The Oedipus Myth

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The Oedipus Myth

You will often come across myth discussed alongside any of the Greek tragedies you study. This is simply because the Greeks tended to refer to myths for the source of plots for their plays, rather than to invent plots of their own or to dramatize real-life events (in fact, Phrynichus' play, The Sack of Miletus, got him a fine of 1000 drachmas for doing exactly that).

This is, perhaps, where the inevitability so often associated with Greek Tragedy stems from: many or most of the Athenian audience who first watched these plays at the City Dionysia and other dramatic festivals would be familiar with the story of Oedipus - and know what to expect as soon as they heard his name.

The story that they would have known is the same as that of Sophocles’ play. What is compelling, however, is the way Sophocles chooses to dramatize it – the precise way he packages the well-known story into a play. The story of Oedipus itself is by no means Sophocles’ invention, but he reorganizes the way the information is given so as to provide maximum tension.

The story of the myth is as follows – in chronological order:

The King of Thebes was Laius, a descendant of Cadmus, and an oracle predicted, before the birth of his son, that this son would one day be his father’s murderer. When born, Laius (and, in some versions of the myth, Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and Laius’ wife) gives the child to a herdsman and orders him to take him out beyond the city and kill him. Out of pity for the child, the herdsman gave the baby to another herdsman, tying his feet together and wounding them (in some versions, Laius pierces Oedipus’ feet and exposes him to die, where the herdsman finds him by chance). This herdsman took the baby to Polybus, King of Corinth, who adopted him as his own son.

Oedipus, now fully grown, is told that he is not the son of Polybus, and seeks help from an oracle, who tells him he is destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus – presumably still thinking that Polybus is his father – flees from Corinth to Thebes in an attempt to escape the fate the oracle has predicted for him. As he is travelling, he gets involved in a dispute at a crossroads with a man in a chariot (Laius, his birth father) – and kills him.

As he approaches Thebes, Oedipus is approached by the Sphinx, who proposes her famous riddle: ‘What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?’ – the answer is man, who crawls, walks upright, and in his age, walks with a stick. The Sphinx, who has been plaguing Thebes, is defeated – Oedipus has solved the riddle that no Athenian could solve. In gratitude, the Thebans appoint Oedipus the king of Thebes (in Laius’ place) and reward him with the dead king’s wife, Jocasta, his birth mother. Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: two daughters (Electra and Ismene) and two sons (Polyneices and Eteocles).

At this point, Sophocles' play begins. Years later, a plague strikes Thebes, and Oedipus as King promises to end it. He sends Creon, Jocasta’s brother, to the Delphic Oracle to seek guidance and is told that the murderer of Laius must be found and either killed or exiled (depending, again, on which version you read). As he begins to search for the killer, he encounters (or sends for) Tiresias, who tells him that he is the killer of Laius and warns him that he will only be seeking out himself. Oedipus ignores this advice.

A messenger arrives from Corinth giving Oedipus the news that Polybus is dead, and it seems the oracle’s prophecy for Oedipus has failed to come true. The herdsman who delivered him to Corinth then appears and informs Oedipus that he is an adopted baby. Jocasta, hearing this, realizes what has happened and kills herself. Oedipus seeks out the herdsman initially ordered to murder him as a baby, and learns that the infant raised by Polybus and Merope (his wife) was in fact the son of Laius and Jocasta. He finally realizes that, at the crossroads, he killed his father, and is married to his own mother. Notably in Sophocles' play, the Corinthian Messenger is also the first herdsman: a small, but concise tweak.

Oedipus finds Jocasta dead, and blinds himself. He then (in Sophocles) leaves the city, and with his daughter Antigone as his guide, wanders blindly through the country, dying finally at Colonos. Some versions of the story have Oedipus commit suicide in Thebes, rather than leave or be exiled.


Major Themes

Light and darkness

Darkness and light are tightly wound up with the theme of sight and blindness in Sophocles' play. Oedipus - and all the other characters, save for Teiresias - is 'in the dark' about his own origins and the murder of Laius. Teiresias, of course, is literally 'in the dark' with his own blindness - and yet manages to have sight over everything that is to follow. After Oedipus finds out what has happened, he bemoans the way everything has indeed "come to light".

Sight and blindness

Teiresias holds the key to the link between sight and blindness - for even though he is blind, he can still see and predict the future (if not the present). At the end of the play, moreover, Oedipus blinds himself, because what he has metaphorically seen (i.e. realized) leaves him unable to face his family or his parents in the afterlife). As with the previous theme, sight/blindness operate both literally and metaphorically within the play. Indeed, literal sight is juxtaposed with 'insight' or 'foresight'.

