Oedipus was a tragic hero of Greek mythology, a king doomed to a dire fate because he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. His story is the tale of someone who, because he did not know his true identity, followed the wrong path in life. Once he had set foot on that path, his best qualities could not save him from the results of actions that violated the laws of gods and men. Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama: the flawed nature of humanity and an individual's powerlessness against the course of destiny in a harsh universe.
The Myth. The story begins with a son born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes*. The oracle at Delphi* told them that their child would grow up to murder Laius and marry Jocasta. Horrified, the king fastened the infant's feet together with a large pin and left him on a mountainside to die.
However, shepherds found the baby—who became known as Oedipus, or "swollen foot"—and took him to the city of Corinth. There King Polybus and Queen Merope adopted him and raised him to think that he was their own son. When Oedipus was grown, however, someone told him that he was not the son of Polybus. Oedipus went to Delphi to ask the oracle about his parentage. The answer he received was, "You are the man fated to murder his father and marry his mother."
Like Laius and Jocasta, Oedipus was determined to avoid the destiny predicted for him. Believing that the oracle had said he was fated to kill Polybus and marry Merope, he vowed never to return to Corinth. Instead, he headed toward Thebes.
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
destiny future or fate of an individual or thing
Along the way, Oedipus came to a narrow road between cliffs. There he met an older man in a chariot coming the other way. The two quarreled over who should give way, and Oedipus killed the stranger and went on to Thebes. He found the city in great distress. He learned that a monster called the Sphinx was terrorizing the Thebans by devouring them when they failed to answer its riddle and that King Laius had been murdered on his way to seek help from the Delphic oracle. The riddle of the Sphinx was "What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?" Oedipus gave the correct answer: "A human being, who crawls as an infant, walks erect in maturity, and leans on a staff in old age." With this answer, Oedipus not only defeated the Sphinx, which killed itself in rage, but won the throne of the dead king and the hand in marriage of the king's widow, Jocasta.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Oedipus and Jocasta lived happily for a time and had two sons and two daughters. Then a dreadful plague came upon Thebes. A prophet declared that the plague would not end until the Thebans drove out the murderer of Laius, who was within the city. A messenger then arrived from Corinth, announcing the death of King Polybus and asking Oedipus to return and rule the Corinthians. Oedipus told Jocasta what the oracle had predicted for him and expressed relief that the danger of his murdering Polybus was past. Jocasta told him not to fear oracles, for the oracle had said that her first husband would be killed by his own son, and instead he had been murdered by a stranger on the road to Delphi.
Suddenly Oedipus remembered that fatal encounter on the road and knew that he had met and killed his real father, Laius. At the same time, Jocasta realized that the scars on Oedipus's feet marked him as the baby whose feet Laius had pinned together so long ago. Faced with the fact that she had married her own son and the murderer of Laius, she hanged herself. Oedipus seized a pin from her dress and blinded himself with it.
Some accounts say that Oedipus was banished at once from Thebes, while others relate that he lived a miserable existence there, despised by all, until his children grew up. Eventually he was driven into exile, accompanied by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After years of lonely wandering, he arrived in Athens, where he found refuge in a grove of trees called Colonus. By this time, warring factions in Thebes wanted 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.
Legacy. Thus runs the best-known account of the myth of Oedipus, preserved in Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, two dramas by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. Most versions of the story have followed the pattern that Sophocles set down, although an earlier version, mentioned by Homer in the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, says that after Oedipus's identity was revealed, Jocasta hanged herself. Oedipus, however, continued to rule Thebes, died in battle, and was buried with honor.
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
The story of Oedipus has inspired artists and thinkers since ancient times. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a tragedy entitled Oedipus that influenced writers such as England's John Dryden and Alexander Pope and France's Voltaire and Pierre Corneille. Later artistic treatments of the Oedipus story include a translation of Sophocles' work by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a play entitled The Infernal Machine by Jean Cocteau of France, music by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and the movie Oedipus Rex by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of modern psychiatry, used the term Oedipus complex to refer to a psychological state in which boys or men experience hostility toward their fathers and are attracted to their mothers.