Introduction: There are several versions of the Œdipus myth – Homer put one in the Iliad, Aeschylus [Seven Against Thebes] and Hesoid [Theogony] also mentioned it, whilst Corneille, Voltaire and Cocteau produced later versions and Stravinsky composed an opera [Œdipus Rex] on the theme – but the most notable accounts were the three tragedies written by Sophocles [Œdipus Tyrannus, Œdipus Coloneus and Antigone]. Sigmund Freud used the story for his dubious – or at least, misnamed – theory of parent-child relationships. (Dubiously misnamed, because Œdipus – as the sources make clear – was totally averse to both parricide and incest).
Drawing on the most ancient versions, but synthesising them eclectically to create a personal family saga rather than a matter or State, I have imagined my own account of this fascinating myth from the perspective of Antigone, the sister-daughter of Œdipus born to his mother-wife Jocasta. The poem is written in iambic pentameters to an irregular ‘dodeca-line’ rhyme-scheme; i.e, its rhymes occur, in principle, at varying intervals within a span of 12 lines.
The italicised comments in square brackets […] are incidental to the story.
[Foreword: Theseus, the legendary king of Athens travelling incognito with only two courtiers for company, meets a disfigured, blind old man accompanied by a lovely, but careworn, young woman. Intrigued, he asks their history. It is the woman, ignorant of his rank, who replies.]
You ask the story, Sir, of this poor man
Whose eyeless sockets and sad mouth excite
Your curiosity? How were his sight
And speech destroyed? And who am I that fan
The flies from those sad wounds?
Ah, Sir, that tale
Is dreadful to relate: and it would grieve
Your peace of mind, as it has done to him.
The fate that we have known has been so grim
And undeserved I’d rather not explain
What things were done, nor why. To me the pain
Is still too raw, though time has thrown some veil
Of distance on the circumstances. Leave
Us to our misery and do not press
To learn the origin of our distress.
You’ll make it worth my while? How, may I ask,
Can anything persuade me to that task?
Perhaps some coins from out your purse? I’ll say
Some money would be useful, for we are
Without resources and must beg each day
For food and drink and lodgings. Our bizarre
Appearance does not help us there! Most folk
Just hurry past us, or shamefacedly, poke
A few small coins into my hand and run,
Or let us spend a night inside a shed
With soup, perhaps, in which to dip dry bread
If they are generous. If not we stay
Outside beneath the stars or clouds until
Dawn wakes us to another doleful day.
It’s rarely we enjoy a proper meal.
I tell you, Sir, it is not any fun
To be both indigent and ugly!
You are determined to have me relate
The details of our history? For that
You’d have to pay a tidy sum! What rate
Do I require? I do not know your means,
Sir, so I cannot say. But if you want
To hear me, you must tender – in advance! –
Enough to shew your good intent. It seems
Churlish of me to ask in such a way;
But, Sir, the pain of telling’s such, I can’t
Risk getting nothing for it. If, by chance,
You feel the story is not worth the pay,
Then you need give no more when I have done.
Is that a bargain?
Right, Sir. Let me see
The colour of your money, then I’ll start;
Though I must warn you that your proffered fee
Will buy you sleepless nights and fill your heart
With sorrow when you’ve heard; such sadness none
Forgets. You still insist? Well, give me now
Your starting-price and I will match it, then,
With such a story as will pale your brow
And which you will not wish to hear again!
[Theseus gives her a coin.]
So much? Are you sure? Most people’s purses –
If they don’t round on us with coarse curses! –
Surrender obols. Sometimes one may give
A drachma out of pity. As I live,
A stater is a princely coin indeed
When silver; but a golden one, like this,
Is regal! Surely you mock me, Sir! Is
It enough? It is a token of bliss!
For a golden stater, Sir, I would prate
Our history twice over! It will feed
Us for a month, like kings. But justly so:
It is a royal tragedy I tell!
Most of the details I recount were signed
To me, through simple gestures we designed
After the incidents which I relate,
By this old man himself; for I was not
Privy to them before, as you will learn.
We both were forced to share our thoughts and needs
As we traversed the rocky roads of Greece
That Fate decreed for us, trying to earn
Enough to purchase food and drink. We know
Of hunger, thirst and cold – blessings as well –
Taught to us during recent years.
Sun soon, perhaps, may cause your skin to burn,
So sit yourself in comfort in the shade
Of this cool tree, and listen close. Become
A voyeur of the scenes I shall describe;
As though in some theatre it were played –
The work of some renowned dramatic scribe –
And you a patron of Thespian art.
Absorb its atmosphere, and in its spell
Release your senses, open up your heart;
Allow yourself to picture, in your mind,
The details of the story I unwind.
That story starts in Thebes, some years ago.
King Laius and his Queen, Jocasta, had
A son born to them. As they wished to know
His future, so that they might name him right,
They asked the Delphic Oracle to speak.
The answer, when it came, near drove them mad!
It said: (this of an infant in his crib,
As innocent as any child could be):
“This boy will kill his father in a fight;
Then wed his mother; by these acts he’ll break
His city’s heart with shame.”
(It’s by such glib
Pronouncements that much harm and misery
Are brought into the world. None but an ass
Should consult Oracles! Quite blameless lives
Are ruined by their cunning prophecies.
For what? To learn the future? It is crass
Stupidity to seek life’s end before
It’s scarcely begun. Foreknowledge deprives
Things of that unexpectedness whence more
Delight is gained than pre-planned joys. It leads
Imagination into narrow paths
Defined by what that expectation breeds –
Rather than onto wider roads well-paved
By natural intelligence, which braves
The unexpected with its cleverness –
And thereby stultifies its scope. Decrees
Should outlaw Oracles: don’t you concur?
