The awesome and mysterious power of Oedipus is that he has become a sacred instrument of grace, kharis, a "gift." Unlike Oedipus the King, this is not a play of discovery for Oedipus; before the opening of the action, he knows that he "didn't do anything." (The translation "did not sin" at line 539 is widespread; Greek contained no word for sin, and Sophocles wrote "didn't do anything.") He was a man without freedom of choice, he asserts, the gods having forced him to kill his father--an act, moreover, committed in self-defense--and marry his mothe (540-48). As these were involuntary acts, he should not have been punished. Athenians knew their laws, and the Athenian Assembly would have found Oedipus legally not guilty. But morally, of course, Oedipus is guilty: knowingly or unknowingly, he did do these things. A son who accidentally shoots and kills his father on a hunting trip is found legally not guilty; nonetheless, the son considers himself morally guilty. Couldn't I have been more careful? he asks himself repeatedly. But what might have been is no longer the case; nor should readers of Oedipus the King wonder why, given the prophecy, Oedipus would kill any man old enough to be his father and marry any woman old enough to be his mother. Ideas that are not in the play are not part of the play: counterfactual speculations are no longer commonly accepted in contemporary historical theory, and they never should have been in literary criticism.
Oedipus has learned and the gods have learned; Apollo, having caused Oedipus so much suffering, rewards him with sacred gifts as belated recompense; Oedipus accepts them in the kindly way befitting a man who has himself become a gift of grace. In a remarkable anticipation of Christian doctrine, Oedipus directs Antigone to perform the libation to the Eumenides of which he is physically incapable: It does not need to be performed by me, he says, anyone can go for me as one soul can pay in full for countless others, if it is kindly (495502). The role of Oedipus himself has been to become an offering in payment for the sufferings of others: through his own unfathomable suffering he has cleansed the stains of pollution from Antigone, Ismene, Jocasta, and Laius. And through this suffering have come not only wisdom and the transfiguring beauty of redemptive grace and love, but the strength to bring down curses on threatening enemies, even if they be an uncle and a son. Love is the concluding message of Oedipus at Colonus; love has the greatest kratos, power, of all.
Since at least the time of Homer, three Greek words were used relating to love: eros, agape, and philia. Eros is the word associated with sexual desire. Agape refers to brotherly love, charity, and the love for a beloved son or man. Philia extends this love for kin out into the world of friends, dear ones, those to whom one is loving and kindly. Homer frequently used the word to express feelings about one's own body, as he does in expressing Achilleus' love for the strength of his own arm or for his own heart.
Eros is not a part of Oedipus at Colonus, but agape and philia are. When the daughters of Oedipus are returned to him by Theseus, he exclaims at line 1110: "I have what is dearest to me in the world." Shortly thereafter, thunder and lightning herald his imminent departure from life; suffering and time have taught him philia, love for his own heart, and agape, to receive lovingly those who love him; he can now leave in shantih, the Sanskrit word for "the peace which passeth understanding." In a final message to his children and the world, Oedipus reveals his transcendent knowledge: "One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: love." And the word for love Sophocles uses in this speech is not eros or agape, but one of the forms of philia (1611-19).
The gods, impatient in their longing for Oedipus, call out: "You delay too long; you delay too long." The Messenger reports that the blind Oedipus says farewell to his children, and when the Messenger and the children have gone on a little way, they turn back and see that Oedipus has vanished. There was no bolt from the sky or whirlwind from the sea, the Messenger continues, "but he was taken."
Only Theseus, King of Athens, is allowed to see Oedipus' leave-taking, for the Messenger himself is momentarily blinded by the sight and knows only that an attendant from the heavens came for him and lifted him up, or that the doors of earth opened in benevolent welcome. Oedipus is now both Hero-god of the Sky and Hero-god of the Earth: like earlier hero-gods such as Achilleus, Oedipus will have worshipers who will offer libations at his sacred shrine.