metaphor is the theme of blindness and its accompanying wounds. To begin, Oedipus claims that the blind Teiresias is blind not only in sight, but also with respect to his prophecies, when we know that the sighted Oedipus is blind. And we also know that it is after Oedipus learns the truth that he will lose his sight, and be blinded at his own hands. At the beginning of Oedipus Rex, we find a king who is physically sighted but morally blind, and by the end of Oedipus Colonus, we find a man who lacks sight, but has gained some moral insight. More importantly, we find in the character of Theseus a man whose moral insight exceeds that of Oedipus himself, and yet, whose moral sightedness and compassion depend on an encounter with this blind man, whose strangeness also opens up for Theseus his own previous encounter with strangeness and estrangement. This chapter examines two forms of vulnerability in these plays: vulnerability to ignorance, and vulnerability to the stranger. While in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus falls as a result of his ignorance of his own identity, in Colonus, Oedipus’ status as a ξένος‎ leads to the protection and integration of political community.

We find in Oedipus an ambiguity: the question as to whether he is one who can ‘see’ or not.1 Oedipus has his physical sight, but lacks not only knowledge of his status as the polluted one, but also knowledge of the complexities of human life that might bring compassion to bear on a polluted man. Oedipus is harsh in his judgement of the (p.38) mysterious polluted one, demanding that he not only be exiled from the community—by itself not a particularly harsh punishment—but also adding that the man be refused even the smallest cup of water by any of its citizens. Even Creon, who takes over the throne initially with reluctance, later exhibiting a capacity for inflexibility, cannot bear to banish Oedipus on the king’s terms. At the same time, Oedipus has the counsel of a figure who is his inverse, the blind Teiresias, who lacks physical sight but can see, can know who Oedipus is, and what it will mean for the city—for Sophocles makes good use of the dual senses of οἶδα‎ as both ‘I know’ and ‘I see’. Teiresias is more willing to see how things play themselves out, and not to hurry fate along by revealing Oedipus to himself. Only when Oedipus mocks Teiresias does Teiresias turn against him, and retreat from being his counsel right when Oedipus most needs good counsel. When Oedipus discovers that the polluted man is himself, when he is no longer blind to his own identity, he says, ‘Light, may I now look at you for the last time. I have been brought to light as cursed in my birth, cursed in my wedlock, and in my killing’ (1183–5).2 He thereby draws together his ‘sight’ of himself, to the sight of knowledge, and longing for the darkness. Oedipus longs for not only blindness, but also what it comes to signify for him: a longed-for ignorance of terrible acts that cannot be un-known.

Oedipus’ predicament raises immediately for an audience member of Oedipus Rex the question of responsibility for wisdom, or its lack. The play raises a number of questions about knowledge, especially self-knowledge, and whether we can fully know even ourselves. For example, ought Oedipus to have realized that he was the true killer? Could he be expected to know that he would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, given the long series of highly unusual circumstances that led to his being in that position? Knowing of the prophecy was not enough to prevent its occurrence; had he been ignorant, we suspect that would not have aided him, either. Knowledge of his destiny could not change it. If this is the case, Sophocles’ audience might ask whether there is any locus of control for Oedipus, or whether he is merely in the hands of an unyielding fate, to which the only possible answer is reluctant acceptance.

To put it into a more traditional philosophical vocabulary, Sophocles raises for his audience questions surrounding the notion of moral (p.39) responsibility in the light of a person choosing without knowledge of his action’s context or its consequences. Knox has argued that Oedipus is not only free, but also responsible for his actions, for strictly speaking, the gods and Fate do not force his individual choices. Oedipus freely chooses to kill Laius, although he does not know his identity. Oedipus marries and begets children with Jocasta, not as a result of any specific external force, but as a result of his own internally driven actions. Knox writes of Oedipus, ‘The autonomy of his actions is emphasized by the series of attempts made by others to stop the investigation … The hero is not only free but fully responsible for the events which constitute the plot.’3 In one sense, Knox is correct that Oedipus is free in that the source of his action is internal. However, the play’s supreme dramatic tension arises from a figure who somehow both acts freely and yet, in such ignorance that he seems incapable of genuine freedom. Moreover, his ignorance itself seems not to be culpable, as it was unavoidable, despite his best efforts to gain it. The audience, then, must ask even deeper questions about the constitutive nature of freedom, questions that his audience must engage in if they are to make sense of the narrative of Oedipus’ life.

The play raises not only the question of individual moral responsibility in the light of ignorance, but, as importantly, the effect of our vulnerability to ignorance upon the wider community. Oedipus Rex begins with the city suffering a plague on account of its king’s still unknown transgressions. By the end of the play, Oedipus is insistent with Creon that he must leave Thebes, and equally concerned that his daughters, especially, will suffer a curse as a result of his actions (1493–6; 1517). Thus, the audience is also encouraged to consider how and whether vulnerability to ignorance affects the larger political community as well. At moments, Sophocles points toward the possibility of despair as one response to vulnerability. For example, the Chorus in Oedipus at Colonus even declares, ‘Not to be born is best of all: when life there is, second best is to go hence where you came, with the best speed you may’ (1410–13). However, Colonus ultimately offers a quite different set of answers about encountering human vulnerability through the notion of hospitality to the stranger.

This chapter argues that among Oedipus’ failings in Oedipus Rex is an inability to accept vulnerability and weakness both in himself and (p.40) others. I then suggest that in Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles provides an alternative narrative as to how such vulnerability might be received, in the form of compassionate hospitality to the stranger. Theseus is the true hero of Colonus, insofar as he provides both a personal and political solution to the problem of Oedipus’ vulnerability that Oedipus alone could not overcome.


There are several places in the text where Sophocles points to the possibility of a different response on Oedipus’ part to his own transgressions. First, prior to his knowledge of the identity of the offender as himself, Oedipus makes the mistake of identifying punishment of the polluted person with his own ‘advantage’. He says:

With justice you will see me an ally in battle (σύμμαχον‎) in seeking to avenge this land, and god at the same time. Not for some far off friend’s advantage, but for my own interest I will dispel this pollution. Whoever killed that one, might also wish to kill me with his fierce hand. So helping him, I help myself. (135–41)

We can easily see the deep irony of the passage—for Oedipus will wish to use his own hand against himself later in the play, but can hardly be said to be acting in his own interest in pursuing the heretofore unknown murderer. Oedipus’ failing is that he believes too easily in his own righteousness, as defender of the city and of god’s laws. He assumes that the city’s interest and his noble intentions will always line up. And he lacks a sense of compassion for the unknown criminal, assuming an absolute opposition between city and criminal, a polarity between the communal justice and the injustice of the murderer, absolute opposition between himself as the just king and the polluted one as an unjust man. The tragedy’s audience can see that the polarity is not so simple: Oedipus is the polluted one, but he also is truly the one who loves and cares for his city’s well-being. As Segal notes, Oedipus’ kingship opens up a liminal realm, in which oppositions between nature and culture, inner and outer, city and wild are no longer clear.4

(p.41) Oedipus himself is unaware of the ambiguities inherent in his kingship and his humanity. His mistake is to believe in absolute oppositions between the just and unjust when a more nuanced answer is possible. On this reading, Oedipus thinks of justice and injustice as morally absolute categories in a world in which such categories do not always apply neatly.