But I digress too much; I’ve hardly said
One thing contingent to my narrative
As yet. You will lose patience. Pardon, Sir,
My wasting of your time. I must suppress
This urge to moralise!).
Let me now give
The outcome of this prophecy. The king,
Seeking his own protection, gave the word
To kill the baby. So the little thing
Was taken to the countryside and strung
Up by the feet, to die of hunger there:
And so he would have done, except there came
A kind passer-by who, seeing what hung
Upon the branches, cut it down with care
And took it with him. Now this person’s name
I do not know; but I would guess that he
Had influential friends because, not long
After he got toCorinth, his home-place,
The child became adopted by the king –
Whose name was Polybus – and Merope
His queen, as their own son.
(That sort of thing
Was often done by childless folk of strong
Repute and wealth, as you must know, Sir. Grace
And honour are bestowed thereby to aid
Many a foundling who had otherwise
Known only hardship’s problems. For this child,
Of whom I speak, it had been better, far,
If he’d been left out in the Theban wild
To quickly die. But none in Corinth knew
That on this homeless infant had been laid
A dreadful fate).
Years passed. The baby grew
Into a strong and healthy youth. No scar
Nor blemish marked him, though the name he bore
Was Œdipus, because his feet were sore
And swollen when he came toCorinthfirst.
He was well-trained in all things; won first prize
For martial skills in many games. Yet he
Was not aggressive; he’d a gentle mind –
In life’s most gracious qualities well-versed –
Given to peaceable pursuits. He knew
No malice, Sir, and therefore came to be
Honoured by all. In fact, he was the kind
Of son that every parent wants! In due
Time he was named heir to the crown. No voice
Objected to so obvious a choice.
(I trust, Sir, that my story does not wear
Your patience overmuch. But you should know
The background and the character behind
Prince Œdipus, in order to obtain
An understanding of his noble mind
And how the problems, which would overthrow
His future glory – driving him insane –
Were not through fault of him.
If I may dare,
Sir, I would take a drink from that small stream
Which murmurs in the gully over there.
My throat is dry from talking, and I must
Ensure my father gets his proper share
Of my attention. On me he must trust
For all his needs. I hope I do not seem
Too disrespectful to you, Sir…
[She goes to the stream and returns with a crock of water.]
A drink yourself. The crock is cracked, I know,
But we’ve no other, money being scarce.
Enough? I thank you, Sir. Now father, slake
Your thirst with this fresh water; it will clear
The dust from out your mouth. Enough? Good man!.
Now for a sup myself. I’ll say I can
Envisage nothing better than a slow,
Cool drink to ease a tender throat!… [She drinks]… I fear
I must resume the story now).
On to the day when Œdipus had come,
By chance, nearDelphi. Being there, he thought
No harm to ask his future, though he knew
That Corinth’s crown was his to wear quite soon;
For Polybus had ordered so.
Men’s curiosity cannot be taught
Restraint; they will not rest until they hold
Their future in their hands! If it were true
That total knowledge brought more benefit
Than trouble, I could understand; but cold
Experience has shewn it is no boon
To see too far ahead. What comes of it
Is disillusion and despair. It’s wise
To deal with life just as it comes and make
The best you can of it. That way surprise
May overtake you sometimes, but your brain
Is not confused to leading you astray
By trying to equate some promised gain
With present lack. For, if we look to take
Shortcuts to high achievement, we may pay
A grievous price. But I digress, again,
And weary you with weak philosophy
Based on my all-too-sad experience.
Your pardon, Sir).
AtDelphi, then, the youth
Questioned the Oracle. What was his pain
To hear the frightful curse; his doom to kill
His father, wed his mother and bring shame
Upon his city! Thinking that, in truth,
He was Corinthian with Merope
And Polybus his parents, and his claim
To Corinth’s crown his birthright, all his sense
Of honest loyalty opposed the will
He at once resolved to thwart
The prophecy by taking distant leave
Of Corinth and his loved-ones. They would grieve
As much as he himself, and their bright Court
Would know no further happiness on his
Account. The noble youth would not allow
The fatal forecast opportunity
To feed itself upon his family
(What cruel irony it is
That, through this selfless gesture, he should bow
His age with those same crimes which he had sought
So conscientiously to bring to naught!
That’s why foreknowledge is so bad for us
To own, Sir, as I said to you before).
Anyway, shortly afterwards, he came
Upon a crossroads. As he stood in doubt
Which path to follow, the peaceful chorus
Of the birds was broken by the clatter
Of approaching hooves. He turned to look. Nor
Was there time to move aside before, high
Over him, a horseman reared with a shout
Of insolence, to leave the road or die!;
Then beat him, unprovoked, about the head
And shoulders with a heavy spear, with aim
To drive him to the ditch.
Such a matter
Œdipus, a prince, would not permit. So,
Being skilled in warlike arts, he took hold
Of horse and spear and wrestled down his foe
Onto the road. By accident the spear
Went through the man, leaving his body dead
There in the way. At that same moment he,
Young Œdipus, became aware that more
Armed horsemen were approaching fast, prepared
To kill him for his deed. Nowhere to go –
For they surrounded him at once – he saw
That he must now defend himself or fall
Beneath their onset. His agility
And fighting-skill then saved him. Blow with blow
He parried and returned much better. Sheer
Need gave extra strength and speed of strike. All
Fell beneath his strokes; lastly the grey-haired
Chieftain of the band.
The battle done, bold
Œdipus set his face toAthens, when
First he had laid-out the corpses along
The roadside with respectful care. He knew
That someone would come searching for them soon.
