Oedipus  

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The legend of Oedipus has been retold in many versions, and was used by Sigmund Freud as the basis of his eponymous Oedipus complex.

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Oedipus (meaning "swollen foot") was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. A tragic hero in Greek mythology, Oedipus fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father, and thereby bring disaster on his city and family. The story of Oedipus is the subject of Sophocles's tragedy Oedipus the King, which was followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. Together, these plays make up Sophocles's three Theban plays. Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama: the flawed nature of humanity and an individual's role in the course of destiny in a harsh universe.

Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. In the most well-known version of the myth, Laius wished to thwart a prophecy, which said that his child would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Thus, he fastened the infant's feet together with a large pin and left him to die on a mountainside. The baby was found on Kithairon by shepherds and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the city of Corinth. Oedipus learned from the oracle at Delphi of the prophecy, but believing he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope, he left Corinth. Heading to Thebes, Oedipus met an older man in a chariot coming the other way on a narrow road. The two quarreled over who should give way, which resulted in Oedipus killing the stranger and continuing on to Thebes. He found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed and that the city was at the mercy of the Sphinx. Oedipus answered the monster's riddle correctly, defeating it and winning the throne of the dead king and the hand in marriage of the king's widow, his mother, Jocasta.

Oedipus and Jocasta had two sons (Eteocles and Polynices) and two daughters (Antigone and Ismene). In his search to determine who killed Laius (and thus end a plague on Thebes), Oedipus discovered it was he who had killed the late king (his father). Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married her own son and Laius's murderer, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them. Oedipus was driven into exile, accompanied by Antigone and Ismene. After years of wandering, he arrived in Athens, where he found refuge in a grove of trees called Colonus. By this time, warring factions in Thebes wished him to return to that city, believing that his body would bring it luck. However, Oedipus died at Colonus, and the presence of his grave there was said to bring good fortune to Athens.

The legend of Oedipus has been retold in many versions, and was used by Sigmund Freud as the basis of his eponymous Oedipus complex.

Basics of the myth

Variations on the legend of Oedipus are mentioned in fragments by several ancient Greek poets including Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides. However, the most popular version of the legend comes from the set of Theban plays by Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. After having been married some time without children, Laius consulted the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Oracle prophesied that any son born to Laius would kill him. In an attempt to prevent this prophecy's fulfillment, when Jocasta indeed bore a son, Laius had his ankles pierced and tethered together so that he could not crawl; Jocasta then gave the boy to a servant to abandon ("expose") on the nearby mountain. However, rather than leave the child to die of exposure, as Laius intended, the sympathetic servant passed the baby onto a shepherd from Corinth and then to another shepherd.

The infant Oedipus eventually came to the house of Polybus, king of Corinth and his queen, Merope, who adopted him, as they were without children of their own. Little Oedipus/Oidipous was named after the swelling from the injuries to his feet and ankles ("swollen foot"). The word "oedema" (British English) or "edema" (American English) is from this same Greek word for swelling: οἴδημα, or oedēma.

After many years of being son of the king and queen of Corinth, Oedipus was told by a drunk that he was a "bastard", meaning at that time that he was not of the same blood to them. Oedipus confronted his parents with the news, but they denied every word. Oedipus sent word for the same oracle in Delphi that his birth parents had consulted. The oracle informed him he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. In his attempt to avoid such a fate predicted by the oracle, he mistakenly decided to not return home to Corinth. Oedipus decided to travel all the way to Thebes, as it was near Delphi.

As Oedipus traveled, he came to Davlia, where three roads crossed each other. There he encountered a chariot driven by his birth-father, King Laius. They fought over who had the right to go first and Oedipus killed Laius in self-defense when the charioteer tried to run him over, unwittingly fulfilling part of the prophecy. The only witness of the King's death was a slave who fled from a caravan of slaves also traveling on the road at the time.

