By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The myth of Oedipus is one of the most famous tragedies in all of classical mythology. But how did this Greek myth come about? And what does it mean? Before we address these questions, it might be worth recapping the story of Oedipus in the form of a brief plot summary:
Oedipus myth: summary
There are a number of different versions of the Oedipus story that have survived from the classical era. What follows is an attempt to pick out the shared and most common aspects of the myth.
Laius, the King of Thebes, and his wife, Jocasta, were warned by a prophecy that, if Laius had a son, his son would grow up to murder his own father and bring down ruin upon Laius’ house. Laius didn’t listen to this prophecy, and went ahead and conceived a son with Jocasta.
When the boy was born, however, Laius was careful to avoid the prophecy coming true, so he had the boy’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up, and in turn gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)
Laius then had the child disposed of, either by throwing him into the sea (where he was rescued by fishermen) or by giving him to a servant to take to the mountains and leave there (where he was rescued by shepherds). In every version of the Oedipus myth, the common element here is that Oedipus is rescued, and taken in by a king who has no children of his own. This kind, named Polybus, raised Oedipus as his own son.
When Oedipus grew up and reached adulthood, he left home, and his adoptive parents, behind. His motives for doing so, interestingly, vary from telling to telling. In the oldest versions of the myth, he left home to go and steal horses, which isn’t very noble. In the tragedies, someone told Oedipus – in order to insult him – that he was a foundling and Polybus was not his real father. When Oedipus asked Polybus about this, Polybus confirmed that he was not his biological father.
In some versions, the Delphic oracle warned Oedipus that there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; believing Polybus to be his real father (in this version of the story), Oedipus fled home, worried that he would kill Polybus.
On a road (variously, the road back from Delphi, where he’d consulted the oracle; or on his way to steal those horses; or on his way to Thebes, where he intended to make sure he was as far away from Polybus as possible so he couldn’t fulfil the prophecy), Oedipus came up against Laius, King of Thebes and Oedipus’ biological father.
When Laius’ herald ordered Oedipus to stand aside and make way for the King to pass, Oedipus grew angry and killed both the herald and Laius. In doing so, he unwittingly fulfilled the first half of the prophecy: he has killed his own father.
Arriving at Thebes, Oedipus was confronted by the Sphinx: a monster that was half woman and half lion. The Sphinx posed riddles to people; when they failed to solve them, she ate them.
However, the riddle she poses to Oedipus (‘what goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three legs in the evening?’) is solved by our hero, who gives her the correct response, ‘man’ (we’ll say why this is the solution later on; there was also another riddle posed by the Sphinx in some alternative versions of the Oedipus myth, which asks, ‘There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. What are they?’). In solving her riddle, the Sphinx is vanquished, and she dies.
The Thebans were so grateful to Oedipus for killing the Sphinx that they offered him the throne of their city-state, and their widowed queen in marriage. Oedipus duly became King of Thebes and married Jocasta, the widow of the previous King, Laius, who had recently died. Of course, Oedipus doesn’t know Laius was the man he’d killed on the road.
However, the truth came out, eventually. In one version, it’s the distinctive markings on Oedipus’ feet, from his infancy where his feet had been bound together with a strap. In the more famous version told by Sophocles in his play Oedipus Rex, it’s something far bigger: a plague was ravaging the city of Thebes, and the Delphic oracle revealed that the plague would only abate when Laius’ death is avenged. Oedipus cursed whoever is guilty of killing Laius, unaware that, in doing so, he has just condemned himself.
Oedipus asked Tiresias, the seer, who was responsible for this crime, but Tiresias – reluctant to tell the truth to his king, since that would involve calling his king a murderer – equivocated, but this led Oedipus to suspect that Tiresias and Creon (the man who was ruling as de facto king after Laius was killed) had plotted together to murder Laius.
Jocasta was keen to patch things up, so sought to cast doubt on Tiresias’ powers of prophecy and on prophecies in general. She gave, as example, the case of Laius, who an oracle had warned would be killed by his own son; in order to avert this tragedy, Laius had left the child for dead. And Laius was killed by robbers on the road, so that prophecy was clearly false.