There were a dozen bodies to arrange:
Lastly the old Chieftain’s, whose wide-eyed gaze
Stared at him with a startled look, so strange
It seemed as if the aged lord’s dying view
Included puzzled recognition. Why
It seemed so young Œdipus did not try
To guess; he didn’t know the man. Instead,
He laid his body with the other dead
With reverence due to his rank.
How scrupulous he was, Sir, in his ways;
Considerate to other men, even
When they mistreated him! He had not sought
To quarrel but, when trouble came, then he
Could match it with ability. He fought
Only to save himself, or right a wrong).
When he had finished it was almost noon,
So Œdipus departed from the scene
Before he should be taken there as thief
Or bandit by some traveller.
Absorption in my tale must wait awhile
As I refresh myself again. To talk
So much is thirsty work indeed for one
Who hardly speaks, from one day to the next,
Except to ask for food or lodging. Grief
It is to me that my poor father’s state
Prevents our converse as we daily walk
The rugged roads ofGreece; although, perhaps,
The gods were kind to silence his despair,
Else that great dolour, given its full say,
Would cause its hearers such distressful pain
They’d surely rage with horror and despatch
Us from their presence with a bruising rain
Of stony missiles and hard words. I care
For him too much to let him suffer more
Than he already does in dumb dismay.
My loss is tempered by that thought; my poor
Regrets soon salved away.
Now, I’ll just run
Down to the stream to fill the crock. What, you
Sir? You will get the water? May the great
Gods bless you, Sir, who seem to be a true
And kindly gentleman, if I may say
As much! I must admit that this pretext
To so unburden my poor heart, though hard
On my unpractised voice, provides a balm
For my distress…
[Theseus, not wanting to reveal his rank by giving orders to his courtiers, goes to the
stream himself and brings back some water, which he gives to her.]
Here, father, drink! It’s good
And wholesome for you…Now then, Sir, when I
Have had a sup myself – it’s such a sweet
Refreshment – and you have tasted some, my
Story I’ll resume).
After the alarm,
There at the crossroads, Œdipus pursued
His route toAthens, confident he’d meet
With better fortune. Two years were to pass
Before it came to him.
The happy day
Was inauspicious at the start. (Often
Good luck comes when we least expect!). So when,
One morning, coming close toThebes– a guard
Preventing him from going nearer – he
Enquired the cause. It seems there was a vile
Marauder, known as Sphinx, haunting the gates
Of Thebes. It was a huge, voracious beast
That ambushed travellers and made them tell
The answer to a riddle, failing which
It killed and ate them. Nobody had yet
Resolved the puzzle which the sly Sphinx set:
Not one had survived!
Œdipus, as was
His habit, would have turned aside to find
Another way into the city, for
He never looked for trouble if he might
Attain his purpose otherwise. Yet he
Had urgent business to transact in Thebes
And would not easily be thwart. But then,
Just as he turned to seek another path
That might avoid the Spinx but bring him near
His wanted destination, malign Fate
Once more directed him toward the doom
That was his forecast destiny, because
The sentry casually to him said —
Almost as an afterthought, it seemed —
That Queen Jocasta – childless widow she,
Yet not uncomely – had declared the right
Of any man. (who dared the Sphinx’s wrath
And killed the monstrous beast), to claim
Her hand in marriage and obtain, thereby,
The crown of Thebes itself!.
In wealth, but holding in his noble mind
The memory of that bright crown he’d lost
Through his firm loyalty to Merope
And Polybus, saw here a chance which well
Could reinstate his fortunes at a twitch
Of luck, if he but dared to risk his head!
Though peaceable by nature, full of kind
And gentle sentiments, he had no fear
Of man or beast. So he resolved to tame
The monster at the Theban gates and try
His wit and courage on it. If the cost
Outstripped his means then he would have to dare
The necessary to achieve his aim:
Failure would end his exile, while success
Would bring him heightened hopes of happiness!
And if the widowed Queen were old and plain,
At least he’d earn a crown and, in her name,
Would rule atThebesas once his future was
Promised at Corinth. So the dowry’s gain
Seemed worth the hazard: it became his cause.
(His other business was of small import
If he should win the greater prize; a Crown!).
He then informed the Sentry of his plan
To challenge the Sphinx. The Captain was called
To verify the case; and he declared
That it was stupid for so young a man –
Œdipus was barely twenty then – to
Lose his life in such a confrontation:
But his orders were, to let those pass who,
Having been warned, stated themselves prepared
To rid the city of the Sphinx’s curse.
When Œdipus confirmed that he would try
To best the Sphinx and was prepared to die
In the attempt, the Captain took him to
The register of those who earlier had tried
To beat the monster, but had failed and died.
Amongst the names were many men — some who
Had famous names — and even, (here and there),
A few heroic women!. (Perhaps they
Supposed that women’s wiles had better chance
Than men’s against the Sphinx, which dreadful beast
Was female). Œdipus then signed his name
Upon the list as he was told to do.
The Captain shook his grizzled head and sighed,
Bade Œdipus “Good luck!” and with a frown
Of utter puzzlement, he turned away.
He’d seen so many who had rashly dared
The ogress in the hope of instant fame,
With fatal consequences, so the loss
Of yet another life made him despair
At such irrationality. At least
He’d done his duty, there was nothing more
That he could say. Without a backward glance
He left the room.
Œdipus stepped across
The threshold after him, then turned toward
The city’s walls whose tower-tops peeked just
Above the trees, about a mile from where
The Sentry stood, at the still open door
Of his observatory, watching him
Go toward certain death.
The road he took
Was overgrown with weeds; its surface holed.
Few people used it, since the Sphinx controlled
All access to the city. He did not look
Around him as he walked towards his Fate,
His mind deep in his thoughts.
