At the center of Delcourt’s book is her discussion of reciprocal combat and its relation to communal scapegoating. Having written some six scholarly full-length works prior to this one, Delcourt here gathers the circulating accounts for what she identifies as six themes at play in the story of Oedipus that she separates into distinct chapters: the exposure of infants, the murder of the father, victory over the Sphinx, the riddle of the Sphinx, marriage to the princess, and incest with the mother. Although present commonly in individual sequences elsewhere, these themes are assembled in the myth of Oedipus of course serially and so constitute there, she informs us, something of a “biography” (1). But as the extensions of distinct ritual acts (which is how she understands these stories), they are also from her point of view “interchangeable” and despite their diverse origins “transpose to the realm of fable a particularly rich group of rites . . . all bound up with the idea of kingship” (1).
As a study of classical philology as well as myth, ritual, and historical studies in the ancient world, Delcourt’s book is inevitably bound to be in conversation with others in the field. As such, her book engages at various points those of Carl Robert, Hermann Usener, Ludwig Deubner, Ludwig Laistner, Saloman Reinach, Georges Dumézil, Martin Nilsson, Sir James Frazer, Henri Jeanmaire, Arnold van Gennep, Ulrich and Tycho Wilamowitz, and others who work in the ancient Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern universe. And to that extent, its current English language publication offers a gateway to scholarly writing no longer as commonly read in this country.
But it also contains some surprising insights perhaps even less anticipated by its current audience. Following an extended introduction that considers sources or origins that are ritual, historical, or naturalistic, the book is divided into primarily six chapters for the six distinct themes she finds uniquely assembled in Sophocles’ play. Following these seven documents, she conducts a discussion of “endings,” of “myths and memory,” and adds four appendices, some addenda, extended notes and a brief index. This presentation, however is deceptive. The center of gravity is really the second chapter where she engages the murder of the father. Father-son combat is at the center of her concern which is primarily one about kingship and power.
If we think in terms of Sophocles’ play specifically, that centrality renders other aspects more peripheral. Her book addresses the exposure of the child by Laius and/or Jocasta, the confrontation at Phocis, the encounter with (and vanquishing of) the Sphinx, the riddle posed by the plague-bearing enchantress, marriage with the older wife of the deceased monarch, and the discovery of incestuous connections to that woman (who is also his mother) and her deceased spouse. She is less concerned (at least in this volume) with Delphic oracles, or the ongoing life of the city (which is the interest of the Chorus of Elders), with the story of the pitying and rescuing Theban shepherd or the opportunistic Corinthian Herdsman / Messenger (who herd together on Cithaeron), or generally with the ironic circularity of the history Sophocles presents to us, recalling the myth in one circle, and tracing in retrograde fashion (in the progress of the play) that same mythic progress in the other. Let us examine these chapters in more detail.
Introduction to the Sources
Delcourt makes in effect, in her introduction, two points. The first is that legendary accounts are related to specific ritual practices and not, as some scholars maintain, to natural or historical causes, or human versions of minor divinities. The person is the product of the act, she maintains, not the reverse. “Oedipus is neither a historical figure nor an anciently humanized minor god. He is the very type of all heroes of essentially—if not uniquely—ritual origin, whose acts are prior to their person” (8).
Then, having rejected these origins, she turns to “the sources of our knowledge of the Oedipus legend” (8). Apart from brief references in Homer and Hesiod, the most complete sources—the epic cycles of the sixth century—are entirely lost. Apart from Sophocles, two tragic dramatists treat a portion of the myth: Aeschylus in Seven against Thebes, and Euripides in Phoenician Women. Aeschylus’ play, she says, seems to have been the third part of a trilogy preceded by a Laius and an Oedipus (now lost) that seem to have followed the course of an inherited curse developed on the model of the Oresteia rather than the Sophoclean structure of ironic discovery. And Euripides’ play seems also to have been similarly one of three plays in which there was a Laius and a Chrysippus (detailing Laius’ involvement with the young man that occasioned his father Pelops’ curse with which the story of Oedipus begins), but those plays too seem to have been lost except for a few lines. The story available in Aeschylus and Euripides, thus, is not for the most part the portion of the myth that Sophocles treats and may even have derived from sources other than the ones Sophocles used. At one point in the codices of the extant Euripides drama, a scholion gives some thirty lines associated with the name “Pisander,” and this account, though inconsistent at points, has tantalized scholars for years, although, Delcourt concludes, she is “inclined to ascribe an epic origin to the Pisander scholion” (14).
Exposure of the Infant
The first formal chapter of Delcourt’s investigation examines the extent to which the theme of the exposure of infants reflects, in origin, multiple ritual acts. Oedipus is undoubtedly exposed on the mountainside as “one of those malefic newborn children whom ancient communities did away with because their deformity was proof of divine wrath” (17). But it would be a “mistake” in her view to limit that scene to rituals that punished “evil” children in a procedure intended to ward off barrenness. Other similar themes involving the rearing of children on a mountain and the submersion of children within a chest in the water—themes reflecting the initiation of a young man into full adulthood—appear also to have been a model. And much of her long first chapter is spent recounting variants on these themes and this ritual origin. She notes for example, that there is another circulating account of Oedipus in which Oedipus is placed into a chest, cast into the sea, and washes up at Sicyon or Corinth (36).
