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Commentary

Chapter 17: The Theban Saga


The Hero in Saga and Folktale. Propp’s theory of the structure of Quest folktales (see MLS, Chapter 1) applies also to the hero of saga. Nine motifs appear in the same order but not necessarily all in the same tale. They are:

  1. the extraordinary birth and childhood of the hero.
  2. the hero faces opposition and must surmount challenges.
  3. he is set a task that defines his achievement.
  4. he is helped by one or more divine or human allies.
  5. he faces apparently insuperable obstacles.
  6. his conflicts with opponents (divine, human, or monstrous) involve physical, sexual or spiritual challenges.
  7. he may have to observe certain taboos.
  8. his final conquest is Death, achieved typically by journeying to the Underworld and returning.
  9. the hero’s ultimate success brings rewards, for example, marriage or political power.

The hero’s quest may also bring knowledge through suffering and spiritual enlightenment.

These themes and their variations have been in evidence for the lives of the gods and figures such as Orpheus.

Oedipus in Literature. The version of the saga of Oedipus generally known is that of Sophocles’ tragedies, Oedipus the King (428 B.C.) and Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.). There were other versions of the myth, including an early epic (now lost) called Oedipodea. In the Odyssey Homer says that “Epicasta” hanged herself when the truth about her marriage became known, while Oedipus continued his unhappy reign. In the Iliad, Oedipus is said to have died in battle. Other authors give different names to the mother of his children.

The version of Sophocles has become the most authoritative and was used as the prime example of tragedy by Aristotle in his Poetics. In 1910 Freud identified the Oedipus complex (the word “complex” was first coined by Jung, however) using Oedipus as the pattern of the son “directing his infantile sexual impulses toward [his] mother” and his “first impulses of hatred and resistance toward [his] father.” Freud’s discovery has been seminal and it has led to many modern interpretations in literature, drama, music, ballet, and art. Many are surveyed by Lowell Edmunds in Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). For a psychoanalytical interpretation of Sophocles's Oedipus see MLS, pp. 424–426.

A collection of major plays about Oedipus with related essays is to be found in Oedipus, myth and dramatic form (edited by James L. Sanderson and Everett Zimmerman, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968): The Oedipus of Sophocles, Seneca (ca. 45 A.D.), Voltaire (ca. 1718), André Gide, and Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (ca. 1934), a particularly clever and stimulating retelling of the legend.

The “Night Journey” of The Heroine Jocasta. Martha Graham’s ballet, Night Journey, is a moving and profound exploration of the Oedipus legend in terms of Jocasta’s tragedy. Graham notes: “ . . . it is not Oedipus who is the protagonist. The action turns upon that instant of Jocasta’s death when she relives her destiny, sees with double insight the triumphal entry of Oedipus, their meeting, courtship, marriage, their years of intimacy which were darkly crossed by the blind seer, Tiresias, until at last the truth burst from him.”

A Graham dance inspired by mythology elucidates the myth from the point of view of the heroine; it is an exploration of the inner world of the feminine soul or better, psyche, with all of the Freudian implications that this word evokes. Another vital element in her art is its sublime eroticism: “I know my dances and technique are considered deeply sexual, but I pride myself in placing onstage what most people hide in their deepest thoughts.”

To enhance appreciation of Martha Graham’s genius one should read her own lengthy analysis of her “highly erotic dance” between Jocasta and Oedipus (Martha Graham, Blood Memory, New York: Doubleday, 1991, pp. 212–217).

If, by any chance, one is unfamiliar with Graham’s art, Night Journey provides the very best introduction. It is concise, taut, and concentrated (about a half hour in length) and its stylized and simple sets by Isamu Noguchi enhance the intensity of the action: a bed, where Jocasta conceived and gave birth to Oedipus, their marriage-bed, and the setting for her suicide; and a rope, which in the episodes of the dance becomes the binding umbilical cord, the entangling thread of fate, and the noose of death.

The Seven Against Thebes. The saga of the Seven against Thebes was the subject of several tragedies and epics. The Seven against Thebes of Aeschylus (467 B.C.) focuses on the curse on the Theban royal family; it describes the attack on Thebes itself and the death of Menoeceus, and it ends with the report of the single combat and deaths of Polynices and Eteocles, a further working out of the curse. In his drama, The Phoenician Women (412 B.C.), Euripides is sympathetic to Polynices. This play describes the attack on Thebes and the deaths of Menoeceus, Eteocles, Polynices, and Jocasta, who kills herself over the corpses of her sons. At its end, Creon sends Oedipus into exile and Antigone refuses to obey the decree forbidding burial of Polynices. In the Phoenissae of Seneca (mid-first century A.D.) Oedipus, wandering in exile, curses his sons: at Thebes, Jocasta fails to mediate between the brothers as the attack begins. The play breaks off at this point. The epic Thebaid of Statius (ca. 90 A.D.) narrates the saga of the Seven from the preparations at Argos, through the expedition to Thebes, the failure of the attack, and the mutual killing and cremation of the brothers. Statius adds the episodes of Antigone’s defiance and Theseus’ expedition.

Antigone is the heroine of Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone (442 B.C.), which focuses primarily on the overriding importance of family relationships. When the “law of Zeus” conflicts with the law of the state Antigone chooses execution rather than disobedience to divine law. Since the time of Sophocles, Antigone has been the symbol of individual conscience against unjust laws. There have been many reinterpretations of her legend, which have been discussed by George Steiner in Antigones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Tiresias. Tiresias has often been used as an archetypal seer, for example in Seneca’s Oedipus (mid-first century A.D.) and by Dante in Inferno, Canto 20. The avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote Les Mamelles de Tirèsias (1903), which he called “a Surrealist drama.” It was first performed in 1917 and published, with illustrations by Picasso, in 1918. It was the libretto of light opera with the same title by Francis Poulenc (1944). He appears at line 218 of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Eliot says of him: “Tiresias, although a mere spectator . . . is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest . . . the two sexes meet in Tiresias.”

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