Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus has traditionally been regarded as the poet's primary tragedy involving hero cult; this essay explores the more subtle but no less ritually explicit hero cult of the Aias first outlined by Burian. The passage, as Burian saw, occurs when the young Eurysakes kneels at his father's body and Teukros conducts an unusual combination of rites: supplication, curse, offering of hair, and magic (1168-84). One crucial direction to the child, kai phulasse (1180), however, is here not understood to be a paradox of the suppliant who "protects" what he seizes but rather his physical attachment to the locus where he abides as well as his ritual dependence on the source of protection (as with Orestes in Eum. 242f., 439f.). By saying a curse and obtaining protection, Teukros and Eurysakes indicate how the still-warm body of the dead hero has already acquired special powers after death: specifically, the power to bestow both blessings and curses on mortals. The argument turns from the body to the tomb, the physical and lasting monument of hero cult, which the Sophoclean audience would know. The preceding scene ends with a pivotal choral passage where the hero's burial and cult are prescribed in highly Homeric terms (1163-67). This passage forms an important link between the opposing views of the fate of the corpse (Menelaos vs. Teukros) and also between the hero's death and burial. This choral celebration of the hero's future status is cast in traditional Homeric language, but with some revealing inversions. One is the reversal of the verb whereby the earth "holds" (katechei) or possesses heroes in Homer, while Aias occupies and possesses his tomb (1167, kathexei). The evolution of Homeric views of death is traced (Archilochos, Simonides). In Sophocles' Aias the chorus performs the burial as a ritual act establishing a cult, long before it happens at the end of the play. The article concludes with a discussion of the historical cults of Aias known to the Athenians and of the more significant way that Aias (a suicide) becomes a hero: not self-consciously, as Oedipus did, but through rituals performed by his family and community. In the Aias, the poet's sense of hero cult lies closer to Homer and the epic tradition than it does, for instance, to Aeschylus.
- Copyright 1993 The Regents of the University of California