Horrible Prophecy Fulfilled

June 10, 2020

Bust of Sophocles

Sophocles (c.496 B.C.–406 B.C.). Oedipus the King.
Vol. 8, pp. 209-223 of The Harvard Classics

King Œdipus of Thebes as a babe was abandoned on Mount Cithæron to die. Years after he was thought dead he returns to Thebes and unknowingly slays his father, marries his mother - and thus fulfills the word of the oracle.

Lines 1–499


ŒDIPUS;  WHY sit ye here, my children, brood last reared
Of Cadmus famed of old, in solemn state,
Uplifting in your hands the suppliants’ boughs?
And all the city reeks with incense smoke,
And all re-echoes with your wailing hymns;
And I, my children, counting it unmeet
To hear report from others, I have come
Myself, whom all name Œdipus the Great.—
Do thou, then, agèd Sire, since thine the right
To speak for these, tell clearly why ye stand
Awe-stricken, or adoring; speak to me
As willing helper. Dull and cold this heart
To see you prostrate thus, and feel no ruth.

PRIEST  Yes, Œdipus, thou ruler of my land,
Thou seest us how we sit, as suppliants, bowed
Around thine altars; some as yet unfledged
To wing their flight, and some weighed down with age.
Priest, I, of Zeus, and these the chosen youth:
And in the open spaces of the town
The people sit and wail, with wreath in hand,
By the twin shrine of Pallas, or the grove
Oracular that bears Ismenus’ name.
For this our city, as thine eyes may see,
Is sorely tempest-tossed, nor lifts its head
From out the surging sea of blood-flecked waves,
All smitten in the fruitful blooms of earth,
All smitten in the herds that graze the fields,
Yea, and in timeless births of woman’s fruit;
And still the God sends forth his darts of fire,
And lays us low. The plague, abhorred and feared,
Makes desolate the home where Cadmus dwelt,
And Hades dark grows rich in sighs and groans.
It is not that we count thee as a God,
Equalled with them in power, that we sit here,
These little ones and I, as suppliants prone;
But, judging thee, in all life’s shifting scenes,
Chiefest of men, yea, and of chiefest skill,
To soothe the powers of Heaven. For thou it was
That freed’st this city, named of Cadmus old,
From the sad tribute which of yore we paid
To that stern songstress, all untaught of us,
And all unprompted; but at God’s behest,
Men think and say, thou guidest all our life.
And now, O Œdipus, most honoured lord,
We pray thee, we, thy suppliants, find for us
Some succour, whether floating voice of God,
Or speech of man brings knowledge to thy soul;
For still I see, with those whom life has trained
To long-tried skill, the issues of their thoughts
Live and are mighty. Come, then, noblest one,
Come, save our city; look on us, and fear.
As yet this land, for all thy former zeal,
Calls thee its saviour: do not give us cause
So to remember this thy reign, as men
Who, having risen, then fall low again;
But save us, save our city. Omens good
Were then with thee; thou didst thy work, and now
Be equal to thyself! If thou wilt rule,
As thou dost rule, this land wherein we dwell,
’Twere better far to reign o’er living men
Than o’er a realm dispeopled. Naught avails,
Or tower or ship, when crew and guards are gone.

ŒDIP.  O children, wailing loud, ye tell me not
Of woes unknown; too well I know them all,
Your sorrows and your wants. For one and all
Are stricken, yet no sorrow like to mine
Weighs on you. Each his own sad burden bears,
His own and not another’s. But my heart
Mourns for the people’s sorrow and mine own;
And, lo! ye have not come to break my sleep,
But found me weeping, weeping bitter tears,
And treading weary paths in wandering thought;
And that one way of healing which I found,
That have I acted on. Menœkeus’ son,
Creon, my kinsman, have I sent to seek
The Pythian home of Phœbus, there to learn
The words or deeds wherewith to save the state;
And even now I measure o’er the time
And wonder how he fares, for, lo! he stays,
I know not why, beyond the appointed day;
But when he comes I should be base indeed,
Failing to do whate’er the God declares.

PRIEST  Well hast thou spoken! Tidings come e’en now
Of Creon seen approaching.

ŒDIP.  Grant, O King
Apollo, that he come with omen good,
Bright with the cheer of one that bringeth life.

PRIEST  If one may guess, ’tis well. He had not come
His head all wreathed with boughs of laurel else.

ŒDIP.  Soon we shall know. Our voice can reach him now.
Say, prince, our well-beloved, Menœkeus’ son,
What sacred answer bring’st thou from the God?


CREON.  A right good answer! That our evil plight,
If all goes well, may end in highest good.

