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Perverted Return: Odious Epinician and Deadly Athletics in the Oedipus Tyrannus

Keating McKeon

Harvard University

This paper argues that the first stasimon of the Oedipus Tyrannus (463-511) constitutes a perverted victory ode, which functions as a fraught index of return resonant within the wider frame of dramatic action. In physically material terms suggestive of an athletic program, the chorus evokes the flight of a murderous damnandus whose very anonymity subverts the commemorative function of epinician lyric. Crucially, these furtive exercises are mapped onto a Pythian ritual space, cementing them within a context of Panhellenic athletic contest. The effect of this epinician modeling and Pythian topography is the presentation of Oedipus’ Theban “homecoming” as a corrupted iteration of the epinician nostos

A range of recent scholarship has considered the generic relationship between encomium and tragedy (Swift 2010; Carey 2012; Rodighiero 2012; Weiss forthcoming), including study of the epinician “loop of nostos” (Slater 1984; Kurke 2013) within a tragic context (Rehm 2002; Steiner 2010; Swift 2011). At the same time, significant attention has been given to the use of deixis in lyric poetry to enact notional travel and to suggest physical space (Felson 1999; id. 2004), including through the poetic creation of a specifically Delphic landscape (Eckerman 2014; Weiss 2016). The OT itself has received only passing notice for the potential implications of its status as a nostos drama (Easterling 2011; Finglass 2018), even as its materiality of local topography has been recognized (Taplin 2010; Cairns 2013).

My paper engages with this work to propose a dynamic continuum of athletic endeavors in the first and second stasima of Sophocles’ play. By scripting the murderer’s actions in densely athletic terms—boxing, footrace, chariot race, and hoplite race—and inverting the synesthetic imagery of illumination familiar from epinician lyric, the chorus offers an encomium gone wrong, while the Pythian setting so receptive to the epinician laudandus assumes a distinctly hostile cast. Moreover, in the chorus’s isolation of a faceless character whose identity is all too well known to the audience, my paper finds a tragic critique of epinician lyric as a tool of civic reintegration for its prominent addressee. This critique is rooted in the chorus members’ confused rendering of the typical victory ode’s deictic journey: a condemnatory account of the murderer’s flight away from Thebes is in fact the ironic narrative of Oedipus’ return.

I locate the culmination of the outlaw athlete’s headlong movement through space in the second stasimon, with the notoriously vexed “wrestler’s throw” (πάλαισμα) of lines 879-81. Previous interpreters have produced a variety of metaphorical readings inconsonant with the deictic architecture imposed by the first stasimon (Van der Ben 1968; Winnington-Ingram 1980; Carey 1986; Sidwell 1992). In restoring the line to its full, visceral physicality, a “wrestler’s throw” is made visible on stage by the moving, emoting bodies of the chorus members: it is part of a pun on the Sphinx’s name; a forcefully athletic recasting of Oedipus’ principal achievement; and a definitive relocation of Pythian contestation to Thebes—and to the Athenian theater space.

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Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama

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