Colloquially, Oedipus is known as the guy who fancied his mum. But the full story of this historic Greek tragedy is far filthier.
When a plague is getting out of control, as plagues are wont to do, the people of Thebes in ancient Greece demand that their king, Oedipus, do something, so he sends brother-in-law Creon to Delphi, home of the Oracle, to find out how to stop it. This is how things rolled back then – when in doubt, go see the Oracle.
Turns out the plague can only end once the killer of the previous king, Laius, is brought to justice. An investigation begins and wouldn’t you know, Oedipus is in fact the murderer. Whaaaaat?
What has happened is that many years before, King Laius and his wife Jocasta are told by the Oracle that their son will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this unspeakable outcome, they abandon their infant son on a hillside trusting that the elements will ensure his demise. Sure enough, a convoluted turn of events mean that the child is saved and adopted by the royal family of Corinth.
When Oedipus – yes, the very same abandoned son – grows up and visits the Delphic Oracle himself, he is horrified to hear that his fate is patricide and incest, so he hightails it out of Corinth, in the belief that the Corinthian King and Queen are his real parents.
Well, you know where this is going, right?
Oedipus never knew the truth about his childhood. As a man, he meets Laius – not knowing who he really is – and kills him following an argument.
Meantime, Thebes has been ravaged by the Sphinx, a monster with a woman’s head and chest, the body of a lion, a snake’s tail and some eagles’ wings for good measure. She is always asking riddles and when they can’t be answered she kills the hapless passers-by. When Oedipus, fresh from killing Laius, meets the Sphinx and solves her riddles, the plague ends.
The people of Thebes are thrilled and make Oedipus their king. He marries the previous king’s widow, whose name of course is Jocasta. His mother. Oh my!
Oedipus and Jocasta have what they think is a successful marriage. Stable government, nice home, four kids. Wait a minute…four kids? Those poor children – their mother is also their grandmother, and their father is also their brother. It’s all a bit yucky.
Really, there’s just no way of preventing what has been ordained by the gods.
It takes a bit of time, but the prophecies are fulfilled. In horror, Oedipus puts out his own eyes; Jocasta kills herself; and the children don’t fare well either – the two sons end up being killed fighting over the kingship, and their daughter Antigone is hanged.
King Laius and his wife are told their son will kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this, they abandon their infant son…Oedipus, horrified his fate is patricide and incest, hightails it out of Corinth. You know where this is going, right?
Obviously, we can’t look at the Oedipus story without some reference to Sigmund Freud and his theory of the Oedipus Complex – the desire to have a sexual relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. Freud was always banging on about sex, but it wasn’t as if Oedipus wanted to sleep with his mother. Mother and son had separated at birth, then lived over 100 kilometres from one another. They acted in ignorance of their true identities.
It was cruel fate that led to this abomination.
And another thing! It may be different now, but when I visited the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna many years ago, there were literally hundreds of antiquities displayed about the rooms. Freud was a great collector of all things Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Egyptian, and to my youthful eye, it seemed he had a particular penchant for phalluses. They were lined up neatly all around the picture rails, dozens of them.
Psychologists may say it’s because the phallus represents the life force or the id or something. I’m no psychologist, so can’t comment, but if you’d been a patient of his, God only knows what would be going through your mind. Oh yeah, sex. Pretty hard to avoid with all those erect penises all over the place, but I digress.
We know the story of Oedipus from the play by Greek tragedian, Sophocles (496BCE – 406BCE), one of the three great playwrights of ancient Greece (the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides). Oedipus Rex was first performed around 429BCE, but the myth is much older and was first recorded in The Odyssey by Homer, the eighth-century BCE poet.
Sophocles was acclaimed in his own lifetime for his superior skills in creating and maintaining dramatic tension and presenting the human face of tragedy. He wrote over 100 plays (only seven survive in entirety) and explored themes like family duty, the conflict between religious and legal or civic obligations, pride, selfishness, deceit, friendship and loyalty.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Book Review: The Iliad by Homer (translation Stephen Mitchell)
- Barnard’s Inferno: The three books she’d save in a fire
Now, back to Oedipus and what happened after he blinded himself. In Sophocles’ later play Oedipus at Colonus (c.406BCE), we learn that Oedipus, now in exile from Thebes because of his crimes, arrives in Colonus where he rests at a spot dedicated to the Erinyes – also known as the Furies, divine beings devoted to vengeance. This is good because in yet another prophecy, Oedipus was told that he’d die at such a place and wherever he died, that land would be blessed, so he’s offered sanctuary by the Athenian king, Theseus.
Back in Thebes, there’s a bit of argy-bargy between Creon, now the king of Thebes, and Polynices, Oedipus’ son. Each wants Oedipus back in Thebes because they’re also aware of the prophecy.
When Oedipus realises his death is near, he performs the appropriate rituals, prays to the gods and dies. Athens gets his post-mortem protection, while Thebes is cursed.
At the beginning of the play, Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a wretched wanderer seeking redemption. By the end, he’s a figure of some power and influence, and his crimes – destined as they were – are forgiven by the gods.
Oedipus, what a journey!