Concepts of the Hero: Dialogue 18 The "Swan Song" of Sophocles 11.24.08
Scribe: Vanessa Mitsialis
§ Most loved person in his community, was in his 90s when he died
§ Oedipus at Colonus – end of the 5th century BCE. By the time this tragedy went on live, during a very difficult time in the history of Athens, Sophocles had died ą Sophocles' swan song
§ As soon as Sophocles died, he was treated as if he were a hero from the heroic age. Hero cult of Sophocles.
§ Plato's vision of his teacher, Socrates – very important reference to the song of the swan, the bird of the god Apollo. At the moment of its death, the swan sings the most beautiful song of its life. Tales of Hoffman played several times with the theme of the swan song.
Key Word: kolonos
§ A prominent rock in a local landscape – tumulus. Like the tomb of Achilles, overlooking the Hellespont. Philostratus tells us that the tomb of Achilles was called a kolonos.
§ By metonymy, kolonos comes to mean the whole landscape that includes the rock. By this metonymy, a district of Athens is called Colonos. Sophocles was born there.
Focus Passage A (Philostratus, On Heroes 9.1-3)
§ The Phoenician is a non-local, the vinedresser is local. The vinedresser wants to provide all the rites of hospitality to the stranger. Xenos – refers to the stranger, but also to how the local wants to be generous and provide for the stranger. The vinedresser refers to the Phoenician as a xenos when speaking about local things, including the hero cult of Protesilaos. The use of xenos is already a type of initiatory process. The stranger receives instruction about the sacred space he has come to, including the body of the hero that gives the local territory its prosperity.
§ Symbiosis of the forces of nature (nymphs) and the people who live in this spot.
Focus Passage B (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 668ff)
§ Oedipus is polluted, leaves Thebes, and arrives in Athens. The boss of the Athenians is the king-hero Theseus. Theseus was supposedly the only "good king" from the heroic age. Theseus = "our father."[KS1] Theseus greets the human wretch that is Oedipus, at a time when Thebes and Athens were deadly enemies. Lots of political relevance here.
§ Oedipus will try to enter a sacred space, one that is important to several gods: Poseidon, Demeter, the Erinyes. This sacred grove, akin to the sacred grove in On Heroes, is entered by the polluted Oedipus seeking refuge and wanting to be purified.
§ The leader of the chorus, who are also the guardians of the sacred space, are teaching the blind Oedipus about where he is. Chorus leader addresses Oedipus as xenos, and describes the sacred grove as the "shining kolonos" which will ultimately become the marker of the tomb of Oedipus. Oedipus must be purified of his pollution in order for this to happen.
§ Chorus leader uses a euphemism when referring to the Furies – "the Great Goddesses" – they who watch over and are sensitive to pollution.
§ This passage is akin to a hymn of the Chorus' hometown. The "polis, our mother" – notionally, all Athenians derive from a proto-hero Erekhtheus, who was literally generated from the Earth and nursed by Athena as a surrogate mother. To say that "this is my native land" is to say that this is my mother, and the mother's milk in my veins is ultimately from Athena. Explains why Sophocles, as his swan song, composes this hymn to his hometown Athens in his final play.
§ Garlands in our hair – our own outgrowth is fused with the woven flowers that are the outgrowth of mother Earth, a way of saying we are part of nature – metonymy.
§ Colors of Athena = purple, the most expensive dye of the age, and saffron, also a royal color.
§ Thebes had its own Oedipus cult, with a different version of the story.
Swan Song of Sophocles in gospel singing – from the production "Gospel at Colonus," starring Morgan Freeman as the main narrator
§ Purple and saffron everywhere
Five Stylized Scenarios for Immortalization
§ Jumping from a white rock (Ino/ Leukothea) into swirling watery depths to drown. Come back up for air and become the white goddess
§ Engulfment by earth (Amphiaraos) – site where you pour libations to honor the hero
§ Struck by thunderbolt (Herakles)
§ Spirited away by thuella ‘gust of wind' (Phaethon)
§ nostos (Memnon to Land of Aithiopes) – Memnon, a black hero, is son of the dawn goddess; when he goes home to land, he is immortalized.
Focus Passage C (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1638ff)
§ "But by what fate Oedipus perished, no man can tell, except Theseus alone" – not thunderbolt, nor thuella, nor escort from gods, nor earth opening up – stylized scenarios for immortalization.
§ Mysterium – final word of Magic Flute aria that we heard In Greek – musterion is derived from muo ‘I have my mouth/ eyes closed' – (and my mouth/ eyes are open during the mysteries)
§ Theseus is the proto-high priest as the only witness to the dromena. Drao ‘do' or ‘perform ritual, sacrifice' [corresponding to drao, which is active, there is paskho ‘having things done to one'.] Derivative of drao is ‘drama.'
Focus Passage D (Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1586ff)
§ Crater, in Greek krater – a mixing bowl where you mix wine and water – communion with Dionysus.
§ Instead of pouring libation of water and wine into mixing bowl, Oedipus pours himself, is "auto-libated." Idea of self-liquification is alive and well in traditions of Christianity.
Focus Passage E (Sophocles Odeipus at Colonus 576ff)
§ Oedipus says he will donate his own corpse to the Athenians, for fertility and olbos for Athens. Friendly towards the just and hostile towards the unjust (Thebes). Athenians believe they own the body of Oedipus
Focus Passage F (Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus, 621-623)
§ Pour libations towards the earth – contact with the polis-mother: oikos
Focus Passage G (Oedipus at Colonus 1656-1662, adapted from version of Robert Fitzgerald)
§ Different ways for referring to the immortalization, and now we are reading from the translation according to Fitzgerald
§ Fitzgerald's version of Oedipus: "the underworld opened in love the unlit door of earth"
§ At the memorial service after Fitzgerald passed away, Professor Nagy read this part of Fitzgerald's translation of Oedipus at Colonus. Akin to a ritual, honoring Fitzgerald. The whole event was recorded and can be heard in the Poetry Room at Lamont Library
Focus Passage H (Oedipus at Colonus 1679-1682, adapted from version of Robert Fitzgerald)
§ Fitzgerald, a tormented Roman Catholic[KS2], had problems with Oedipus descending as a way of death; writes "something invisible and strange caught him up – or down – into a space unseen"
The swan song of Sophocles, in the hymn to his home town, can be conceived of as the nostos of Sophocles.
[KS1]I don't remember this offhand, and the name "Thesus" has a separate etymological meaning, I think. Perhaps we said that he is father in contrast to Athena/polis as mother?
[KS2]Tormented and Roman Catholic as he may have been, I wonder whether it's more fair to say simply that he allowed a Christian belief to influence his translation?