Offering a new translation of Oedipus Rex, and a collection of interpretative essays, The Oedipus Casebook, Reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, is an excellent book, attractively bound. The Greek tragedians should not be underestimated. The recent trend to want to school our literary forebears should be vehemently avoided – especially those who have lasted centuries, or millennia, traversing changes in fashions and political systems. We still read Sophocles. How many of his critics will be read in two thousand five hundred years? There is a rule of thumb that however long something has existed, it can be expected to last a similarly long amount of time. On that basis, Sophocles can expect to be read for at least another 2,500 years.
The Greek tragedians often take previously existing myths, as Marlowe and Goethe did with Faust, and turn them into plays. We know from René Girard, and others, that myths are inherently sacrificial. The Greek tragedians, are sophisticates, capable of producing literary masterpieces, and do not simply reproduce sacrificial scenarios. But neither are they in the business of exegetical analysis. Ambiguity and richness of possible interpretation is inherent to great works of art. Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, are playwrights, not polemicists. Euripides’ The Bacchae rivals and possibly even exceeds Oedipus Rex in complexity and in its awareness of sacrifice. Dionysus is presented as horrific and implacable. Pentheus, suspicious and skeptical of the foreign god, wants nothing to do with him, but in trying to exile Dionysus, in the manner of the scapegoat, simply reproduces the phenomenon he is attempting to expunge. Dionysus is the god who is killed, only to be reborn. His mother, Semele, is burnt to a crisp, but Dionysus has an unnatural second birth in the thigh of Zeus. Euripides seemed to want nothing to do with the violence associated with Dionysus and his bacchants.
The new translation of Oedipus the King by Wm. Blake Tyrrell contained in the Oedipus Casebook, is careful to leave in place the intentional ambiguities of the original Greek text. There is a certain amount of inevitable interpretation in any translation, since word for word replacement is never possible between languages, and words with multiple meanings cannot usually find exact analogues in the new language. Anspach, the editor, takes the plausible position that Sophocles self-consciously introduces “problems” in the text. Sophocles seems at least somewhat aware of the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat is accused of a terrible crime responsible for social chaos and either killed or exiled from the city. Erroneously blaming a single person for the conflicts generated by the breakdown of social hierarchies, brings the warring parties together in shared hostility. The many against the one.
Creon has gone to the Oracle of Delphi to ask about the cause of a plague in Thebes – a polis to the north of Athens. The Oracle proclaims that it is because the murderer of the Theban tyrant, Lauis, has not been caught. The god Apollo is displeased by this and has sent the contagion. The city is in need of ritual purification, beginning with catching the murderer of Laius. Of course, this is nonsense. And, though Sophocles does not have the benefit of modern science, he too seems not too sure. Moreover, he depicts Oedipus as seemingly deliberately misrepresenting what he has been told. Informed that Laius was killed by a gang of bandits, Oedipus always refers to the killer of Laius in the singular. The text juxtaposes the witness of the murder referring to murderers, plural, and has Oedipus head-scratchingly only refer to the murderer. What is going on? Given the talent of Sophocles, it would be foolish to suggest sloppy writing, especially because the contradiction is consistently rendered over multiple verbal interactions. Oedipus seems oddly aware of the scapegoating imperative. At one point, when Creon, the brother of Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife, insists that he, Creon, is innocent, Oedipus comments that if Creon is innocent, then that will mean the expulsion of Oedipus himself. These are points highlighted in the interpretative essays in the Oedipus Casebook.
Oedipus has the hallmarks of the archetypal sacrificial victim. His name means “swollen foot” and thus he limps. Such visible physical infirmities set a person apart from the group, making him a potential target – both of wild animals, and also the murderous human mob. Oedipus is depicted as both struggling against his fate, while also bizarrely misrepresenting what he is hearing in a manner ensuring that a singular victim will be found and that that victim will be him. This is the typical mythical idea that the sacrificial victim (thyein – burnt offering to the gods) was a willing victim (askesis).
After an excellent introduction by Anspach, the play opens the book. The first included essay after that is by Walter Burkert, “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual.” Burkert is truly impressive. He seems equal parts philologist, anthropologist, historian, and philosopher. He is clear that animal sacrifice supplants human sacrifice. The fact that tragedy gets its name from tragos, the old male goat who was sacrificed to the god Dionysus, makes it seem like the sacrificial narrative of myths, upon which tragedies are based, was nearly explicit in the artform all along. Participants at the goat sacrifice threw barley at the victim, and sometimes stones, symbolizing the mob’s expulsion or killing of the originally human victim. When humans were expelled from the polis, they were typically non-lethally showered with stones too. Stoning brings all together and makes all complicit, so that no one can later claim to not have been involved.
