Prophecies in Greek Tragedy

When I was nearing the end of my first reading of Antigone, a question popped in my head from one of our past discussions:  What is the purpose of prophecy to the modern reader?  In our discussion, most agreed prophecy is a meaningless, predetermined fate which no one, mortal or immortal, can understand or change.  The idea of prophecy would be strange to Christians and Jews, who believe that God controls fate.  To quote Psalm 139: “And in Your book were all written/The days that were ordained for me/When as yet there was not one of them.”  Let’s say, in line with common belief, that this kind of fate doesn’t exist.  One would naturally say why care about greek tragedy all together?  What could we learn from some imaginary universal law greater than any divine power?  The truth is we can learn a great deal, and this is the genius of Sophocles.  Whether we interpret prophecy ethically, religiously, or both, it is meaningful as a tool to help us develop the capacity for self-reflection and an overall insight of the human condition.  Referring back to my original claim, I believe it is best supported by the chorus (whom at certain times gives very profound judgments on the actions in the play)  at the end of Antigone, in this fable-like moral:  “The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom.”  This quote is a perfect example.  Paraphrased, the quote says that the hero/heroine of a tragedy is defeated by their unavoidable fate, which teaches us how to “see” ourselves like Oedipus and Creon after the fulfillment of their fates.  Even though our lives may not be ruled my a predetermined fate, the decisions we make now will affect our future.  Therefore, if we do control our own fate, frequently reflecting on our present course increases our chances of seeing our life in retrospect as happy and fulfilling.


One Response to Prophecies in Greek Tragedy

  1. swang32 says:

    Since I’m a Christian myself, I’d like to expand on the topic of prophecy and its relationship to the Greek tragedies from a different view. It is true that in Christianity, God controls fate. However, this does not mean that prophecy is a strange idea for the Christians at all. In fact, the definition of prophecy itself is the “knowledge of the future obtained from a divine source”. The Bible is full of prophecies about the future. Although the Greeks themselves valued self-reflection, a tragedy like “Oedipus” ultimately supports the notion that there is some ultimate power beyond our understanding, which no amount of self-reflection by our own effort can escape. All of us may self reflect up to certain degree but we can only see so much. Just as characters like Oedipus was blind to his own flaws, perhaps not because he didn’t know to self-reflect, but simply because self-reflection for a man who reflects through his own set of standards of what’s right and wrong is as good as a man looking into a mirror without any light. (This was in fact, the problem Adam and Eve got themselves into when they ate the forbidden fruit: that by abandoning God’s authority, they considered themselves to be god each judging each other through their own standards).Even the little self-reflection we do manage to see comes from conforming to a set of standards that is higher than ourselves, of whose authority we place ourselves under. In Christianity, the One who owns those set of standard is God. Therefore it is the Christian ideal that if you know your Creator, it is then that you can truly “know thyself”.
    I’ve added a link that shares more specific points of the Christian view on prophecy.

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