A horrible realisation came over Oedipus. Laius was killed on the road? He asked them for a description of the former king, and where the killing took place, and his worst fears were confirmed. He had killed Laius.
In some versions, a messenger arrived from Corinth to tell Oedipus that his adoptive father, Polybus, had died of natural causes, and Oedipus was the natural choice of successor as king. But Oedipus remained uneasy about the second part of the prophecy: what if he yet ended up somehow marrying the widow of Polybus, i.e. his adoptive mother? But the messenger then confirms that Polybus’ wife was not Oedipus’ biological mother and he was a foundling.
Jocasta, hearing this, realised that the prophecy – all of it – had come true. This man, her husband, was her biological son. Distraught, she hanged herself, and Oedipus, in horror at what he had done, blinded himself.
How did Oedipus die? In Sophocles’ version, he didn’t die at the end of Oedipus Rex, but instead was banished from Thebes and went to Colonus, where he died. In the epic cycle of poems about him, Oedipus remained on the throne until he died in a war against Erginus and the Minyans, presumably before they became little yellow creatures wearing blue overalls in Pixar films.
Oedipus myth: analysis
As remarked above, there are numerous versions of the Oedipus story from classical civilisation: plays, poems, and other artistic depictions. Details of the Oedipus myth vary from one telling to the next. For instance, here’s a question for you: what was the name of Oedipus’ mother?
Jocasta? Yes … and no. It all depends. In fact, although we have followed the most famous version of the Oedipus story above, and called his mother Jocasta, she is only so named in the tragedies – that is, in the plays about Oedipus. In his Odyssey, Homer calls her Epicaste. In the epic version of the Oedipus cycle, she is named Eurygania or Euryanassa, and in yet another version she is named Astymedusa.
What the moral of the Oedipus story is perhaps depends on which version we read, too. In the tragedians’ version of the tale, it is Oedipus’ hubris, his pride, that contributes to the altercation on the road between him and Laius, the man who turns out to be his real father: if Oedipus was less stubborn, he would have played the bigger man and stepped aside to let Laius pass.
And thus he would (or at least could) have avoided killing his father and fulfilling the prophecy. Our actions have consequences, but that doesn’t mean that a particular action will lead to a particular consequence: it means that one action might cause something quite different to happen, which will nevertheless be linked in some way to our lives.
However, another school of thought says that, to the ancient Greeks, fate was far too powerful to be overridden by human agency: Oedipus’ card was stamped from the start. He was doomed. Laius’ attempts to do away with the child so it could never grow up to murder him failed, because Oedipus survived. Oedipus’ attempts to avert the prophecy by leaving home failed, because he was unwittingly fleeing to his natural parents, not from them. Perhaps the ultimate hubris is in thinking one can cheat the gods.
To conclude this analysis of the Oedipus myth, let’s return to that riddle. Or rather, riddles. The most famous one, you’ll remember, asked ‘What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three legs in the evening?’
The answer is ‘man’ – because we are born as babies that crawl on all fours, walk on two legs as adults when in the prime of life (‘midday’), and then walk with an artificial ‘third leg’, a walking stick, in old age or the ‘evening’ of our lives. As William Empson pointed out in his notes to his brilliant poem ‘Four Legs, Two Legs, Three Legs’, Oedipus’ solution was ‘man’ but it told us nothing about mankind.
What of the other riddle that exists in some alternative versions of the Oedipus story? A Gascon version of the myth has the Sphinx posing this follow-up question: ‘There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. What are they?’
Any ideas? How can two sisters give birth to each other? Clearly ‘sisters’ here is meant to imply some sort of complementary relationship. If we think along the same lines as the first, more famous riddle, which talks of times of day, that might help. These two sisters are ‘day’ and ‘night’, which ‘give birth to’ each other because one follows the other. Simple, eh?
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.