Knowing he must
Prepare himself, now that he was aware
Of what awaited when he met the grim
Destroyer of ambitions’ heady dreams,
Œdipus rehearsed the riddles he’d heard
At Corinth, and whilst travelling, in verse
And prose, prolix and terse, the lot. He hauled
Them through his memory, and even framed
Some new ones of his own, in case the Sphinx
Should give him opportunity to take
Soon he drew near a gate.
Around the area he saw the bones
Of many who had braved the Sphinx and failed.
Well-gnawed they were, those skeleton remains,
And scattered near and far amongst the stones
Crowding the awful site. He wondered where
The creature was that he had come to find.
The stench was overpowering. Vile stinks
Began to sting his eyes and throat. Perhaps
The air was poisoned and the cunning beast
Waited for challengers to first collapse
In semi-consciousness before it came
To pose a question which a fuddled mind
Could not devise an answer to; at least,
One which it would accept!. The creature’s fame
Kept arbiters away, so none could learn
Its practices or otherwise discern
How to defeat its wiles. He understood
That he must keep his mind clear, muscles strong,
If he were to survive.
Over his nose
And mouth he pulled his cloak, although his eyes
Were unprotectable. So, when he came
Almost to the locked gate itself, he stood
Uncertain what to do: except to close
His eyes and wait until he heard a sound
Which would inform him that his enemy
Had come to join him on this battleground
Of its own choosing, and thereon to pose
The fateful question.
Time passed; so he sat
Down with his back against a rock, on soil
Hard-baked and sandy, strewn with bones and stones.
Pulling a hood over his head so that
The atmosphere’s malign effects might be
Reduced, he waited.
Then, at last, he heard
The sound of beating wings. The Sphinx that brings
Death was coming to claim his life! It flew
Close, hovering above his mantled head.
He felt the pulsing air throb like the beat
Of his own heart, but stronger yet than that!
And felt the mighty down-draught from those wings,
Almost cyclonic in its energy,
Lashing his cloak-hood, (tossing in the roil
Small stones and sand into the troubled air),
And making rattle the disjointed bones
In his immediate vicinity.
“This thing”, he reasoned, “must be enormous;
Yet I am safe until I’ve had the chance
To try its riddle.” Motionless he stayed
Until the wing-wind tore away the hood
From his bowed head. The time had come to dare
The legendary creature!
Opened his rested eyes that he might view
The figure of his foe. At first his glance
Met only vacant space.
Then, like a bird
Of giant size, the monster from the sky
Landed before him, folding back her wings.
Her body was a lion’s, ten feet long
From nape of neck to base of tail, whose tip
Lashed six feet further off. A look of hate
Glared from her amber eyes, as though there flamed
In them a pyre. Her shoulder was as high
As Œdipus himself, though on all fours
She went; and on each paw five fearsome claws.
Her breast and face were human to the sight,
But grossly formed and brutishly defined,
Proportionately large to suit her size;
Whilst lion’s teeth gleamed from her hanging lip,
Drooling thick, yellow foam. And when she spake
Her voice was harshly guttural, like stones
Grinding together. “Who are you who thinks
To enter Thebes this way?”
“If that’s the riddle which you pose, I find
A ready answer!. I have come to take
Away from Thebes the terror that now reigns
Outside its walls. I do not count the cost,
For I have nothing I can lose but life
And am inured to sufferings and pains.
My name is Œdipus. Since this reply
Suffices as a truthful answer to
Your question, I have won and you must go!”
The Sphinx snarled angrily, tossing her head –
Spit splattering upon the bone-strewn ground –
A baleful glitter in her yellow eyes.
“You think you’re clever, don’t you, little man?
Do you suppose that your poor human mind
Could outwit my intelligence, which can
Number the stars and galaxies and hold
The secrets of the universe? Gods quailed
When I had put them to the test those long
Millennia ago; for they soon found
Their powers were inferior. What brings
You here is no concern of mine. Your name
Has no significance, for deathless fame
Will not be yours despite your silly boast.
Your pride will be your fall; the only prize
Which you can win is death! Fate has decreed
It for you. There is no escape for those
Who cannot solve the riddle which I pose.
You claim you’ve won already, yet you knew
My question was rhetorical, a mere
Irrelevance. Many men of your kind
Have met their mental match in me, right here,
Beside this Theban gate. They thought, like you
That they were clever; yet these bones have paled
For many months since those who owned them lost
The forfeit of their lives. Your own remains
Will soon be pickings for coarse crows. You dare
To challenge me, but you will quickly learn
That, like the rest, for you there’s no return
To home and family! It was not wise
To come, for you must pit your puny brains
Against my subtlety. What stupid things
You humans are, to come within the might
Of superhuman strength! However strong
You think yourselves to be, your feeble force
Cannot prevail against my magic laws.”
Œdipus answered: “Since you are inclined
To talk so much of my impending death,
As though the outcome of our meeting were
Foregone, like these dismembered heroes’ fates,
Beyond all argument before I test
Your potency – for you should know that I’m
Protected by a prophecy whose time
Is unfulfilled – would you elucidate
The situation should I answer right
Your lethal question?”
At his words the Sphinx
Bellowed with laughter of such force the walls
Nearby were shaken whilst her fœtid breath,
Exhaled with it, appalled him by its stench.
Her mirth was brief. She roared: “That is the most
Ridiculous request I ever heard!
Your prophesied protection cannot save
You from my power if you cannot best
My wits; I am more potent than the gods,
As I’ve already said. They are mere clods
Compared to me. You think that you are brave,
But you will quickly find that quality
Avails you nothing when opposed to me!
Nevertheless, to answer your request,
I’ll tell you this – not that you’ll benefit,
For nothing can be gained by you from it –
I am immune until my riddle’s solved.