ŒDIP.  What means this speech? Nor full of eager hope,
Nor trembling panic, list I to thy words.

CREON.  I for my part am ready, these being by,
to tell thee all, or go within the gates.

ŒDIP.  Speak out to all. I sorrow more for them
Than for the woe which touches me alone.

CREON.  Well, then, I speak the things the God declared.
Phœbus, our king, he bids us chase away
(The words were plain) the infection of our land,
Nor cherish guilt which still remains unhealed.

ŒDIP.  But with what rites? And what the deed itself?

CREON.  Drive into exile, blood for blood repay.
That guilt of blood is blasting all the state.

ŒDIP.  But whose fate is it that thou hintest at?

CREON.  Once, O my king, ere thou didst raise our state,
Our sovereign Laius ruled o’er all the land.

ŒDIP.  This know I well, though him I never saw.

CREON.  Well, then, the God commands us, he being dead,
To take revenge on those who shed his blood.

ŒDIP.  Yes; but where are they? How to track the course
Of guilt all shrouded in the doubtful past?

CREON.  In this our land, so said he, those who seek
Shall find; unsought, we lose it utterly.

ŒDIP.  Was it at home, or in the field, or else
In some strange land that Laius met his doom?

CREON.  He went, so spake he, pilgrim-wise afar,
And nevermore came back as forth he went.

ŒDIP.  Was there no courier, none who shared his road,
From whom, inquiring, one might learn the truth?

CREON.  Dead are they all, save one who fled for fear,
And he had naught to tell but this:…

ŒDIP.  [interrupting] And what was that? One fact might teach us much,
Had we but one small starting-point of hope.

CREON.  He used to tell that robbers fell on him,
Not man for man, but with outnumbering force.

ŒDIP.  Yet sure no robber would have dared this deed,
Unless some bribe had tempted him from hence.

CREON.  So men might think; but Laius at his death
Found none to help, or ’venge him in his woe.

ŒDIP.  What hindered you, when thus your sovereignty
Had fallen low, from searching out the truth?

CREON.  The Sphinx, with her dark riddle, bade us look
At nearer facts, and leave the dim obscure.

ŒDIP.  Well, be it mine to track them to their source.
Right well hath Phœbus, and right well hast thou,
Shown for the dead your care, and ye shall find,
As is most meet, in me a helper true,
Aiding at once my country and the God.
Not for the sake of friends, or near or far,
But for mine own, will I dispel this curse;
For he that slew him, whosoe’er he be,
Will wish, perchance, with such a blow to smite
Me also. Helping him, I help myself.
And now, my children, rise with utmost speed
From off these steps, and raise your suppliant boughs;
And let another call my people here,
The race of Cadmus, and make known that I
Will do my taskwork to the uttermost:
So, as God wills, we prosper, or we fail.

PRIEST  Rise, then, my children, ’twas for this we came,
For these good tidings which those lips have brought,
And Phœbus, he who sent these oracles,
Pray that he come to heal, and save from woe.  [Exeunt CREON and Priest.


CHORUS  O voice of Zeus sweet-toned, with what intent
Cam’st thou from Pytho, where the red gold shines,
To Thebes, of high estate?
Fainting for fear, I quiver in suspense
(Hear us, O healer! God of Delos, hear!),
In brooding dread, what doom, of present growth,
Or as the months roll on, thy hand will work;
Tell me, O Voice divine, thou child of golden hope!


Thee first, Zeus-born Athene, thee I call;
And next thy sister, Goddess of our land,
Our Artemis, who in the market sits
In queenly pride, upon her orbed throne;
And Phœbus, the fair darter! O ye Three,
Shine on us, and deliver us from ill!
If e’er before, when waves or storms of woe
Rushed on our state, ye drove away
The fiery tide of ill,
Come also now!


Yea, come, ye Gods, for sorrows numberless
  Press on my soul;
And all the host is smitten, and our thoughts
  Lack weapons to resist.
For increase fails of all the fruits of earth,
And women faint in childbirth’s wailing pangs,
And one by one, as flit the swift-winged birds,
So, flitting to the shore of Hades dark,
Fleeter than lightning’s flash,
Thou seest them passing on.


Yea, numberless are they who perish thus,
And on the soil, plague-breeding, lie
Infants unpitied, cast out ruthlessly;
And wives and mothers, gray with hoary age,
Some here, some there, by every altar mourn,
With woe and sorrow crushed,
And chant their wailing plaint.
Clear thrills the sense their solemn litany,
And the low anthem sung in unison.
Hear, then, thou golden daughter of great Zeus,
And send us help, bright-faced as is the morn.


