Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Spirited: Sophocles and the Gods

I used to be a Sophocles hater. I know, it's sacrilege. That was, until I read the Ajax in my Greek Tragedy Class. I was hooked at the first scene, where Athena displays an incredible combination of power, maniacal superiority, and cruelty. She demonstrates this complex nature of the gods (in Sophocles' view) who demonstrate a shocking lack of humanity in their dogged pursuit of a foreign ethics. However, much of the ethics is centered around the general Greek principle of "helping friends and harming enemies," but Athena takes this to a sick extreme.

Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra & Philoctetes (The Complete Greek Tragedies) (Vol 9)

From that point, I re-evaluated all the Sophocles plays. Although Athena in Ajax the most explicit instance of the gods acting in any Sophocles I have read thus far [1], although they act in sly and interesting ways and often compel or propel the action of the plays. For example, in the Electra, Orestes explains that his plans for revenge by stealth come from Phoebus Apollo (Electra lines 33-39). The entire action of not only the play, Oedipus Tyrannos [2], but Oedipus' life stem from and are foretold by the actions of Apollo as well. Teiresias speaks for the gods, as some kind of a human intermediary between the two.

Sophocles' plays are much more interesting, in my opinion, when considered not from the perspective of Aristotilian interpretations of Greek tragedy [3] or the conflict between oikos (home and family) and polis (city and state), but rather because they paint a complex and fascinating picture of the interaction between heroes and gods. I have been told my view of Greek tragedy can be a little divine-centric, and this may be true, but the tragedians each demonstrate vastly different conceptions of the gods in their plays, which I believe not only provides rich theatrical masterpieces, but also sheds a new light on Greek religion [4].

  1. I have read Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus (although I read it twice, I didn't understand it very well either time. it needs to go back on my reading list), Antigone, Ajax, Philoctetes, and Electra.
  2. The reason that I refer to this play as Oedipus Tyrannos rather than the more traditional Oedipus Rex is because I think that the Oedipus Tyrannos expresses the irony behind the play better. Rex, the Latin for king, is much more equivalent to the classical Greek Basileus (although in Homeric times this word was used for a lord, and wanax was the word for king) which means king. One of the primary distinctions between basileus and tyrannos (tyrant) was the idea that the basileus came from a line of inherited power and excellence-- the conception that the person was king by right of family. The tyrant, on the other hand, was not justified by hereditary right, but was rather someone who had taken power by persuasion or, more likely, by force. Although Oedipus is technically a basileus, because he is the hereditary heir of Thebes, he is ironically a tyrant, because he killed his father (former basileus of Thebes) and married his mother in order to gain power in the city.
  3. One of my favorite secondary sources that I read in the class was E.R. Dodd's "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex" (click this link to download the Microsoft Word version of the document from NYU. Click this link to read as a HTML file). The document is short-- only about 6-7 pages if my memory serves, but it explains the problems with the traditional viewpoints on Oedipus Tyrannos.
  4. I plan on doing another blog post about Aeschylus' views on religion, which show gods with a strict social and political hierarchy, and Euripides' views on religion, which seem to show gods with similar faults and flaws of humans, but many times more powerful.

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