Origins and children

Oedipus embarks upon a search for his own origins, and - though he does not realize it - for his real parents. As the child of his own wife, and thus father and brother to his children, Sophocles explores various interrelationships between where things began and who fathered who. Similarly, the play itself works backwards towards a revelatory start: the story has, in effect, already happened - and Oedipus is forced to discover his own history.

The one and the many (also doubles/twos)

Throughout the play, a central inconsistency dominates - namely the herdsman and Jocasta both believe Laius to have been killed by several people at the crossroads. The story, however, reveals that Oedipus himself alone killed Laius. How can Laius have been supposedly killed by one person – and also by many people?

Oedipus is searching for Laius’ murderer: he is the detective seeking the criminal. Yet in the end, these two roles merge into one person – Oedipus himself. The Oedipus we are left with at the end of the play is similarly both father and brother. Sophocles’ play, in fact, abounds with twos and doubles: there are two herdsmen, two brothers (Oedipus and Creon), two daughters and two sons, two opposed pairs of king and queen (Laius and Jocasta, and Polybus and Merope), and two cities (Thebes and Corinth). In so many of these cases, Oedipus’ realization is that he is either between – or, more confusingly, some combination of – two things. Thus the conflict between “the one and the many” is central to Sophocles’ play. “What is this news of double meaning?” Jocasta asks (939). Throughout Oedipus, then, it remains a pertinent question.

Plague and health

Thebes at the start of the play is suffering from terrible blight which renders the fields and the women barren. The oracle tells Oedipus at the start of the play that the source of this plague is Laius' murderer (Oedipus himself). Health then, only comes with the end of the play and Oedipus' blindness. Again, 'plague' is both literal and metaphorical. There is a genuine plague, but also, to quote Hamlet, there might be "something rotten" in the moral state of Thebes.

Prophecy, oracles, and predestination

The origins of this play in the Oedipus myth (see 'Oedipus and Myth') create an compelling question about foreknowledge and expectation. The audience who knew the myth would know from the start far more than Oedipus himself - hence a strong example of dramatic irony. Moreover, one of the themes the play considers as a corollary is whether or not you can escape your fate. In trying to murder her son, Jocasta finds him reborn as her husband. Running from Corinth, from his parents, Oedipus murders his father on the way. It seems that running away from one's fate ultimately ensures that one is only running towards it.

Youth and age

'Man' is the answer to the Sphinx's question, and the aging of man is given key significance in the course of the play. Oedipus himself goes from childlike innocence to a blinded man who needs to be led by his children. Oedipus, it might be said, ages with the discovery of his own shortcomings as a man. In learning of his own weaknesses and frailties, he loses his innocence immediately.

Additional information on making a Greek Mask

Think about what your mask represents.  What does this person / animal / monster do?  How does it feel?  How should the audience react?  (For example, does this character command respect?  Fear?  Sympathy?  Or just make us laugh?)  Does the character’s mood change?

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR INSPIRATION:  To keep it Greek, base your mask on someone or something from Ancient Greek culture.  Myths and fables are an excellent source!  Here are some characters, chosen at random:

Medusa (a Gorgon)

Socrates (a philosopher)

Herakles (strong man, usually bearded)

Athena (patron goddess of Athens)

Minotaur (bull-headed man)

Hermes (wingèd messenger of the gods)

Polyphemus (Cyclops from The Odyssey)

Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s horse)

Argos (giant with 100 eyes!)

Pegasus (wingèd horse)

Grasshopper or Ant (from Æsop’s fables)

Spartan Soldier

Agamemnon (a king)

Hera (queen of the gods)

Pandora (“primordial woman,” who opened the wrong box!)

Minerva (goddess of wisdom – could have an owl perched on her “shoulder.”)

Interesting Websites
For general information on all aspects of the Greek Theater
For information on the layout of a Greek Theater
For 3D images of the Greek Theater Dionysus in Athens
For information on the famous Theater at the Sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidaurus
Additional Resources

A book you might find interesting is: From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, by Louis Markos, Professor in English

Houston Baptist University. Below is a synopsis of the book.


In this book, I shall explore how the faith and discernment of Christian readers can be strengthened and enhanced by a vigorous interaction with the central literary masterpieces of the ancient world. Rather than attempt to encompass the full Greco-Roman legacy, I shall confine myself to the epic and dramatic poetry of Homer, Virgil, and the Greek Tragedians. Thus, although elements of Greco-Roman philosophy, theology, history, politics, ethics, etc. will appear occasionally in this work, the focus will remain firmly on the epics and the tragedies. The book will be broken into three parts: Part I will examine Homer’s two great epics; Part II will take up the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; Part III will consider the origin, plan, and contents of Virgil’s Roman epic, the Aeneid. I will not be discussing the works of the supreme proto-Christian, Plato, not because he is not vital, but because he wrote non-fiction prose (rather than fictional poetry) and because, in any case, he demands an entire book to himself. The modern Christian is as likely to dismiss the epics of Homer or the plays of Sophocles as sources of truth on account of their pagan origin as he is to dismiss them on account of their being fictional and poetic. By keeping my focus firmly on epic and dramatic literature, I hope to explode (or at least shake) both of these ingrained modernist (post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment) prejudices.