And Ares the destroyer drive away!
Who now, though hushed the din of brazen shield,
With battle-cry wars on me fierce and hot.
Bid him go back in flight,
Retreat from this our land,
Or to the ocean bed,
Where Amphitrite sleeps,
Or to the homeless sea
Which sweeps the Thracian shore.
If waning night spares aught
That doth the day assail:
Do thou, then, Sire almighty,
Wielding the lightning’s strength,
Blast him with thy hot thunder.


And thou, Lyceian king, the wolf’s dread foe,
Fain would I see thy darts
From out thy golden bow
Go forth invincible,
Helping and bringing aid;
And with them, winged with fire,
The rays of Artemis,
With which, on Lycian hills,
She moveth on her course.
And last I call on thee,
Thou of the golden crown,
Guardian of this our land,
Bacchus, all purple-flushed,
With clamour loud and long,
Wandering with Maenads wild;
I call on thee to come,
Flashing with blazing torch,
Against the God whom all the Gods disown.

ŒDIP.  Thou prayest, and for thy prayers, if thou wilt hear
My words, and treat the dire disease with skill,
Thou shalt find help and respite from thy pain,—
My words, which I, a stranger to report,
A stranger to the deed, will now declare:
For I myself should fail to track it far,
Unless some footprints guided me aright.
But now, since here I stand, the latest come,
A citizen to citizens, I speak
To all the sons of Cadmus. Lives there one
Who knows of Laitus, son of Labdacus,
The hand that slew him; him I bid to tell
His tale to me; and should it chance he shrinks,
Fearing the charge against himself to bring,
Still let him speak; no heavier doom is his
Than to depart uninjured from the land;
Or, if there be that knows an alien arm
As guilty, let him hold his peace no more;
I will secure his gain and thanks beside.
But if ye hold your peace, if one through fear
Shall stifle words his bosom friend may drop,
What then I purpose let him hear from me:
That man I banish, whosoe’er he be,
From out the land whose power and throne are mine;
And none may give him shelter, none speak to him,
Nor join with him in prayer and sacrifice,
Nor pour for him the stream that cleanses guilt;
But all shall thrust him from their homes, abhorred,
Our curse and our pollution, as the word
Prophetic of the Pythian God has shown:
Such as I am, I stand before you here,
A helper to the God and to the dead.
And for the man who did the guilty deed,
Whether alone he lurks, or leagued with more,
I pray that he may waste his life away,
For vile deeds vilely dying; and for me,
If in my house, I knowing it, he dwells,
May every curse I speak on my head fall.
And this I charge you do, for mine own sake,
And for the God’s, and for the land that pines,
Barren and god-deserted. Wrong ’twould be,
E’en if no voice from heaven had urged us on,
That ye should leave the stain of guilt uncleansed,
Your noblest chief, your king himself, being slain.
Yea, rather, seek and find. And since I reign,
Wielding the might his hand did wield before,
Filling his couch, and calling his wife mine,
Yea, and our children too, but for the fate
That fell on his, had grown up owned by both;
But so it is. On his head fell the doom;
And therefore will I strive my best for him,
As for my father, and will go all lengths
To seek and find the murderer, him who slew
The son of Labdacus, and Polydore,
And earlier Cadmus, and Agenor old;
And for all those who hearken not, I pray
The Gods to give then neither fruit of earth,
Nor seed of woman, but consume their lives
With this dire plague, or evil worse than this.
And you, the rest, the men from Cadmus sprung,
To whom these words approve themselves as good,
May righteousness befriend you, and the Gods,
In full accord, dwell with you evermore.

CHORUS  Since thou hast bound me by a curse, O king,
I needs must speak. I neither slew the man,
Nor know who slew. To say who did the deed
Belongs to him who sent this oracle.

ŒDIP.  Right well thou speak’st, but man’s best strength must fail
To force the Gods to do the things they will not.

CHORUS  And may I speak a second time my thoughts?

ŒDIP.  If ’twere a third, shrink not from speaking out.

CHORUS  One man I know, a prince, whose insight deep
Sees clear as princely Phœbus, and from him,
Teiresias, one might learn, O king, the truth.

ŒDIP.  That, too, is done. No loiterer I in this,
For I have sent, on Creon’s hint, two bands
To summon him, and wonder that he comes not.

CHORUS  Old rumours are there also, dark and dumb.

ŒDIP.  And what are they? I weigh the slightest word.

CHORUS  ’Twas said he died by some chance traveller’s hand.

ŒDIP.  I, too, heard that. But none knows who was by.

