by H. Crosthwaite
AN early chapter of this book was devoted largely to the influence of electricity revealed in the words and action of a play by Euripides, The Bacchae. Now that we have reviewed a wider range of the relevant material, we can usefully turn to another play, the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles. We shall not be concerned here with a good literary translation, or with a balanced general criticism of the play; we shall concentrate on those details of the play which suggest links with electricity. First, a summary of the play.
Oedipus has been banished from Thebes. In his wanderings, accompanied by his daughter Antigone, he reaches Colonus, near Athens. The inhabitants, learning of his identity, fear the pollution of incest and parricide, and ask him to leave, but Oedipus has heard from an oracle that this is where he is to die. Theseus, ruler of Athens, arrives. He promises refuge and help. Oedipus in return declares that his spirit and tomb will protect Athens.
Ismene, the other daughter of Oedipus, arrives from Thebes with news that her brothers Eteocles and Polynices are about to make war on each other for the throne of Thebes. Kreon, brother of Oedipus's mother and wife Jocasta, arrives, keen to secure the person of Oedipus and thereby protect Thebes. His guards carry off Antigone and Ismene, and he is about to seize Oedipus too when Theseus arrives. The Theban force is defeated and the girls rescued. Polynices enters. He too wants the presence and help of Oedipus in his planned attack on Thebes, whose throne had been unlawfully retained by Eteocles. Despite his father's anger and curse, Polynices departs to marshal his forces against Thebes. Thunder is heard, a sign to Oedipus that his end is at hand. He leads the way to a lonely, rocky place. A god's voice is heard telling him to hurry. Watched only by Theseus, he dies. The nature of his death, and the whereabouts of his tomb, are known only to Theseus.
We will now glance at some passages in the play susceptible of an electrical interpretation.
The play begins with the entrance of Oedipus and Antigone. The scene is the entrance to the grove of the Eumenides, at Colonus. Antigone declares that the place where Oedipus wishes to sit down and rest is holy. In line 17 she describes it as full of laurel, olive trees, vines, and nightingales. She urges him to sit on the rock (unpolished, virgin rock). At line 36 a stranger enters, and asks Oedipus to leave his seat, for it is holy ground, not to be stepped on. The place is inhabited by the Eumenides, dread goddesses, daughters of Earth and the Dark.
Oedipus refuses to get up or leave this land, and asks for more information. He is told that the entire area is holy, the home of semnos Poseidon and the fire-bringing Titan Prometheus. The ground where his foot rests is called the road paved with brass, chalkopous. It is a word applied by Sophocles to mean 'brazen footed', and applied to the Erinys, or Fury, in Elektra, line 491. Euripides applies it to the word tapous, tripod, in the Supplices, line 1197; here also it means 'brazen-footed'. The 'brazen threshold' is the ereisma, the prop, or support, of Athens. The word ereisma is also used, by the poet Theocritus, to mean a hidden rock or reef. Homer mentions iron gates and a brazen threshold in Iliad VIII: 15, where Zeus threatens to hurl down into Tartarus any deities who oppose his wishes.
When the stranger has departed to fetch Theseus, Oedipus prays to the Eumenides as a suppliant, revealing that he was told by Apollo that he would find refuge and a place to die, bringing profit to his hosts, at a shrine of the dread (semnon) goddesses, and that signs of his arrival would be earthquake, some kind of thunder, or the lightning flash of Zeus. His mode of address "powerful ones of terrible aspect", is a natural one in the ancient world, where there were traditions of creatures or phenomena dangerous to behold, such as Medusa, who turned to stone those who saw her. White robes, breastplates of double thickness (at Gryneion and in the presence of an ark), masks (Moses), and mirrors (Perseus), are among the protective devices recorded. Right at the start of the play, Oedipus finds himself close to a shelf of rock. At Delphi, a suppliant embraced the omphalos, the stone shown in vase paintings as set in the ground at the shrine (which may originally have been not at the site of the temple of Apollo, but at the Castalian spring, in the cleft between the Phaedriades, the Shining Cliffs).
When the chorus of elders approaches, Oedipus asks Antigone to hide him in the grove so that he may hear their talk unseen.
When Oedipus emerges at the end of the wood, the chorus are horrified at the sight, and call on Zeus the Averter. Oedipus advances to the shelf of rock and rests there while he reveals who he is, to the horror of the chorus.
Ismene arrives, bringing news of the impending warfare between Eteocles and Polynices. The chorus sympathise with Oedipus, and explain how he can make amends to the Eumenides for his sin of trespass. They give him detailed instructions for a libation (water and honey, no wine), and an offering of thrice nine olive shoots. He is to pray in a voice so low that none can hear, and then turn away and depart.
