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Blindness and limits: Sophokles and the logic of myth

  • R. G. A. Buxton (a1)


To generalize about Aischylos is difficult; to generalize about Euripides is almost impossible; but to generalize about Sophokles is both possible and potentially rewarding. With Sophokles—or, rather, with the Sophokles of the seven fully extant tragedies—we can sense a mood, a use of language, and a style of play-making (‘dramatic technique’) which are largely shared by all seven works. Of these characteristics it is surely the mood which contains the quintessence of Sophoklean tragedy. My aim in the first section of this paper will be to open the way to an appreciation of that mood by following up one of the most important motifs in Sophokles: blindness. In the second section the scope of the enquiry will be widened: I shall show that, in using the blindness motif, Sophokles was drawing on a theme which was fundamental to a large number of mythical narratives told by Greeks from the time of Homer to that of Pausanias, and beyond. In the final section we shall return to Sophokles, placing him this time not against the background of the whole Greek mythical tradition but rather within the specific context of the fifth century B.C., and attempting to overhear the individual dramatic ‘voice’ used by him as he explored the implications of blindness.



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1 ἄποπτος can mean either ‘seen afar off, only dimly visible’ or else ‘invisible’; see the commentaries of Jebb (Cambridge 1896) and Stanford (London 1963) ad loc. But here the context seems to require the meaning ‘invisible’, to provide a stronger contrast with the words of ‘hearing’ (ϕθέγμα, ϕώνημα, ἀκούω). Kamerbeek (Leiden 1953) ad loc. opts unambiguously for ‘hidden from view’.

2 Taplin, O., The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford 1977) 116 n. 1, has recently argued that lines 14–17 ‘say that Odysseus knows Athena so well that he can recognize her by her voice alone even when she is not visible—unlike the present occasion’. However, Jebb's comment (Appendix, on 15) on a similar suggestion by A. Müller surely remains valid: ‘… it is surely inconveivable that, if Odysseus saw Athena standing near him, he should say to her, “How clearly I hear thy voice, even when thou art unseen”.’ κἅν ἄποπτος ᾖς ὅμως does indeed become weak if Sophokles intends the audience to regard Odysseus as being already able to see Athene.

3 Discussions in Stanford (on 15) and in Calder's, W. M. note, ‘The Entrance of Athena in Ajax’, CPh lx (1965) 114–16. The very existence of a fifth-century theologeion—the platform on which many scholars have put Athene during this scene—has been persuasively challenged by Taplin (n. 2) esp. 440–1. Perhaps the least implausible view of the staging is Stanford's: Odysseus is at first unable to see Athene, who is, however, on the scene just as he is. But gradually, presumably by moving uncertainly in her direction, he becomes able to see her, in time for the dialogue at 36 ff. There is no difficulty about the theatricality of this (‘Characters in a play see what the playwright has them see, regardless of the realities of optics’, Taplin [n. 2] 116 n. 1), nor about a mortal hearing but not seeing a divinity (cf. E. Hipp. 86). The problem is, rather, that the progress from invisibility to visibility is not charted in the text. This raises fundamental questions about the relation between text and staging, which we cannot go into here. (For an extreme but extraordinarily well-argued view, see Taplin [n. 2] 28 ff.) What is certain is that the last word on the staging of the opening of Ajax has not yet been said.

4 A word about the odd heresy which has Oedipus knowing the truth from the outset of the play (argued at book-length by Vellacott, P., Sophocles and Oedipus [London 1971]; N.B. the detailed refutation by Vickers, B., Towards Greek Tragedy [London 1973] ch. 9, esp. 501 ff., with 547–8 n. 9): (i) if Oedipus knows already, the imagery of blindness is wholly without point, and the self-blinding is as gratuitous an irrelevance as it is in Seneca's Oed.; (ii) if Oedipus knows already, the play becomes a grubby and unrepresentative ‘cover-up’.

5 The reading βλάψαι is to be preferred in 375, against the papyrus. So, rightly, e.g. Dawe in the recent Teubner edn (Leipzig 1975). In view of the dominant imagery of blindness and sight, it is easy to see how the error βλέψαι could creep in.