CHORUS  If yet his soul is capable of awe,
Hearing thy curses, he will shrink from them.

ŒDIP.  Words fright not him who, doing, knows no fear.

CHORUS  Well, here is one who’ll put him to the proof.
For, lo! they bring the seer inspired of God;
Chosen of all men, vessel of the truth.

Enter TEIRESIAS, blind, and guided by a boy

ŒDIP.  Teiresias! thou whose mind embraceth all,
Told or untold, the things of heaven or earth;
Thou knowest, although thou seest not, what a pest
Dwells on us, and we find in thee, O prince,
Our one deliverer, yea, our only help.
For Phœbus (if, perchance, thou hast not heard)
Sent back this word to us, who sent to ask,
That this one way was open to escape
From the fell plague; if those who Laius slew,
We in our turn, discovering, should slay,
Or drive them forth as exiles from the land.
Thou, therefore, grudge not either sign from birds,
Or any other path of prophecy;
But save the city, save thyself, save me;
Lift off the guilt that death has left behind;
On thee we hang. To use our means, our power,
In doing good, is noblest service owned.

TEIR.  Ah me! ah me! how sad is wisdom’s gift,
When no good issue waiteth on the wise!
Right well I knew this, but in evil hour
Forgot, alas! or else I had not come.

ŒDIP.  What means this? How despondingly thou com’st!

TEIR.  Let me go home; for thus thy fate shalt thou,
And I mine own, bear easiest, if thou yield.

ŒDIP.  No loyal words thou speak’st, nor true to Thebes
Who reared thee, holding back this oracle.

TEIR.  It is because I see thy lips speak words
Ill-timed, ill-omened, that I guard my speech.

ŒDIP.  Now, by the Gods, unless thy reason fails,
Refuse us not, who all implore thy help.

TEIR.  Yes. Reason fails you all; but ne’er will I
So speak my sorrows as to unveil thine.

ŒDIP.  What mean’st thou, then? Thou know’st and wilt not tell,
But giv’st to ruin both the state and us?

TEIR.  I will not pain myself nor thee. Why, then,
All vainly urge it? Thou shalt never know.

ŒDIP.  Oh, basest of the base! (for thou wouldst stir
A heart of stone;) and wilt thou never tell,
But still abide relentless and unmoved?

TEIR.  My mood thou blamest, but thou dost not know
That which dwells with thee while thou chidest me.

ŒDIP.  And who would not feel anger, as he hears
The words which bring dishonour to the state?

TEIR.  Well! come they will, though I should hold my peace.

ŒDIP.  If come they must, thy duty is to speak.

TEIR.  I speak no more. So, if thou wilt, rage on,
With every mood of wrath most desperate.

ŒDIP.  Yes; I will not refrain, so fierce my wrath,
From speaking all my thought. I think that thou
Didst plot the deed, and do it, though the blow
Thy hands, it may be, dealt not. Hadst thou seen,
I would have said it was thy deed alone

TEIR.  And it has come to this? I charge thee, hold
To thy late edict, and from this day forth
Speak not to me, nor yet to these, for thou,
Thou art the accursèd plague-spot of the land.

ŒDIP.  Art thou so shameless as to vent such words,
And thinkest to escape thy righteous doom?

TEIR.  I have escaped. The strength of truth is mine.

ŒDIP.  Who prompted thee? This comes not from thine art.

TEIR.  Thou art the man. ’Twas thou who mad’st me speak.

ŒDIP.  What say’st thou? Tell it yet again, that I
May know more clearly.

TEIR.  When I spoke before,
Didst thou not know? Or dost thou challenge me?

ŒDIP.  I could not say I knew it. Speak again.

TEIR.  I say that thou stand’st there a murderer.

ŒDIP.  Thou shalt not twice revile, and go unharmed.

TEIR.  And shall I tell thee more to stir thy rage?

ŒDIP.  Say what thou pleasest. All in vain ’tis said.

TEIR.  I say that thou, in vilest intercourse
With those thou lovest best, dost blindly live,
Nor seest the evil thou hast made thine own.

ŒDIP.  And dost thou think to say these things and live?

TEIR.  Of that I doubt not, if truth holds her own.

ŒDIP.  Truth is for all but thee, but thou hast none,
Blind in thine ears, thy reason, and thine eyes.

TEIR.  How wretched thou, thus hurling this reproach!
Such, all too soon, the world will hurl at thee.

ŒDIP.  Thou livest wrapt in one continual night,
And canst not hurt or me, or any man
Who sees the light.

TEIR.  Fate’s firm decree stands fixed:
Thou diest not by me. Apollo’s might
Suffices. His the task to bring thee low.