One may recall the Hebrew na'am, murmur, and ne'um, oracle, and the purpose of turning away may have been to avoid the consequences of a libation on electrically 'live' rock in an area where earthquakes produce piezoelectric effects. We have already seen that a priestess perished as a result of over-zealous pouring of water over the sacrificial goat in the shrine, and that violators of shrines could be blinded. At the final scene of the death of Oedipus we shall meet this phenomenon again.
When Theseus arrives, there is an interesting observation by Oedipus, at line 610, where he warns Theseus that he will not be able to rely on friendship with Thebes, or indeed on the general stability of things. "The strength (ischus) of earth wastes away..." If the "strength of earth" is the prophetic force felt at Delphi, the remark accords with accounts of the obsolescence of oracles, as described by Plutarch.
Oedipus is sure that his body, cold and buried, will drink the warm blood of those who will be killed fighting over Thebes, as sure as he is that Zeus is Zeus, and that Phoebus is son of Zeus. Does this turn of phrase mean "that Zeus is still enthroned"? I have suggested in chapter XVIII that Zeus is 'Sedens' 'sitting'. In line 1643, Theseus is "kurios" lord. Here we have a similarity with the Arabic and modern Urdu 'kursa', seat.
Polynices departs, having failed to secure the support and person of Oedipus. The comments of the chorus are interrupted by a clap of thunder, and Oedipus anxiously asks for a messenger to fetch Theseus. The chorus are terrified by more thunder and lightning; fear makes their hair stand on end. Oedipus tells his children that the end of his life is at hand. When Antigone asks how he knows, he answers simply that he knows well.
This is the first clear hint that Oedipus has special powers, which are soon to be demonstrated openly. (It is possible that at the opening of the play he sensed some divine presence in the rock where he rested).
As the thunder is repeated, he expresses the hope that Theseus will come in time to find him alive (empsuchos) and in his right mind (katorthountos phrena, line 1487). Why the latter? Does he fear that an electrical god may spark off an attack of the 'Herakleia nosos', or some kind of madness such as is sometimes mentioned in the context of holy places?
When Theseus arrives, he asks whether the reason for the summons is a thunderbolt (keraunos), or "rainy hail". 'Chalaza', hail, may be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew 'baradh', which normally means not just ordinary hail, but stones, hot stones, or meteorites, as in O. T. Joshua X: 11 and Exodus IX: 23. The word used by Theseus probably means a stone shower. He would hardly have been summoned because of a shower of ordinary hail.
In line 1514, Oedipus says that the incessant thunder and lightning from Zeus (also associated with 'baradh' in the O. T.) are the signs that foretell his death. He promises to show Theseus something which will profit his city for ever. "I myself will lead you, without the touch of a guide, to the place where I must die." The place will be an "alke" defence, for Athens. Theseus alone is to come with him, and learn holy things, things not "set in motion" (kineitai) in speech. He must reveal them to nobody except, when about to die, to his successor, and so it is to continue.
We have here one of the 'arcana imperii', secrets of rule, to be passed on to preserve authority in the state.
Oedipus is anxious that Theseus and Athens should be safe from attack by the 'Sown Men', i. e. the Thebans, who traced their ancestry to the dragon's teeth which, when sown, sprang up as armed men. Snake or dragon ancestry suggests electrical influence from what is described as a dragon in a cave or the sky. It has an interesting echo in the Nibelungenlied; in Wagner's Die Walküre, the Volsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde are recognised as brother and sister by Hunding when he notices the snake-like appearance of their eyes, betraying their descent from Wotan, the god who wields the spear Gungnir and commands the storm. The same characteristic is mentioned in the description of Clytemnestra in the opera Elektra, by Strauss and von Hofmannsthal.
After his words of advice to Theseus, Oedipus says: "But let us now go to the place, for the god (literally "that from the god") urges me on."
He asks his children to follow him, as their guide, and not to touch him, but to let him, alone, find his tomb where he is to be concealed in the earth. He is being led by Hermes the Escorter, and by the goddess below (Persephone). I suggest that he senses variations in electrical conditions. He will not risk distorting or reducing his sensitivity by contact with others, hence his 'noli me tangere' instructions.
His final words spoken to Theseus on the stage are: "For your prosperity, remember me when I am dead, so as to be fortunate always."
This exemplifies the feeling in the ancient world that it was important to remember, recite, and re-enact stories of great events. This combination of 'muthos, ' story, and 'dromenon', action, was a magical means of averting future error and disaster.
When the principals leave the stage, the chorus sing an ode to the infernal goddesses, requesting an easy passage for Oedipus to the plains of the dead.
In line 1579 the messenger gives details of the last moments of Oedipus. He led the way, without a guide, to the sheer cleft in the rock going down by brazen steps to the roots of the earth. At a place where the way is split into many branches, he stopped in one of them, where there is the memorial to the pact between Theseus and Peirithous (who had once been held powerless in stone seats and kept prisoners underground). The place was shaped like a stone basin or krater (mixing bowl).