A second failing might be found in Oedipus’ harshness with the one that has killed the king, for his vows to exclude the man entirely from society are extreme. He declares that the polluted one may not reside in his land; is not to be welcomed by any in the land, not even greeted by its citizens; excluded from worship and even excluded from the hospitality of water to wash his hands (236–42). Exile alone was an appropriate ritual response to pollution, but Oedipus lays these additional conditions of refusing water or even a simple greeting to the polluted man. If Oedipus had imagined himself as the criminal, would he not have considered the possibility that such additional demands are beyond the requirements of purification? After all, Oedipus is not simply βασιλεύς‎ (king) but τύρρανος‎ (tyrant), a man who has acquired his rule by coming into the city from the outside.5 Oedipus fails in his exclusion of the morally weak, and especially fails to understand that he is capable of such weakness himself.

A third instance of inattentiveness to vulnerability is when he treats Teiresias so harshly. In his understandable desire to escape the truth of the blind man’s prophecy, Oedipus searches for alternative explanations for why Teiresias declares him to be the criminal. He mocks the blind Teiresias, calling him a ‘deceitful bogus priest who has eyes for gain, but is blind in his art’ (388–9). Oedipus’ anger reaches a fever pitch, and is not easily extinguished.6 Indeed, his rage seems to stem from a sense of overconfidence in his own knowledge, in contrast to that of others. For example, Oedipus is dismissive of Teiresias’ ability to know the truth about his identity; he reminds Teiresias of his clever defeat of the Sphinx with the sarcastic proclamation that the one who solved the puzzle was ‘I, unknowing Oedipus’ (ὁ μηδὲν εἰδὼς Οἰδίπους‎) (396).7 He is angry not only at the particulars of Teiresias’ (p.42) ideas, but also at the idea that someone else might know something that he does not, and could not, know about himself. One wonders whether Teiresias might have suggested an alternative response to the problem of pollution, less severe, if only Oedipus had not unleashed his rage on the seer.

Creon also suggests ‘obstinacy’ on Oedipus’ part when the king assumes a plot on Creon’s part (549), and refuses to listen to his entreaties that he is innocent. He says that this obstinacy forms no part of wisdom, and is part of Oedipus’ limit as a king. Jocasta is slightly gentler in her assessment, judging Oedipus to have excessive θυμός‎ when speakers come with bad news (914). She says, he is ‘under the speaker’s control, when he speaks of fearful things’ (917–18). We see this excitability in Oedipus in the account of how he murdered Laius, out of rage for being pushed off the road. Oedipus lacks the moral virtue of temperance, to be sure, but along with that lack of moderation is a lack of consideration of the ordinary imperfections that accompany being human.

We see in each of these instances a common theme: Oedipus possesses an overly confident sense of his own righteousness, a judgement of the would-be criminal as his polar opposite, a tendency to suspect or to blame others, rather than to look inwardly. He assumes an absolute division between those who are just and unjust, those who care for the city and who bring it harm, those who possess virtue and who lack it. Thus, when he discovers that he himself is the source of injustice, his own response is to be harsh with himself and not even to consider a mode in which such injustice could be remedied without expulsion from the city. The pollution brought on by murder of his father and incest with his mother indeed warranted a strong response. But Oedipus is unable to incorporate a response that can maintain and preserve the body politic, while Sophocles in Colonus will later display its possibility in Theseus. Oedipus is unable to imagine the possibility of his own moral vulnerability, with the eventual result that his vulnerability becomes displayed in the form of a physical wound, in his literal blindness, which expresses the inescapability of his vulnerability.

Parker’s book on pollution explores the concept in depth in the context of early Greek religion.8 Two distinct terms connote pollution: μ (p.43) ίασμα‎ and ἄγος‎. While μίασμα‎ is the idea of something being polluted in the sense of contaminated, the term ἄγος‎ also means more specifically something directed against the gods and their rules—not only contaminated, but also ‘unholy’. To use Parker’s example, a corpse gives off μίασμα‎, but an unburied one creates ἄγος‎, an offence against the gods themselves.9 Most instances of pollution in the Greek sensibility are connected either to birth or to death. In the case of Oedipus, his pollution is an unnatural mixture of both: he’s killed his father, the source of his life, and produced children in the same womb which had borne him. For most natural pollutions (the time right after birth and time after contact with the dead), the only real consequence was to be barred from entering a temple, in part to emphasize the gulf between the gods, who do not die, and men, who do.

Parker argues that, while the incestuous relationship was seen as polluting, alternatives other than permanent exile from homeland also existed. He writes, ‘The incestuous could be socially isolated without exile, by exclusion from sacrificial communities and religious exchanges.’10 Although incest is an extreme case of pollution, even here the pollution is not irreversible. For many forms of sexual pollution, Robinson argues (such as male prostitution or adultery), a period of sexual abstinence was sufficient to return the person to a state of purity sufficient for religious participation.11 Murder-pollution, however, was regarded as a terrible violation of the moral order, and parricide more so than any other form of murder-pollution.12 Expulsion for parricide, even involuntary parricide, expresses the social evaluation that such a killing is deeply unnatural, and even more fearful when it is unknown, as in Oedipus’ case. That Oedipus could kill his father without even realizing it, even after taking such careful steps to prevent its prophesied occurrence, is itself an upsetting of the natural order. Arguably, for many Ancient Greeks, the concept that one could accidentally kill one’s father, in ignorance, is even more upsetting than the idea of choosing to do so. So, questions of freedom of will are not as significant as the question of whether the ‘natural’ has been overturned, with regard to ‘pollution’.13 For it is not (p.44) a moral evaluation of Oedipus and his choices that counts, but rather the overturning of basic principles of life and death that leads to pollution. Thus, nature itself is upset at King Laius’ death, such that at the beginning of the tragedy we find that women cannot give birth except to stillborn children, crops will not grow, and all generation has ceased.

As king, then, Oedipus was required to act against the polluted man in some way, given the extreme reaction of the natural world. As a ruler, his work was to protect his city, and upon learning of the pollution, the most obvious course of action is, of course, to expel the polluted man from the kingdom. Indeed, qua king, his best interest is the city’s best interest; but part of the tragedy here is that Oedipus the king’s interest is contrary to Oedipus the man’s interest. When Oedipus discovers that he himself is the polluted man, his reaction is not denial of punishment, but rather to proclaim his sorrow that his future will be so dismal.

