OEDIPUS AT COLONOS

BY MRS. GUY E. LLOYD

Not far from the beautiful city of Athens, and within sight of its temple-crowned citadel, the Acropolis, lies the village of Colonos.

Here, on the slope of the hill, once stood a sacred grove of laurel, whose evergreen sprays adorn Apollo's hair; of olive, planted there by the gray-eyed goddess, Minerva, protectress of Athens; and of vine, the gift of Bacchus.

To this grove there came one day an old man, blind and meanly clad, but for all that venerable and noble of aspect, the unfortunate King Œdipus, led by his daughter Antigone, the sole prop and comfort of his old age.

Sad indeed had been the fate of Œdipus. It had been decreed by the immortal gods that he should slay his father, King Laļus, and while he was still a babe in arms Laļus bade his servants take the child and leave him amongst the bare rocks of Cithęron. Here the forsaken infant was found by a shepherd, who bore him far away from his own city of Thebes to Corinth. Merope the queen chanced to see the child, and struck by the likeness to her own child whom she had just lost, she adopted him, and he was brought up in the palace, believing himself to be truly the son of those with whom he dwelt. But having learnt from the oracle of Apollo that he was doomed to slay his own father, he left Corinth in order to escape that doom, and on the road it fell on him without his being aware of it. For he met a choleric old man in a chariot, who tried to thrust him out of the path, and in defending himself against the old man's goad he smote him with his staff and slew him, not knowing who he was. But this was his father, Laļus, King of Thebes.

Œdipus, journeying on, with no thought but to get far from Corinth and avoid all possibility of parricide, came by chance to his own unknown city, Thebes. Here he delivered the people from a monstrous plague, the Sphinx, and they chose him by acclamation for their king. Thereafter he ruled them well and happily till the wrath of the gods fell upon them for the unavenged murder of their late king. Then did Œdipus turn his mind to seek out the slayer of Laļus, and seeking diligently he found, in the end, that he himself had slain the king, and that the king was his own father. In grief and horror at his own unwitting crime, he stabbed and lacerated his own eyes. To crown his cup of sorrows he was driven from his home by his wicked and ambitious sons, and he wandered out into the world a blind beggar, guided and supported by his faithful daughter Antigone.

Far had they wandered, and they were worn with toil and hunger when they sank down to rest beside the sacred grove of Colonos. Antigone guessed that the tower-crowned hill she saw before her in the distance guarded Athens, but she did not know what place this might be where her father rested, and was about to seek some one from whom to inquire, when by chance a man passed by along the road. Œdipus was beginning to ask this stranger to tell them somewhat of the place whither his wanderings had brought him, but the man interrupted his half-spoken question by telling him instantly to leave his seat, for this grove was the home of dread and mighty goddesses, and no man was permitted to set foot within the close, or even to approach the precincts.

Then Œdipus asked the name of these goddesses. The wayfarer himself called them Eumenides, the Gracious Ones; at Athens they were known as the Semnai, or Dread Ladies; but their proper name was the Erinys, or Avengers of Blood.

When Œdipus heard this he was glad, for the oracle had promised that the end of all his woes should come when he reached the shrine of the Dread Goddesses, and that as a sign that his troubles were over there should come a clap of thunder from a cloudless sky. Moreover the oracle foretold a blessing on the land that gave him burial. Therefore Œdipus begged the stranger to go in all haste to summon to him Theseus, the great and just King of Athens. But meanwhile the Thebans also had heard from the oracle that peace and prosperity should be to the last resting-place of the toil-worn Œdipus, and they had sent out to seek him and bring him back to his own city.

It was beside the grove of the Dread Goddesses that the Thebans found their uncrowned king, but he refused to return to a land that had driven him forth from its borders, choosing rather to die where he was, in the land of his adoption, the hospitable state of Athens. But the Thebans were angered at his refusal, and seized and bore off his faithful daughter Antigone. And the old king was in sore distress; but when he appealed to Theseus to help him, Theseus stood his friend and pursued the band that was bearing away Antigone, and brought her back to her father, safe and sound.

Then came to Œdipus yet another to crave the blessing of the uncrowned king, never so powerful as in his last hours. This was Polynices, the elder son of Œdipus. His younger brother had driven him out from Thebes and taken the throne himself, and now Polynices was collecting an army to go back and drive his brother away and make himself king again.

But Œdipus would not help his wicked son, but cursed him instead, foretelling how the two brothers, the last of an accursed house, should fall by each other's hands, and neither of them should ever enjoy the kingdom for which they strove.

Antigone entreated her brother to give up the fatal feud that could profit neither brother, but Polynices said he could not now turn back and desert his sworn allies, and he departed very sorrowful to meet his doom.

And as he went, from the clear sky there came a sudden clap of thunder. Then Œdipus sent in haste for Theseus, for he knew that here was the promised sign, and that his troublous life was all but over.

Theseus came quickly to see what was amiss with his old friend, and found him anxiously waiting, while the thunder roared louder and the forked lightning brought terror to all the beholders.

Then said Œdipus: "The gods are showing now that the time of my doom is come. Blind though I am, I myself will guide my own steps to the spot where I am doomed to die, but thou alone, O Theseus, shalt know where is my resting-place, and thou shalt tell it to none on earth save when thy death-hour comes, and then shalt thou disclose it to thy eldest born. He in like manner shall hand the secret on, and thus shall peace and prosperity forever dwell in this land. Touch me not. Let me find my hallowed grave myself. Think of me sometimes when I am gone, and thou and all thy state are prosperous."

Then the old man allowed his weeping daughters to lave his limbs and put on him a garment meet for the grave.

And when this was done, and Antigone still clung weeping to her father, there came first a roll of thunder, and after the thunder a voice that called: "Ho, Œdipus, why tarriest thou?"

Then the old king arose and called on Theseus and begged him to care for his daughters, and Theseus vowed to be a true friend to the desolate maidens. And Œdipus kissed his daughters and sent them weeping away, and only Theseus saw the blessed end of a man in life more sinned against than sinning, or knew the last resting-place of the body of King Œdipus.

Antigone craved leave to visit her father's sepulcher, but not even she was allowed to know where was the secret burial-place; and when she was told that her father had willed that no mortal save Theseus should know the spot, she submitted, and only begged permission to go back to Thebes and try to save her brothers from their doom. But it was in vain that the gentle maiden strove to bring peace where was nothing but hatred. The two brothers, fighting in single combat, slew each other, and because Polynices had brought a great host against his own city, the Thebans cast his body without their walls and forbade that any man should sprinkle dust upon it, so should its soul never find rest, as a punishment for all its misdeeds. But Antigone would not leave her brother's corpse unburied. Her sister Ismene dared not help in such a deed, so the heroic maiden went alone, poured the three libations due to the dead, and scattered dust upon her brother's body, thus giving rest to his soul.

Then Creon, King of the Thebans, was wroth with the maiden, and he commanded that she should be taken to a cave, and the mouth be barred with rocks. She should be given just enough food and water to prevent the guilt of her death falling upon the city, and left to pine away in her rocky dungeon. And the guards led her away and did the king's bidding. But when Creon's only son heard what was done he forced his way into that tomb of the living, for he loved Antigone, and would have delivered her at the price of his own life. For this he was too late; the princess had not waited to die by slow starvation within the walled-up cavern, she had strangled herself. The young prince, in his despair, smote himself with his own sword and fell dead beside the body of Antigone. So was the vengeance of the Erinys accomplished, and the work of the Avengers of Blood ended.