Ancient Greece Mythology
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Oedipus and Sphinx. 1808. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Oedipus and Sphinx. 1808. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.


Thanks to psychoanalysist Sigmund Freud, the story of Oedipus has become one of the most widely known in the modern world. However, because of Freud's 'Oedipus Complex', many modern readers focus on his apparent love of his mother and hatred for his father; this is not in fact in keeping with the Greek mythological tradition of Oedipus, the canonical version of which can be found in Sophocles' trilogy: The Theban Plays.

Birth and Early Life

Oedipus was the child of Laius and Jocasta, the ruling couple of Thebes. Eager for future-knowledge, Laius journeyed to the oracle at Delphi who gave him the most unwelcome news that his newborn son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Perturbed by this news, Laius gave his new son to a herdsman and ordered him to be killed. A spike was driven through baby Oedipus' ankles (causing his ankles to become inflamed and earn him his name, which literally translates as 'swollen-footed') and he was left on the side of Mt. Cithaeron to die. However, destiny cannot be avoided that easily and Oedipus survived, rescued by a peasant in the employ of king Polybus of Corinth. The peasant took the infant to his master, who adopted him gratefully since he and his wife Merope had been unable to conceive. Polybus and Merope raised Oedipus as their own, but one night at a public feast, a drunken man shouted at Oedipus that he had no idea who his father was. Although his adoptive parents implored Oedipus to ignore the man's ravings, he could not put his mind to rest, and Oedipus resolved to travel to the Oracle at Delphi and ask her the identity of his parents. The Oracle, however, did not tell Oedipus who his parents were, rather revealing the disturbing prophecy that he would couple with his mother and kill his father. Resolving that this should never come to pass, Oedipus did not go back to Corinth, to those he believed to be his parents, but rather headed for Thebes. On his journey, Oedipus came to a crossroads and was faced with a carriage driving the opposite direction. The driver struck Oedipus to get him to move out of the way, but this enraged the young man, who proceeded to fight and kill the driver and the man he was transporting - King Laius. Having unwittingly fulfilled half of the prophecy, Oedipus carried on to Thebes.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx, a terrible monster with the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and head of a woman had been sent by the gods to terrorise Thebes as punishment for Laius' misdeeds concerning the rape of a prince of a neighbouring kingdom. This fiend would ask any passing traveller her riddle, and if they were unable to answer correctly, she would devour them. Since no man had been able to guess the answer, Thebes was effectively cut off from the outside world. When Oedipus came to Thebes, the Sphinx asked him her riddle, which he was able to solve. The story goes that she went mad and threw herself off a cliff, thus freeing Thebes from her fearsome influence. The people of Thebes were so grateful to Oedipus that they proclaimed him their king, since Laius had been mysteriously killed on the road. They also suggested that he marry his widow, Jocasta, to solidify his position as ruler of the city. Thus the prophecy of the Delphic oracle came to pass.

The Sphinx as a creature can be seen as early as the mid-3rd millennium BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, yet the Sphinx seems to have been, in these cultures, to be a religious figure rather than a monster as is the case in the Greek tradition. It has been theorised that the Sphinx is associated with Thebes due to a war between the Minyans and the Cadmeans and that the Sphinx was acting on behalf of the Minyans by preventing the Cadmeans from leaving Thebes. Although the riddle the Sphinx asked is not specified in any early Greek texts, late tradition states that the question she asked was: 'What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?' When Oedipus gave her the answer 'man' (for as a baby, man crawls on all fours, as a grown man he walks erect on two legs and in old age he walks with the aid of a stick), she was bested and thus her reign of terror over Thebes was put to an end.

Oedipus the King

Aristotle rates Sophocles' tragedy, 'Oedipus the King' as the greatest ever composed, and it is this text which gives us the most detailed account of his fall from grace after his aforementioned coronation. Sophocles sets the scene many years after Oedipus came to Thebes, when he has been married to Jocasta for many years and sired four children, Antigone, Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles. A plague has struck Thebes and a Priest begs Oedipus, the most cunning and intelligent of all men, to find a solution. As it happens, Oedipus has already sent a messenger in the form of his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi in order to find out how he might appease Apollo and stop the plague. Creon returns with the answer: the city itself is unclean as it harbours the killer of Laius, and he must be found and punished before the city can become cleansed. Oedipus swears to find and execute the murderer and brings down a curse on anyone who harbours him, cursing himself and his family in the process.

Oedipus calls Tiresias, the blind prophet, to help him in his quest, but when the old man refuses to reveal the painful truth to Oedipus, the king becomes angered, causing Tiresias to say that it is Oedipus himself who pollutes the city and is the murderer of Laius. Outraged, Oedipus rails against the prophet and accuses him of being in cahoots with Creon in an attempt to usurp his throne. Oedipus remains resolute that Tiresias is lying until a messenger informs him of Polybus' death and also of the fact that Oedipus was adopted. Against Jocasta's protestations, Oedipus sends for the man who "disposed" of Laius' son, who happens to also be the sole survivor of Oedipus' earlier attack on Laius' carriage. It comes out that Oedipus was the unknown man who killed Laius from the revelation that the old king was killed at the same crossroads Oedipus remembers from his fight. In addition, it is revealed that Oedipus was the child Jocasta and Laius tried to expose to prevent the prophecy from coming to fruition. When Jocasta realises this to be the case, she runs inside and hangs herself. Oedipus himself takes a little longer to reach this conclusion, but when he does he follows his mother/bride inside, removes her dress pins and uses them to gouge out his eyes, in a gesture which many read psychosexually as Oedipus is violated by the phallic brooches as Jocasta had previously been violated by her own son. Oedipus emerges from the palace blinded and bloody, and is sent out of Thebes into exile by the man he had accused of plotting against him: Creon.

