Summary and Analysis: Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus persuades the elders to take no action until Theseus, king of Athens, arrives.
Suddenly Ismene, Oedipus' daughter, enters, having come on horseback from Thebes. She tells Oedipus about his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who are fighting over Thebes. Ismene also tells her father that the oracle at Delphi has made another prophecy — a curse will fall on the Thebans the day that they stand on Oedipus' tomb.
Ismene warns Oedipus that his sons and Creon know of the prophecy and will try to bring him back to Thebes. They plan to keep Oedipus just outside the city — where he will stay under their control without polluting Thebes — and then leave his body unburied at death.
Oedipus curses his sons and praises his faithful daughters for their sacrifice. He tells the elders that he does not want to return to Thebes, and if they help him, he will give his blessing to Athens. The elders accept his proposal and advise him to make an offering to the Eumenides for trespassing on their ground. Ismene leaves to perform the ritual for her father.
This episode sets up the problem of the play — a family's fight over their father's dead body, even while he still lives.
The conflict in Thebes — Polynices' battle to take the city by force from Creon and Eteocles — arises from the power vacuum created by Oedipus' downfall. The crisis itself is the subject of Aeschylus' play Seven Against Thebes (467 B.C.).
Long ago, Creon banished an unwilling Oedipus, and Eteocles and Polynices did nothing to stop Creon or help Oedipus. Now, because of the prophecy, all want him back to avoid the curse. Paradoxically, the Theban curse will be a blessing of victory to those from another city who will offer Oedipus burial. In this, as Ismene points out, Oedipus' fortune as a pariah has been reversed.
Note that Oedipus' present misery as a blind beggar reflects the condition of Athens itself at the end of the fifth century — weakening, under siege, about to accept defeat as the long Peloponnesian War draws to a close. Yet Oedipus refers to Athens as a powerful city, the shelter of all who seek her help. This nostalgic note represents Sophocles' tribute to his once great polis.
Note, too, the purification ritual that the elders explain to Oedipus. Such rites were common in ancient Athens, echoing the mysteries of Eleusis, an initiation into the truth of death and eternal life. The ritual also looks forward to Oedipus' transformation upon his death at the end of the play.
Zeus the chief deity of Greek mythology, son of Chronus and Rhea and husband of Hera.