Oedipus sat down here, between the Thorician Rock and the rock basin, between a hollow pear tree and a stone tomb, removed his ragged clothes, and asked his daughters to bring 'loutra', washing water, and 'choae', water for libation. He washed himself and put on the appropriate garments, whereupon there was thunder from Zeus Chthonios, Underground Zeus. His daughters shuddered with fear (rigesan). After his final address to them there was silence, then a voice was heard. All were afraid, and their hair stood on end.
The god called many times, in many ways: "Oedipus, Oedipus, why are you waiting?" (The word 'god' is emphasised by its position at the end of line 1626). It is an interesting coincidence that the words quoted by the messenger, "O houtos houtos, Oidipous," each have in Greek a rise and fall resembling that of 'Yahweh, ' and the Egyptian magic words that produce a similar sound. Oedipus extracts a last promise from Theseus to look after Antigone and Ismene, then tells the girls to go. Only Theseus may remain. When the others, after a short delay, looked back, Oedipus had vanished, but Theseus had his hand shading his face, as if against some terrible sight that he could not endure to behold. Shortly afterwards, Theseus prostrated himself on the earth in prayer, and then prayed to Olympus, home of the gods, in the same prayer. (The latter would be by raising his hands to the sky). Chthonic and heavenly deities are recognized together.
The scene is suggestive of an electrical incident. The water used reminds one of the death of a priestess at Delphi in Plutarch's time. The phenomenon is associated with an earthquake. Theseus appears to connect sky phenomena (lightning) with earth electricity (piezoelectric effects), in his prayer. The messenger adds that there was no fiery thunderbolt from god, nor was there a whirlwind from the sea. Perhaps, he says, it was a "pompos", escorter, from the gods, or earth's foundation opened. His end was "thaumastos", wonderful.
'Thaumastos' is related to 'thaumazo', I marvel, and to 'thambeo', meaning 'I am amazed, I am stupified', the victim of some force that affects the working of the senses. This way of looking at inspiration and the generation of ideas, namely that they come from an external source, is typically Greek and especially characteristic of Homer, as seen, for example, in the hero Odysseus. Odysseus does not so much formulate ideas as apply with cunning that which is sent into his mind by Athene. Indeed, he does not have a mind in the modern meaning of the word.
It would be oversimplification to say that Oedipus committed suicide by electrocution, but it does appear that he went intentionally, not compelled by any human agent, to a death brought about by electrical means. Oedipus, like all rulers in the ancient world, is closely associated with the mantic arts. But with Oedipus the connection is unusually close. He was the subject of an oracular warning before he was born, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He showed his understanding of monsters by bringing down a monster in the person of the Sphinx. He was associated with the prophet Teiresias, a dominant figure in the first of the Theban plays, Oedipus Tyrannus, and with the Argive seer Amphiaraus, whose wife Eriphyle was bribed by Polynices with a necklace, to persuade her husband to join the expedition against Thebes.
The early experiences of Amphiaraus and Teiresias are typical of Greek prophets. Seers and prophetesses generally had the childhood experience of having their ears licked by a snake. Seers were also frequently blind, physically, but had a compensation of seeing farther into the future than others.
The importance of the snake stems largely from the fact that it resembles the monster in the sky that Zeus defeated. The flickering tongue of the snake and the speed of its strike syrnbolised lightning and electrical phenomena in the battles in the sky. The tongue of a sacrificial victim was thrown onto the flames of the fire at a Greek sacrifice. It is also possible that the snake's resemblance in shape to the human spine caused the Greeks to associate it with the divine element in the skull and spine, as expounded by Plato in the Timaeus.
The blinding of Teiresias was caused by his observations of snakes. He killed the female of a pair of snakes. Another story, or more probably another version of the same occurrence, was that he was called upon to settle a dispute between Zeus and Hera as to whether man or woman derives more pleasure from love. Teiresias sided with Zeus, and Hera struck him blind in her anger. Zeus made up for it by giving him long life and prophetic powers. Yet another story was that Athene blinded him when he saw her bathing. Once more we have water used for provoking an electrical display. Electricity is the link between snakes, blindness, and prophecy. It is also the explanation of the building of pillars and columns, either single, or in groups supporting temple pediments, representing the earth-sky link and the passage of the electrical god to earth from the sky. Hollows in the earth, chasms in cliffs, represent the presence of electrical forces from the earth. We have met it in the Mysteries, and Greek comedy with its phallic displays reveals the influence of the Electrical god Hermes in the field of sexual activity.
