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Representations in Art

Europa and Zeus. The legend of Europa and Zeus is narrated by Ovid in Metamorphoses 2.846 – 3.2. Of many artistic representations a relief sculpture from the Sicilian city of Selinus (ca. 540 B.C.) and the painting (now in Boston) by Titian (ca. 1560) are especially powerful.

Cadmus and Amphion and Zethus. The legend of Cadmus’ teaching his subjects to write may be related to the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century B.C. and the invention of the Greek alphabet and the revival of writing in Greece.
The building of the walls of Cadmeia by Amphion and Zethus is a doublet of the original building of the city by Cadmus. The moving of the stones by Amphion’s music demonstrated the power of harmony to bring order out of disorder, just as Cadmus and Harmonia had established civilized order in their city.

Dirce. The killing of Dirce is the subject of the so-called Farnese Bull (ca. 210 A.D., now in Naples), a marble group made for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and discovered there in 1545.

Oedipus. The version of the saga of Oedipus given here follows 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. Other authors give different names to Jocasta/Epicasta. In the Iliad, Oedipus is said to have died in battle.
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 term "Oedipus complex" was first used 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 seminal discovery 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).
Important representations of Oedipus and the Sphinx were painted by Ingres (1808, now in Paris) and Moreau (1864 now in New York). Very different is the painting Oedipus Rex (1922) by the surrealist painter Max Ernst, in which Freudian motifs are combined with motifs from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, creating a dense web of associations with the infancy, fears, and hopes of the young king.
There was once available a valuable collection of major plays about Oedipus with related essays (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), and André Gide, as well as Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (ca. 1934), a particularly clever and stimulating retelling of the legend.

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 send 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. 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 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

The Epigoni. The saga of the Epigoni is the subject of Euripides’ drama, The Suppliant Women (424 B.C.), which portrays Athens and its king, Theseus, in a very favorable light.

Tiresias. Tiresias has often been used as an archetypal seer, for example, by Seneca in his Oedipus (mid-first century A.D.) and by Dante in Inferno, Canto 20. Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1903), which the avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire he called "a Surrealist drama," 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). The seer 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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