The sacrificial rites would try to make the victim responsible for his own death; the goat has gnawed the vine, or must dig up the knife used to kill it. Since human sacrifice stands behind every sacrifice, there is a comedy of innocence. The tragoidoi hide their faces with masks, also indicating a reluctance to be individually responsible – much as online scapegoating is often anonymous. No tragedy without masks. At most, masks are types, not individuals. Ray Bradbury has his Martians in the story “The Earthmen” in The Martian Chronicles wear masks as an inadequate bulwark against telepathic mental contagion. Antifa wear masks to hide their identity and thus to avoid individual responsibility too, before the pandemic made the rest of us wear them too.
The god of tragedy is Dionysus, the sacrificed and sacrificing god, and the action on stage is accompanied by a masked chorus – as the lead actors too are masked. This means the chorus, representing the mob, is either directly commenting on events, or implicitly influencing things by the threat of their numbers. One of the commenters points out that the chorus/mob is just waiting for Creon or Oedipus to self-decide which one of them will be the victim, and does not care whom exactly that will be, so long as one is selected. Burkert notes that the tragoidoi kill the animal, the stand-in for a human, while wearing the masks of women and foreigners, never the young men they really were. So, the killers are pretending to be among the victim class; the pharmakon, while really being the sacrificers. This has interesting parallels with the modern persecutorial politics where members of supposed victim classes are actually the ones determining college and company DEI policy, overseen by Human Resource morality police, who decide who gets hired, who can stay, who must go, and who gets promoted. Burkert’s essay is possibly the most magisterial and impressive of all those included in the book next to Girard.
Jan Bremmer’s essay “Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece” begins by explaining the origin of the word “scapegoat” as Aaron putting his hands on the head of a goat, conferring the iniquities of the Jews upon it, and then releasing it. He also refers to René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, a book that kicked off Girard’s examination of the phenomenon of scapegoating that has been more thorough-going, and profound, than any other thinker’s. Violence and the Sacred marks Girard’s self-reinvention as an anthropologist, rather than just historian and literary critic, and it is his work that must be either acknowledged or challenged when dealing with this topic.
It makes sense that the human scapegoat, the sacrificial victim, should be one of the most valuable members of the community; the king, the king’s daughters, those with the most famous ancestors or who have the most valuable possessions. And this is how it is in myth. In real life, the king would not sacrifice himself or his children. Since it was an annual event, this would be unsustainable anyway, so the pharmakoi are selected from among the poor, the ugly, and unwanted; criminals, strangers, slaves. This results in the contradiction of wanting something extremely valuable while offering something relatively worthless in payment, so the scapegoat victim gets the royal treatment, literally. He is dressed in fine clothes, feasted, sat upon a fake throne and venerated, and otherwise treated as a VIP. This charade symbolically raises the victim to the status of a king before he is expelled from the city – and expulsion, often with stones being thrown at him, seems to have been more common than outright murder.
Greeks and Romans made a firm distinction between fruit bearing trees and edible plants, and unproductive “wild” plants. Peasants could take such trees at will from forests. Traitors, scapegoats, and wild wood are connected, as each were to be removed from the community. Scapegoats had their genitals beaten with twigs of “infelix” (non-fruit bearing) plants, or wore wreaths of unproductive lygos. Women would sleep on twigs of lygos to cause infertility, as a form of birth control. The status of being unwanted, unloved, and ostracized connected plants and the pharmakoi.
Marie Delcourt examines the ostracism of the misshapen child, like Oedipus and his damaged foot, deformed by the gods’ anger – exposed on a mountain top or submerged in water. Survival also meant the child was destined to be a hero, in the usual manner of the scapegoat. Immolation leads to sacralization. Unanimous murder joins the group together against the one, who then, in death, is credited for solving the mimetic crisis. The children of the wives of defeated enemies were similarly persecuted, with the fear, not unreasonable, that they might grow up to avenge their fathers. Babies who survived these trials are seen as having been rescued by the gods and as the offspring of the gods. Some of such rejected babies would be born out of wedlock and of unknown provenance. Miraculous survival meant the father could be a god. The baby in the chest crosses the sea and arrives in a foreign land as a god or descendant of a god.
The scapegoated child is subjected to an ordeal, deported, and then returns after conquering other lands or founding new cities, such as Oedipus or Perseus.
