In Ancient Greece the existence of gods and fate prevailed. In the Greek tragedy King Oedipus by the playwright Sophocles these topics are heavily involved. We receive a clear insight into their roles in the play such as they both control man’s actions and that challenging their authority leads to a fall.
The concepts of the gods and fate were created to explain things. In Ancient Greece there was a lot that was not understood; science was in its infancy and everything that happened could be explained by the will of the gods or fate. The gods were the height of power; they supposedly existed since the beginning of time. They were immortal, omnipresent and omnipotent. However, the different gods had different personalities. In this sense they were anthropomorphic. Having such mastery of the world would enable them to control man’s behavior, as is shown in King Oedipus.
The idea of fate has existed for a long time and exists even today. Fate revolves around the idea that people’s lives are predetermined and that no matter what is done it cannot be changed. With the gods it was used to explain events that seemed strange. Sophocles expands on this idea by introducing Oedipus’ fate. The thought of fate is strong considering no matter how hard he struggles he still receives what was predetermined. As a baby he survived the elements on Mount Cithaeron. As Oedipus was destined to live, it shows the dominance of fate. Having fate play such a large part of the play is certainly an insight into the Greek’s idea that fate controls us no matter how hard we struggle against it.
In the play the dominance of the gods is shown again and again. In the second stasimon after Tiresias leaves the chorus chants “Zeus and Apollo know, they know, the great masters of all the dark and depth of human life”, reasserting the belief in the god’s power. At the very opening of the play, the priest who converses with Oedipus says “. . . You cannot equal the gods, your children know that. .
. “, proving again the Greek belief that the gods are the height of power. However, it is not only the people that revere the gods. After Oedipus blinds himself, Creon takes control of Thebes.
When Oedipus asks to be banished, Creon replies “Not I. Only the gods can give you that”, again acknowledging the higher authority of the gods. Thee numerous mention of the gods reiterates their importance in the eyes of Ancient Greek society. In the play the characters show great respect for the gods. Before the play’s beginning, Oedipus goes to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi.
There he is told the prophecy of him murdering his father and marrying his mother. In any other case this statement would seem absurd, not worrying Oedipus in the slightest. However, the words came from the gods. Oedipus was so shocked by this prognostication that he ran away from what he thought was him home, leading to the chain of events that lead to his downfall. Oedipus’ reaction to the prophecy he received is another indication of the power of the gods and their words. Not only does the play show that the gods are in control, it shows that man is not in control. The play’s final words are “count no man happy till he takes his happiness with him to the grave”. This is clearly trying to suggest that one can never say that he/she is happy because by doing so they are inadvertently saying that they are in control.
This can never be true as man cannot control everything. This message is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago in Sophocles’ time. By proving that man is not in control, the play is suggesting other forces control man’s destiny, such as fate and the gods.
Throughout the whole play the importance of man not controlling his own fate is emphasised. An oracle predicted that any child that Laius and Jocasta had would kill his father and marry his mother. Jocasta and Laius try to control their fate by destroying the child by giving it to a shepherd to leave on Mount Cithaeron. The baby lived despite the odds, reaffirms the power of fate and simultaneously proving that Laius and Jocasta are not in control. When Oedipus heard about his destiny, he tried to avoid it by running. Ironically, when he thinks he is running from his fate he is actually running to it, again proving fate’s power.
Oedipus states in the play “I am content”, indicating that he thinks he is in command of his life. However, the gods and fate prove him wrong by giving him the worst of fates, again re-emphasising how little control man has over his life. The theme of humans thinking they are in control is constantly being shown and then disproved, again demonstrating the importance of this idea in Ancient Greek society. All throughout the play, defying the gods sets up a downfall. The Greeks believed their gods had human qualities. When a man challenges the gods, as is done numerous times in King Oedipus, the gods, having personalities, use their power to “put him back in his place”. One cogent example of this is in the story of Arachne the weaver and Athene, god of wisdom.
Arachne was so skilled at weaving that she challenged the god Athene to a contest. When Athene won, she turned Arachne into a spider to spend eternity weaving and being destroyed by man as punishment for her brashness. This is an example of gods punishing man for challenging the gods, an action that is repeated in King Oedipus. Before the play begins, Jocasta and Laius have a child in full knowledge that they are going against the will of the gods. As previously stated, the gods having human qualities are liable to punish this behavior. At the beginning of the third stasimon, Jocasta asks the gods to help Oedipus.
When the messenger arrives and tells of the death of Polybus instead of thanking the gods for help she says “A fig for divination”. This is a prime example of disrespecting the gods. Later on in the play, both Laius and Jocasta were duly punished. Here is evidence of the one of the Greek theories, that contempt for the gods leads to being undone. It is clear that a breach in the god’s dominance resulted in the Laius and Jocasta being “taught a lesson”. Laius receives death by the hand by his own son.