6 Das Antlitz der Blindheit in der Antike 2 (Leiden 1961) 67.

7 As is very common in references to incest in O.T., the language is difficult and contorted. In these cases scholars have too often sought to reduce the language to normality by altering the text.

8 ‘The Self-Blinding of Oidipous in Sophokles, : Oidipous Tyrannos’, JHS xciii (1973) 3649.

9 Art. cit. (n. 8) 41. See also p. 32 below.

10 See Goheen, R. F., The Imagery of Sophocles' ‘Antigone’ (Princeton 1951) 84–6.

11 See Deonna, W., Le symbolisme de l' œil (Paris 1965) 102 ff.

12 Sabbatucci, D., Saggio sul misticismo greco (Rome 1965) 207. Sabbatucci argues persuasively that it is only the megáloi theoí whose ‘size’ is infinite.

13 It is a fact, pace ch. 1 of Mahoney, H. M., The Blind Man in Greek Legend and Literature (Diss. Fordham 1940).

14 I follow Arnim's reading, without conviction.

15 h. Ap. 172, Paus. iv 33.7, etc. See Esser (n. 6) 10.

16 See Brisson, Luc, Le mythe de Tirésias (Leiden 1976) 33, who mentions the ‘mécanisme propre à tout récit, qui projette la simultanéité dans la succession, et qui transforme la relation en causalité’. Compare already Propp, V., Morphologiya skazki 2 (Moscow 1969) 69 = 75 in Eng. tr. Morphology of the Folktale (American Folklore Soc. 1968) who noted that ‘functionally identical’ actions were coupled with extremely various motivations. The story of Daphnis exemplifies the same point. He was a fine singer, a follower of Artemis, and loved by a nymph (D.S. iv 84). As a punishment for being unfaithful to her, Daphnis was blinded and then turned to stone (Serv. in Verg. Buc. viii 68)—that is (by implication) he stopped singing immediately. Yet, according to another version, Daphnis went blind and consoled his blindness with song, although he did not live long afterwards (Philarg. in Verg. Buc. v. 20). Narrative details vary, more fundamental relationships remain stable.

17 Müller, , FHG ii 221; cf. Plut., de mus. 9 (Mor. 1134b).

18 Snell, , TrGF i 20 Achaeus I, T 3a + b.

19 See RE iii s.v. ‘Biene’, 431–50 (Olck), esp. 447–8; also Waszink, J. H., Biene und Honig als Symbol des Dichters und der Dichtung in der griechisch-römischen Antike (Rhein.- Westfäl. Akad. Wiss. Vorträge G 196: 1974).

20 See Brisson (n. 16). The rigour with which the structuralist approach is applied by B. strikes me as positively algebraic in its formality, but there are many good things to be found in the book.

21 See RE xx.1 s.v. ‘Phineus’, 215–46 (Ziegler), esp. 225 ff; Grégoire, H. (with Goossens, R. and Mathieu, M.), Asklèpios, Apollon Smintheus et Rudra: Études sur le dieu à la taupe et le dieu au rat dans la Grèce et dans l'Inde (Acad. Roy. de Belg., Cl. des Lettr. mor. et pol., Mémoires xlv. 1: 1949) 78 ff; Brisson (n. 16) 101–4.

22 See Wendel's, note (Scholia in Ap. Rhod. vetera 2: Berlin 1958) on Ap. Rhod. ii i78–82b, 13; Radt, S., TrGF iv on Soph. ΦΙΝΕΥΣ F 704–5.

23 The continuation of the story in Et. Gen. is very odd—Pearson, , The Fragments of Sophocles (Cambridge 1917) ii 312 n. 3, calls it ‘absurd’—for, when Phineus had opted for blindness with prophecy, ‘for this reason Apollo was angry and blinded him’. For an attempt to explain this mythical illlogic, see Ziegler's painstaking article (n. 21) 226.

24 Opp. Cyn. ii 612 ff., with Mair's n., Loeb edn (London 1928); Arist. H.A. 491b27 ff., tr. A. L. Peck, Loeb edn (London 1965). See Grégoire and Brisson (n. 21).

25 RE xiv.1, 1258–88, at 1267–8.

26 Tr. H. Rackham, Loeb edn (London 1952). See also Plut., de defectu oraculorum 39 (Mor. 432b).

27 For parallels from other cultures see Thompson, S., Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Copenhagen 1955—) D1820.1.1, F655.