Indeed, the point of the tragedy is to set forth Oedipus as a paradigm of reversal in human life. The language of reversal figures throughout Oedipus Rex. The play opens with Oedipus greeting suppliants, but ends with his becoming a wandering suppliant himself. Oedipus begins as a sighted man who cannot see the truth of his own state, and ends as a blinded man who knows it. We hear the herdsman speak of his ‘pity’ for the Oedipus who was to die as an exposed infant, who then realizes that this pity had only ‘saved him for the greatest evils (κάκ εἰς μέγιστ᾽ ἔσωσεν‎)’ (1179–80). What is in darkness, comes to light, and what had seemed to be light, becomes only darkness (see e.g. 1183).

We find even a reversal of meaning of many of Oedipus’ lines earlier in the play, before he recognizes his identity as the polluted man. For example, when the suppliants approach him with their illness, he tells them, ‘I see you are all sick (νοσεῖτε‎), yet though you are sick there is no one that is as sick (νοσεῖ‎) as I am’ (59–61). He declares himself to be ‘one that is stranger (ἁγὼ ξένος‎) to the story (τοῦ λόγου‎) as stranger to the deed (τοῦ πραχθέντος‎)’ (219–20);14 while he intended that he was no part of this deed, we might emphasize that his own life story, though he has lived it, has so far been ‘strange’ to himself. He is a ξένος‎, a foreigner, to his own identity, or (p.45) to use an English term that connotes this well, he is unknowingly ‘estranged’ from himself. In fact, as the Greek lays out the word order, the term ἐγώ‎ (self) here and ξένος‎ are juxtaposed, as if to emphasize that he is a stranger to himself. Oedipus speaks many words that contain truths that he cannot yet understand, but whose truth will later be revealed in a new way; he is an unwitting ironist.15 As Aristotle long ago commented, Oedipus exemplifies the essence of the tragic plot most perfectly since, in his case, recognition and reversal coincide (Poetics 1452a30).

Another dimension of reversal has to do with the normal experience of understanding wisdom or seeing the truth as a joyful experience, one that satisfies our desire to understand, a natural fit between what we want and the world itself. That is, not only on a philosophical understanding of the world, but also an ordinary one, we see ourselves as human beings in a world where there is some kind of a natural fit between ourselves as knowers, and the world as knowable. Such a stance is not merely descriptive for us. It is not only a fact that we can know. The stance of seeking to know is also an emotional way of being in the world, in which we find excitement, joy, surprise, and a wide range of feeling in making such discoveries. Our natural sense of discovery is one of joy and pleasure in the ‘fit’ between seeking to know, and knowing, being completed. Despite Oedipus’ characteristic valuation of knowledge, as in his solution to the riddle of the Sphinx, now Oedipus experiences the opposite.16

As we see from the language that Teiresias uses, this is not the case with Oedipus: ‘he’ll have no joy (ἡσθήσεται‎) in the discovery (ξυθμφορᾷ‎): blindness (τυφλὸς‎) though he now sees, and beggary though he is now wealthy’ (453–5). As the truth begins to ‘come together’ for Oedipus (a more literal translation of ξυθμφορᾷ‎), he experiences pain and not pleasure. Teiresias, though a prophet invested in revelations of divine wisdom, proclaims wisdom to be a terrible thing at times: ‘Alas, how terrible is wisdom (φρονεῖν‎) when it does not have the power to benefit those who know (φρονοῦντι‎)! This I knew but forgot (εἰδὼς διώλες᾽‎), or I would not have come’ (316–18). Here φρονεῖν‎, to think, to know, is seen as a terrible (δεῖνος‎) thing. (p.46) Teiresias’ term for knowledge, εἰδώς‎ (the perfect participle of οἶδα‎, to know), literally means to ‘see’ something. Teiresias the blind prophet can ‘see’ what Oedipus cannot. But while he cherishes the truth, he also sees no value in offering words that can only bring pain, even if they are true (356). To know lacks value, but also to forget has had destructive value, as the Greek link between forgetting and destruction connotes (as διώλες᾽‎ is the aorist form of διόλλυμι‎, meaning ‘to come to ruin’).17 We have in Oedipus a reversal of the epistemological order, where the discovery of new knowledge becomes an evil and leads to misery instead of joy.

While Oedipus is one driven to know, at all costs, Jocasta briefly offers a dramatically different alternative to the human desire to know. She asks, ‘What should man fear since chance (τύχης‎) rules, and he can foreknow (πρόνοια‎) nothing with clarity? The best life is to live at random (εἰκῆ‎), as one is able’ (977–9). Εἰκῆ‎ might here be translated as ‘randomly’ or even ‘without a plan or purpose’. Jocasta’s emphasis on chance as central to human existence emphasizes a certain impossibility of understanding that informs her own preference not to reach too deeply into matters, preferring to skim the surface of things, rather than to discover dark truths that lie beneath. However, such lightness does not save Jocasta either, who ends her life in her own horror at discovering her incestuous marriage; neither would the perpetual hiddenness of the truth have saved the city and its suppliants from the effects of pollution. So, while Sophocles briefly raises the possibility of not-seeking-to-know as an alternative to miserable truths, this path is also not reasonably open to human beings.

The Chorus presents a tragic sensibility in its declaration of Oedipus as a ‘paradigm’ of human existence: ‘Generations of mortals (βροτῶν‎), I reckon your life as but a shadow. Where, where is the man who has more happiness (εὐδαιμονίας‎) than one that is only seeming (δοκεῖν‎) and even then seemingly falls away? Oedipus, you are my pattern (παράδειγμ᾽‎) of this, enduring Oedipus, you and your fate’ (1187–95). Oedipus is a paradigm, literally a model of what it means to be a mortal man, for the term βροτός‎ emphasizes his mortality, one who will die. Oedipus is a model—or the term παράδειγμα‎ can also be (p.47) used as ‘example’—of what it means to be mortal, that is, to be ignorant of even the most basic knowledge of ourselves.18

While Oedipus sought knowledge at all costs, and Jocasta to avoid it, Creon initially presents an alternative path. When he encounters the blinded, distraught Oedipus, Creon insists on taking him into the house, out of his connection to him as a kinsman (1430–1). While Oedipus is certain that the god demands that he leave the city, Creon suggests that they take the time to find out what they really should do: ‘This was said. But nonetheless, given the present need, it is better to learn (ἐκμαθεῖν‎) fully about what to do’ (1442–3). Creon wishes, no doubt, to discover what the oracle wants them to do. However, his words to Oedipus about his care for his children also display compassion for Oedipus’ need on Creon’s part. While so many others in the play react in horror to Oedipus’ actions and his blinded, self-wounded appearance, at first Creon is a paradigm of compassion and caution. He asks that Oedipus remain a while, and brings his children to him. He neither insists on Oedipus’ harshness, nor does he advocate the view that it is better not to know, as Jocasta had. Oedipus thinks Creon is experiencing pity when he brings him his children, but if we look with care at Creon’s words, we find something subtly, but significantly different: ‘You are right. I brought this about, knowing the delight (γνοὺς τὴν παροῦσαν τέρψιν‎) you had long ago and now have’ (1476–7).