In the chapters themselves, the poetry of Homer, Virgil, and the tragedians will be considered from two distinct but overlapping perspectives: as literary works possessing their own separate integrity within the context of the cultures and the poets that produced them; as “proto-Christian” works of almost prophetic power that point the way toward Christ and that glimmer with a faint but True Light. That is not to say that all the works considered will point specifically to Jesus as the Dying and Rising God (most will point instead to a virtue or an ethos or a dilemma that finds its full flowering and expression in Christianity), but it is to say that I will treat each work as a source of (inspired) wisdom that Christians can learn and profit from as they might from, say, a devotional work like The Imitation of Christ or Pilgrim’s Progress.

Though capsule plot summaries will be included in each chapter, and though this book can be read profitably on its own, it is my hope that readers will study it alongside the actual works of Homer, Virgil, and the tragedians. (To facilitate this study, I have included a bibliographical essay in which I point out some key resources that the non-specialist should find helpful.) Indeed, it is my further hope that parents (especially homeschooling parents) will use this book as a companion and guide as they lead their children on a thrilling odyssey through the great and enduring masterpieces of the ancient world.

INTRODUCTION: The Only Complete Truth
In the introduction, I will offer a defense as to why Christians (especially evangelicals) should read closely and even prayerfully the pagan literature of the Greeks and Romans. I will argue that Christianity is not the only truth, but the only complete truth, and that fragments of God’s Truth can therefore be found in pre-Christian literature that point forward to the coming (and full) revelation of Christ, the Bible, and the Church. I will back up these claims not only by referencing medieval Christian humanists like Aquinas and Dante, but by looking closely at the biblical journey of the Magi, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17), and Jesus’ answer to a group of pagan Greek seekers (John 12). I will then prepare the way for my own close analysis of Greco-Roman literature by guiding the reader through Cardinal Newman’s grand vision (laid out in The Idea of the University) of a Christian liberal-arts education that would garner wisdom both from the Bible and Sacred Tradition and from the literature of antiquity.


Chapter 1: Hesiod’s Theogeny: In the Beginning

In the Theogeny (“birth of the gods”) of Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer), we find not only an invocation to the Muses (as we do in the Iliad and Odyssey), but a more fully worked out notion of the poet as one called by the gods to speak prophetically of the nature of both the heavens and the earth, both God and men. We encounter, as well, the ancient Greek “version” of Genesis 1, a richly detailed account of how the various gods came into being, the relationship between these gods, and the cycles of divine vengeance and betrayal that culminate in the rule of Zeus and the Olympian gods. Christians need to wrestle with Hesiod that they may both compare and contrast 1) the Greek notion of the poet-prophet with the biblical (David, Isaiah, John, etc.), 2) the pagan notion of creation out of chaos with the biblical creation ex nihilo, and 3) the divine drama of reconciliation as it is played out by the squabbling, amoral Greek divinities and the truly sovereign and truly good God of the Bible.
Chapter 2: Homer’s Iliad I: A History of Conflict
The Iliad begins not with a battle between Greek and Trojan but between Greek and Greek. In the war of words that erupts between Achilles (the great, but impulsive warrior) and Agamemnon (the able but ultimately weak commander-in-chief) in Book I, we not only encounter the age-old struggle between soldier and general, gifted employee and intimidated administrator, but see how wrath and indecisiveness, stubborn pride and low self-esteem can cause strife and destroy camaraderie. Homer’s insight into human nature and conflict points the way to the Bible’s fuller insight into how human lust and pride pervert us from within and prevent us from maturing into the creatures we were created to be and from sharing in full fellowship. That Homer’s tragic human struggle is played out against divine struggles that are finally comic only adds to the angst of his warriors: an angst that can only be finally healed by the good news of the Incarnation.