If you had wit enough to do the thing
Then all my magic powers were dissolved;
And for a little space of time – till dawn
In fact – I would no longer be immune
To human weapons. But my creature strength,
Within these mighty muscles, would remain;
And you’re no match for them if we should fight!
You have your answer, now you must reply
To my conundrum; and then you shall die!”
“Your strength may be more potent than the gods’,
But for your wisdom I must have a doubt.”
Said Œdipus. “The Delphic Sybil knew
My name before I said a word; but you
Must ask my family identity
To learn it from my mouth! Nor do you seem
To know the substance of the Sybil’s dream
Which rules my destiny. Moreover she,
(Though wan from sitting in a darkened room
And breathing inspiration’s fœtid fume),
Seemed more attractive than yourself to me!”
Trembling with rage, her glaring eyes aflame,
The Sphinx snarled: “You are insolent, and I
Can scarcely wait the moment when you die!
All that preserves you, for the instant, is
That by my self-imposed conditions you
Must have the opportunity to find
The answer to the riddle I shall pose.
Else you had been already dead! The odds
On your survival can’t be summed: your mind
Is quite unequal to fulfil the task
Your coming here entailed, because your thought
Now: it’s time you took the test
And, having failed, join your bones with the rest
That litter this delightful place whence none
Can get away, however fast they run”.
“There is a certain time-span, I presume?”
Asked Œdipus, “For it would be absurd
To have no scope for thought when my whole fate
Depends upon this thing.”
“You waste your breath,”
The Sphinx responded. “Why prevaricate?
Your quibbles bore me!” Then she gave a yawn,
Bared her huge teeth and smiled a feline grin,
Malicious, calculating, fierce.
She said: “The shadow of that tower lies
Upon the ground and moves as time goes past.
When it has reached this boulder, over here,
Your answer will be due; then, if your brain
Has got it wrong, or failed to make response,
It will be time for you to die the death!”
“I understand”, said Œdipus, “that once
The tower-shadow reaches to the rock
Beside you, I must make reply. Within
The intervening period I’m free
To cogitate without distraction. Now,
I’m ready for your riddle. Tell it!”
Locked with eyes in confrontation. At last
The Sphinx lay down upon the ground and said:
“Now tell me this: what living thing is that
Which goes on four feet in the morning, then
At midday moves on two alone, but in
The evening-time travels along on three;
But has least strength when with the most endowed?”
Then she was silent, watching him!
Of puzzles he reviewed. None would compare
With what the Sphinx had asked. He put his head
Between his hands and thought it through again.
He watched the shadow as it quickly passed
Towards the rock. The Sphinx, too – as a cat
Observes potential prey, without a stir:
Until it pounces, suddenly! – stared at
The shadow but, with sidelong glance
From time to time, kept watch on him!
A vision came to Œdipus. (Therein,
Young parents with their infant child at play
Beside them whilst, nearby, there stood a grey
Haired grandsire smiling at the scene who, bent
Beneath the burden of his decades, leant
On a stout stick for his support). He knew
The riddle’s answer!
Now he must devise
Some way to catch the ogress by surprise
And slay her. He must wait to launch his coup
Until the very latest chance. To win
The final mastery would need great care.
His strike must be both quick and accurate;
There only would be time to instigate
Just one attack, and that would have to be
The very model of efficiency:
If he should fail to kill the monster, fast,
He would be torn to pieces in her grasp!
He waited till the shadow almost touched
The rock, the better to surprise the beast
Whilst, underneath his travel-cloak, he clutched
The handle of his sword. And then he spoke:
“Perhaps your riddle’s answer, Sphinx, is this:
What go on four limbs in their morning ways
When weakest, and at their strength’s noon-zenith
Make progress using only two but, with
Onset of evening, travel by the means
Of odd, tri-pedal steps; is it not true
That these adaptive beings are us Men?”
The Sphinx looked shocked: her eyes went blank, her jaw
Dropped to her breast; as stunned, her huge head bowed
To her paws. Heavily she sighed, but gave
No direct answer to him. His reply,
So unexpected, had upset her schemes
And caught her unawares.
That he was right! And also that she’d try
To kill him when she realised he’d won;
A victory for him was not allowed!
There was no time to lose; he’d be undone
If she recovered sense; for she would crave
His blood to expiate defeat, whilst he
Himself could not resist her force, since she
Had in her massive body and huge limbs
The strength of many men.
The time to chance
His fortune had arrived. Quickly he leaped
Towards her, sword unsheathed and, with one stroke,
With all his strength severed her neck-bones through.
The curse of Thebes had turned to stuff of dreams
And Œdipus had triumphed as she died!
The news soon spread. (How very strange it is
That unseen actions reach the ears of men
As though by magic spread!).
With happiness to hear of it. Without
Delay she hurried, from her palace, down
To the gate where Œdipus had freed her
City from the monstrous tyranny. She
Took him in her chariot through roadways
Thronged with cheering people. There was no doubt
He was a hero worthy of high praise!
Once in the palace, he was asked to tell
The secret of his clever victory.
It soon was done; there was not much to say.
So when Jocasta offered him her hand,
Her bed, her treasure and the Theban crown,
He thought it prudent to accept the same!
Thus he became the ruler of that land
Which, by his wisdom, prospered in its fame;
For he was a thoughtful, fair, kind leader.
Thebes never was before ruled half as well;
Nor ever will be, to its final day!
The years passed by which brought them happiness:
Boys, Eteocles and Polynices;
And girls, Ismene and Antigone.
It seemed that fair good fortune smiled upon
Their house, their family and all of Thebes.