Confinement in a chest was a punishment in penal law concerning the family, found throughout Greek history. Italy used an “arca” as punishment for slaves. Noah survives because of his boat. Deucalion (little Zeus, son of Zeus) survives despite the chest being unsuitable for long sea voyages. Delacourt comments that the punishment seems like an invitation for the gods to intervene. The absurd element in the story is that putting Deucalion in a chest is supposed to be for his safety.
In the case of Oedipus Rex, Laius tries to commit infanticide, a particularly objectionable crime because of the special moral connections and duties between family members. The baby Oedipus survives the ordeal. It would make sense that he might want to avenge himself on his father in an act of parricide as punishment, though this too is morally forbidden for the same reason. That version of events would make the story remarkably straightforward. By subjecting Oedipus to a trial, and putting the result in the hands of the gods, Laius plays the role of the accuser. To the Greek mind, if the accused is found innocent, then the accuser is guilty of a false accusation, even if it was the result of a mistake and must be punished in the accused’s stead. Appeal to the gods risks punishment from the gods. There are several legends where the child kills the father accidentally. Thus, it is the god’s vengeance rather than the would-be victim’s.
Delacourt claims that the Greeks forgot that the punishment of accusers automatically follows from the acquittal of the accused. The child is merely the unwitting instrument of earthly justice exacted by the gods. And then, the guilt of the accuser is obscured by being depicted as the result of a dream or divine threat – and a later development – because of an oracle. Both father and son can claim a “no-fault” killing. This is in keeping with the general tendency of myth to obfuscate the scapegoat mechanism.
Mark Anspach’s contribution employs Girardian ideas. One is that agonistic rivals become doubles/twins. Oedipus accuses Tiresias, the blind prophet, of plotting the murder of Laius. Tiresias responds by accusing Oedipus of incest and they both claim the other is blind. We tend to adopt the attitude that other people have towards us. Here, Tiresias catches the contagion of accusatorial hate and responds in kind. Girard writes “Every man is Oedipus, the guilty party, to the Other and Tiresias, the ill-judged prophet, to himself.” Hatred can spread like a plague, turning a mob into a mass of undifferentiated doubles as a result of contagion. Each person thinks the other started it. Undifferentiation means the end of structure and order and the creation of murderous doubles. The human cannot live in chaos. Incest, the issue here, likewise confuses the distinctions between parent and child and laws of descent. The problem of mimetic contagion can be solved by attributing the blame to an individual, the scapegoat, particularly troublesome in the case of monarchies. Tiresias accuses Oedipus of being polluted and undifferentiated. A brother and father to his children, a husband and child to his mother.
Oedipus Rex is a mystery story. Who started the Theban plague? The Oracle has blamed it on the existence of an unpunished murderer in their midst. It is unknown whether the Greeks of the time of Sophocles believed that plagues are caused by the gods in this manner. But, Anspach argues, it does not matter since plagues are universal and we start to care about the detective story for its own sake. The brutality of the murder story mirrors the self-righteous murderousness of the lynch mob.
Scapegoats are targets of resentment. Oedipus is the stranger who became too successful, too fast; the newcomer who walks funny. The plague cannot be defeated, but the chaos and helplessness it generates can, temporarily, by ganging up on this individual. The crimes of Oedipus must be extreme in order to explain the extreme chaos. Anspach mentions a Russian equivalent of Oedipus who was accused of defiling three hundred nuns, including the Mother Superior, then killing his father, marrying his mother, and murdering three priests. The charges are clearly ridiculous. In medieval Europe, Jews were scapegoated for plagues. We know they were innocent, but the charges were real. There is every reason to regard Oedipus as innocent for the same reason. Sophocles has the oracle refer to a multiplicity of murderers of Laius, not just one. The only member of Laius’s party to escape refers to many brigands who attacked. Their numerousness was the one thing of which he was certain. Yet, when the witness of the murder arrives, Oedipus never questions him about the death. Instead, he gets sidetracked over questions of his own birth raised by a stranger from Corinth. The visitor claims to have found Oedipus as a baby and then, contradictorily, to having received him from the murder witness of Laius, who concurs, saying he gave Jocasta’s son to the Corinthian. The identity between Oedipus and the baby is supported by the baby and Oedipus both having bad feet – though this is merely consistent with the story rather than proving it. The Corinthian knows that Oedipus will not return to Corinth to be king while he thinks his parents are alive. So, if the visitor hopes to get a reward for informing Oedipus that he will be king of Corinth, the stranger has a motive for lying and saying that Jocasta is indeed Oedipus’ mother. Sophocles intentionally leaves the matter unclear, since the visitor has no official status and has a motive for lying. Sophocles could have instead had the news about Corinth delivered by an official messenger if he had chosen to.