28 See Bowra, C. M., Heroic Poetry (London 1952) 421 f; Grimm, W., Die deutsche Heldensage 4 (Darmstadt 1957) 426; Burke, P., Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London 1978) 99 f.

29 Esser (n. 6) 101; Deonna (n. 11) 50–2. During initiation, the eyes of a Samoyed shaman were changed by a divine blacksmith: ‘and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes’ (Eliade, M., Shamanism, Eng. tr. [London 1964] 42). N.B. also Mac Cana, P., The Mabinogi (U. Wales Press 1977) 94: ‘… even down to the seventeenth or eighteenth century Irish and Scottish poets continued to simulate the practice of the seer by composing their verse while lying on their beds in utter darkness’.

30 Dodds, E. R., The Greeks and the Irrational (U. Calif. 1951) 81.

31 See Vernant, J.-P. in Divination et rationalité, by Vernant and others (Paris 1974) 12.

32 Brisson (n. 16) 32. At 244 ff. of his fascinating book Gli eroi greci (Rome 1958) A. Brelich discusses mythical mutilations of the feet and eyes.

33 See also Cic. de fin. v 87, Tusc. v 114; Gell, A.. Noct. Att. x 17.

34 The loc. class. is A. Ag. 1202 ff. Notice how, here too, the motive for the gift of prophecy to Kassandra, and the moment in the narrative at which the gift is given, vary according to different versions. In Apollodoros (iii 12.5) the gift is a bribe offered by Apollo for her favours; but, in a version recorded in schol. Il. vii 44 (quoting Antikleides, , FGrH 140 F 17), Kassandra and her twin brother Helenos both receive the gift as children when their ‘organs of sense’ are licked by serpents in a temple of Apollo. See Frazer's n. on Apollod. iii 12.5, Loeb edn (London 1921) 48–9.

35 Cf. Wilson's, Edmund essay, ‘Philoctetes: the Wound and the Bow’, ch. 7 of The Wound and the Bow (Cambridge 1929).

36 Delcourt, Marie, Héphaistos, ou la légende du magicien (Paris 1957) 11.

37 Brelich (n. 32) 354ff.

38 Ptol. Heph. in Phot. Bibl. cod. 190 pp. 146–7.

39 The loc. class. and indeed the reason for the fame of this myth, is Kallimachos' fifth hymn. N.B. the commentary on this by Anthony Bulloch (Diss. Cambridge 1971). For variants see Roscher, v s.v. ‘Teiresias’, 178207 (Buslepp). There is a full discussion of the hymn in Kleinknecht's, H. article ‘ΛΟΥΤΡΑ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΛΛΑΔΟΣ’, Hermes lxxiv (1939) 301–50; repr. in Wege der Forschung: Kallimachos, ed. Skiadas, A. D. (Darmstadt 1975) 207–75.

40 Both stories in Plut., Parall. Graec. et Rom. 17 (Mor. 309f–310a).

41 Val. Max., ed. Kempf (Leipzig 1888) p. 13, 10.

42 It is revealing that Eustathios' memory plays him false when he speaks of Kallimachos' story about Teiresias', having seen Artemis naked (Comm. ad Hom. Od. x 492 ff., 1665.47–8); see Brisson (n. 6) 52.

43 Notice Prop, iv 9.57–8: Teiresias saw Pallas bathing ‘when she had put aside the Gorgon’—which would have rendered the punishment of blinding superfluous by petrifying the mortal gazing upon it.

44 Cf. Brisson (n. 6) 34. That Aphrodite, too, figures occasionally in these narratives (e.g. Erymanthos) is no cause for dismay. Dare one risk the heresy that Greek myths would be duller if every one of them could be fitted into a neatly organized scheme?

45 See the catalogues by Wächter, Th., Reinheitsvorschriften im griechischen Kult (Religionsgesch. Versuche u. Vorarbeiten ix 1: Giessen 1910) 125–34. Cf. also the remarks on ‘Solidarisierung im Spiel und Widerspiel der Rollen’ in Burkert, W., Gr. Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart 1977) 382 ff., esp. 388 on the sexual differentiation of roles in cult.