The fall from highest peaks of proud success,
Down to the chasmic deeps of dire despair,
Has been the theme of many tales and songs,
And will continue so to be; for we
Are fascinated by the contrasts drawn
Together compactly, which shew us their
Dramatic force. But when that fall belongs
To our own lives the fascination palls
Beyond all telling!
(If, perchance, I can
First take another drink, I shall be glad…
[Theseus again brings some, which is shared amongst those present.]
…That’s better!…Thank you, Sir.
My frequent calls
Upon your kind forbearance – and the check
They put upon the telling of this tale –
Are no doubt irksome to you; but this sad
Account quite chokes my throat, which is unused
To such extensive exercise as this,
And I should fail to finish did I not
Refresh myself from time to time. Besides,
The hot sun must discomfort you as well!…
Once more I thank you, Sir, for your most kind
Consideration of my needs.
So hard for me to speak of things my mind
Has hid in fearful secrecy for years;
But I must earn my fee! If I’ve abused
Your patience, I apologise. The tears
You see escaping from my eyes, despite
My efforts to prevent their exodus,
Are not dissimulations aimed to wring
Your undeserved indulgence, but the plain
Expression of my soul’s remembered pain
Concerning what befell King Œdipus
To overthrow his glory from its height.
For what I’m now about to say to you
Revives in me the anguish that I felt
As those events occurred and caused to melt –
Like Winter frost and snow at Spring’s return –
The carefree happiness that once I knew:
The memories of which make my heart burn
As then it did. And yet, Sir, you shall hear
The tragic ending of my tale).
You certainly have guessed that this sad wreck
Is Œdipus himself, poor wretched man,
Who through no fault of his had brought about
Fulfilment of that very prophecy
He tried to thwart. If there remains a doubt
Within your mind, I will explain just how
It happened. Through my words you then will see
How simple curiosity can tear
A great man’s life to shreds.
(Your pardon, Sir?
What is my name? I am Antigone
His daughter, Sir; and sister, too, through force
Of circumstance! This tale is not of me
Though, but of him, once King of Thebes and great
In all men’s eyes: until unkindly Fate
Destroyed his honour and his sanity.
So, if it please you, Sir, I’ll once again
Resume his history).
One fateful day,
In idle conversation with his wife –
I was sat by a window sewing thread,
So I could see them and hear what was said –
King Œdipus asked if she would explain
The circumstance of her first husband’s death.
(Why, after twenty years, he wished to know
About his royal predecessor’s end
I never did discover for events,
After that moment, overthrew all sense
It seemed innocent enough
At first; but soon the atmosphere was dense
With mounting tension. I desired to go
Elsewhere, but could not move. I had to lend
Attention to the words they said and try
To understand what so disturbed the scene.
My mother seemed oblivious, lost in
Her memories; it was my father’s state
Which caused me such concern. Oh, Sir! How I
Wish he’d never thought to ask the question!
Idle curiosity – the one sin
My father had – is dangerous. From that
There followed so much misery and pain.
I trust I never shall know such again
As long as I may live. I don’t know what
My father thought to gain from his request;
But what he got from it destroyed his rest
And all our former happiness. Our fate
Was fashioned in our mother’s clear reply!
For, as she spoke, Œdipus soon became
Alarmed and agitated in both mind
And manner. Though Jocasta thought a band
Of robbers had cut short King Laius’s life
In hopes of plunder, she described the place
With such particularity – the way
The crossroads looked, and how the dozen dead
Were neatly laid there, side-by-side as though
Awaiting funeral; and how the face
Of Laius seemed, in death, to know who slew
Him – Œdipus had felt his heart and breath
Stick in his throat. He recognised the same
Grim battleground where he had fought those years
Ago! Trying to mask the strain behind
The lightness of his tone, he asked if she
Recalled the date of this event? His fears
Were heightened when she told him, for it was
Two years before himself had just appeared
To rid the city of the Sphinx! His head
Reeled in confusion as suspicion grew
To certainty. Only one doubt could be
Of solace for him now; but though he feared
Its resolution, he just had to know
The truth of it! He forced his words to be
As innocent of tension as his heart
Was guilty of the same. His shaking hands
Betrayed his nervousness. It seemed to me
As if a Sphinx-like spirit filled the air
With poisoned fumes which made my flesh turn ice,
Slowing my pulse and tearing at my eyes.
Dissembling ease – though I could see and sense,
(Sat silent and uncomprehendingly
As yet, across the spacious room; my stare
Unnoticed by them both), his misery –
He smoothed his robes as, softly, he enquired,
In tones of simulated innocence,
Whether King Laius and Jocasta had
A baby who had died, perhaps, when young?
She did not sense his fierce anxieties:
She could not know she spoke to him of him,
As she related how their only son,
Whilst still an infant, had been killed because
The Delphic Oracle’s prophetic tongue
Had warned them of a destiny so grim
It was not to be borne!
His last doubt gone,
Œdipus abruptly left the room. Part
Of him died that moment!. All he desired
Was solitude. He would not eat. No talk
Could coax from him the reason for his mad
And melancholic looks, his sudden rage
Wildly immoderate, his drinking-bouts.
He, who had always been wise, gentle, kind
And temperate in all he did or spoke,
Had suddenly become a misanthrope
Indifferent to all. His interest
In government was gone. He seemed to age
A dozen years within a week. His walk
Was crooked: hair unkempt; eyes red and blear;
Tired face unshaven. He would take no rest,
But staggered round the rooms like one gone blind.
Often he mumbled nonsense to himself;
Sometimes the palace echoed to his shouts:
In short, he went quite mad.
His sons, abused
Beyond all reason, kept apart from him;
And Ismene, my sister, did not dare
Even to look at him!. Only the Queen,
Jocasta, and myself, together bore
His shameless conduct in the hope his health
Might be recovered if we persevered;
We loved him for the man he once had been.
