When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes-Electra story were first made popular in Greece, Randall Collins asks, in the century before Philip and Alexander?

These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490–466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

*Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.

The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past — not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece — Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus — a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

*Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.

In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man — a road-rage dispute — and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker, but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King — the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

*Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents. That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21). Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander’s attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.

The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son — a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other. The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics). The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme — bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king — tyrannos — eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults — and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions — would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.

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