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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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Symbolism and the use of imagery

Sophocles uses a variety of fascinating symbols and images in Oedipus At Colonus to give the play greater complexity and subtlety. There are also elaborate uses of myth and legends, references to ancient Greek history, and contemporary politics that enrich the layers of meaning. Most importantly, the play is cast in the symbolic framework of a rite of initiation -- the adult baptism of Oedipus, wherein he casts off his old temporal self and acquires a new spiritual identity.

Symbolically, the story of Oedipus At Colonus celebrates the ritual reintegration of the displaced individual, first, into the community of humans (Theseus and his citizens) and then the reinstatement of the ill-fated Oedipus into the favor of the gods. The tale of Oedipus' life, his sufferings, and death records the progress of a man who symbolizes 'Everyman' in his long journey through the bitter physical, emotional, and spiritual trials of life. To find the final peace and tranquillity of death's release, Oedipus must reject the forceful calls to violence and belligerence that come from Thebes.

Sophocles also employs individual images and symbols to enhance and enrich the overall symbolic pattern of this play. There are myriad images of Oedipus as the wanderer and social outcast, reduced from king to an exiled beggar. The sacred grove of the Furies, who punish men especially for crimes against one's own family, is extremely relevant to Oedipus' tale. This spot becomes Oedipus' refuge and sanctuary, perhaps because it is sacred to the more benevolent gods of Athens: Apollo, Poseidon, and Pallas Athena. The grove, then, becomes a symbolic place, the respite that man seeks from the cares of this world.


The trees that fill the grove -- olive, laurel and vine -- each refer to plants sacred to Greek folklore. The laurel stands for victory, the olive for peace, and the vine for fertility and love. These relate to Oedipus' search for peace, his realization of pure love, and his victory over the conflicts of life. There is also the symbol of the horse, used in the first stasimon, as a symbol of power and man's over-riding libido. These are seemingly tamed by the bit and may refer to the taming of the old horse, Oedipus, with his willful temper and impetuosity now restrained.

The mysterious death of Oedipus at the "brazen threshold/stairway" is another powerful and complex image used in the play. The exact circumstance of Oedipus' death is shrouded in mystery because death has profound and sacred implications. Oedipus' last moments are symbolic of the depths of man's despair and horror at the utter chaos of life's struggles. He must finally accept release in death -- symbolic of the ultimate peace that life has to offer.

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