The final crisis of his tragic state
Came suddenly one evening. It was late.
Mother and I were in his room. By dim
Light from the candles we conversed in hushed
Concern. My father limped about the place
Relentlessly. He had been drinking hard
All through the day and seemed in a stupor;
For drink was all that gave him solace now.
Then both of us became aware that he
Had ceased his wandering. His ravaged face
Was turned towards us, but he did not see
Us sitting there. He muttered in his beard,
Inaudibly at first; and then he brushed
His hand across the furrows on his brow
And spoke distinctly!.
Gone were the confused,
Inconsequential phrases: what we heard
Broke both our hearts! For, clearly, he rehearsed
The Delphic Oracle’s bleak prophecy
Word perfect, though it was not told to him
By Queen Jocasta! Then he made it plain
That he had been the heir to Corinth’s crown
Before the Oracle had cast him down.
Then, how he’d killed his father in a fight,
Unknowing who he was, upon the road.
The details which he mentioned left no room
For doubting that he did it. Then he cursed
Remorseless Fate for bringing him back there,
To Thebes– the city of his birth – to dare
The Sphinx and thereby earn the promised right
To wed the Queen, now known by him to be
His own birth-mother!
Turning to her, then,
I saw her face contorted with the pain
Of knowledge that the long-forecasted doom
She and her son had sought to void, at great
Cost to themselves, had come to pass. The code
Of moral law had been transgressed. She knew
He spoke the truth!
Œdipus, silent now,
Began his fretful pacing once again –
Oblivious that he had spoken out
Or that his words were overheard – the grim
Scowl back upon his face.
Pale, voiceless, gaunt. She kissed me tenderly,
Pressed my hand softly and then left the room.
Amazed, I sat beside the candle’s flame
Trying to understand what all this meant.
I was my father’s sister and his child
At once: that much I knew. I wondered how
My mother would react to that, and to
The thought that her own son was father of
Her children! My senses were awry; wild
Things chased round my brain!. I sensed the gloom
Grow gloomier. And then my simple love
Turned to that crazed, tormented man, heart-rent
By gross misfortune, (through the prior claim
Of mystic prophecy), which overthrows
Our best endeavours to improve our fate.
But then, within my ears, there rang a shout
Of mingled grief and torment, so extreme
In its intensity I could not bear
To hear it more!. The shout became a scream,
The scream a dying moan. I sat in dread,
Too stunned to realise what it could mean
At first: until I recognised the voice
Of her, my mother!
Quickly I ran there,
To her room. She lay upon her bed. Dead!
I guessed she had decided that no choice,
But end her life to expiate the guilt
And shame of incest, had remained to her.
Owl-eyed, both hands clasping the dagger’s hilt
Close to her still-warm breast, almost serene
She looked; except the sightless stare betrayed
The fading remnants of that wild despair
Which forced her to the fatal deed.
Remorse – although too sudden-shocked to weep
Just then – I stroked her combed and scented hair,
New-pinned with jewelled clasps. She wore the dress
In which she took the most delight – made up,
With shimmering rich ornaments, from cloth
Of finest quality to please the eye –
When she had been the newly-wedded bride
Of Œdipus in happier times.
Witless fingers still with her tresses played
I realised that, silent by my side,
My father stood! His face wept deep distress.
His eyes moved uncontrolledly, their wide
Dark pupils burning brightly as his tears
Reflected highlights from her ornaments.
I could but guess what were his troubled fears
As he stood silent there, bereft of sense,
Seeming consumed with bitterness and loth
To comprehend the evidence he saw.
He stood there, weeping, for a timeless space
Until acceptance came that she was dead;
Then emptied at one draught the brimming cup
He held and flung the vessel from him!. I
Recoiled, alarmed. But then his hollow face,
Put on a mournful smile. To me he said,
In measured, lucid words and accents kind,
Which instantly gave reassurance he
Intended no aggression toward me:
“Antigone, dear daughter, you are sore
From many griefs borne in your faithful breast.
I, Œdipus your father, ask of you
A single favour; then you may depart
Forever from me, so that you may find
Escape from the worst horrors of my fate.
Take me away from Thebes and guide my way
To Delphi’s temple. If you should be true
To me till then I shall release your heart,
That day, from further service to me. Say
You will do this and I shall ask no more”.
What could I, but agree to his request?
He bent to kiss my forehead tenderly;
Told me he loved me more than any son;
And promised that, forever, whilst his breath
Continued, he would hold me dear.
Contentment filled my sense. It seemed to me
As if his madness, through our mother’s death,
Had been removed. Father and child were one
Again, in shared relief from that dark curse
Which had so much oppressed us. But my hope
(How utterly perverse
Is mad irrationality, whose scope
For mischief cannot be contained! Just when
We dare believe stability and peace
Have been attained, misfortune strikes again
And shatters our anticipated ease!).
Œdipus stooped to kiss Jocasta’s brow
In last farewell for mother and for wife.
Then he unpinned the largest brooch she wore
And placed it, carefully, beside her head
Upon the pillow. Gently he unclasped
Her fingers, folding her lifeless hands, pale
Arms, across her bosom.
In his eyes, red
From his grief, a sudden purpose kindled
Like a summer fire! Roughly, then, he tore
From out her breathless breast the fatal knife,
Releasing from the unstopped wound a flow
Of blood which stained her garment as it streamed
Like Phlegethon itself! The gush dwindled
To a trickling rivulet.
I could prevent him, suddenly he grasped
His own tongue and, sawing with vicious force,
Severed the thing and threw it down! Words fail
To tell the horror of that sight!. I screamed
And tried disarm him, thinking that he sought
To kill himself. He thrust me to the floor.