Creon brings Oedipus his children out of knowledge for his love of them. For Creon, this knowledge (γνῶσις‎) of love (literally, delight or joy, τέρψις‎) is more significant a form of wisdom than the others we have encountered so far. In fact, we might say that this form of wisdom as a kind of ‘recognition’—as the term γνῶσις‎ connotes—to recognize, to see who someone is, Sophocles raises as an important kind of knowing. Creon’s brotherly love for Oedipus informs how he sees him, how he understands him, and how he reacts to him. What he sees in Oedipus is not primarily the polluted man, nor a dispossessed king, but a man who is capable of fatherly love. Creon looks at the children not primarily as children of incest, but instead as the father’s beloved ones, the few remaining beings that can still give him enjoyment. Creon thus momentarily provides the tragedy’s audience with an alternative vision of wisdom in moments of vulnerability as (p.48) linked to recognition of the concrete reality of another human being. While commentators such as Knox propose that the play asserts a ‘religious view of a divinely ordered universe’,19 the multiple perspectives set out by various characters on the nature of suffering suggest otherwise. Sophocles engages with the mystery of the question of suffering. Instead of providing a single, clear intellectual solution to the problems raised by freedom and fate, Sophocles presents multiple answers to the question as to the appropriate human response to suffering. His play raises for his audience the possibility of reflection on fate and freedom, suffering and freedom from it, not only during the play, but also after its performance. Here, Creon exhibits the possibility of a wisdom informed by gentleness, compassion, and identification with human weakness, instead of Oedipus’ harsh self-judgement, or Jocasta’s wilful ignorance.


This theme of familial gentleness and compassion is central to Oedipus at Colonus, where we see Antigone’s great devotion to her blind father. While her two brothers have abandoned Oedipus in his need, Antigone has accompanied her father in his wanderings, as his seeing eyes, and at considerable personal risk to herself. Oedipus says that she acts with the bravery more associated with men than with women, while his sons have done little for him. There is sweetness between Antigone and Oedipus, a care she exerts for him in his vulnerability and blindness, which tempers many of the harsh sufferings of the plays’ action. While the two plays were not performed together, and do not constitute a cycle in the way that Aeschylus’ Oresteia does, it is nonetheless telling to consider how differently Sophocles treats the same characters and a related storyline in two plays staged many years apart. In particular, we find in Oedipus at Colonus that Sophocles displays a considerable amount of sensitivity toward the cursed Oedipus, and links hospitality to the vulnerable to the political good of Athens. While Oedipus Rex considers pollution and the difficulties with finding a reasonable political response to (p.49) pollution, Oedipus at Colonus emphasizes the value to be found in reception of the wounded stranger by the city or its leaders.

At the outset of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus expresses that he has learned something from his suffering, especially ‘to endure’ (8). He takes comfort in the prophecy that at his life’s end, he finally will find a place to rest, that he will be a ‘ruin (ἄτην‎)’ for those who drove him away, but ‘profit (κέρδη‎)’ for those who receive him (92–3). Oedipus sees the possibility of a meaningful end, a meaningful response to his vulnerable moral and physical condition, as displayed in the downfall of those who harmed him, and the uplifting of those who received him. We might understand these earlier words to be fulfilled in the blessings placed upon Theseus, who receives him with hospitality and compassion, despite knowledge of his pollution. While in life his kingship did not bring good to Thebes for the long term, in death, his presence will bring protection to Athens. Oedipus is no longer king, but nonetheless, plays a political and spiritual role in his presence at Athens.

Moreover, Oedipus’ model for knowledge is no longer that of sight, but touch. While the Oedipus Rex is dominated by images of knowledge as sight, in Oedipus at Colonus, we see a man whose main entry into the world of sensation comes through hearing and through his daughter Antigone’s touch, as she leads him from place to place in his exile. Oedipus is reliant on others who speak to him, and remarks, ‘I see by the sound of a voice (φωνῇ γὰρ ὁρῶ‎), as the saying goes’ (139). Here, his hearing makes him dependent on others, insofar as they choose whether to reveal themselves and the world to him. Antigone willingly describes to Oedipus his surroundings and the events that unfold around him (e.g. 17–22). Similarly, he depends on Antigone to offer her lead of hand to him; there is tenderness and a revealed dependency when he asks, ‘Give me your hand,’ and Antigone reassuringly replies, ‘Here I place it in yours’ (176–7). Such a response stands in contrast to Oedipus’ distraught question in Oedipus Rex, ‘Do you think my children, born as they were, could look sweet to my eyes?’

As Long has argued, the use of the model of touch, rather than sight, changes the way in which Oedipus relates to the objects of his knowledge.20 In the case of sight, the person being seen can be (p.50) objectified. The seeing subject can see his object, apart from being seen in return, and can be at a distance from that object, protected by his own distance. In the case of touch, however, the contact with the object of perception is immediate. Here, in the instance of human touch, the contact between subject and object is also mutual. The one who touches, in being led by hand on his journey, is also the one who is being touched and felt as a presence by another. In the dependence of touch for Oedipus to know and to navigate his world, Oedipus experiences a certain kind of vulnerability in his very mode of knowledge, for he cannot know without also being known. This vulnerability seems to have brought him closer to both of his daughters, in his dependence on Antigone and gentleness with her. He expresses his need for Ismene’s touch, also, when she arrives at Thebes, both to confirm her presence and also to express his care (349–50). Oedipus is not a king, τύρρανος‎, looking down from his throne at the suppliants, but instead, led by his daughter’s hand, touched by Antigone in her care and support of him as the suppliant and exile.

However, the Oedipus of Colonus is an angry man, despite what his initial words about learning endurance might seem to indicate. While Oedipus seeks pity for himself and his polluted state, he shows little compassion for what might have led his sons to pursue lives apart from accompanying him in his wanderings. His focus on whether they are living ‘good’ lives centres entirely around whether their devotion to their father has been sufficient. There is more than a little irony in Oedipus’ judgement of his sons; after all, his parricide would seem to exceed their negligence of him in degree of moral failure. Similarly, Oedipus continues to be angry about Creon’s treatment of him, in forcing him to go into exile.

