chapter  2
Engendering nation and national identity
Pages 17

The eminent scholar of nationalism, Anthony Smith, begins one of his major works on national identity (1991a) with a discussion of Oedipus the King.2 Sophocles’ tale of Oedipus is pre-national, yet, as Smith and other scholars have noted, it remains one of the most profound myths on the problem of identity and therefore a compelling narrative for thinking about the complexity of national identity. The words, “That is my blood, my nature-I will never betray it, never fail to search and learn my birth!” speak to us not only of the agony and hope of identity not yet discovered but also of the power of ancestry and social ties to determine that iden-tity. In the process of Oedipus’ search, he (and we) learn that identity is multiple and socially constructed, and that often its sources are unknown by the individual. Despite its premodern origins, the myth of Oedipus reflects what for many scholars is at the core of modern national identity, the myth of blood and belonging.3 From Oedipus’ promise to discover the murderer who brought plague upon Thebes to his self-inflicted blinding and exile, the play is a search for identity, a search that makes Oedipus, like all of us, human. Oedipus begins with a clear and coherent identity: Greek, conqueror-king, hero, husband, father. The plea of the Thebans to help end the crisis besieging their city

and the subsequent challenge from Tiresias to find the true murderer of Laius leads Oedipus on an exploration of his own identity and to the discovery that he is not who he thought he was. Tiresias’ words echo with foreboding:

A stranger you may think, who lives among you, he soon will be revealed a native Theban but he will take no joy in the revelation. Blind who now has eyes, beggar who is now rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. Revealed at last, brother and father both to the children he embraces, to his mother son and husband both-he sowed the loins his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood!4