Strangely, this is one of the lighter penalties. This end is ironic and cruel because a son is supposed to respect his father and instead he ends up killing him. Also, as the chances of killing somebody who happens to be their father are fairly slim, it shows that fate is also in play. Jocasta is forced to live with the pain of knowing she slept with her son, which in effect led her to suicide. There may also be some grief from the motherly instinct and knowing her son is also suffering immeasurable grief. While not as physically painful as Laius’ death, the emotional pain would be intolerable, as shown by Jocasta’s suicide.
Again, like Laius, the probabilities of these events occurring naturally are so small that it becomes almost impossible to ignore the factor of divine intervention. Both of these tragic fates were a result of defying the gods and fate, again highlighting the fact that going against the gods leads to tragedy. Another character who offends the gods is Oedipus. This starts before the play when he tried to run from his fortune.
Trying to escape is a sign of challenging fate’s authority, which according to Greek belief leads to punishment. Again he confronts the gods with his encounter with Tiresias. Firstly, he disregards what he says. Given that Tiresias’ words are the voice of the gods, this means he is indirectly defying the gods. Secondly, Oedipus quickly forms the assumption that Creon is plotting against him based on unsteady reasoning. By coming to this conclusion Oedipus is ignoring important evidence, proof that he thinks himself above other men and comparing himself to the gods.
Again Greek beliefs state no man can be on the same level as the gods. So again he is exposing himself to destruction by the gods. In the words of Tiresias “Creon is not your downfall, you are your own”, which sums up the consequences of his fast conclusions. Tiresias brings out the worst in Oedipus, being his hubris, or thinking one is higher than they actually are. For example, Oedipus says, “I stopped the Sphinx”, acknowledging nobody but himself. He has not considered that the gods are in control of all things and therefore must have helped him defeat the Sphinx. By leaving out their help, he is again saying he is on their level; another example of hubris.
This yet again shows Oedipus disputing the god’s powers. After the messenger delivers the news of Polybus’ death, Oedipus exclaims “But now, all those prophecies I feared. . .
. They’re nothing, worthless”. Prophecies are sacred in the sense that they came from the gods who are said to be almighty. In no clearer way could Oedipus dispute the words of the gods. Disputing the words of the gods is in effect disputing the god’s control itself, which inevitably lead him to suffer the most horrible of ends. Shown here are numerous examples of how Oedipus disputes the god’s control, which in effect lead to his horrible punishment. Of all the suffering in the play, Oedipus by far bears the most pain. Physically, there is the suffering of gouging his eyes out along with the blindness that follows.
With the blindness comes the humiliation. However, all this physical pain was self-inflicted in the belief that he could never be punished enough for his crimes. This is also accompanied by fierce emotional torture. Firstly there is the anguish of knowing he killed his own father. This, as mentioned, is ironic as he should respect his father but in actual fact ends up killing him. Understandably, this would lead to great anguish. Secondly, he slept with his mother. This kind of behavior was taboo in their society.
Along with this is the sheer disgust in knowing that his brothers were his sons, his sisters were his daughters and his wife was his mother. Obviously, Oedipus has undergone extreme pain and suffering by the god’s will. Also there is the fact of knowing that his mother is suffering terrible pain. Again, this would cause Oedipus considerable agony. As a large part of the last stasimon explains, another way in which Oedipus is pained is in knowing that his daughters will suffer.
Living in a patriarchal society, they would have to marry a man in order for them to live a reasonable life. However, he knows that men would not want his daughters, considering their background. Again knowing his children will suffer troubles him. Oedipus quotes “.
. . who will he be, my dear ones? Risking all to shoulder the curse that weighs down my parents.
. .”, showing that he concerned about their future. Oedipus experiences great grief when he looks back and realises how much he has fallen from his former mighty perch of power. This would be again painful in seeing how great he used to be compared to the wreck he is by the end of the play. In Oedipus’ words, “The blackest things a man can do, I have done them all!”, summarising the extremity of his pain. All of this goes to show that the gods indeed are in control in accordance with the Greek belief.
As shown before, Oedipus tries to compare himself to the gods in power several times. Using the Greek belief that the gods and fate are in control of man, Oedipus comparing himself to the gods is in effect challenging them because no man can be on the same level as the gods. As a result he is punished in a way that is more severe than even death.
It is apparent that there are gods at work in engineering this most dreadful torture. Again this is proof that challenging the gods and fate sets up for a fall, as shown by the furthest decline in Oedipus. It is clearly apparent from this wide variety of evidence Greeks believed that the gods and fate are in control of man’s destiny, their lives being “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) and also that confronting their authority leads to an undoing, showed in “what mortals dream, the gods frustrate” (Euripides, Medea). Time and time again this message is re-emphasised through plot and character. We as the audience receive these ideas clearly and constantly, showing that man is not in control of his future, as shown by the tragic downfall of Oedipus, delivering a message as important now as in the days of the Ancient Greeks. Bibliography: The Three Theban Plays, Sophocles, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1984.
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