Sacrificial Acts


Sophocles tragic plays
My copy of Three Tragedies by Sophocles, translator H.D.F. Kitto

I’ve been lugging around this copy of Three Tragedies by Sophocles since 1977, the year I enrolled in college. It was assigned reading for a yearlong freshman seminar on the ancient Greeks: their history, culture and art. I can still see my juvenile marginalia though not their point.

Since 1977, this collection of plays has traveled from California to DC to Amsterdam. But it never occurred to me to reread these plays until I ran into a list by Francine Prose of Books to Be Read Immediately. Being the compulsive person that I am, I did so.

seen but not read

Plays are meant to be seen, performed live, preferably in an open air amphitheater in a sunny Mediterranean clime. And while I did read these plays while in the Provence, the silence was deafening. Theater was and is a spectacle. Sophocles didn’t want his words merely to be recited. Translator H.D.F. Kitto wanted to remind the reader that Sophocles wrote lyrics that

were a fusion of intense poetry, music, and dancing. 

The words on the page were just the start. A play is a mediated experience as interpreted by actors, enhanced by setting, altered through translation, made new by adaptation. The late Professor Kitto would have sneered at the latter.

I think the modern doctrine that a new translation must be contemporary in style is fallacious in theory and dull in practice. Sophocles is not a contemporary of ours, and if he were he could not write these plays.

Sacrifice is the theme that runs through all three plays: the unwitting, the deliberate, the instigating act.

oedipus the king

Oedipus is the king of Thebes. He’s already saved the Thebans once from the clutches of the Sphinx. Now he must rid his city of the plague and the gods have told him how to do it. Oedipus must uncover the truth behind the death of his predecessor Laius.

He has no idea what’s at stake as he launches into his search. We know, of course, how this story ends. Oedipus is the man who murdered his father and married his mother. He’s the inspiration for  Sigmund Freud and his theories on sexual jealousy.

The Oedipus complex, in psychoanalytic theory, [is] a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex; a crucial stage in the normal developmental process.

Yet Oedipus the King is not a play about sexual desire. Sophocles was talking about fate and the gods. The inability of man to escape his destiny no matter how clever or brave he might be. Oedipus must sacrifice his kingdom and his family to learn this lesson.


Sophocles wrote 3 Theban plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. After the tragic events in Oedipus the King, Oedipus retreats to Colonus, accompanied only by his daughters Ismene and Antigone. Meanwhile, his two sons Polyneices and Eteocles must share the throne of Thebes. That ends in civil war and the death of both sons. King Creon pronounces Polyneices a traitor and promises death to anyone who tries to bury him.

This is Antigone‘s choice: to obey the laws of man or those laid down by the gods. Her sacrifice is deliberate. She buries Polyneices and gets caught in the act. For her pure crime, Creon entombs her alive.

The gods are outraged. Plague returns to Thebes and no amount of sacrifice can appease their wrath. The blind seer Teiresias lays the blame on Creon’s head.

Sickness has come upon us, and the cause
Is you: our altars and our sacred hearths
Are all polluted by the dogs and birds
That have been gorging on the fallen body
Of Polyneices. Therefore heaven will not
Accept from us our prayers, no fire will burn
Our offerings, nor will birds give out clear sounds,
For they are glutted with the blood of men.


This play centers on a sacrifice, too, though it lies hidden in the hearts of Electra and her mother Clytemnestra. The Trojan War is over but the cost has been high. Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to win the war. When he returns from Troy, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover kill him in revenge. Now Electra, in turn, seeks vengeance for the murder of her father.

Electra’s loyalty may be admirable but her grief is wild. Her loss turns into abandonment. She refuses all forms of moderation. Electra will never forget, let alone forgive. The wise Chorus tries to intervene.

But he has gone to the land to which we all must
Go. Neither by tears nor by mourning can
He be restored from the land of the dead.
Yours is a grief beyond the common measure.

In the end, Electra will only be satisfied with her mother’s death. And so the curse of the House of Atreus passes on from this generation to the next. As Sophocles well knew, the ancient Greeks believed that guilt could be inherited. In the end, there is only one sacrifice that will appease the gods: to obey or perish.