BMCR 2008.01.43

Oedipus. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World

, Oedipus. Gods and heroes of the ancient world. London/New York: Routledge, 2006. xvi, 177 pages : illustrations, maps ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0415329345. £14.99 (pb).

1 Responses

Lowell Edmunds’ Oedipus is a contribution to Routledge’s series “Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World”. The series is aimed at a general readership and students in a range of disciplines who have an interest in classical material. Edmunds has published quite widely on Oedipus and was an excellent choice for this contribution to the series. The book delivers on its brief, but there are times when material is condensed to such a degree that it may not accommodate its intended readership easily.

The book is arranged over four main sections. The first is called “Why Oedipus?” and outlines reasons for interest in Oedipus. The second, “Key Themes”, examines characteristics of Oedipus from early Greek literature up to the Middle Ages. The third section, “Oedipus Afterwards”, considers Oedipus from the Renaissance onwards. It finishes with a section called “Conclusions and Continuations” and there is also a “Further Reading” section (pp. 152-56) based around the five chapters which comprise the central two sections.

In the opening section (pp. 3-10), Edmunds declares the impossibility of determining the authentic, original version and outlines how the Oedipus story belongs in folk narrative — a folk narrative with a number of overlapping, though not definitive list of, motifs. He defines his volume as an attempt at a history of the reception of the figure of Oedipus. He believes that variation is the driving force and that change is related to changes in meaning of the figure of Oedipus. The section concludes with the interesting observation that “Oedipus is the only Greek hero of whom it could be said that he is as much post-classical as classical” (p. 10).

The second section, “Key Themes”, is spread over three distinct chapters, but it does not, in fact, present the material in a thematic fashion. It is done in a chronological order with Edmunds taking the reader through a history of the Oedipus from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages. The first two chapters of the section examine the Oedipus of archaic and classical Greece. In “Oedipus before Tragedy”, Edmunds examines the Oedipus figure found in epic and lyric poetry. He starts with the reference in the Odyssey (11.271-80) and proceeds to cover all the literary references to the Oedipus myth.1 However, the information is presented in a quite episodic manner which could, I think, be quite confusing for the intended readership.2 Nonetheless, he does an admirable attempt in trying to sum up the characteristics of the pre-tragic Oedipus. I found the emphasis on the generational nature of the myth from Oedipus’ father to his sons, the stress on Erinyes and associated transfer of pain — woes or algea — between family, and the involvement of the gods helpful and persuasive. The next chapter is “Oedipus on Stage: Fifth-Century Tragedy”. Given that tragedy, as Edmunds notes in his introduction, provides one of the significant contributions to the Oedipus myth, I found this chapter disappointing overall. The theatrical context appears to have been sacrificed for the narrative about the myth.3 It would have helped to have some greater detail on scholarly discussion of the various plays. The third and final chapter in this section, “Latin Oedipus: Rome and the Middle Ages”, examines the Oedipus in the literature of Rome and the Middle Ages (pp. 57-79). After a brief introduction, Edmunds discusses Seneca’s tragedies, the extant Oedipus and fragmentary Phoenician Women, and Statius’ Thebaid. The majority of the chapter is given over to this discussion of Oedipus in the Middle Ages in which Edmunds traces the influence of Statius.4

The third section, “Oedipus Afterwards”, contains two chapters (pp. 83-128) which cover four centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The first chapter details from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. The discussion winds its way through Europe taking the reader from Italy, Germany, France and England. The main part of the chapter’s title is the “Rediscovery of Sophocles”, but this is a slight exaggeration. The influence of Sophocles’ play is certainly very great on playwrights active in Renaissance Italy, but Edmunds shows, and maintains in the chapter’s conclusion, that Seneca and Euripides exerted a strong influence on the dramas of this period. Nonetheless, Edmunds takes the reader through thematic concerns, preferred dramatic twists and sub-plots of the various eras in a very successful fashion.5 The other chapter in this section, “The Inward Turn: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, is longer and much less successful. Although Edmunds commences with a neat summary of the period, the chapter lurches between country, art form and individual in an overwhelming and confusing fashion. This is probably due to an attempt to maintain a strict chronological approach to the material.6 However, he does brings out the general fascination with the Sphinx and her riddle in the period.7

The volume has a concluding section, “Conclusions and Continuations”, which I found to be somewhat unsatisfying. I can well imagine a general reader picking up the book, turning to and reading the conclusion first and either saying to him/herself, “I don’t understand this, it must be good”, or being turned off by it altogether. This would be a pity because I think Edmunds’ volume is, on the whole, successful. It works particularly well on the level of presenting Oedipus in particular eras and teasing out meanings and significances of the Oedipus figure at different times, though there is an overall inconsistency in the narrative, and some periods are discussed in much greater detail than others.8 Another weakness in this volume, which I find time and again in books written by a scholar for a general readership, is that the author can take for granted the reader’s background knowledge and/or good use is not made of endnotes to elaborate on certain points.9 The volume was, as far as I could tell, free from error and typos. It contains a number of illustrations, but there is no obvious rationale for the inclusion of these illustrations.10 Notwithstanding my misgivings on certain points, I think Edmunds’ Oedipus is a good contribution to series. The volumes are all presented very attractively: a casual bookshop browser could be tempted to pick up a copy. There is enough depth and breath in Edmunds’ offering for such a customer to be happy with his/her purchase.

[For a response to this review by Lowell Edmunds, please see BMCR 2008.02.09.]


1. Edmunds does not pay much attention to ancient artistic evidence and tends to cite it as a backup for literary references rather than treat it in its own right. This handling of the ancient iconographic evidence is odd given Edmunds subsequent discussion of iconography associated with Oedipus in later eras.

2. The chapter ends with a lengthy discussion of the cults of Oedipus (pp. 26-30), though it isn’t clear how it relates to the rest of the chapter with its emphasis on the literary Oedipus.

3. Aeschylus, for example, gets a very cursory examination.

4. The analysis (pp. 74-77) of Judas and Pope Gregory, which contains a lengthy quotation, could have been banished to an endnote.

5. The feature of Sophocles’ drama which causes critics most problems — the series of convenient coincidences which lead to the discovery of the truth — is the one element which is retained in all dramas of the era!

6. A table detailing the main references would have helped considerably. There were such tables in chapters on Greece and Rome in the previous section.

7. The idea of Oedipus as scapegoat gets a passing reference in the “Further Reading”, but merited a position in either the main discussion or a detailed endnote.

8. A complimentary strength is his handling of transmission of texts through Latin into the Middle Ages and the rediscovery of Greek in the Renaissance. I am sure that this would be quite interesting for a general reader and merited further explication in an endnote.

9. See my Bryn Mawr review of Jon Hesk’s book on Sophocles’ Ajax, BMCR 2004.05.10.

10. For example, six illustrations appear in two groups of three. The first group concern medieval Oedipus (pp. 66-68) and the other the Sphinx in art in modern era (pp. 108-110). There is no significant contribution made by the inclusion of the illustrations.