But then suddenly she draws a parallel to the pharmakos ritual and wonders to what extent that connection is instructive. “Exposed infants made to undergo the trial of the chest and deformed infants who were excommunicated as portents of evil were both treated in a way that in many respects resembles the fate of the adult pharmakoi” (41). The key to their comparison, she says, is that they are both “scapegoats.” “The act by which a pharmakos was solemnly expelled from the community was intended both to increase the fertility of its land and to ward off evil in the person of one who has been made to bear full weight of the community‟s transgression” (41).
She had in fact already introduced the idea earlier when she noted (revising her own previously published account) that “the exposed infants were scapegoats” (17). “Their sacralization,” she now adds, “in the event they were rescued, had the effect of bringing about a reversal of values, so that what had been seen as evil was now considered to be good” (17). And she now notes that in both instances the process is one of “sacrifice.” It governs the removal of newborns and it is associated with the removal of the pharmakos (43), in both cases removals that are seen as beneficial to the community, and when rescued that are considered sacred figures for whom the persecutors are to be blamed.
Murder of the Father
But it is in the second chapter that the heart of her book is exhibited: combat, death of the defeated competitor, the old giving way to the young, the daughter of the old as a reward for victory, the ultimate reward as power. What is at stake, she asks, “with regard to the theme of old and new kings in Greek legend?” First¸“what is at stake in the conflict between generations is always the conquest of power.” Second, she says, the “central episode [of that conflict] is a combat or a race, at the end of which the defeated competitor must die.” Third, “the old man is always vanquished” with few exceptions. Fourth, “the two rivals are sometimes father and son, but more often an old man and a young man who is in love with the old man’s daughter.” Fifth, “the ritual nucleus of the myth entitles the victor to wield power.” “This same rite,” she notes, “was the source of sporting competitions in ancient Greece” (102).
We recognize of course this conflict as a drama commonly identified by more recent commentators at the center of comedic genre (think of Molière) and as often traced by other more anthropologically inclined commentators to rituals echoing seasonal change, rituals not entirely remote from the initiation rituals by which she explains so much else in this book. Interestingly, Delcourt here declines that explanation and identifies “the conflict between Oedipus and Laius” as “a mythic transposition of the rite that Frazer unforgettably described in connection with the priest at Nemi who had to be killed by his successor” (78-79). “Let us call this the struggle between a young king and an old king,” she writes, although at the same time, she notes “the rite of succession by murder appears to have totally disappeared in Greece in historical times” (79).
Victory over the Sphinx
Turning then to the battle with the Sphinx, with regard to the “origin of the legendary themes we have isolated” she says we can identify some “firm conclusions.” The “monstrous adversary, like that of placing a child in a chest, consists of several superimposed layers of meaning.” The Sphinx is in the first place an “incubus.” Moreover, the “demon is at the same time a tormented soul.” And regarding her battle with Oedipus, she writes, “it preserves an ancient memory of trials of initiation, in the first place those rites of passage that every adolescent must undergo; but above all those more terrible ordeals to which future leaders must submit.” “While we know a bit about the first kind, we know almost nothing about the second,” she observes.
And mindful perhaps that such kingship rituals have, as she said earlier, disappeared from Greece, she concludes with the goal which could apply to each of the thematic episodes she discusses in this book. “One would like to be able to write down next to each of them an exhaustive list, the one enumerating the archaic religious practices to which people were long faithful, the other the legends to which these rites were transposed when they began to fade from people’s minds” (133-134).
In turning to the riddle, Delcourt continues the same line of thinking: rites of initiation. “It may be that the riddle myth originated in a belief in oppressive and infernal demons. But it could never have developed into anything more than that if it had not been used as an instrument of propaganda in support of initiations—religious initiations to begin with, social initiations later.” The riddle in her view is a defense of ritual initiations. “[A] vindicatory purpose is obvious. It is detected in many later tales as well…. One relates a story in order to demonstrate something, in order to persuade someone.” And in this case what must be granted is entrance into adulthood, the riddle in her view being a kind of password or a shibboleth. “The theme of the riddle demonstrates that a novice will become rich once the habit of scrupulous obedience enables him to correctly repeat everything his master has taught him” (144).
Marriage to a Princess
Marriage to a princess may be the hardest thematic “sell” about which Delcourt would like to persuade us, at least in context of Sophocles’ play, where Jocasta is an older woman and Oedipus is not Lancelot fighting a fatherly King Arthur for the hand of lovely Guinevere, or, in the Greek context, Jason struggling with the monstrous Medea for the hand of Creon’s daughter Glauce. “Beneath the theme of marriage to a princess,” Delcourt writes, “two known rites may be distinguished: nuptial trials and springtime sacred marriages, and beneath these rites themselves simpler beliefs in the immediate efficacy of the race and circumambulation” (212). But the theme of marriage, she concedes, “seldom appears alone, nearly always being accompanied by the theme of generational conflict” (212). And so this theme, although distinct, may be bound up with both the preceding sequence—depicting combat with a monster—and other battles of which each of these six episodes are transformations.
