This dramatic scene, painted by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (c. 1741-1825), depicts Oedipus—perhaps the unluckiest hero of ancient Greek myth—along with three of his children: Antigone, Ismene, and Polynices. Stubborn Oedipus is represented by the figure of the old man dressed in brown. Oedipus’ equally strong-willed daughter, Antigone, is portrayed as the brown-haired woman standing over him, who can be seen trying to contain the situation. Her more unimposing sister, Ismene, is the blonde-headed woman kneeling by her father’s leg. Finally, the young man at the receiving end of Oedipus’ accusatory gestures and glares is Polynices.
In the chronology of Oedipus myths, this painting is set near the end of the long and tragic saga. By this point, it had been many decades since Oedipus fled from his adoptive parents at Corinth. Long ago were the days when he killed a mysterious kingly man named Laius on the road, and defeated the sphinx and her riddles. In the distant past, too, was Oedipus’ ascendance to the throne of Thebes, achieved by marrying the widowed female ruler, Jocasta, whose husband had been killed. After many more years, a plague struck Thebes, and Oedipus tried to appease the gods by vowing to bring justice to the killer of his wife’s former spouse. Unfortunately, instead of peace and healing, the truth only brought disgrace and infamy. Oedipus learned that the kingly figure he had earlier killed on the road was Jocasta’s former husband, King Laius. Even worse, Oedipus learned that Laius and Jocasta were his birth parents. Therefore, since coming to Thebes, Oedipus had committed two of the worst taboos in ancient Greece—patricide, and incest of the worst kind. In the aftermath of the discovery of the truth, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus rendered himself blind. Finally, bringing us to times more current to the scene in the painting, Oedipus wandered as an outcast and a social pariah, with loyal Antigone staying by his side as a guide, while Ismene traveled to oracles and prophets to gather divine advice for her father.
Due to the devotion of his daughters, Oedipus truly doted upon Antigone and Ismene. The relationship between Oedipus and his sons, however, was not warm at all. Whereas Antigone and Ismene followed Oedipus into exile, caring for their blind father’s every need, the sons contrastingly abandoned dear old dad to wage war for the throne of Thebes. Nevertheless, a prophecy soon emerged that claimed whichever city hosted Oedipus’ tomb would be granted victory. When this prophecy was spread, both of Oedipus’ sons immediately had a change of heart and wanted to see their father again…at least so they could build his tomb on their territory in the near future. And that brings us to the scene painted above—in it, Oedipus’ son, Polynices, has come in an attempt to convince his father to join his faction in the civil war. Polynices was on the losing side of the conflict, forced to flee from Thebes and relocate to Argos, and it was to that Argive city that he wanted to bring his father. Oedipus, as can be seen in the painting, rejected his son’s offer and instead launched into a vitriolic tirade that was filled with curses for the sons that had spent years not displaying any affection, love or respect for their exiled father. For this scene, the Athenian playwright, Sophocles (c. 496-405 BCE), armed Oedipus with linguistic daggers such as:
“But off to damnation with you, abhorred by me and disowned! Take these curses which I call down on you, most evil of evil men: may you never defeat your native land, and may you never return to the valley of Argos; I pray that you die by a related hand, and slay him by whom you have been driven out. This is my prayer. And I call on the hateful darkness of Tartarus that your father shares, to take you into another home; and I call on the divinities of this place, and I call on the god of war, who has set dreadful hatred in you both. Go with these words in your ear; go and announce to all the Cadmeans, and to your own faithful allies, that Oedipus has distributed such portions to his sons” (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, approximately lines 1380-1395).
After hearing this emphatic speech, Polynices gracefully accepted defeat and walked away, disappointed and doomed. Oedipus’ prophecy came true, as Polynices later attacked Thebes, which was held by his brother, Eteocles. In the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed and their uncle, Creon, became the undisputed leader of the city. Meanwhile, Oedipus met a mysterious, supernatural end in the region of Colonus, Athens, and his daughters thereafter returned to Thebes. There, as could be expected from people in Oedipus’ family, their fates were not kind.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Sophocles, Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982, 1984, 2018.