How Is Evil Depicted in Greek Tragedies?

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

What are the Greek concepts of evil as opposed to the Acadian and the Babylonian myths? As per the Greek viewpoint, a dualistic language of good and evil, such as the Babylonian myth the Enuma Elish presumes, is not the inevitable shape that a culture’s moral imagination must take.

Statue of the powerful Greek god Poseidon.
The Greeks gods seemed to exist beyond the humans’ paradigm of good and evil. (Image: Zwiebackesser/ Shutterstock)

Anarchic polytheism is a belief in many gods, without a single organizing moral order that the gods are all part of. This dominates the moral imagination of classical Greece, and it is at the basis of Greek tragedy as well.

Human Suffering and the Gods

In the Ancient Near East, there were many gods; but the gods are more like characters in a long-running drama series. The struggles between them are not fundamentally enframed by a struggle between good and evil, rather good and evil are terms that really seem to apply more fundamentally to humans in Greece.

For all their power, the gods are somehow completely unaccountable, and because of that, the Greek poets and playwrights suggest that they are in some ways trivial.

This sort of ties together what was suggested about the myths of Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh: namely, that humans suffer, but it is the gods’ doings that make humans suffer. That there is something divinely governed beneath the structures often of human tragedies.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Evil and Greek Tragedies

For the Greek tragedians, there were times in life when humans had to confront tragic conflicts between rival sets of evils. Sometimes, out of sheer tragic providence, the fates decree that something must happen to bring the mighty down.

The tragedians’ worldview, though, is the suggestion of Thucydides. While the tragedians suggest that evil is due to some mysterious but divinely ordained necessity, Thucydides suggests that evil may be due entirely to sheer luck and chance.

Role of Drama in the Greeks’ Lives

Mask of the Greek God Dionysius.
Dionysius was a Greek God in whose honor ancient rites were carried out. (Image: Louvre Museum/Public domain)

For the Greeks, tragic drama became a crucial structure for thinking about their lives in a long-standing historical development.

In the tragedies, the Greeks reflected upon evil, fate, and luck in human affairs in plays, such as Oedipus Rex and The Women of Trachis, the Bacchae.

For them, these were not entertainments as we think of them today. The plays were part of a yearly religious ritual in Athens of honoring the god Dionysius.

Oedipus Rex and the Concept of Evil

Let’s take a look at the play, Oedipus RexOedipus the King.

Oedipus is king of Thebes, and Jocasta is his queen. Thebes has begun to suffer from a terrible plague, a sign, everyone thinks, of divine wrath. Oedipus is determined to find out why the plague has been sent, and he discovers that it is due to the religious pollution caused by the fact that the previous king, Laius, was murdered but his killer was never caught and punished. Oedipus, then, undertakes the hunt for the murderer.

Through a series of inquiries, the truth emerges. It was Oedipus himself who killed Laius on the road to Thebes in a dispute in which the two sides did not know each other’s identities. Furthermore, Oedipus is the unknown son of Laius, the king he killed, and of Laius’s queen, who is Oedipus’s mother, Jocasta, now Oedipus’s wife.

Laius and Jocasta had been told by an oracle that their son would kill his father and commit incest with his mother, and so when he was born they gave him to a shepherd to kill. But the shepherd took pity and gave him to a Corinthian who raised him as his own son. Jocasta is so overcome by shame that she hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself by plunging her gold hairpins into his eyes and begs for exile from Thebes. The play ends ambiguously, with the chorus chanting the famous maxim: that no one should be called happy until they are dead.

Learn more about Greece tragedy and the Peloponnesian War.

Paradox in Greek Tragedies

A painting showing a blind Oedipus with his children.
Oedipus blinds himself when he comes to know of his incestuous relationship with Jocasta. (Image: Bénigne Gagneraux – National museum, Stockholm/Public domain)

The range of meanings, the role of fate, chance, and luck in this play, speak powerfully of the terrible paradoxes of fate and responsibility that Greek tragedy was so good at communicating. One of the most traumatic things about the play is the way that Oedipus himself is the vehicle for his own self-destruction.

Oedipus recognizes his responsibility but sees a fate as guiding things; a fate whose providential command is discernible in events, although never predictable. In a way, Oedipus begins to think of himself as someone who has been humbled by the gods for an arrogance he did not quite see.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Role of Gods in Human Lives

Sometimes, though, the plays seem to locate responsibility more directly in the gods themselves to the point where humans seem to become angry at the gods or the cosmos for their misfortunes.

At the end of Sophocles’s play The Women of Trachis, we have a moment where this happens. In the play, Heracles, who is about to help his son Hyllus get married, is accidentally killed by the poisoning of his wife.

An engraving showing Hercules on his funeral pyre.
Heracles was accidentally poisoned by his wife. (Image: Hans Sebald Beham/Public domain)

At the end of the play Hyllus orders his father’s acid-burned body taken off stage as his father writhes in pain, as his father begs to be burned alive because he has been killed by the gift from his wife. As Heracles is being taken up and carried away from the stage, Hyllus turns to the female chorus and he says to them:

Let the gods, their ruthlessness, their cruelty, be remembered.
They take us to be their children, and call themselves Father,
and yet they well see such suffering.
… Women [he now says, speaking directly to the Chorus], come inside now.
You have seen many things, terrible and strange;
and there is nothing here that is not Zeus.

This was the question that the Greeks were asking themselves: If we believe that the gods do govern fate, doesn’t that make them in some sense responsible?

This is the idea that plays a powerful role in Greek tragedy and in much other Greek thinking.

Common Questions about Tragedy and the Peloponnesian War

Q: What is ‘anarchic polytheism’?

Anarchic polytheism is a belief in many gods, without a single organizing moral order that the gods are all part of.

Q: What paradox does Oedipus Rex convey?

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus recognizes his responsibility but sees fate as guiding things; a fate whose providential command is discernible in events, although never predictable.

Q: How does Heracles die?

At the end of Sophocles’s play The Women of Trachis, Heracles is accidentally killed by the poisoning of his wife.

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