Chapter 3: Homer’s Iliad II: Civilization v. Barbarism

In Book VI, Homer offers us a sort of Iliad in miniature: a self-contained narrative that carries the reader from war to peace, division to reconciliation, barbarism to civilization, the breaking of oaths to the affirmation of oaths. I shall explore the role played by the guest-host relationship in ancient Greek (and Hebrew) culture and how it offered a system for keeping order in a pre-law society. The chapter will culminate with a close analysis of the farewell scene between Hektor and his wife, Andromache (one of the most famous in literature), a scene that embodies the universal, cross-cultural human need to find stability in the midst of chaos and meaning in the midst of existential despair. Here we shall encounter both the heights and limits of man in his unregenerate state, and explore his God-given capacity for virtue.
Chapter 4: Homer’s Iliad III: A New Ethic
When Agamemnon steals away his war prize in Book I, Achilles pulls out of the war; in Book IX, Agamemnon relents and offers Achilles a rich reward if he will return to the battlefield: a reward that all his fellow soldiers (and everyone in Homer’s audience) expect Achilles to accept. In this chapter, I shall explore both why Achilles should accept the reward and fight, and why he does not. And, in showing why he does not, I will uncover how Homer, through the character of Achilles, points the way toward a radically new ethic: one that suggests that life has intrinsic value apart from one’s status or accomplishments. Though Achilles (and perhaps Homer) eventually rejects this new ethic, it remains one of the greatest pagan “seeds” of an understanding of the individual that will be fully articulated by Christ and that will go on to provide a foundation stone for the edifice of Western civilization.
Chapter 5: Homer’s Iliad IV: From Wrath to Reconciliation
When Achilles’ refusal to reenter the war leads his friend Patroclus to don Achilles’ armor and fight in his place, and when this fateful decision leads to the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hektor, Achilles’ anger against Agamemnon is replaced by an unmitigated wrath against Hektor. In this chapter, I shall trace Achilles’ transformation into a remorseless, finally inhuman killing machine who not only kills the defenseless, suppliant Hektor, but desecrates his body and refuses to allow it to be given a proper burial. I shall then show how, out of the pit of despair into which Achilles has thrown himself, Homer is able to achieve an almost miraculous reconciliation between Achilles and the grieving father of Hektor (King Priam). What does it mean to be human and mortal? What is the proper way to grieve? In the reconciliation to Achilles’ wrath we will find answers to these questions that point forward to the fuller revelation of Christ and the Bible.
Chapter 6: Homer’s Odyssey I: Coming of Age
Although Odysseus is the central hero of the Odyssey, he does not actually appear until Book V. From Books I-IV, Homer casts the spotlight instead on Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, a young man of twenty who stands on the brink of manhood and the responsibilities that such maturation brings. Indeed, Books I-IV form their own mini-epic, a tender, timeless, and intensely human coming-of-age story that explores how difficult it is for frail and imperfect mortals to live up to the lives and deeds of the heroes who have come before us. As we all must do (whether we be pre-Christian, Christian, or post-Christian), Telemachus struggles with right and wrong, virtue and vice, choice and destiny. His journey begins (like that of Moses) with a divine theophany and a spiritual call to fulfill an almost messianic role. In this chapter, we shall follow Telemachus on his pilgrimage toward self-identity.
Chapter 7: Homer’s Odyssey II: Coming Home
In contrast to the modern myth/prejudice that marriage in the ancient world was nothing more than a social arrangement, the marriage of Odysseus and Penelope stands as proof that the husbands and wives of Homer’s day were capable not only of a deep love relationship but of a kind of intimacy and unity that fully embodies the biblical definition of marriage as two people becoming one flesh. In this chapter, we shall travel with Odysseus as he struggles to return home and be reunited with his wife, overcoming obstacles that threaten both his life and his resolve, both his physical body and his familial loyalty. We shall see in particular what home and family mean to Odysseus, and how he defines himself by his relationship to his island home (Ithaca), to his wife, and to the son he does not know.
Chapter 8: Homer’s Odyssey III: The Journeys of Odysseus
The best known section of the Odyssey is surely Books 9-12, in which Homer recounts (through a first-person narrative placed in the mouth of Odysseus) the fantastic journeys of his hero: journeys that include his fight for survival in the cave of the Cyclops, his liaison with Circe the enchantress, and his descent into the underworld. In this chapter, we shall not only recount these travels but attempt to read some of them (as did the Medieval Christians) in an allegorical way. By so doing, we will discover in Odysseus’ adventures symbols and metaphors for the journey of the Christian soul as it seeks to leave behind that which is worldly and bestial and ascend to that which is spiritual and divine.


Chapter 9: Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: The Birth of Tragedy

This chapter will begin with a historical sketch of how tragedy was born and came to fruition in 5th c BC Athens after Greece’s miraculous defeat of the Persian Empire. I will discuss the religious significance of drama to the Athenians and how it was tied to Dionysus and the ritual of the scapegoat. I will then move on to consider one of the greatest scapegoat figures of myth and drama (Prometheus), not only as he is embodied in Aeschylus’ play, but as he continued to haunt the mind of poets. I will consider in particular how the Greek Prometheus oddly fuses characteristics that Christians identify with both Christ (the redemptive sufferer) and Satan (the eternal rebel against divine authority).

