restricted access 5. Supplication in the Oedipus at Colonus

From: Tragic Rites

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141 5 ὡς νῦν πᾶν τελοῦντι προξένει. [Show me hospitality as one who will now bring everything to an end.] OC 465 In the preceding chapters I consider problems of ritual conflation, ritual repetition, and ritual status individually, demonstrating the full range of poetic effects that Sophocles achieves through each kind of mistake. In this chapter I take a more holistic approach, examining the occurrence of all three kinds of ritual errors over the course of a single play, the Oedipus at Colonus. While any of Sophocles’ plays could be examined in this holistic way, ritual is especially prominent in the Oedipus at Colonus, which therefore lends itself particularly well to an analysis guided by ritual poetics. All three kinds of ritual mistake play a central role in effecting Oedipus’ eventual acceptance among the Eumenides and in shaping the audience’s perception of Oedipus and his relationship with the various communities he is tied to in the play, particularly Thebes and Athens. These ritual elements are all united by the overarching motif of supplication. Most of the plot of the Oedipus at Colonus is informed by the interconnected problems of ritual repetition and ritual status as they pertain to Oedipus’ supplication of the Eumenides. His ultimate goal in this play is to secure acceptance among these chthonic spirits, a goal inspired by the prophecy that he reveals to the audience early in the prologue. Problems of repetition are introduced during the play’s initial act of supplication, his request for the Eumenides’ acceptance, which at first goes unanswered because the Eumenides are not yet present to hear his plea. The ritual Supplication in the Oedipus at Colonus 142 Supplication in the Oedipus at Colonus lacks the postliminal phase that would either integrate Oedipus into the community of the Eumenides or definitively exclude him. Without this final step, the ritual cue to stop engaging in supplication is absent. This gives rise to a series of further acts of supplication implicating Oedipus that seek indirectly to address the original ritual problem by eliciting, in the end, the Eumenides’ answer. By contrast with the Electra, the repetition of ritual in the Oedipus at Colonus is not primarily a consequence of mistakes or corruptions in the ritual process of these subsequent supplications, although these do occasionally occur. Rather, each ritual looks back to the initial incomplete supplication, both reminding the audience that Oedipus is still waiting for an answer and facilitating the completion of that first ritual. The repetition of supplication rituals is closely tied to the question of Oedipus’ status. During the initial supplication of the Eumenides, the audience will experience the cognitive dissonance I have elsewhere associated with problems of ritual status. On the basis of the prophecy that Oedipus reports, in a genre in which prophecies always prove true, the audience will have the dramatic expectation that his plea will succeed; on the basis of the ritual expectations prompted by the absence of the Eumenides, the audience will expect the supplication to fail. The fact that the supplication is unfinished allows both sets of expectations to persist as the play moves on to further rituals. As the drama continues, it becomes gradually clearer that the absence of the Eumenides is tied to Oedipus’ status as defined by his membership in the two communities at the heart of the play’s story: Thebes and Athens. Since the Eumenides are associated with neither polis but rather occupy a medial position on the border between these communities, Oedipus, too, must come to occupy a similarly medial position in order to gain acceptance among these liminal goddesses. The play’s subsequent repeated supplications negotiate and ultimately change his relationship with Thebes and Athens, moving him away from Thebes, though without fully severing his connection with his natal city, and facilitating a rapprochement with the Athenians. The clarification of Oedipus’ relationship with both Thebes and Athens through repeated ritual supplication lays the groundwork for his final ritual transformation at the end of the play, when the Eumenides at last offer their positive response to his initial request. Throughout most of the play, the continual repetition of supplication communicates that Oedipus’ ritual and civic status has not yet changed sufficiently for the Eumenides to respond to his entreaty. The audience’s ritual and mythical expectations based on the initial supplication remain in tension as further acts of supplication gradually alter Oedipus’ status in the communities of Thebes and Athens, rendering him more acceptable to the Eumenides in their medial position between the...