The Aftermath

The other plays of Sophocles in the Theban cycle, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, tell the story of what occurred after Oedipus' exile. Oedipus at Colonus tells of how Oedipus became a wanderer, cared for by his daughter Antigone and how they came to be outside Athens where Theseus took pity on the pair and looked after them both until Oedipus' death.

Antigone shows the happenings in Thebes after Oedipus' exile. Sophocles intimates that the kingship was left in the hands of both Polynices and Eteocles, each ruling alternate years. However, Creon had convinced Eteocles to hold on to power, causing Polynices to raise an army and march against Thebes. The two brothers met in combat and killed each other, leaving Creon as the ruler of Thebes (although it is unclear as to whether this was his original intention). Creon decreed that the traitor, Polynices, was to be dishonoured by being denied a proper burial and, thus, passage into the Underworld. Antigone takes it upon herself to inter her brother, but is caught and sentenced to death. Tiresias later informs Creon of the gods' disapproval of this and so the new king rushes to the cave where Antigone had been left to starve. It is, however, too late and it transpires that Antigone has once again taken matters into her own hands and has hung herself, causing Haemon (her betrothed and Creon's son) to kill himself also. The final blow to Creon, upon hearing of this news, his wife Eurydice takes her own life by hanging, leaving Creon desperate and alone, but still the sole ruler of Thebes.

Other versions of the Oedipus Myth

Although the quintessential version of the story of Oedipus is that given by Sophocles, the unfortunate king of Thebes is mentioned by other Classical authors. For example, Aeschylus wrote a trilogy concerning Oedipus (this is hardly surprising as it is believed that tragedy had a very limited number of mythological families of which to tell). The third play in the trilogy survives, 'Seven Against Thebes', and tells much the same story as Antigone, with the two sons of Oedipus at battle over the throne of Cadmus. Ovid also mentions Oedipus, but only in reference to him being the man who defeated the Sphinx, with no mention of his later misfortune, thus is can be speculated that Oedipus' patricide and incest were not as central to the ancients as they are to us today. This theory, however, is discredited when examining book XI of Homer's Odyssey, which references Epicaste (an alternate name for Jocasta) as the woman who, unbeknownst to either of them, married her son Oedipus (although Homer claims that Oedipus went on ruling Thebes).

Oedipus' Fate and Responsibility

There has been much debate concerning the responsibility of Oedipus and the "fairness" of his punishment. In Greek tragedy and myth in general, it is the norm that someone will suffer some terrible fate as punishment for wrongdoing or some sacrilege. However, it seems as though Oedipus himself has done nothing to warrant the punishment of his awful fate. In fact, the citizens of Thebes in Sophocles' Oedipus the King revere him as the most intelligent of men and as a good ruler, even referring to him as a father. As a result, this story has often been read as a comment on the indiscriminate nature of fate, and that even the best of men can be cursed with an unfair fate, which even the gods are unable to divert. This suggestion would imply that Oedipus himself is not to blame for his actions, and thus deserves no punishment for them. An alternative explanation has already been given above, that it was not Oedipus himself who was cursed, but rather the entire line of Laius as payment for his rape of a young prince. Still others suggest that Oedipus is allotted his fate as a pre-emptive penalty for the crimes proscribed in the prophecy, implying that Oedipus would have committed these atrocities whether they were fated or not, and thus the realisation he has committed them is fitting punishment for him. Whichever explanation one finds most convincing, it can be agreed that Oedipus is not being punished for a simple, tangible crime as is the case with many tragic heroes of Greek myth.

Oedipus the Scapegoat

It has been suggested that the myth of Oedipus is a metaphor for the ancient scapegoat ritual. The scapegoat ritual was practiced when a community was in a state of emergency e.g. in the grip of a plague or famine, and it involved expelling a pharmakos (human scapegoat) from the town. The pharmakos was often a person of little consequence, such as a criminal or a cripple. The pharmakos would be led like a sacrificial animal to a sacred precinct and either killed or beaten (sources disagree on this point) and then ejected from the city, taking with it the evils and sins of the community and, thus, purifying the town. The Oedipus story parallels this practice quite closely, as Oedipus (technically a cripple) would normally be of little consequence to the city of Thebes. Furthermore, he is physically harmed, albeit by himself, and exiled from the city. It has been said (in Sophocles' version of the story) that when Laius' killer has been removed from Thebes the plague will abate, thus implying that Oedipus is taking with him the sins of the community, filling the role of the pharmakos and ending the crisis in the town.



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