The story of a snake licking a prophet's ears symbolises the ability to understand bird song, thunder, electrical humming and sparking, and the rumble of earthquakes. Perhaps Teiresias's study of snakes was part of a study of Zeus and Hera, whose sacred marriage was celebrated annually in Crete. Experiments could lead to blindness, but the knowledge acquired in the augur's studies would have survival value in a turbulent world. Protective measures against radiation were mentioned earlier in this chapter.
Poets too suffered from blindness, for example Homer himself, and the bard Demodocus (Odyssey VIII: 64). The traditional view has been that a man whom blindness had made useless for ordinary work might find a niche as a court poet and survive in that way, relying on a good memory and some facility on the kithara. But Homer stood on the altar at Delos to recite the Hymn to Apollo, and Pindar used to sit on an iron throne at Delphi. The word 'sophistes' is employed to mean 'poet', by Euripides, Rhesus 924, and by Pindar, Isthmian V: 28. 'Sophos', skilled in an art, or clever, is used especially of those who understand divine matters, as in The Bacchae, line 186, where Kadmos asks the advice of Teiresias in the matter of dress, dance steps, and thyrsus management. The poet had a rhabdos, staff. We have met the Hebrew word 'kashaph', meaning magician, or magic.
In Iliad II: 594 ff., Homer mentions Thamyris, son of the poet Philammon, a son of Apollo. Thamyris competed with the Muses, and was punished with blindness for his hubris. The Phrygian satyr Marsyas learnt to play the pipe, which Athene had thrown away because of the facial distortion involved in playing it. He had the arrogance to challenge Apollo to a contest. The Muses judged Apollo to be the winner, whereupon Apollo tied Marsyas to a tree and flayed him alive. One version of the story is that Apollo had him killed by a Scythian. The northern connection suggests that an electrical interpretation may be suitable. Music could be used to induce, by mimesis, sounds indicative of the desired electrical activity. If the experiment got out of hand, the result might be as unfortunate as a miscalculation by a snake charmer if the snake proved to have poison-fangs after all.
Oedipus exercises prophetic powers in the Oedipus at Colonus, most obviously when he declares that Polynices and Eteocles will kill each other in the battle for Thebes. But Sophocles also lays great stress on the fact that Oedipus can find the place where his tomb is to be. We are told more than once that he is no longer the guided, but the guide, alone, without the touch of a hand to direct him. He is now as blind as Teiresias. Whereas in the Oedipus Tyrannus he had taunted Teiresias for being a failure as a prophet, and had been accused by Teiresias of blindness in return, he now, sightless through his own act, sees far enough into the future to find, unaided, the place of his death.
There remains the question of the motive for his apparent suicide. Why was he so anxious to go forward to his death? Was it the suicide of a man who was tired of suffering and wished to end it? In other words, was it simple suicide by electrocution? Was it obedience to an oracular command?
There is plenty of evidence that the supreme task of a king, ruler, or prince was to be willing to serve the gods by sacrificing himself, thereby saving his city from disaster. The example of Kodros springs to mind. He was the last of the legendary kings of Athens. When his city was under attack, an oracle declared that the army whose king was killed would be victorious. Kodros dressed himself as a common soldier and advanced to certain death. The ritual deaths of kings in games and chariot races can be explained on the same lines. From Rome we have the story of Marcus Curtius. A chasm had opened in the forum. He saved Rome from the anger of the gods by riding into the chasm, which closed and swallowed him up.
The Oedipus at Colonus contains examples both of electrical
technique and of the duties of a ruler. He must know the will of
the gods, avoid hubris, be willing to be driven out as a
scapegoat, and be ready to save his country from disaster by
dying a sacrificial death.
Notes (Chapter Twenty-One: The Death of Kings)
1. Pherecydes said that Zas, Chronos and Chthonia were the three first 'archai' (sources, beginnings), and Chronos created fire, wind and water. From these elements, disposed in five 'muchoi' (recesses), the race of gods arose. Pherecydes uses the terms pentemuchos, and pentekosmos. Vide 'The Presocratic Philosophers' by Kirk, Raven and Schofield for a full account. The five gods would be the five planets visible to the naked eye. For the seven recesses, compare the seven regions of the dead in Babylonian myth, and the seven gates through which Ishtar had to pass. The number seven could signify the five planets plus the sun and the moon. In The Book of the Dead, the seven arits (mansions) are mentioned (chapter CXLIV, Arkana edition page 440). I suggest that the Greek 'arche', translated as 'beginning', or 'rule', may be connected with 'ar', 'ara', fire, and possibly 'ka'.
2. Dionysus was reputed to be the inventor of honey. (Ovid, Fasti III: 736)
3. With the Egyptian snake goddess Mehen, compare Greek 'mechane', a device, often of sinister significance. Compare also the Greek 'techne', skill or craft, and Egyptian 'techen', obelisk.