With the apparent confirmation of incest, the guilt for Laius’ death is merely inferred, as it fulfills the prophecy, despite the number of murderers contradicting this conclusion, and the fact that uncaptured murderers do not cause plagues. Like the crowd, and Oedipus who accepts the judgment of the crowd, the audience is lured into overlooking the details, throwing doubt on the scapegoating conclusion. Oedipus has already said, “I suffer more than any of you, for I, your king must suffer for everyone at once.” Thus, Oedipus is explicit that he, as king and protector, is willing to accept the blame if the real culprit is not found, resolving the crisis. He could have delegated the blame to someone else, but did not. Anspach points out that Sophocles’ play is about everyone coming to believe that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother without this actually being shown.
Jean-Pierre Vernant’s chapter, “Ambiguity and Reversal,” relates to the dual nature of the scapegoat – the criminal blamed for all that went wrong and savior who fixes everything. The divine king and pharmokos are interchangeable. In Homer and Hesiod, the fecundity of the earth depends on the person of the king who is the offspring of Zeus. The king is sacrificed (or rather a king surrogate is) when things go wrong. Though, Vernant quotes Solon saying “A city perishes by its overly great.” A man who is raised too high threatens tyranny and thus might be exiled. He also can become a figure of envy and distrust, i.e., resentment, that ever-present evil. The scapegoat provides a remedy through his exile or murder; thus, he is both saint and sinner. One thing that makes the story of Oedipus a bit different is that Oedipus is the savior at both the beginning and the end. In the beginning, he saves Thebes by being a riddle solver. At the end, he seemingly solves the murder mystery in the manner of a detective, though really, we could argue, he just decides that he needs to be the scapegoat to save the city. Tiresias is the blind prophet who promotes the possible lie that Oedipus is the son of Jocasta and murderer of Laius. If the story of the multiple murderers is true, then Oedipus is innocent. But, at the end, Oedipus blinds himself, putting himself in the same position as Tiresias, and agreeing with Tiresias that he needs to accept responsibility for the benefit of Thebes. This is not Vernant’s point, however. Instead, he points out that Oedipus starts out deified, and then is revealed to be the worst of men. Tiresias, the priest of Zeus, addresses Oedipus in the manner of a god “isoumenos theoisi.” Vernant writes that “from the point of view of men, Oedipus is the clairvoyant leader, equal to the gods.” In the eyes of the gods, he is blind and equal to nothing. Vernant states that the happiest of men are nothing compared to the gods. Oedipus has neither a bad character (ethos) nor moral fault (adikia). He loves those he regards as his true parents, and killing Laius was a legitimate defense against a stranger. He marries Jocasta, not out of affection, but because Thebes demands it if he is to rise to the throne for his exploits. Though seemingly innocent under human law, he has offended the sacred order by killing his father and marrying his mother.
As a detective, Oedipus is presented as a hunter on the trail of a wild animal. But, he is both hunter and game. The doctor and the sick. He is sovereign on earth, but appeals to Zeus as sovereign. Thebans call Oedipus savior (soter) and later Apollo is invoked as savior to save the city. This is no surprise from a Girardian point of view.
In an interesting passage, Vernant points out that in the name, Swollen Foot, “Oedipus,” is oidos meaning “swollen,” which also has a connection to oida – “knows;” since Oedipus knows the riddle of the Sphinx. And then the riddle is also about feet; pous. What has dipous, tripous, and tetrapous? Man, at different stages of life; crawling like a baby, walking on two feet, and then adding a cane in old age.
So, in Vernant’s interpretation, Oedipus was just too successful for his own good. The riddle-solver turned king. The stranger with a meteoric rise generating resentment. The Argonauts abandoned Heracles for the same reason; for being excessively mighty. The polis expels from below (the subhuman) and from above (the superhuman). The polis tolerates merely the human. Vernant compares it to Aristotle’s comment that the master of the chorus cannot permit a singer whose voice surpasses in force and beauty the rest of the chorus.
Chapters that include articles by Terry Eagleton, Michel Foucault, and Helene Peet Foley lack coherent theses and do not add much at all and can be skipped. The chapters that follow Foucault, the first one starting with William Chase Greene, are very good and point out the ambiguities in the text concerning Laius’ murder – ambiguities Sophocles seems to have intentionally included. Different authors make their cases for different interpretations – most importantly, whether Laius had one murderer or several. Each supports his argument with textual evidence in a satisfying manner.
The Oedipus Casebook is a great book for anyone interested in Girardian theory and/or in Greek tragedies and myth in general.
 Diversity, equity, inclusion.