Oedipus seeks to differentiate his parricide and incestuous marriage from Creon’s actions through focusing on his own relative lack of knowledge: ‘I knew nothing (οὐδὲν εἰδὼς‎) arriving where I did. But those on account of whom I suffered, they with knowledge (εἰδότων‎) destroyed me’ (273–4). This judgement makes the clarity of knowing or not knowing, possessing responsibility for one’s actions, and not possessing it, too clean cut, however. The Creon of Oedipus Rex, as much as anyone, was puzzled by how to respond to Oedipus’ pollution, for he did understand that it was not by any informed choice that Oedipus acted in ways that were polluting; and yet, his pollution did upset the natural order and the gods such that the only viable (p.51) solution seemed to be to expel him from the city. And yet, Creon waited to follow through even on Oedipus’ command to banish him, seemingly waiting for an alternative possibility to present itself. Creon cannot be said to have possessed full knowledge of the best way in which to rule the city after these unusual events. While Creon’s motives in Oedipus at Colonus are unclear, they are not entirely unreasonable, given what audiences may recall of Oedipus Rex.

Aristotle’s categories of moral responsibility in the Nicomachean Ethics are helpful here (N. Ethics III. 1). While not a fully developed theory of responsibility, Oedipus’ comments about his own ignorance point in a general way to the kinds of considerations Aristotle later raises about the role of knowledge of particulars in moral accountability. While Aristotle includes under the designation ‘voluntary’ a whole range of actions undertaken by a moral actor, he offers notable exceptions to ordinarily voluntary actions if certain circumstances are present. The term ‘involuntary’ applies to actions in which the moral actor was ignorant of particulars. For example, if a man believed that a weapon that he threw was harmless and meant for practice exercises, but turned out to be a real weapon, and so injured his victim unintentionally, this lack of knowledge is a mitigating factor. Importantly, Aristotle sees the presence of regret afterwards as central to this moral evaluation of an action as ‘involuntary’; the moral actor must be regretful and must wish that the event had not occurred. Such a combination of ignorance of particulars and regret is clearly present in Oedipus’ polluting crimes. He lacked knowledge of his father as his father, of his mother as his mother, and so did not know the particulars of his moral action. Moreover, he felt not only regret, but anguish at the patricide and the incest. On an Aristotelian model, Oedipus ought not be seen as morally culpable for parricide or incest.

Creon, Polyneices, and Eteocles seem to have had full knowledge of the particulars of their actions with Oedipus, and little regret for their moral choices, and so cannot be said to act in an involuntary way. Oedipus says of Eteocles and Polyneices that when they had the power to bring help, they chose not to help him (427–45). They lacked neither the means to assist him in his wanderings, nor the knowledge of his state or his identity as their father. Oedipus sees them as wholly responsible for their neglect of him, in a way that he is (p.52) not responsible for his more extreme acts against his own parents, chosen entirely in ignorance.21

However, we can imagine many other motivations that might have led Polyneices and Eteocles to choose lives that did not include devoting all their energy to their father’s care. To begin, these sons seemed not to define themselves in terms of an identity as products of their parents’ incest. That is, rather than choosing exile along with their father, who understood himself to be polluted, they refused to see themselves as polluted along with him. Indeed, prior to Oedipus’ curse against them, there is no reason to believe that Oedipus’ children were polluted, or needed to flee the city. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus worries about his daughters’ ability to marry, as they may seem to others to be cursed (1500), but we have no independent evidence in the plays that this is true, and Oedipus expresses no such worries about his sons. In the Antigone, Creon’s main hesitation with his son’s involvement with Antigone is her difficult temperament and wilful lawlessness; there is no mention of her being polluted as a reason not to marry her. Polyneices and Eteocles alike commit themselves to living the lives not of exiles, but of political men, as their station in life would have demanded. If their mistake is to seek to escape the wandering and exile to which their father is subjected, it is an understandable desire on their part.

Neither son is particularly virtuous, of course. Both brothers fight one another for the throne, instead of choosing the shared rule that Oedipus had with Creon in his better days. Indeed, Polyneices seems to have inherited his father’s temper as well, when he refuses to leave behind his ambition to rule Thebes, insisting that he go to his own death and fight his brother in combat, even as Antigone asks why he must succumb to being made ‘angry (θυμοῦσθαι‎) again’ (1420). Creon tells Oedipus that he is ‘giving in to your temper (ὀργῇ‎), which always ruins you’ when he refuses Creon’s (deceitful) offer to return home and offer protection to Thebes (855). But Creon speaks to Oedipus not with care, but with threats of kidnapping his daughter, and violating Oedipus’ freedom.

(p.53) At numerous points, words are understood to be powerful, as either forces of good or evil. Many times, Oedipus treats words as though they were intrinsically dangerous, or hurtful, particularly if those words revealed his own weakness to others or even only to himself. At the beginning of Colonus, Oedipus prefers that his story remain silent, that he remain alone in his suffering with only his daughter. Oedipus speaks of the Chorus as uttering wounding words, when they speak aloud of his father’s murder. When he says, ‘A second time you strike me, affliction upon affliction (νόσῳ νόσον‎),’ he refers to the speech as if it were itself a way to harm him (545). It is not only the memory of the patricide, or its revelation, but the words themselves that are blows to Oedipus, who prefers to keep his suffering silent and to endure. He is afraid to tell the truth about himself, and it is only Antigone’s insistence that he must speak his truth, as difficult as it is, that frees Oedipus to confess his real identity, a confession that will eventually bring him freedom instead of continued exile (217). He is afraid of his story being told: ‘Do not lay bare (ἀνοίξῃς‎) my sufferings’ (515). Ἀνοίγνυμι‎, means literally ‘to open up’, as Oedipus feels exposed in being known for his deeds. Words have the power to open up, to make vulnerable.

Oedipus himself chooses to wound his own sons with a curse upon them, a curse that will come to fruition not only with the deaths of Polyneices and Eteocles, but also the death of Antigone, whom Oedipus wishes to protect. His harmful words have repercussions far beyond what he anticipated. Antigone also speaks of the power of words: ‘Words offer many things, bringing delight, or sometimes anger, or pity; they somehow give voice (φωνὴν‎) to what is voiceless (ἀφωνήτοις‎)’ (1281). However, Theseus offers an alternative to wounding words, words of reception and hospitality. While Oedipus is convinced that the truth of his life will be too shocking, or his history too revolting once told, Theseus receives his full story in compassion, even sharing a bit of his own story in return.


Theseus begins with the possibility that this ξένος‎ might teach him something:

Teach me (δίδασκε‎). You would need to tell me something terrible (δεινὴν‎) to make me depart from you. For I know (οἴδα‎) myself what it means to be (p.54) raised in exile (ξένος‎), like you, and in foreign lands, I wrestled with many hazards, more than any other man. So there is no stranger (ξένος‎), as you are now, from whom I would turn away or fail to help. For I know (ἔξοιδ᾽‎) I am only a man (ἀνὴρ‎), whose fulfillment of tomorrow is no greater than is yours. (561–9)

Theseus not only reassures Oedipus that he is not as δεινός‎, as terrible, as he fears; he also suggests that the polluted man has something to teach him. Theseus grounds his understanding of Oedipus in his own experience of being a ξένος‎, a foreigner, one who is excluded from others, but also as a person who has understood his primary identity as the same as that of Oedipus, insofar as they are both simply men. Theseus incorporates Oedipus’ vulnerability in which his wounds are constitutive of his humanity, and not a mark of his necessary exclusion from society.