Continuing his journey to Thebes, Oedipus encountered a Sphinx, who would stop all travelers to Thebes and ask them a riddle. If the travelers were unable to answer her correctly, they would be killed and eaten; if they were successful, they would be free to continue on their journey. The riddle was: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?". Oedipus answered: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a 'walking' stick". Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly and, having heard Oedipus' answer, the Sphinx was astounded and inexplicably killed herself by throwing herself into the sea, freeing Thebes from her harsh rule.

Creon (brother of Jocasta and uncle of Oedipus, unbeknownst to him) had said that any man who could rid the city of the Sphinx would be made king of Thebes, and given the recently widowed Queen Jocasta's hand in marriage. This marriage of Oedipus to Jocasta fulfilled the rest of the prophecy. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children: two sons, Eteocles and Polynices (see Seven Against Thebes), and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

Many years after the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, a plague of infertility struck the city of Thebes; crops no longer grew on the fields and women did not bear children. The plague also struck the livestock of Thebes. Oedipus, in his hubris, asserted that he would end the pestilence. He sent Creon, Jocasta's brother and his uncle/brother-in-law, to the Oracle at Delphi, seeking guidance. When Creon returned, Oedipus heard that the murderer of the former King Laius must be brought to justice, and Oedipus himself cursed his wife's late husband's murderer, saying that he would be exiled. Creon also suggested that they try to find the blind prophet, Tiresias who was widely respected for his accurate tellings. In a search for the identity of the killer, Oedipus followed Creon's suggestion and sent for Tiresias who warned him not to seek Laius' killer. In a heated exchange, Tiresias was provoked into exposing Oedipus himself as the killer, and the fact that Oedipus was living in shame because he did not know who his true parents were. Oedipus angrily blamed Creon for the false accusations, and the two proceeded to argue fervently. Jocasta entered and tried to calm Oedipus by telling him the story of her first-born son and his supposed death. Oedipus became nervous as he realized that he may have murdered Laius and so brought about the plague. Suddenly, a messenger arrived from Corinth with the news that King Polybus had died. Oedipus was relieved concerning the prophecy for it could no longer be fulfilled if Polybus, whom he considered his birth father, was now dead.

Still, he knew that his mother was still alive and refused to attend the funeral at Corinth. To ease the tension, the messenger then said that Oedipus was, in fact, adopted. Jocasta, finally realizing that he was her son, begged him to stop his search for Laius' murderer. Oedipus misunderstood the motivation of her pleas, thinking that she was ashamed of him because he might have been born of low birth. Jocasta in great distress and disgust then went into the palace where she hanged herself. Oedipus sought verification of the messenger's story from the very same herdsman who was supposed to have left Oedipus to die as a baby. From the herdsman, Oedipus learned that the infant raised as the adopted son of Polybus and Merope was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Thus, Oedipus finally realized in great agony that so many years ago, at the place where the three roads met, he had killed his own father, King Laius, and subsequently married his mother, Jocasta.

Events after the revelation depend on the source. In Sophocles' plays, Oedipus went in search of Jocasta and found she had killed herself. Using the pin from a brooch he took off Jocasta's gown, Oedipus stabbed his own eyes out, and was then exiled. His daughter Antigone acted as his guide as he wandered blindly through the country, finally perishing at Colonus after being placed under the protection of Athens by King Theseus. However, in Euripides' plays on the subject, Jocasta did not kill herself upon learning of Oedipus' birth, and Oedipus was blinded by a servant of Laius. The blinding of Oedipus does not appear in sources earlier than Aeschylus. Some older sources of the myth, including Homer, state that Oedipus continued to rule Thebes after the revelations and after Jocasta's death.

Oedipus' two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, arranged to share the kingdom, each taking an alternating one-year reign. However, Eteocles refused to cede his throne after his year as king. Polynices brought in an army to oust Eteocles from his position and a battle ensued. At the end of the battle the brothers killed each other after which Jocasta's brother, Creon, took the throne. He decided that Polynices was a "traitor," and should not be given burial rites. Defying this edict, Antigone attempted to bury her brother. In Sophocles' Antigone, Creon had her buried in a rock cavern for defying him, whereupon she hanged herself. However, in Euripides' lost version of the story, it appears that Antigone survives.

See also




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