Chapter 10: Aeschylus’ Oresteia: Pagan Poets And Hebrew Prophets

In his great trilogy of plays (Oresteia: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides), Aeschylus borrows the cycles of divine vengeance from Hesiod (see Chapter 1) and incarnates them in the tragic fall of the House of Atreus. In telling his tragic tale, Aeschylus draws together all of the most ancient taboos (cannibalism, the sacrifice of one’s daughter, the murder of one’s spouse, the slaying of a guest, matricide) and allows us to witness the consequences that occur when such taboos are broken. And yet, in a turn that looks forward to the Christian victory born out of suffering, Aeschylus triumphantly moves his play toward a divine and human reconciliation that allows mercy to win out over eye-for-eye justice and that allows the characters (and the audience) to suffer into wisdom. This chapter will focus on how Aeschylus conveys his message through a swirl of interconnecting symbols—a method similar to that of the Hebrew prophets.
Chapter 11 Sophocles’ Oedipus: The Human Scapegoat
Sophocles’ Oedipus is arguably the greatest and best-known play of all time. In this chapter, we shall explore why a tragedy based on a repulsive situation (a man kills his father, then marries and bears children with his mother) should continue to speak to us across the ages. The play, I shall show, is finally not about patricide and incest, but about 1) self-discovery and the courage to seek out the truth no matter the consequences, 2) the eternal struggle between human will and divine destiny, and 3) the in-built human need to seek expiation from guilt (all of which, of course, are central Christian concerns).

Chapter 12: Sophocles’ Antigone & Electra: Questions of Duty

In Antigone, Sophocles pits the needs of the state against the needs of the individual, duty to the polis against duty to one’s family, a (masculine) reverence for law and order against a (feminine) reverence for piety. We shall explore in this chapter Antigone’s decision to bury her fallen brother in defiance of a legal edict that forbids it: a decision that not only challenged the ethics and mores of Sophocles’ contemporaries, but that continues to challenge those of us who live on the other side of Good Friday and Easter. I shall then carry this study of duty, law, and piety into a brief analysis of Sophocles’ Electra, a play about a young women torn between the duty she feels toward the memory of her murdered father and the obedience she must show to a mother she despises.

Chapter 13: Sophocles’ Women of Trachis & Philoctetes: The Tragedy of Character
Having considered Sophocles’ two great heroines, we shall, in this chapter, consider two of his great heroes: Heracles and Neoptolemus (the son of Achilles). In the case of the former, we shall see how lust and wrath can destroy from within men who are impervious to attacks from without. In the latter, we shall see how a much younger, “hero-in-training” is defined not only by his choices but by those he chooses to emulate as his heroes. In both we shall explore the dangers of human pride and the inability of fallen man to eradicate completely the beast.

Chapter 14: Euripides’ Electra And Medea: The Naïve and the Sentimental

If the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles fit Schiller’s description of “naïve” literature, those of Euripides fit better what Schiller terms the “sentimental.” With a surprisingly modern sensitivity and psychological insight, Euripides explores the repressed and bitter emotions that torment the daughter of the slain Agamemnon (Electra) and the internal suffering and rage that drive mad the jilted wife of Jason (Medea). Unlike the Electra plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides’ version of the tale presents us with heroes who are neither noble nor heroic; unlike Antigone’s opponent in Sophocles’ play, the male power figure in Medea is cold, arbitrary, and uncaring. In these plays, we hear the voice of the victims and of the dispossessed, but they must act out their dramas apart from the mercy of Christ. The pre-Christian Euripides calls out for remedies that his society does not yet possess.
Chapter 15: Euripides’ Hippolytus & Bacchae: Apollonian V. Dionysiac
In the Hippolytus and Bacchae of Euripides, we are introduced to two young men who think themselves virtuous and impervious to temptation, but who are, in fact, both repressed and prudish. Indeed, both men are quite literally torn apart because they are unable to deal both with human frailty and with the human need for emotional and non-rational release. They are also unable to reconcile what Nietzsche termed the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. Both plays are essential reading for Christians, not because they are Christian plays, but because they are “half-Christian” plays that call out for a fuller revelation of truth and mercy. In the former, the lack of a firm touchstone of truth brings disaster; in the latter, the lack of a savior who knows both how to set free and to forgive makes a final reconciliation impossible.