When Theseus goes to rescue Ismene and Antigone from their uncle, he tells his army to go to a crossroads in order to bring them home (901). We might remember that the murder of Oedipus’ father also took place at a crossroads. This ‘second crossroads’ at which Theseus’ men act is representative of a turning in Oedipus’ fate. While the first crossroads was the site of his pollution, this second crossroads becomes the locus of his own acceptance. In listening to and receiving Oedipus’ story, a story that heretofore has only caused him shame, Theseus allows Oedipus to participate in a kind of self-observation of himself from the perspective of others. While Oedipus has already learned some compassion for himself in the years since his exile from Thebes, this compassion and a kind of peace arise when he can see himself through Theseus’ eyes. His blindness, he learns, is not only the metaphorical blindness he had of his own identity in the murder and incest and his literal, self-inflicted blindness. Oedipus has also been blind to the possibility of full reconciliation and acceptance into the community. But in the background of Colonus is also the theme of the Eumenides, Aeschylus’ gentled Furies who now kindly protect Athens instead of pursuing the polluted.22 Theseus, too, will act as a gentle spirit to Oedipus.

Theseus not only accepts Oedipus’ story, and welcomes him in the fullness of his reality, but also explains in this passage the motivation (p.55) for his deep compassion.23 Theseus is a man who is well aware of his own vulnerability, and so can identify with others with whom he shares this vulnerability. Indeed, such self-awareness seems to inform his courage and sensible judgement in how he responds to Oedipus, in stark contrast to Creon’s relative impulsiveness. Theseus understands the experience of being in exile, and the longing for ‘home’. As if to emphasize Theseus’ compassion, Sophocles’ account of Theseus’ story makes no allusion to earlier myths about Theseus that are less than hospitable, for example, his kidnapping of Helen, abandonment of Ariadne, or attempted kidnapping of Persephone.24 Instead, Sophocles’ presentation of Theseus is of a king who recalls his own experiences as a ξένος‎ and one who searches for his true home, and so understands what is ‘strange’ in others. As Mills phrases it, the Athenian version of Theseus is ‘purged of anything alien to the ideal Athens’.25

The term ξένος‎ has multiple layers of meaning within these two plays. It can mean simply ‘stranger’, the one who is not Greek, or not of this particular city, the outsider to whomever ‘we’ are. As Kristeva emphasizes, the stranger allows a community to define itself and even to grant it a false sense of its own security by assuring itself that while the Other is outside, we are not the other, we are on the inside.26 The Outsider’s presence reminds us of the possibility that we could be outside, and yet, reassures us that, for the moment, we are not him, we are on the inside, we who belong to whatever community the stranger does not belong to. The paradox of Oedipus is that he has been both the leader and the outsider to his own community. The one who saves and leads Thebes, who indeed embodies the unity of the community, is the one who turns out to be responsible for its pollution. And the same king who not only belongs to the political community, but who (p.56) possesses the power to determine who is in and who is out, who is a member and who will not belong, turns out to be an outsider. Oedipus is a kind of ‘hidden stranger’, hidden both from others and from himself in his status as the ‘polluted one’ who has committed incest and who brings sickness on the city. He is a paradigm for the idea that the safety and security of belonging to an ‘inner circle’ is often false, or at least temporary. Oedipus at Colonus was written around the time of the reign of the Thirty Tyrants and the overthrow of the democracy (404 BCE), and staged in 401 BCE after the democracy’s restoration.27 The question as to who belongs to the city, who is excluded, and who is in political and social exile was a living reality for many Athenians.

But the meaning of ξένος‎ here goes even deeper, for the term ξένος‎ can also mean a person in a formalized ξενία‎, or guest–host relationship, as this sense increasingly becomes important in Oedipus’ relationship with Theseus.28 The stranger and the foreigner is not only one who reminds us of our own coherence as a community, but is also a constant reminder of the real possibility of our own estrangement and our own exile. Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, is sometimes called Zeus Xenios, god of the stranger; and we see in works such as Homer’s Odyssey the moral imperative to care for the stranger, the beggar, the outsider who may be a god in disguise. Therefore, the host must treat the guest as almost divine, even without knowing who he is. And if there is a mutual exchange of gifts between host and ξένος‎, then the obligation of mutual care occurs. After a relationship of ξενία‎ has been formalized by an exchange of significant gifts, the two in the relationship may even be obligated to care for one another’s children, or to undertake rescue of one other if endangered.

It turns out that Oedipus is also a ξένος‎ in this latter sense: the one polluted and hated by the gods turns out to be the person who will protect Athens and who will keep it safe, precisely through being welcomed in by its host, Theseus. Theseus sees in Oedipus what Oedipus is blind to seeing, namely, the possibility that the polluted one, too, is under the care of Zeus Xenios, and can return, gift for gift, (p.57) protection in exchange for protection. Oedipus will give Theseus the gift of his protection, and in exchange, Theseus will grant Oedipus the protection of his children and a heroic status in his burial at Colonus.29

Moreover, Theseus explains that Oedipus is not a stranger in a moral sense. Both Theseus and Oedipus are men, who share a common humanity that bridges the gap between ‘strangers’, ξένοι‎; in this sense, Theseus suggests that no ξένος‎ is completely an ‘outsider’, if only because he knows what it means to be human. Theseus will not turn him away, not even when he possesses full knowledge of Oedipus’ identity and his actions. While Polyneices insists on hiding his father’s curse from his men, claiming that it is best for a leader only to tell of one’s strengths, not weaknesses, Theseus is a leader willing to speak of himself in his wholeness, and to receive both strength and weakness in listening. He is aware of human vulnerability and accepting of it, as a constitutive part of the city. Such awareness helps to constitute his ability to be fair, rational, and even-handed in treatment of Oedipus; that is, awareness of limit informs how Theseus embodies classical Greek virtues such as wisdom, courage, and moderation in his dealings with others.30 His listening to this story embodies the reciprocity of speech for Theseus, and also his receptiveness to this stranger grounded in a reception of his own experiences of estrangement. Here Sophocles presents not a vision of human wisdom that rejects reason, but rather one that insists that wisdom must be informed by awareness of limit and understanding of limit in others. Theseus acts rationally, but warmly here, and his considered judgements stem in part from reflection upon his own prior experience including its affective elements. Theseus can better understand limit in Oedipus than others because Theseus has a wisdom in which his own experience has been transformed into a considered sympathy for others. He does not express anger about his past, but rather utilizes those difficult past experiences in order to cultivate this new politically friendly relationship with Oedipus. To this extent, Sophocles does not reject the rational in favour of a tragic (p.58) vision that is anti-rational or non-rational; rather, the rational itself includes an affective element.31

