Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles.

Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust (1788).
Oedipus at Colonus (Οἰδίπους ἐπὶ Κολωνῷ) is the second of Sophocles' 'Theban Plays' in terms of the plays' chronology, first performed in 406 B.C., following Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) and preceding Antigone (441 B.C.). It simply follows on from the events in Oedipus Rex, in which King Oedipus, largely inadvertently, fulfils several prophecies: he kills his own father King Laius (without knowing that King Laius is his father), marries his own mother Jocasta (again without realising Jocasta is his mother), and, on discovering these facts, deliberately blinds himself and begs to be exiled. In Oedpius in Colonus we find the former king in Colonus near Athens (where Sophocles may have been born). He arrives at the beginning of the play accompanied by his youngest daughter Antigone.

The play begins,
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: Tell me, Antigone - where have you come to now
With your blind old father? What is this place, my child?
Country, or town? Whose turn is it to-day
To offer a little hospitality to the wandering Oedipus?
It's little I ask, and am well content with less.
Three masters - pain, time, and royalty in the blood -
Have taught me patience. Is there a resting place,
My child, where I could sit, on common ground
Or in some sacred close? And while I rest,
Ask someone where we are. Strangers like us
Must be taught by the natives and do as they desire.
They find they are sitting on sacred ground -
Cᴏᴜɴᴛʀʏᴍᴀɴ: To tell you as much as I know, it is sacred ground,
All this; the great god Poseidon, and the giant Prometheus,
The Lord of Fire, possess it. The spot you stand, the Rock of Athens.
The rider is Colonus, known to the country around
As her lord and master, whose name her people bear.
Is is not such a place as is farmed in song and story,
But its name is great in the hearts of those who live here.
Oedipus at Colonus by Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1798)
Oedipus recalls a prophecy of Apollo, that he would die on land sacred to the Furies ("It was fated, and this is the sign") and he asks not to be moved, and to see the king - Theseus (Theseus was the husband of Phaedra and father of Hippolytus in Euripides' Hippolytus, 428 B.C., Phaedra by Seneca, 1st Century A.D., and Phèdre by Jean Racine, 1677. He is also mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, 1386-88 and many other plays and poems). The countryman exits to find Theseus, whereupon Oedipus tells Antigone of Apollo's prophecy:
O Holy Ones of awful aspect,
Whose throne, this seat, was my first resting-place
In these lands; be gracious to me, be gracious to Apollo,
Who, with the evil doom he cast upon me,
Promised me also this rest in time to come,
That I should find at last at the seat of the Holy Ones
Sanctuary, and an end of my tormented days;
And on them that received me in my sojourning should be great blessing,
With affliction upon them that spurned me and drove me out.
This was the sign he gave that these things should be:
Earthquake or thunder or the lightning of fires of heaven.
And now I know it is by your certain guidance
That I have travelled the road to this sacred place.
No other hand could have led me, at my first coming,
The sober penitent, to you whom wine delights not,
Or brought me to this sacred seat of living rock.
Now, therefore, Holy Ones, according to the word of Apollo,
Grant me, I pray, this fulfilment and close of life,
I have found favour, and am not doomed forever
To groan beneath the heaviest of mortal burdens.
Hear, O gracious daughters of old night!
Hear, O city of Pallas, Queen of cities!
O Athens, have pity of this poor relic of Oedipus,
The shadow, no more the man!
Here the Chorus enters, made up of the elders of Colonus, who convince him to move a little away from the sacred ground and then question him. When he reveals he is the infamous Oedipus they react horror and Antigone must plead with them not to banish her father. Oedipus explains further, saying he was not morally responsible for his crimes and that he must see Theseus.

Eteocles and Polynices 
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1725-30).
At this point Ismene, another daughter of Oedipus arrives with the news that her brothers are fighting: Eteocles has seized the throne from the eldest brother Polynices and Thebes is on the brink of war. Oedipus' once brother-in-law wishes Oedipus to return:
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: What will he come to do?
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: To set you close to Theban land, and so
Possess you, though you may not touch their soil.
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: How can I help them, remaining beyond their borders?
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: If ill befall your grave, it falls on them.
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: That could have been guessed without a god's instruction!
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: Well, prompted by this, they seek to have you near them,
Not to leave you to your own devices.
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: So?
And they will wrap me in their Thebam earth?
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: That cannot be done. Blood-guiltiness forbids it.
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: Then they shall never have me!
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: Thebes will suffer.
Oᴇᴅɪᴘᴜs: In what event?
Isᴍᴇɴᴇ: Under your wrath, when they approach your grave.
He then curses his sons and praises his daughters. The Chorus then go on to encourage him to atone for the sin of trespassing on the sacred ground. As he performs certain rites the Chorus question him further on the patricide and incest, until finally Theseus arrives. In this part one of the most famous speeches takes place: Oedipus asks that he may be buried in Colonus and thus bring good fortune, protecting the inhabitants from Thebes. Theseus says there is no need for the two cities are on friendly terms, and Oedipus replies:
Time, Time, my friend,
Makes havoc everywhere; he is invincible.
Only the gods have ageless and deathless life;
All else must perish. The sap of earth dries up,
Flesh dies, and while faith withers falsehood blooms.
The spirit is not constant from friend to friend,
From city to city; it changes, soon or late;
Joy turns to sorrow, and turns again to joy.
Between you and Thebes the sky is fair; but Time
Has many and many a night and day to run
On his uncounted course; in one of these
Some little rift will come, and the sword's point
Will make short work of this day's harmony.
Then my cold body in its secret sleep
Shall drink hot blood. If this is not to be,
Zeus is not Zeus, and Phoebus is not true!
(It's hard to forget at this point that Oedipus at Colonus was Sophocles' final play and he was an old may when it was written).

It is agreed that Oedipus will remain in Colonus, and when Creon arrives to take Oedipus back to Thebes he is unmoved. Even when Polynices comes with the news of his own banishment Oedipus refuses to give way, and at the end of their argument there is a violent thunderstorm signifying Oedipus' death in which he dies, as prophesied, on the sacred ground.

In this we see Oedipus almost as a wise and philosophical man, and an active participant in his fate (though, as I said in the post on Oedipus Rex, some believe it is more about prophecy than fate). There is much discussion and debate in Oedipus at Colonus, more than Oedipus Rex. He has more control and power in this than the former play and despite being a beggar, despite his exile and his blindness, he remains almost king-like. The three masters he mentions at the beginning of the play - "Three masters - pain, time, and royalty in the blood" have in some respects altered him, but still he becomes a hero. Whether it is fate or his deliberate fulfilment of prophecy I cannot say. But I will attempt an answer after reading the final of the Theban Plays, Antigone, which I hope to read this weekend.

Further Reading

← Previously: Oedipus Rex
Next: Antigone →

~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)


  1. Great review, O! When I read this trilogy the second time, I read them in the order they were written, and it was rather eye-opening. It's so sad that so few of his plays survived and there is so little known about him.

    With regard to fate and prophecy, like you said, there is definitely more order to this play and therefore more reason. It's not that the characters necessarily have more control over what is happening to them, but I felt there was a realization that they do have control over their response to it.

    1. Did you happen to read my review of Oedipus the King? I read a really interesting article saying the Oedipus plays aren't about fate at all. It was interesting, still not decided quite what to make of it, though.

      And yes, it is sad so few survived. 7 out of 130+ isn't it? Argh!


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