Incest with the Mother
Despite earlier legends in which the new king continues to rule until his death, that is not the case in which Sophocles’ Oedipus concludes. “Oedipus’s incest,” she writes, “leads back from a clear romantic legend to the shadowy world in which myths are elaborated, the penumbra of immediately efficacious rites” (196). But what rites? What practices? “Sacred marriage with the earth,” she suggests (200). To our own ears, in the age of increased respect for psychoanalytic thinking and structural anthropology—think of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s identification of the incest taboo, for example, at the structural origin of the possibility of distinguishing nature from culture—such a thesis sounds less compelling. And Delcourt readily admits that “the conjectures…sketched in this chapter are…tenuous” (202) although she finds in such discussions ways of accounting for such common motifs in mythopoetic works as kissing the ground or potential origins for other myths—like those of Poseidon and Demeter, for example. “The shipwrecked man kisses the ground when he finally comes ashore,” she writes. “Both Odysseus and Agamemnon kiss the ground on returning to their native lands. I believe that in the beginning this was not merely an expression of affection and gratitude but also of sexual union—which is to say an act of possession” (196). And in this way, she asserts, the relation to the earth is linked to concerns with dominance for the tyrant: to rule the earth by lying prostrate upon it or to be ruled by the earth by lying six feet beneath it.
Endings, Myths, and Memory
The book that Marie Delcourt writes is not philosophic. Nor is it an analysis of Sophocles’ play. It is an assemblage of the wide variety of legends she sees as the product of ritual practices and mythic thinking from which the drama, the epic, and other ancient mythopoetic works were drawn.
And the final two documents before the four appendices, extensive notes, brief addenda, and an index, could well appear like stray commentaries the author might have included in an earlier chapter. “Endings,” for example, which examines changing perspectives of the deaths of Jocasta and Oedipus, fits the bill. But “Myths and Memory” does not and might have served as something like the author’s Conclusion (opposite the Introduction at the other end) had she been availed of the opportunity to work more on the book. It sums up concisely what she has been arguing throughout.
The essay is divided into three parts. The first examines the prehistory of myths and their transformation.
A myth is modified because its original motivation is no longer understood and comes to be replaced by a new one. The myth’s new purpose acts in turn upon the manner of its telling and reshapes it. Thus the Theban legend, hostile to the family in its primitive form, was subsequently reworked to accommodate a familial morality. Aeschylus’ Oedipus ceased to be the conqueror that he was for Homer and Hesiod and was made instead into a criminal; indeed, so acutely is Oedipus aware of his crime in Aeschylus that he punishes himself, which he could do only by stripping himself of the rewards to his conquest. This shift in ethical point of view turns the denouement inside out, so that the story concludes with an abdication—the most typical ending of all the legends of conquerors (213-214).
The second part concerns individual and historical memory. Delcourt contrasts her view with Arnold van Gennep’s that “legends tenaciously preserve the memory of outmoded institutions” (214), asserting that legends to the contrary “constantly modernize themselves by reconciling in one way or another with the state of society at the time of their latest recounting” (215).
The third and final section concerns psychoanalysis which, she says, takes one legend regarding familial rivalry and sexual union and generalizes it. “No one would dream of denying the reality of father-son rivalry,” she concludes. But “it has its source, I believe, much more in a will to power than in sexual desire proper, what Freud calls the libido. It is this will that gives all the legends of conflict between an old king and a young pretender a distinctive mood and atmosphere, no matter how the adventure ends” (219).
Detailing at length as this book does the rites of initiation and battles for succession of kingship at their origins, the legends of conquerors transformed in ancient Greece into familial dramas from epic to tragic mythopoesis, and zeroing in as this book does on the combative and yet sacrificial nature of this material in each installment—its relation at once to scapegoating and exclusionary behavior that can also act as “sacralization”—the potential interest in Delcourt’s book for this audience is hard to gainsay. Following “the war to end all wars,” this Allied partisan and feminist activist surveys some hundreds of classical legends tracing them to several distinct ritual practices in which the sacrificial behaviors at the heart of the myths and the personalities that arose from these behaviors always turned upon one contest in particular: namely, the contest of young and old males for royal succession; the reciprocal combat for kingship, rule, and power in which the defeat of a monster and marriage to a princess was the expected outcome and reward. That the future adventures of the conqueror turned out badly in all instances in the case of Oedipus, that the man he defeated and succeeded turned out to be his father and the woman he wedded and bedded his mother, reflects in her view the transposition of the legends into new circumstances, the changing ways the epic and tragic poets saw their mythopoetic tasks, as the unfortunate future of an Odyssean adventurer in Homer and Hesiod, of an inherited curse in Aeschylus, of a forbidden passion in Euripides, of an ironic lesson in the power of the gods in human affairs in Sophocles—all perspectives, if we are to trust our author, of a burgeoning familial morality that is displacing more archaic social structures in the ancient universe.