Indeed, Oedipus becomes representative of something much greater than himself after his death. As Budelmann has pointed out, Sophocles’ language about Oedipus suddenly shifts after the death, so that he is no longer called by name, but only obliquely by indeterminate references that allude to him, for the last 150 lines of the play.32 He offers the example of Theseus’ instructions to Antigone and Ismene: ‘Girls, that man (κεῖνος‎) told me that no one should approach those places, or name the holy tomb which that man occupies (κεῖνος ἔχει‎) (1763–5).’ Here, the use of the indeterminate κεῖνος‎ to name Oedipus reinforces the sense of a supernatural transformation that occurs with Oedipus (as do the clap of thunder and the divine voice mentioned at 1621–8).33 Theseus must shield his eyes so that even he does not directly witness Oedipus’ transformation, which he describes as δεινός‎ (powerful). Here, again, the term Oedipus had used to describe the ‘terribleness’ of his crimes is transformed into a positive power for the city.34 Oedipus the ξένος‎ becomes transformed into something greater than his individuated identity, to become ‘the one’ who protects Athens.35

Theseus alludes to his own history as a ξένος‎ in the passage quoted above (561–9), he does not offer details of his exile. While the text does not elaborate, that Sophocles alludes to the exile suggests that he expects his audience to know something of the details of his (p.59) difficulties. Theseus struggled in his long trip to return to Athens after being raised in the land of his mother, so that he might take his birthright as ruler of Athens. His welcome from his father Aegeus was somewhat mixed, at best, as he welcomed Theseus initially with suspicion, and his wife Medea attempted to kill him when she realized his true identity as Aegeus’ son. Some mythical accounts of Theseus also feature him as the product of a union that was lacking in full consent: one story says that his mother, daughter of a local king, lay with Aegeus when her father made him drunk as a way of guaranteeing his progeny a place in the royal order. Theseus’ mother’s father was King Pittheus, a son of Pelops; thus, Theseus, like Oedipus, comes from a family lineage cursed by the gods. We might recall that Pelops is killed by his father Tantalus to be served up as food for the gods in a testing of divine omniscience, an act that becomes the root source of the curse laid upon the house of Atreus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon. Theseus’ father and Oedipus’ father also have a history together, for the story goes that Laius fell in love with one of Pelops’ sons and so carried him off, but Pelops (once his son was recovered) did not wish to punish Laius on account of love, only to send him away. Father and son, Pelops and Theseus, both possess a common sensitivity to human fault and limit that Oedipus and his sons seem to have lacked.

In the Athenian sensibility, Theseus was seen as the unifier of Athens, who brought all in Athens to live together (συνοικίσμος‎) under a common ruler and a capital city, instead of being a number of independent demes or villages. While, in the archaic period, images of Theseus as a brutish philanderer dominated, under the Athenian democracy Theseus was raised to near cult status as a benevolent king. His role as hero of Athens became so significant that in 476/5, in response to an oracle that demanded the recovery of Theseus’ bones, Cimon led a procession containing what were said to be his remains, which were then enshrined in a sanctuary in the mid-fifth century.36 Additionally, a celebration of Theseus, the Oscophoria, took place in part at the temple at Skiron, where traditionally Theseus was cleansed of his murder of robbers before entering Athens to take his place as (p.60) his father’s son.37 Theseus has the experience of being polluted, but then also cleansed of his pollution. Thus, there are strong parallels between Oedipus’ fate, as the one who protects Athens at its boundaries through the presence of his dead body, and the presence of Theseus’ body as Athens’ protector and guarantor of democracy. The festival’s annual presence at the Skiron, at the edge of Attica, resonates strongly with the idea that Oedipus, too, is buried at a boundary, i.e. just outside its walls. The boundary of Athens is thus both presented as significant for distinguishing citizen from non-citizen, but understood as permeable, as that which can be crossed so that those such as Theseus who were once ‘outside’ can also belong.

Sophocles offers here as part of Theseus’ unifying talent, his desire to include all in ‘dwelling together’. In the light of Theseus’ political role as unifier of Athens, we might even see his claim that he will turn away no stranger as Sophocles’ own reflection upon the centrality of inclusiveness of the city, that no matter how ‘outside’ of the city a person may seem to be, Athenian democracy includes ‘all’ in its community.38 While the people, the δέμος‎, was once simply a part of the πόλις‎, under Theseus δέμος‎ and πόλις‎ were united, so that the people and the city were now one and the same in the self-understanding of the democracy. Theseus’ image was a visible presence in political and religious sites in Athens. In 460 BCE, a statue of Theseus lifting the rock to take his father’s sword, the source of his identity as Aegeus’ true son, was set up on the Acropolis, and in 438/7, his image as conqueror of the Amazonians appeared on the shield of the statue of Athena, and his presence on the friezes of buildings such as the Hephaisteion and Greek vases of the time is well documented.39

Much later, Plutarch reports that Theseus was unparalleled in his care and concern for those who were deemed to be ‘outside’ the city. He writes of Theseus:

Farther yet designing to enlarge his city, he invited all strangers to come and enjoy equal privileges with the natives, and it is said that the common form, (p.61) ‘Come hither all ye people,’ was the words that Theseus proclaimed when he thus set up a commonwealth, in a manner, for all nations.40

Sophocles is innovative in his use of Colonus as the locale of Oedipus’ burial, and refers not to Athens, but to Attica (the countryside surrounding Athens), as if to emphasize the inclusion of both country and city as part of Athens’s full identity.41 As Hammond insightfully notes, when Oedipus had said of his arrival, ‘ξυμφορᾶς ξύνθημ᾽ ἐμῆς‎,’ or ‘It is the sign of my destiny,’ he uses two terms in a row that connote the joining together of what has been apart (line 47).42 Theseus also is he who has brought together what was previously apart, so that all might dwell together. Here Sophocles associates Theseus’ bringing together of the city with Oedipus’ arrival at his destiny. While Sophocles is better known for his conservative orientation toward aristocracy, Sophocles’ last work displays a care and concern for inclusion and gentleness in the reception of countryman, exile, and stranger into Athens, precisely at a time when the Athenians were facing defeat in war and considerable political division.43

Theseus, then, might be said to be the true hero of Oedipus at Colonus, for he is the reversal of Oedipus, a man who began in exile, but ends in gentle rule. Instead of ending in harsh judgement against those who had harmed him, Theseus welcomes with hospitality those who have received harm. Theseus might be said to be the only ‘happy reversal’ of the play, and his presence as a gentle and compassionate ruler has consequences not only for himself, but for his whole city. He replaces the rule of force with the rule of law, for law treats all alike according to a common, single principle, as force cannot. While Thebes had suffered because of Oedipus’ pollution, Athens will prosper because of its reception of Oedipus in his pollution and in his misery. While Oedipus’ family will suffer greatly because of his fate, and because of his reaction to that Fate, the families in the audience of the plays, in Athens, are assured of the benevolent protection of the city because of Theseus’ care for the exiled and polluted one.