ŒDIP.  Are these devices Creon’s or thine own?

TEIR.  It is not Creon harms thee, but thyself.

ŒDIP.  O wealth, and sovereignty, and noblest skill
Surpassing skill in life that men admire,
How great the envy dogging all your steps!
If for the sake of kingship, which the state
Hath given, unasked for, freely in mine hands,
Creon the faithful, found mine earliest friend,
Now seeks with masked attack to drive me forth,
And hires this wizard, plotter of foul schemes,
A vagrant mountebank, whose sight is clear
For pay alone, but in his art stone-blind.
Is it not so? When wast thou known a seer?
Why, when the monster with her song was here,
Didst thou not give our countrymen thy help?
And yet the riddle lay above the ken
Of common men, and called for prophet’s skill.
And this thou show’dst thou hadst not, nor by bird,
Nor any God made known; but then I came,
I, Œdipus, who nothing knew, and slew her,
With mine own counsel winning, all untaught
By flight of birds. And now thou wouldst expel me,
And think’st to take thy stand by Creon’s throne.
But, as I think, both thou and he that plans
With thee, will to your cost attack my fame;
And but that thou stand’st there all old and weak,
Thou shouldst be taught what kind of plans are thine.

CHORUS  Far as we dare to measure, both his words
And thine, O Œdipus, in wrath are said.
Not such as these we need, but this to see,
How best to do the bidding of the God.

TEIR.  King though thou be, I claim an equal right
To make reply. Here I call no man lord:
For I am not thy slave, but Loxias’.
Nor shall I stand on Creon’s patronage;
And this I say, since thou hast dared revile
My blindness, that thou seest, yet dost not see
Thy evil plight, nor where thou liv’st, nor yet
With whom thou dwellest, Know’st thou even this,
Whence thou art sprung? All ignorant thou sinn’st
Against thine own, the living and the dead.
And soon a curse from mother and from sire
With fearful foot shall chase thee forth from us,
Now seeing all things clear, then all things dark.
And will not then each shore repeat thy wail,
And will not old Kithæron echoing ring
When thou discern’st the marriage, fatal port,
To which thy prosp’rous voyage brought thy bark?
And other ills, in countless multitude,
Thou seest not yet, on thee and on thy seed
Shall fall alike. Vent forth thy wrath then loud,
On Creon and on me. There lives not man
Who wastes his life more wretchedly than thou.

ŒDIP.  This can be borne no longer! Out with thee!
A curse light on thee! Wilt thou not depart?
Wilt thou not turn and wend thy backward way?

TEIR.  I had not come hadst thou not called me here.

ŒDIP.  I knew not thou wouldst speak so foolishly;
Else I had hardly fetched thee to my house.

TEIR.  We then, for thee (so deemest thou), are fools,
But, for thy parents, who begot thee, wise.  [Turns to go.

ŒDIP.  [starting forward] What? Stay thy foot. What mortal gave me

TEIR.  This day shall give thy birth, and work thy doom.

ŒDIP.  What riddles dark and dim thou lov’st to speak.

TEIR.  Yes. But thy skill excels in solving such.

ŒDIP.  Scoff as thou wilt, in this thou’lt find me strong.

TEIR.  And yet success in this has worked thy fall.

ŒDIP.  I little care, if I have saved the state.

TEIR.  Well, then, I go. Do thou, boy, lead me on!

ŒDIP.  Let him lead on. So hateful art thou near,
Thou canst not pain me more when thou art gone.

TEIR.  I go, then, having said the things I came
To say. No fear of thee compels me. Thine
Is not the power to hurt me. And I say,
This man whom thou art seeking out with threats,
As murderer of Laius, he is here,
In show an alien sojourner, but in truth
A home-born Theban. No delight to him
Will that discovery bring. Blind, having seen,
Poor, having rolled in wealth,—he, with a staff
Feeling his way, to other lands shall go!
And by his sons shall he be known at once
Father and brother, and of her who bore him
Husband and son, sharing his father’s bed,
His father’s murd’rer. Go thou, then, within,
And brood o’er this, and, if thou find’st me fail,
Say that my skill in prophecy is gone.  [Exeunt ŒDIPUS and TEIRESIAS.


CHORUS  Who was it that the rock oracular
      Of Delphi spake of, working
With bloody hand his nameless deed of shame?
      Time is it now for him,
      Swifter than fastest steed,
      To bend his course in flight.
      For, in full armour clad,
      Upon him darts, with fire
And lightning flash, the radiant Son of Zeus.
And with him come in train the dreaded ones,
      The Destinies that may not be appeased.

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