Dropping the knife he snatched, instead, the brooch
Which he had laid upon the pillow near.
Then he began to stab and gouge his eyes
With wild ferocity, as though he fought
A battle with some dæmon in his head,
Or by such actions murdered his reproach!
Although he seemed insensitive to pain
And mutilation, I could not endure
That torture he inflicted on his dear,
Guilt-stricken self. I grappled with him and –
Sheer desperation lending me more power
Than even he could counter at that hour –
At length I wrestled from his bloody hands
The instrument with which he tried to cure
His soul’s remorse. I threw it out of reach.
He struggled for some moments longer, gore
Drooling from his ravaged mouth, whilst from each
Pierced eye bright-blooded fountains pumped in spurts
And rained upon us both; until a calm,
Sudden and complete, dowsed his wild furore.
He fought no more. To my immense surprise
His lucid self returned and he was sane;
Though for how long I had no means to know.
(Ah, Sir!. If you had seen him then, I’m sure
Your sleep with nightmares would be fraught, as mine
Is to this present: even though it’s near
Four years since these events occurred!).
Him to his room and washed him clean; put balm
Upon his injuries and changed his dress
For something fresh and fit for travel. Then,
Having cleaned myself and changed my clothes, I
Packed some food, drink, bandages and such. When
All was readied, I put a staff of beech
Into his hand and led him out to go,
As I had promised him, to Delphi’s den
Though, in my heart, I felt I’d rather die!
(Fearing that more delay would risk a new
Crisis of madness in my father’s mind,
I left Jocasta lying on her bed.
Others must do the Office of the Dead
Whilst I led Œdipus to where he’d find
The Sybil – who had forecast so much woe –
Though ignorant of what he planned to do).
It was a slow and stumbling journey there –
As you would not find difficult to guess –
Although the weather could not be more fine.
When we arrived, he made me lead him close
To where the Sybil sat, wreathed in the smoke
Of sacred inspiration which exhaled
From underneath her seat through some deep cleft
Reputed to descend to Hades’ Court
Far in the Underworld.
Scarcely had we
Approached her, and before a word was said
By anyone, the Sybil turned her head
To us. Her eyes were shut yet seemed to see
Us! In most solemn accents, then, she spoke:
“Œdipus, you have returned. In your thought
Is vengeance! Do you think that I invoke
The prophecies I make of my own choice?
If that were so, then I had surely failed
The honour and integrity which are
Essential to my holy function here.
I am indifferent to all. My voice
Only announces what my senses see
Revealed by mystic forces. You prepare,
Urged by your wrath, to seek dreadful redress
Against my temple and myself. Such pride
Would merit retribution were it not
Considered that your grief has made you mad!
It has now been decreed that you are free
From that compelling destiny you bear
Because the prophecy has been fulfilled.
You may go where you wish: except I bar
Your entry into Thebes and Corinth, less
For their sakes than for yours; for you would know
Much hurt where once you had been more than glad.
So long as you obey this rule, I take
The curse of madness from your troubled mind.
A peaceful mendicant your future, till
The day ordained for you to die.
Of young Antigone?. Her lot to guide
And care for you, that you be not bereft
Of love and comfort, till the Mighty Will,
Which knows all things, shall end your days. Then she
Will be allowed to go to Thebes and find
Her final fate. But I shall not now make
Her future plain to her; though I could shew
It, if I chose! It is enough to know
That she shall be, until your own life’s tide
Has ceased, at last, its destined ebb and flow,
Your faithful friend and loyal helpmate. Be
Content to share with her life’s gifts, for she
Will bring you comfort till the day you die.
Now go! For you I no more prophesy!”
Since then, Sir, we have wandered near and far
Through all ofGreece, as was foretold to us
At Delphi; begging, as we go, for food
So the tale of Œdipus
Is brought right up-to-date. You have been good,
And patient, to have heard it out.
Now, Sir –
Though many troubles in so short a space
Have left their painful scars within my heart;
Which, though they may not shew upon my face,
Still torture my sad mind with anguished smart;
Whilst in my eyes keen watchers may discern
The agonies in which my spirits burn –
We must be on our way, for we must find
Somewhere to stay this night…
[Moved by her story, Theseus gives a purse of coins to Antigone.]
What? All this purse
Of golden staters? You are much too kind;
There must be near a hundred coins here! Are
You sure you mean us to have all? My heart
Does not know how to thank you worthily;
My gratitude is witnessed by my tears.
You are a gentleman, Sir, and I’ll pray
To all the gods for your advantage! We
Now have the means to keep us for some years
In what we need; and, as our shoes are worse
For wear and these poor garments patched and thin,
We shall be able to replace them new,
Thanks to the generosity of you.
The gods be with you, Sir. Farewell!.
[As they wander slowly away King Theseus turns towards Athens, troubled by the revelation that Fate rules mighty monarchs as surely as it does the meanest of their slaves. But Antigone continues talking happily to Œdipus]
Has brought great benefit. Let’s find an inn
Where we can get some comfort for a start.
Tomorrow we shall buy some better clothes;
And after that, dear father, well….. who knows?.
[Afterword: According to one account, the ultimate fate of Antigone was tragic. After wandering around Greece for several years with Œdipus, she returned to Thebes after he had died and been buried near Athens. (Theseus was himself was amongst the mourners). Shortly after her arrival in Thebes her two brothers – Eteocles and Polynices – were killed fighting for the crown. Their uncle Creon, who had taken power, forbade the burial of their bodies. Nevertheless, the ever-loyal Antigone interred them herself. This act of charitable piety resulted in Creon having her immured alive in a cave, where she died of starvation and thirst. Some accounts say that her lover, Hæmon, chose to die with her. J.A.B].