An excerpt from Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

Tragedy responded to the sophists in subtler ways, projecting the issues onto a mythical canvas, so that the connections with contemporary culture become suggestive rather than explicit. One of the greatest examples of Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, seems to be a case in point. The date is not certain, but 428 or so seems likely; this would place it precisely in the eye of the sophistic storm. Sophocles has often been thought to be the most religiously-minded of the three major tragedians, but Oedipus the King paints a more complex, challenging picture than this. Oedipus is centrally about divine prophecy, and humans’ attempts to assert control over lives that have already been predestined. The young Oedipus was given a prophecy by the Delphic oracle that he would marry his mother and kill his father. He has left his hometown of Corinth to avoid fulfilling the oracle, and resettled in Thebes, where he has become king and married Jocasta, the wife of the old king Laius. In the course of the play he discovers the truth: that he was actually born in Thebes to Jocasta and Laius; that they exposed him to die on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron, on hearing the same prophecy about his future; and that he was rescued and brought up in Corinth. He had killed his biological father Laius in a fight on the way into Thebes. So unbeknownst to everyone, Apollo’s prediction has already come true: despite his best attempts to do otherwise he ended up both marrying his mother and killing his father. In his grief, he puts out his own eyes and totters off into exile.

An Athenian spectator would have seen all sorts of parallels between the play and contemporary life. When the play opens, Thebes is being ravaged by plague (Apollo’s vengeance for Oedipus’ unwitting murder of his father). Athens too suffered terribly from a ghastly plague in the years between 430 and 426, the result of Pericles’ policy of confining the citizens behind the city walls while the Spartans, during these opening years of the war between the two states, laid waste to the fields outside. Viewers are likely to have seen an immediate, if indirect, connection between the two situations. And then Oedipus himself, who is characterised as a rational intellectual, will surely have reminded viewers of Pericles, the general and unofficial leader of Athens, who died from the same plague in 429 BC. Oedipus’ claim to intellectual distinction rests on his having freed Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, having solved her riddle using his intelligence alone. The hints seem unmissable: in the myth, Thebes has a much-loved leader who prides himself on his rational abilities, but whose overconfidence leads to his ruin; in Athens too, Pericles is a much-feted leader, proud of his links to contemporary intellectuals, but ultimately the cause of a terrible plague.

Pericles was also one of a circle of intellectuals who were linked in the public imagination with atheism. Among these were Anaxagoras, who had been impeached at some point in the 430s on the charge of ‘not believing in the gods’. The architect of the impeachment had been a seer called Diopeithes. He, we are told, ‘brought in a bill providing for the public impeachment of such as did not cultivate the gods, or who taught doctrines regarding the heavens, directing suspicion at Pericles by means of Anaxagoras’. This lends a contemporary complexion to the scene in Oedipus the King where Oedipus confronts the blind Teiresias, a seer who uses the flight of birds to tell the future. It is Teiresias who first claims that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius and the source of the pollution that is afflicting the land. Oedipus responds furiously, setting his own intellectual achievement in solving the Sphinx’ riddle against the prophet’s insights. ‘Tell me now,’ he sneers, ‘what makes you the lucid prophet? Why, when the dog-bard [i.e. the Sphinx] was here, did you not come up with some utterance that would deliver the citizens from their fate? After all, the riddle was not a common-or-garden one: it called for prophecy. But you came forth with no revelation derived from birds or gods. I was the one who came along, “know-nothing Oedipus”: I stopped her, using my native intelligence, not bird-lore’. In other words, Oedipus opposes rational, human intelligence to divine mumbo-jumbo. Jocasta’s brother Creon, he thunders, must be aspiring to the throne, and must have paid this ‘mage, weaver of tricks, fraudulent vagabond priest’ to come up with prophecies against him. All of these insults involve exactly the kind of charges that Sophocles’ contemporaries would level at religious cranks. Calling him a ‘mage’ (magos) associates him with the Persian magi; ‘fraudulent vagabond priest’ links him to the priests of new cults that were being introduced into Athens from abroad, worshipping the Phrygian Great Mother, of Sabazios and of Bendis. Beyond this general assimilation of Teiresias to some of the outlandish religious practices current in Athens at the time, he also looks – from certain angles – oddly like Diopeithes himself. Both, notably, are seers associated with Apollo. And around the time that Sophocles’ play was performed, Diopeithes was mocked by comic poets for his eccentric religious behaviour, mocking him as ‘the madman’, and picturing him dancing ecstatically to drumbeats. Aristophanes sarcastically calls him ‘the great Diopeithes’, and implies (just as Oedipus does for Teiresias) that he invented oracles to suit his own needs. The fit between Teiresias and Diopeithes is not exact, nor it that between Oedipus and Pericles/Anaxagoras; but ancient audiences would surely have seen enough common ground to realise that issues of contemporary import were being addressed in the play.

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