46 See Gruppe, O., Gr. Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte (Munich 1906) 1002 n. 3.

47 This version came in a poem of Theokritos, , referred to by Serv. on Aen. ii 35, ii 687; cf. on i 617. For the ‘modes of action’ of the thunderbolt, see Serv. on Aen. ii 649. Both h. Ven. 286–8 and Hyg. fab. 94 refer to the thunderbolt in connection with the punishment of Anchises; but neither mentions blindness explicitly. For Anchises', lameness (a variant ‘paradigmatic’ with blindness—see p. 33)cf. Austin's, R. G. n., in his edn of Aen. ii (Oxford 1964), on 649.

48 Even other divinities, of course, might incur the wrath of Zeus. Ploutos transgressed against Zeus' order in wanting to favour the just amongst mortals. For this quasi-Promethean attitude he was requited with blindness (Ar. Plut. 87 ff.).

49 See Weiler, I., Der Agon im Mythos (Darmstadt 1974)passim. Thamyris is discussed at 66 ff.

50 See RE va.1 s.v. ‘Thamyris’, 1236–45 (Gebhard), at 1241 f; Woodbury, L., ‘Helen and the Palinode’, Phoenix xxi (1967) 157–76, at 173 n. 33.

51 This is not the place to go into the hotly disputed questions of how many palinodes (one or two) there were, and, if two, what relation obtained between them. The relevant primary sources and testimonia are at Page, PMG frr. 192–3.

52 Art. cit. (n. 8) 41. D's analysis groups together indiscriminately—I use the word without pejorative over tones—transgressions against immortals and mortals alike. From his point of view, this classification makes sense.

53 On first reading Esser at 24–5 I was convinced that he had noticed another group of stories dealing with the overstepping of limits: namely, stories in which someone grieves or weeps too much and goes blind as a result. The mythical logic is plausible, and can be paralleled in other cultures: Thompson (n. 27) F1041.3. Unfortunately, a closer examination of Esser's supposedly supporting evidence leaves one sadder but wiser.

(i) E. asserts (24) that Aietes of Kolchis went blind through grief at the abduction of his daughter Medea by Jason. Yet the passage cited in support of this interpretation, Cic. Tusc. iii 26 (= E's 3.XII), merely reports Aietes as saying ‘refugere oculi’, i.e. ‘my eyes are sunken’ (Dougan/Henry), ‘mes yeux se sont enfoncés’ (Humbert); or, less plausibly, ‘my eyes are dim’ (King), ‘oculorum splendor quasi se recepit, oculi hebescunt’ (Kühner).

(ii) E. discusses a passage from Hellanikos, of Lesbos (FGrH 4 F 19) about the daughters of Atlas. Of these seven girls, Merope was the only one who did not have an immortal husband. She had to make do with Sisyphos, and, according to E., ‘aus Scham und Gram hierüber erblindete sie’ (25). But all Hellanikos says is διὸ καὶ ἀμαυρὰν єἶναι: of the seven Pleiades, here identified with the daughters of Atlas, only six are readily visible, the seventh being dimmer than the rest. The dimness of the seventh star corresponds to its eponymous maiden's dimmer reputation. Blindness does not come into it.

(iii) The possibility that E. misunderstood ἀμαυρός (‘dim’) receives confirmation from another of his comments. He says, ‘Ja sogar Götter können aus Trauer erblinden, wie es der Mondgöttin Selene begegnete’ (25). Yet the poem referred to (A.P. vii 241 [Antipater of Sidon] = Gow—Page Hell. Ep. 338 ff.) refers to the dimming, i.e. eclipse, of the moon, ἀμαυρωθєῖσα Σєλάνα. With these three pieces of evidence out of the way, not a lot remains. Aelian (N.A. x 17) tells us that some elephants lose their sight because of the quantities of tears they shed; Apollonides wrote a poem about a man called Poseidippos who went blind after losing all his four children on four successive days (A.P. vii 380=Gow—Page Garland of Philip 1153 ff.); and the Greeks, as we do, evidently had a saying about ‘crying one's eyes out’ (e.g. A.P. ix 432 [Theokritos] = Hell. Ep. 3498 ff; Ar. Ach. 1027). This does not seem to be enough to build a case on, especially as the three mythical examples all amount to nothing. (Of course, if a variant were to turn up—and at the moment such a variant does not seem to exist—in which Niobe's great grief culminated not in petrifaction but in blindness, then Esser's conclusion, though not his arguments, would look much more robust.)