Chapter 16: The Sacred History of Rome

In Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of the Giant (Daniel 2), we learn that God works not only through Israel but through pagan nations that do not know him (even as he used King Cyrus of Persia to allow the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity). Of all the pagan nations, the one whose history seems most miraculous, most watched over by the providence of Yahweh, is Rome. In this chapter, I shall trace the “sacred” history of Rome from its mythical beginnings to the birth of Christ, both to demonstrate the mystery of God’s providence and to set the stage for the greatest “proto-Christian” poet, Virgil, who “read” Rome’s history in a way not dissimilar from the way many of the biblical writers “read” the history of Israel.
Chapter 17: The Making of a Roman Epic
As the Father of Western Literature, Homer left his heirs a truly daunting legacy: How does one surpass, or even imitate, the grandeur and perfection of the Iliad and Odyssey. For 700 years, the poets of Greece and Rome struggled to fulfill this task, most of them opting to abandon the epic to pursue other literary genres. When Virgil, however, was commissioned by his emperor, Caesar Augustus, to write a Homeric-style epic to celebrate the values and glory of Rome, he couldn’t very well refuse. Mustering all his creativity and extensive learning, Virgil carefully reviewed and reassessed all that had come before him in hopes of finding a method for transforming Homer’s stately Greek masterpiece into a Latin epic (The Aeneid) that would embody (aesthetically, historically, philosophically, and theologically) the twin legacies of Western Literature and the Roman experiment. The method he finally adopted—the Virgilean solution—remains one of the greatest poetic triumphs of all time. To understand that solution and that triumph is to go a long way toward understanding how medievals (like Dante and Aquinas) could carry on this aesthetic fusion, integrating into the fuller revelation of Christ the high achievement of Virgil.
Chapter 18: Virgil’s Aeneid I: The Fall of Troy
Virgil’s retelling of the tragic Fall of Troy is one of the most harrowing and moving narratives in all of literature. And yet, even in his account of Troy’s Fall, Virgil is able to locate a spark of hope, a seed of future promise and redemption. Indeed, Virgil works into his narrative an eschatological vision that bears a strikingly close relationship to biblical eschatology. Thus just as the Fall of Man, when viewed eschatologically (“felix culpa”) is seen as a good thing for it leads in the fullness of time first to the Incarnation and then to the New Jerusalem (First and Second Coming of Christ); so the Fall of Troy is an eschatologically hopeful event for it starts a historical process that leads to the founding of Rome (by Romulus) and culminates in the establishment of the mighty Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus. In this chapter, parallels will also be drawn between Aeneas, the reluctant and unlikely hero chosen by the gods to lay the foundation for Rome, and St. Paul, the equally reluctant and unlikely hero chosen by God to bring his gospel to that very Rome founded by Aeneas.

Chapter 19: Virgil’s Aeneid II: Aeneas and Dido

In Book IV of his Aeneid, Virgil recounts the tragic love affair of Aeneas and Dido (the Queen of Carthage). Aeneas, torn between his love for Dido and the duty given him by the gods chooses in the end to forsake private happiness and individual passion for the sake of the more abstract piety he owes to the future empire of Rome. In dramatizing Aeneas’ choice (which leads to the suicide of Dido), Virgil both lays out and problematizes a dichotomy between civilization/chaos, reason/passion, law/nature, West/East male/female, Apollo/Dionysus that Christians struggle with to this day. In a way that is relevant both to the Rome of his day and the Church of our own, Virgil impels us to ask the age-old question: Is it worth it? What price glory? What price power? When should the individual be exalted over the state, and when must the individual be sacrificed for the sake of a higher cause.
Chapter 20: Virgil’s Aeneid III: To Hell and Back
In imitation of Book XI of the Odyssey, Virgil has his hero (in Aeneid VI) descend into Hades and speak with the dead who dwell there. However, whereas Homer’s version of the descent is relatively brief and somewhat static, Virgil’s is more expansive and more fully worked out both geographically and philosophically. Indeed, Virgil imbues his meditation on the afterlife not only with a keen eye for detail and a rich understanding of eschatology, but with a meditation on divine and human justice. In this chapter, I will follow Aeneas as he journeys through the halls of the dead, visiting both the punished sinners and the “saints” who dwell in the Elysian fields. Virgil’s vision will, naturally, be compared and contrasted with that of the Bible.
Chapter 21: Virgil’s Aeneid IV: Just War?
The last half of the Aeneid recounts Aeneas’ oft-frustrated attempts to conquer the indigenous peoples of Italy in order to establish the foundation of what will, in the fullness of time, become Rome. For most of these six books, the consuming passions of fury and revenge are embodied by Aeneas’ enemies; however, in the final battle, Aeneas himself becomes consumed by these very passions. In these difficult and disturbing books, Virgil explores issues that are relevant to the struggles amongst Christians past and present over the nature and purposes of war. In working through these issues I will draw a parallel between the vision given to Aeneas in the underworld (that Rome’s calling will be to battle down the proud but spare the conquered) and the vision laid out in Mary’s Magnificat (in which she refers to the biblical God as one who crushes the proud but exalts the humble). Can force be used for good? Can the sword, once drawn, be resheathed?

