Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Supernatural

By Sophocles


ANTIGONE. This land is sacred, as I would guess—teeming

With sweet bay, olive, and grapevine. Within, thick-feathered

Nightingales are singing sweetly. (16-18)

Antigone believes that the field she and her father have come to is sacred, ruled by supernatural powers. Her clues are the edible plants that grow there as well as the nightingales that live inside. The land appears to be life supporting, so she thinks that gods must be protecting it. 

STRANGER. Before you inquire further, go out of this place where you are

Sitting! For you occupy hallowed ground on which it is not permitted to treat! (36-37)

The stranger must protect the sacred field, but he recognizes that Oedipus and Antigone must be outsiders. He warns them that it’s dangerous for them to be in the field because it’s “hallowed” or holy. It’s kind of like our tradition of not walking over graves, out of respect for the departed.

STRANGER. It is not to be touched or inhabited. For the Fearsome

Goddesses possess it, Daughters of the Earth and Darkness. (39-40)

So now the stranger gets a little bit more specific, and it’s not that comforting. The sacred field isn’t just a hallowed grove; it’s ruled by some deities with terrifying names: the Fearsome Goddesses, Daughters of the Earth and Darkness. No, the stranger’s not talking about the latest death metal girl group—he's talking about the Furies, who are in charge of making sure crime doesn’t pay. 

OEDIPUS. May They receive the suppliant graciously,

So that I would no longer depart from the prayerful seat of this land! (44-45)

It might be hard to tell what’s going on here due to Oedipus’ lofty language. The suppliant is someone who asks for something or prays. In this case, that’s Oedipus. So he’s asking the Furies to please treat him kindly, so that he doesn’t ever have to leave their sacred grove. We wonder what they’ll say. 

STRANGER. You will know whatever I know if you listen.

All the land here is sacred. Solemn Poseidon

Possesses it. In it also dwells the god who brought fire,

The Titan Prometheus. (53-56)

Wait, we thought that the Furies were in charge of the land. Apparently it’s so sacred that several gods are in charge of it. So far, the roster includes the Furies, Poseidon, who’s Theseus’ favorite god, and also Prometheus, who is known for being very smart and keeping people alive. All very powerful gods.

OEDIPUS. When He pronounced those many evils to me,

He also said that, after a long time, this should be a resting place;

That I would come to a final country, where I should find

A seat of the solemn gods and a refuge for strangers. (87-90)

The “He” Oedipus is talking about here is Phoebus, aka Apollo. He told Oedipus that he was going to have to suffer for all the evils he committed. Um…yeah, that definitely happened. But there's a silver lining—he also said that after his suffering Oedipus would finally get to die in a peaceful, sacred place. That’s why he’s so happy to be here.

CHORUS. Know, child of Oedipus, that we do pity you—

And equally this one—for your misfortune.

But we tremble before what the gods may do! We would lack the strength

To speak beyond what we have just said. (254-57)

The gods are, as you can see, pretty vengeful in Oedipus’ world. The Chorus is pretty smart to be afraid of them. That’s why they are trying to get Oedipus to exit swiftly, to avoid the revenge of the Furies. And given that the supernatural is super-real in Oedipus, we can’t blame them.

CHORUS. Offer now a purification to these deities, to Whom

You first came and Whose ground you trod on.

OEDIPUS. In what way? Oh strangers, instruct me.

CHORUS. First, bring a sacred drink offering from the ever-flowing

Spring, touching it with hands that are pious. (466-70)

The Chorus is willing to let Oedipus stay in the sacred grove if he’s willing to jump through some sacred hoops. Usually human beings can find a way to interact with the supernatural, and in this case it’s through an offering. If Oedipus will give the Furies an offering, they might not kill him for trespassing on their land.

OEDIPUS. I come to give this miserable body of mine

As a gift to you, not a serious thing to behold, but

The gains from it are superior to any beautiful form. (576-78)

Oedipus, at the end of his sad, cursed, miserable life, is offering up his body as a good-luck charm to Athens. It’s as though by dying in this sacred space, he could be converted from a flawed, decaying human being into a supernatural, sacred being. And it works. Pretty cool, huh?

THESEUS. Then, he has come as a suppliant of the deities, and

Pays no small tribute to this land and to me.

These things inspire my reverence, and I will never cast out the favor

Of this man, but, on the contrary, I will settle him in my land. (634-37)

Oedipus is willing to bend to the will of the gods in charge of the sacred grove. Because he is respectful of the religious beliefs of Athens, Theseus is willing to play ball with him. It’s often true that human beings are much more tolerant of strangers when they try to fit in, especially when it comes to avoiding divine wrath.