Sophocles' Theban trilogy
The allegorical strategy of Sophocles’ Theban trilogy (Oedipus Tyrannos-Oedipus at Colonnus-Antigone) is closely germane to that of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, with the radiant moon symbolising in both the Athenian Apollonian miracle. Further, the trilogy throws penetrating light on Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which I will examine on the relevant page.
The broad lines of the allegory are these. First among all the symbols of the trilogy is the Sphinx. In the framework which I shall describe, the Sphinx can only have the allegorical value of the dark moon, or the pre-Athenian goddess-worshipping worlds of Egypt, Persia, and so on, the supersession of which by Athens Sophocles, like Aeschylus on the Oresteia, wished to celebrate. The Sphinx is therefore closely akin to Aeschylus’ Eumenides, and the Furies of this play. It is also cognate with the sphinx in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, as we shall see elsewhere.
Oedipus then represents the (Apollonian) radiant new moon, symbolic of the power of reason which will restore the prosperity of Thebes. His backstory is entirely consistent with this: the murdering of his father (new radiant moon superseding its predecessor), and laying with his mother (the three-day dark moon, from the substance of which the new is seen to arise) to give birth to children (Polyneices-Antigone = radiant moon; Eteocles-Ismene = dark moon).
His Theban term represents a false start for Oedipus, however: his quitting of Thebes, to wander to Athens with Antigone leading him by the hand, the passage of the moon through the two weeks of its waning, with the dark moon inevitably superseding the bright (the shrine of the Furies in Athens). Thebes now becomes like Egypt that is, it reverts to the goddess-worshipping ways of the old dispensation: ‘True image of the ways of Egypt that they show in their spirit and their life! For there the men sit weaving in the house, but the wives go forth to win the daily bread’ (ll. 337-340, trans. Jebb).
The battle between Polyneices and Eteocles portrays in allegorical form the breaking of day. Neither of the brothers survives, for the moon becomes obliterated by the light of the sun, the allegoric value if which is born by King Creon of Thebes. The interpretation is strongly supported by many features of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which portrays the same battle.
And what of Teiresias? He is old, like the Chorus of elders who represent here as in Aeschylus’ Oresteia the stars of the night sky; and he is blind: and Teiresias most plausibly represents here, as in Oedipus Tyrannos, the allegoric value of the erstwhile twinkling stars now rendered invisible in the light of the sun.
See below for textual analyses of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.
Textual analysis of Oedipus at Colonus
Textual analysis of Antigone