CONCLUSION: The Myth Made Fact
In the conclusion, I shall draw together the various strands of my book by making reference to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s concept of Christ as the Myth made Fact: as the literal and historical fulfillment of a host of mythic, non-historical pagan demigods who die and rise again. I shall emphasize in particular Lewis’s assertion that though Christ is much more than mythical figures like Hercules or Dionysus or Adonis, he is certainly not less: that is to say, Christ’s status as the historical Dying God does not rob him of his mythic splendor. I shall conclude by considering (in the context of my book) how Lewis and Tolkien’s concept can be linked to the modern “neo-pagan” hunger for a “pre-Christian” literature and mythology that will restore a sense of the numinous and the sacred to our secular, materialistic, technological world: a hunger that can be seen in part in the ever-growing popularity of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Louis Markos, Professor in English

Houston Baptist University

Houston, TX 77074

281-649-3000, ext. 2279

A. Greek tragedy, which was born and flourished in 5th c. BC Athens, was closely linked to Bacchus.

1. Indeed, drama itself seems to have arisen out of choral songs sung or chanted in honor of Bacchus (or Dionysus) that were later interspersed with dramatized events taken from his life.

2. These events were performed by an actor who would step out from the Chorus and speak his lines alone, rather than chant them in unison with the rest of the Chorus.

3. Eventually, Chorus and actor took up other mythic themes and heroes, and the dramatic (as opposed to lyric) element increased, with Aeschylus adding a second actor and Sophocles a third.

4. Still, even when tragedy turned for its material to the Heroic Age (the legendary generations living before, during, and just after the Trojan War), it maintained its traditional link to Bacchus.

5. During the Golden Age of Athens, tragedies were performed once a year during the Greater Dionysia, a festival that included the sacrifice of bulls, goats, and other animals sacred to Bacchus.

6. Tragedy (“goat song” in Greek) may have gotten its name from these sacrifices; in any case the theme of the scapegoat hero whose tragedy is tied to the breaking of a taboo is strong in Greek tragedy.

7. Tragedians like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides would contribute a cycle of four plays for the festival: the first three would form a trilogy on a single theme (usually the fall of a Great House, like that of Atreus or Oedipus); the fourth (called a satyr play—origin of “satire”) would be comic in scope.

8. The only extant trilogy is Aeschylus’ Orestaia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides); Sophocles’ Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are each part of a different (lost) trilogy.

9. The audience would view three trilogies/satyr plays over the course of the 4-day festival, and prizes would be awarded; a rich, civic-minded patron (choragos) would put up the money for the festival.

10. Though we only have 7 Aeschylus, 7 Sophocles, and 18 Euripides plays, each wrote 70-80.

B. Although the Greater Dionsyia was a secular, civic festival, it was also a profoundly religious and spiritual event; the citizens who were drawn to the theater from every walk of life came to experience something as communally participatory and ritually cleansing as a Catholic Mass.

1. Tragedy was more than entertainment; through the play, audiences would participate in and endure titanic struggles between men and gods, order and chaos, justice and revenge, guilt and expiation.

2. The political, ethical, philosophical and theological would all be wrestled out before them on the stage; a combination of a night at the opera, a day at a July 4th celebration, and a solemn Good Friday service, the Greater Dionysia touched every aspect of the lives of the Athenians who participated in it.

3. The Chorus in a Greek tragedy generally represents the view of the typical citizen, of someone who holds to the status quo: the Chorus is usually as shocked by the hero’s behavior as is the audience.

C. In a Greek theater, the seats and the raised stage were separated by a flat, circular orchestra on which the Chorus danced and chanted; a cult statue of Bacchus would adorn the center of the orchestra.

1. The actors on the stage (all played by men, as in Shakespearean theater) would wear masks that both projected their voices and added to the solemn, ritual aspects of the play (as in Japanese Kabuki).

2. Behind the actors stood a generically painted backdrop; elaborate props were not used.

3. They had two devices: the deus ex machine (“god from the machine”), a crane that could lift up an actor (usually playing a god) and either suspend him over the stage or lower him onto the stage; a dolly which could be used to wheel something on to the stage (like the dead bodies of Agamemnon/Cassandra).