(p.62) Theseus is the true possessor of wisdom in this dialogue, even as Oedipus is Athens’ guarantor of its longevity. Oedipus’ suffering body is the source of the city’s protection, an embodied witness of the power of suffering to protect as well as to cause distress.44 Theseus’ wisdom is gleaned from his own experience of exile and suffering, which brings compassion and care to his rule. His is not a divine wisdom, but a human one informed by a sense of his own limits and compassion for others in their humanity.45 Oedipus’ presence in death, outside of the city, is also the city’s protection, for his protection arises from the incorporation of his weakness. Sophocles was also offering his own political community a reflection on the necessity for Athens to embody this approach to political community as a ‘dwelling together’, not only of strong, but also of weak.


(1) Jennifer Ballengee, The Wound and the Witness: The Rhetoric of Torture (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), 45–8.

(2) The translations throughout this chapter are my own except as noted.

(3) B. M. W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and his Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 12.

(4) Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 47.

(5) Knox details the use of τύρρανος‎ instead of βασιλεύς‎, and notes the irony that Oedipus also would have been legitimate βασιλεύς‎ on account of his father Laius. See Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, chapter 2.

(6) Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, 27–8.

(7) Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, 127.

(8) Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(9) Parker, Miasma, 8.

(10) Parker, Miasma, 98.

(11) Parker, Miasma, 97.

(12) Parker, Miasma, 124–5.

(13) Parker, Miasma, especially 133ff., where Parker develops the concept of natural pollution.

(14) Translation of this line from David Grene (translator and editor), Sophocles I, 2nd edn. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1991).

(15) Paul Hammond, The Strangeness of Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 76–7.

(16) Knox notes Oedipus’ care for not only knowledge in general, but also clarity and fullness of truth. See Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, 18.

(17) This language of destruction runs thematically through descriptions of Oedipus. For example, the Theban shepherd’s report of Jocasta’s decision to have her son killed so that the prophecy might go unfulfilled uses ἀναλίσκω‎, ‘destroy’, rather than weaker words connoting infant exposure. See Ballengee, Wound and the Witness, 47.

(18) Ballengee, Wound and the Witness, 48.

(19) Ballengee, Wound and the Witness, 47.

(20) Christopher Long, ‘A Father’s Touch, a Daughter’s Voice: Antigone, Oedipus and Ismene at Colonus’, presented at the 2010 Sophocles Colloquium, University of Utah, November 2009.

(21) As Ahrensdorf notes, Oedipus here seems motivated by anger and not reason; he fails to recognize the contradiction in absolving himself of his unknowing parricide and yet, his desire for harsh punishment of his sons for their neglect of him. Peter Ahrensdorf, Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy: Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles’ Theban Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 70.

(22) Henry Walker, Theseus and Athens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 176.

(23) Blundell notes that Theseus may have multiple motives including ‘sympathy, piety, loyalty, self-interest, and the interests of his city’. Here I focus on Theseus’ sympathy in order to highlight the centrality of the acknowledgement of vulnerability in virtue, but of course do not exclude additional motives. See Mary Whitlock Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 231.

(24) For an excellent summary of pre-tragic myths surrounding Theseus, see Walker, Theseus and Athens, chapter 1 and Sophie Mills, Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), chapter 1.

(25) Mills, Theseus, Tragedy, 69.

(26) Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), chapter 2.

(27) Andreas Markantonatos, Oedipus at Colonus: Sophocles, Athens, and the World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007), 38–9.

(28) Hammond, Strangeness of Tragedy, 86; Joseph Wilson, The Hero and the City: An Interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 82–7.

(29) Wilson, Hero and the City, 86.

(30) As Blundell argues, Theseus embodies the classical Greek virtues of justice, courage, sound-mindedness, and piety. See Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies, 248–53.

(31) Here I distinguish my analysis both from that of Nietzsche, who looks to Sophocles as the last great tragic thinker before the advent of Socratic rationalism, and from those who find a more theoretical orientation in Sophocles. For the former, see Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage, 1967). For an example of the latter, see Ahrensdorf, Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy. Ahrensdorf also argues for Theseus’ sympathetic nature, but understands the rationale in Theseus to be based on an ability to sympathize with others’ self-interest. I suggest the reverse: that Theseus can understand others’ limit and need on the basis of a shared ‘interest’ in having one’s vulnerability hospitably received. Thus, his piety and wisdom are interconnected.

(32) Felix Budelmann, The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 42–3.

(33) Budelmann, The Language of Sophocles, 42–3.

(34) Hammond, Strangeness of Tragedy, 91.

(35) While many editors have read Theseus as offering citizenship to Oedipus at line 637, Wilson convincingly argues that the required emendation of the text from ἐμπάλιν‎ to ἐμπόλιν‎ is not borne out by any other textual evidence that Theseus makes Oedipus a citizen. See Wilson, Hero and the City, chapter 5. Oedipus becomes much more than a citizen here; he is a heroic presence.

(36) Walker, Theseus and Athens, 56–61. As Cimon was a conservative Athenian, Walker suggests the use of Theseus was not his first choice, but rather a concession to the democracy that bolstered Cimon’s popularity at a time of reform. Markantonatos notes that Sophocles himself received a statue of Asclepius into his home and was deeply involved in hero cults, no doubt an influence upon his playwriting here. See Markantonatos, Oedipus at Colonus, 15–16.

(37) Walker, Theseus and Athens, 98–9.

(38) In contrast, Walker argues that Sophocles offers Colonus as an aristocratic alternative to democracy, in emphasizing Theseus’ kingly nature, in contrast to the presentation in Euripides’ Suppliant Women. See along similar lines, Wilson, Hero and the City, 198–200, who sees this as more anti-democratic sentiment on Sophocles’ part.

(39) Walker, Theseus and Athens, 64–6.

(40) Plutarch, Lives, Vol. I, trans. J. Dryden with revisions by A. H. Clough (New York: A. L. Burt, n.d.), 23.

(41) Walker, Theseus and Athens, 174–5.

(42) Hammond, Strangeness of Tragedy, 88.

(43) Markantonatos, Oedipus at Colonus, 10–21, convincingly lays out the argument for the biographical indications of a Sophocles who was strongly democratic late in life; see also his reflections on the significance of the drama as a way to bolster Athens at a time of decline in Markantonatos, Oedipus at Colonus, 157–67.

(44) Ballengee, Wound and the Witness, 59–64. Ballengee views Oedipus’ physical woundedness as holding the memory of his past deeds, a physical presence that grants his body political power in its ability to exact vengeance on threats to Athens. However, Oedipus is also positively characterized as a blessing to Athens, a positive protective presence to the city.

(45) Along similar lines, Mills remarks of Theseus, ‘he is no deus ex machina, since he has no power or knowledge beyond what might be expected of a wise human king; he can mitigate suffering, but he cannot explain it’. See Mills, Theseus, Tragedy, 168.