54 For a syntagmatic/paradigmatic distinction applied to the analysis of myth, see e.g. Lévi-Strauss, C., The Savage Mind, Eng. tr. of La pensée sauvage (London 1966) index s.v. ‘syntagmatic’; Leach, E. R., Culture and Communication (Cambridge 1976) 15, 25–7.

55 See Mattes, J., Der Wahnsinn im gr. Mythos und in der Dichtung bis zum Drama des fünften Jahrhunderts (Heidelberg 1970) 110.

56 Paus. vii 19–20; see Burkert (n. 45) 340, also ibid. 348–9 on the role of the kíste, a sacred basket which might not be opened, in the myth-and-ritual of the Arrephoria at Athens.

57 E.g. Apollod, iii 5.1; other refs at Mattes (n. 55) 21.

58 Cf. Daphnis (n. 16) who was blinded and turned to stone.

59 The best edn of the Metamorphoses of Antoninus, Liberalis is that by Papathomopoulos, M., Budé 1968 (with extremely good commentary).

60 The glance of all divinities, not just Gorgo, is fearsome and powerful; cf. Malten, L., Die Sprache des menschlichen Antlitzes im frühen Griechentum (Berlin 1961) 12 (re Homer).

61 For petrifaction see RE vii s.v. ‘Gorgo’, 1630–55 (Ziegler), esp. 1638–9 (‘Versteinerung’); also Vernant, J.-P., Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (Paris 1971) ii 73 ff.

62 The myth was very popular in antiquity; see the RE and Roscher entries s.v. ‘Aktaion’.

63 See index to Weiler (n. 49) s.v. ‘Marsyas’.

64 Other refs, with discussion, at Weiler 72 ff.

65 Weiler 90–1.

66 Weiler 100 ff.

67 Weiler 77 ff.

68 I am indebted to my pupil Rachel Morris for stressing to me the importance of this point.

69 See Müller, C. W., ‘Protagoras über die Götter’, Hermes xcv (1967) 140–59. Only with Plato was the unclarity of everyday experience reconciled with the notion of an eternal and unchanging truth, a truth to be approached through the trained mind of the philosopher. In the simile of the Cave in the Republic, the identity between ignorance and blindness and between knowledge and sight was used to affirm, not the weakness, but the transcendent power of man's vision. On philosophical aspects of visibility/invisibility see Schuhl, P. M., ‘Ἄδηλα’, Ann. Fac. Lettr. de Toulouse (Homo) (1953) 8593; Gernet, L., ‘Choses visibles et choses invisibles’, RPhilos cxlvi (1956) 7986, repr. in Anthropologie de la grèce antique (Paris 1968) 405–14.

70 Sabbatucci (n. 12) 187–8.

71 ‘Briefly’ is, I fear, an understatement: I am well aware of the sketchiness of my discussion here. This will to some extent be made good in the ch. on Sophokles in a book (about persuasion in Greek tragedy) which should soon be completed.

72 See Linforth, I. M., ‘Religion and Drama in Oedipus at Colonus’ (U. Calif. Publ, in Cl. Phil, xiv 4: 1951) 75192, at 180–4.

73 Cf. Lattimore, R., The Poetry of Greek Tragedy (Baltimore 1958) 102.

74 An early version of this paper was read at a meeting of the Class. Soc. of King's College, Cambridge. I am most grateful to those who participated in the discussion, above all to Dr G. E. R. Lloyd. Later drafts were put before research seminars in the Sociology and Classics departments at Bristol, and before the Oxford Philological Society. My thanks go to all who offered comments on these various occasions (in particular to my colleagues Prof. John Gould and Dr C. J. Rowe). Finally, I am indebted to J. N. Bremmer (Utrecht) and Fritz Graf (Zürich), who were responsible for suggesting that I work up my ideas into a paper, and whose criticisms have been most valuable.

Blindness and limits: Sophokles and the logic of myth

  • R. G. A. Buxton (a1)


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