D. By Aristotle’s day (4th c BC) Athens had left behind her Golden Age and was producing mediocre tragedies; Aristotle, hoping to usher in a new Golden Age, wrote a critical study of tragedy (Poetics).

1. We tend to read Poetics back into the plays; it helped establish European aesthetic taste.

2. Poetics lays down rules that define the nature of the tragic plot, characters, and pleasure.

E. The true tragedian presents us not with a story but an aesthetic imitation (mimesis) of a story

1. The imitative (or mimetic) process transforms an action or story (praxis) that is long, episodic, and haphazard into a plot (muthos) that is focused and unified.

2. The story (praxis) of a man begins with his birth and ends with his death and includes all the various incidents that occur in between, but a plot constructed around that biographical story would confine itself to a single day in that life span when all that is most essential to that life comes to a head.

3. Whereas the events in a story follow each other in simple chronological order, the events in a plot should move forward in accordance with necessity, probability, and inevitability.

4. To imitate life is to present it not as it is, but as it should be, as it might manifest itself in a perfect world where 1) there is a necessary link between cause and effect, 2) the meaningful laws of probability determine action, and 3) a sense of inevitability, of a higher controlling fate, is felt.

5. In an episodic (non-Aristotelian) plot, there is no internal cohesion between the scenes; in an Aristotelian plot there is a causal relationship that propels the reader forward toward the unstoppable end.

F. An Aristotelian plot should have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, and should follow the unities: it should take place in one setting, over the period of a single day, and not have sub-plots.

1. It is shaped like an inverted V: a series of complications (rising action) draws the plot upward to its climax (the point of the V); after the climax comes the unraveling/denouement (falling action).

2. In the best, most complex plots, the climax is marked by a reversal and/or a recognition.

3. A reversal (peripeteia) occurs when the fortune of the hero moves suddenly from good to bad or bad to good; a recognition (anagnorisis) occurs when the hero moves suddenly from a state of ignorance to enlightenment.

4. Tragedians would often use the deus ex machina as a way to resolve their plots; they would use it to lower a god on to the stage and have him deliver a speech that resolves all plot complications.

5. Aristotle considered the deus an artificial way to end a plot; the plot, he felt, should be strong enough to resolve itself in a manner consistent with necessity, probability, and inevitability.

G. In the Poetics, Aristotle carefully defines the proper nature of the tragic hero.

1. He must possess four qualities: he must be a good man (neither immoral nor vicious); his character must be appropriate to his station in life; he must possess a likeness to human nature (though heroic, he is a man); his character must be consistent (even if it is consistent in its inconsistency).

2. He should not be a commoner, but an aristocratic figure from one of the great tragic houses.

3. This good hero should yet possess a flaw or hamartia (usually translated tragic or fatal flaw).

4. The concept of the tragic flaw as a single vice that leads the hero to his tragic downfall is really more indicative of Shakespearean tragedy (e.g., Lear's vanity, Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's avarice).

5 The desire on the part of so many readers (and English teachers) to identify tragic flaws in each of the heroes of Greek tragedy seems to mask an innate desire to "blame the victim."

6. The best tragedies show a good man who, on account of this error, moves from good to bad fortune; such a movement elicits the kind of pity and fear that Aristotle considered appropriate to tragedy.

7. A bad man moving from good to bad fortune evokes neither pity nor fear but merely makes us feel smugly satisfied; a bad man moving from bad to good fortune merely arouses disgust; a good man moving from bad to good fortune makes us feel happy, but it does not inspire either pity or fear.

8. Pity is evoked when we watch a good man suffer undeservedly; fear is evoked when we realize the same may happen to us: pity draws us toward the hero; fear drives us away.

H. According to Aristotle, the experience of a great tragedy so arouses in us the emotions of pity and fear as to lead to a catharsis (or cleansing) of those emotions.

1. Catharsis may be translated in three different ways: as purgation, purification, or clarification.

2. According to the purgation theory, tragedy is a therapeutic experience that works like an enema or emetic; it cleanses us of our emotions of pity and fear and leaves us more fit to face the rigors of life.

3. According to the (more spiritual) purification theory, tragedy does not so much purge our emotions as purify them; just as God uses suffering to strengthen our faith and resolve, so the hot furnace of tragedy tests and tries our emotions like gold in the fire.

4. According to the (intellectual) clarification theory, tragedy sparks a searing moment of perfect clarity; in this mystical moment of enlightenment (epiphany), our ill-defined emotions are carried up into a higher realm of harmony where the higher patterns and forces of the cosmos are made suddenly visible.
Louis Markos, Prof in English, Houston Baptist U ( is author of From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read Pagan Classics; Pressing Forward: Tennyson & the Victorian Age; Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World.

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