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Paternalistic Motifs in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King”


During reading Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King”, it cannot escape our attention that the author attaches great importance to the theme of the mystical relationship between people’s existential mode and the land (soil), upon which they live. This can be explained by the fact that, unlike our contemporaries, ancient Greeks were aware of the principle that defines the essence of surrounding reality – everything has to do with everything.

They were well aware of the fact that every deed leads to certain consequences, even when these consequences do not become instantly apparent. Ancient Greeks knew that, although the violation of biological laws of nature (such as indulging in the practice of incest or racial mixing) might seem as being tolerated by “divine powers” for some time, it will eventually lead to degradation and death.

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Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that it was namely ancient Greece where the doctrine of “blood and soil” had originated in the first place. Sophocles’ tragedy contains proofs that substantiate the validity of the earlier statement, as it reveals its characters as such that possess a strong pantheistic worldview – they all seem to be convinced that their deeds reflect on the soil. In its turn, soil whether rewards worthy individuals with a blessing or punishes unworthy ones with a curse.

As history shows, people who were able to create and maintain civilization had always possessed a revered attitude towards the soil, because they subconsciously associated their evolutionary transformation from sub-humans into intelligent beings with the time when they stopped leading a nomadic form of existence.

The fact that characters in “Oedipus the King” often refer to the soil as a communicational medium, reveals them as highly idealistic people, which in its turn, relates to the fact that they strived to prevent their blood from being tainted. This is the reason why Oedipus realizes that his involuntary incest with his mother had brought a curse upon him:

“Am I not utterly unclean, a wretch

Doomed to be banished, and in banishment

Forgo the sight of all my dearest ones,

And never tread again my native earth”

Nowadays, even though many people believe in the existence of the soul, they have no idea as to its metaphysical essence, which is why they do not know where the soul is located in the body. Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that an individual’s soul resides in his blood. One person is being murdered, his blood gets to be absorbed by the soil, with such person’s soul becoming one with the soul of the earth. When this happens, the murderer begins to have an increasingly hard time, while trying to go on with his life, as the soil, upon which he walks, starts to act as his enemy. The longer the time, before earth takes revenge on a wrongdoer, the more terrible is the actual revenge:

“O Oedipus discrowned head,

Thy cradle was thy marriage bed;

One harborage sufficed for son and sire.

How could the soil thy father eared so long

Endure bearing in silence such a wrong?”

It is not by the pure accident that in his tragedy, Sophocles establishes a strong link between Oedipus’ murder of his father and his indulgence in incest with Jocasta – both deeds are being perceived by the author as utterly evil, because of their unnaturalness, even though that Oedipus is the last person to blame for what happened since he had no idea of what he was doing. Yet, the involuntary violation of laws of nature does not make the violator less guilty.

The reason why in Greek cities-polises no people were suffering from existential inadequateness (retards, sexual maniacs, obese “fatsos”), is because back then, Greeks knew how to effectively deal with different forms of physical and mental corruption. If part of one’s body becomes infested with cancer, there is only one way to prevent an individual from succumbing to this deadly illness – to surgically remove cancerous cells, before it is too late.

This is the reason why Priest of Zeus tells Creon: “Drive the corruption from the land … don’t nurse it in the soil—root it out”. The Priest knew what corresponds to the very essence of evil. Existential evilness does simply relates to an individual’s failure to act in a socially appropriate manner, but to such an individual’s willingness to defy nature itself, regardless of whether this is being done consciously or unconsciously.

In a healthy society, people’s inadequateness cannot be tolerated, as even earth begins to act as nature’s “punisher” when a member of this society sins. Unlike Christians, who consider sins as such that can be redeemed (preferably with the mean of a financial donation to the Church), ancient Greeks knew that this is impossible in principle because sinful deeds result in clearly defined consequences, which cannot be “redeemed” or forgiven.

The price of sin is death, as people capable of acting against the laws of nature are nothing but an abomination of humanity. The tragedy of Oedipus consists in the fact that he must pay the ultimate price for what he had done, even though he is the last person who deserves to be punished, within the context of Sophocles’ tragedy as whole. In its turn, this revea als ancient Greeks, as being intellectually developed well ahead of their time, as they knew that it is individual’s behavior that corresponds to his social value and not whether he is a good or bad person. Given the fact that Oedipus was of Thebes’ royal bloodline, his crime against nature had brought about a punishment onto people he was representing:

“But the proud sinner, or in word or deed,

That will not Justice heed…

He grasps at an ill-got gain,

And lays an impious hand on holiest things.

Who when such deeds are done

Can hope heaven’s bolts to shun?”

We need to remember that the head of the Olympic pantheon of Gods had often been referred to by ancient Greeks as Zeus Chthonios (“earthy”). This is why; it comes as no surprise that Sophocles refers to Thebes’ curse as such that is being produced by the earth itself. This also appears to be the reason why Priest of Zeus kept insisting that, for the plague to stop tormenting Thebans, the corruption had to be driven out of the land, as Oedipus’ very presence in Thebes constituted an offense against Gods.


Thus, we can say that “Oedipus the King” does not simply represent a great literary value, but also a philosophical one, as it provides us with a better understanding of such abstract category as sin while revealing its essence as being rather biological than religious. Tragedy allows us to get an insight on metaphysical relation between soil and blood, as such that defines socio-political dynamics in every particular society more than any other factor.


Sophocles “Oedipus the King”. 2002. The Internet Classics Archive. Web.