Critical Essays Ritual and Transcendence in the Oedipus Trilogy


In the great amphitheater of Athens, curious tourists can see an inscription on each of the marble seats of honor near the stage: Reserved for the priest of Dionysus. The carved letters, still readable after 2,500 years, attest to the religious significance of the theater in the culture of ancient Greece.

For the Greeks of the fifth century B.C., the theater represented a sacramental place, where the actors and audience joined together to worship. The drama — whatever its subject — was an offering to the gods, a ritual that might bring blessing to the city.

The stage itself, actually a dancing area in the style of a threshing floor, recalled the most ancient forms of communal worship. At harvest, people traditionally celebrated the culmination of the growing season by worshipping the god of vegetation in wild, frenzied dances. At the Festival of Dionysus, the stage became a more sophisticated platform for a similar experience — the masked actors' loss of self in music and art for the creation of an emotional closeness with divine power. And the chorus, while chanting their poetry, maintained the simplicity of the older tradition in their obligatory dancing.

Sophocles underscores the connections between drama and the traditions of the fertility god in Oedipus the King. Evidence of the trouble in Thebes emerges as a plague, a blight on the land that ruins crops and causes women to miscarry. The close association of human and vegetative fertility — and the connection of both to the capability of the king — represents one of the earliest forms of religious belief. In Sophocles' time, the mysterious but vital union of humans and nature still informed the culture. Accordingly, Oedipus' immorality — however unconscious — pollutes the land, and only his removal and punishment will bring back life to Thebes. In this context, Sophocles offers a ritual of death and rebirth, as well as a formal tragedy in Oedipus the King.

In Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, Sophocles refers to a particular ritual that inspired and uplifted many of his contemporaries, the Eleusian Mysteries, a rite that offered its initiates the assurance of eternal life. In Antigone, when Creon decides to honor the gods' laws by burying Polynices and freeing Antigone, the chorus rejoices with a triumphal paean (joyful song) to Dionysus, calling him "King of the Mysteries!" (1243). The evocation of the god and the mention of the rites at Eleusis underscore Antigone's premature burial and the expected joy of her return to life, the promise offered to the initiates of the Mysteries themselves.

The references to the Mysteries in Oedipus at Colonus that extend throughout the drama in the chanted odes of the chorus prepare for the conclusion of the play and the end of Oedipus' life. The poetic allusions to the narcissus, the sacred flower associated with the Mysteries, and the mention of the "awesome rites" (1199) of Eleusis keep before the audience the hope of life after death. At the end of the tragedy, when Theseus witnesses the passing of Oedipus, a messenger delivers a description of the hero's last moments that seems more a mystical transcendence than the death of an old man. The promise of Eleusis, the audience can infer, has been made real in the passing of Oedipus into eternal life.

Of the Eleusian Mysteries itself, modern readers know very little since those who celebrated were sworn to secrecy. But the ritual represented a powerful, transforming experience for many, including the great Roman orator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero (104-43 B.C.), who praised the Eleusian Mysteries as the source of civilization itself.

The Mysteries recreated in imagination the search of the goddess Demeter for her daughter Persephone (also called Kore), and so demanded a form of personal identification with a divine figure, culminating in an intense religious (and dramatic) experience. The rite began with a procession from Athens to Eleusis, where initiates fasted, sacrificed offerings, and drank a special potion made from barley. At some later time, the initiates were blindfolded and led in darkness to an underground cave where — in some unknown manner — they experienced a kind of death, terrifying beyond words.

Afterwards, standing together in the darkness of an underground chamber, the initiates saw a vision of Kore herself, rising glorious from the depths of the underworld. As fires illuminated the chamber, the ritual celebrant held up a single stalk of wheat, proof of the gods' blessings and the regeneration of life. The initiates rejoiced ecstatically, purged of fear, and confident, as they attested, that eternal life was theirs.

Sophocles himself, in a fragment from Triptolemus, wrote of the blessings of life after death granted to those who had experienced the transforming dread and glory of the Eleusian Mysteries. And in his plays, as Aristotle explains, Sophocles proved to be a master in evoking the pity and terror and producing the emotional catharsis that defines tragedy. Like the Eleusian Mysteries, Sophocles' tragedies create a powerful emotional — even religious — experience: The terror of a heroic self crumbling under the blows of Fate, followed by the purging of fear and the coming of wisdom.

Sophocles' continued references to the Eleusian Mysteries indicate his high regard for their power. It may be that in his drama, Sophocles was striving to capture a comparable intense experience of dread relieved by hope and wisdom in an open, public context. For the original audience and centuries of readers, the experience of the tragedies of the Oedipus Trilogy, like a mystical ritual, gives a new birth to the human spirit and, perhaps, makes possible civilization itself.