The Mother of All Myths: Oedipus, The Story of the King of Thebes
The myth of Oedipus contains moral lessons about the dangers of tempting fate. It warns that fate cannot be neither challenged nor escaped. In doing so, the story is full of intrigue and revelation. Complete with blind prophets and deadly riddles, the tale of Oedipus’ life is not one to be missed.
Ancient Sources of Oedipus’ Myth
There are a number of sources from the 5th century BC which tell of Oedipus’ life. In this article, the most extensive ones have been combined in order to create the clearest picture of the myth possible. However, it is important to shed some light on these sources that provide the finer details as well.
In his first Olympian Ode, the Greek poet Pindar (518-438 BC) briefly covers some of the tale. He writes:
“In such a way does Fate, who keeps their pleasant fortune to be handed from father to son, bring at another time some painful reversal together with god-sent prosperity, since the destined son met and killed Laius, and fulfilled the oracle of Pytho, spoken long before. But the sharp-eyed Erinys saw it, and destroyed his warlike sons through mutual slaughter.” (Olympian One, 35)
Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes was a trilogy of plays written in 467 BC, and is suspected to have been one of the most complete sources of Oedipus’ later life. The trilogy is made up of Laius, Oedipus and Seven against Thebes, but only the last one survives today. The latter records the war between Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polynices.
Another of the most complete sources on Oedipus’ life is Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays, another trilogy of plays written in the 4th century BC. This trilogy is made up of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, all of which survive. However, rather than focusing on Oedipus’ life, these plays focus on the fate of Thebes during his reign.
In Euripides’ account ( Phoenissae), Oedipus’ story is told from the perspective of his birth mother Jocasta. This telling largely follows the same lines as Seven Against Thebes and Antigone, combining the major plot points of the two.
Combined with other, less complete sources of the myth from Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, and Euripides can be used to create a more complete picture of Oedipus’ life.
The Oedipus Myth
The tale begins with King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, who one day decided to consult the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The oracle declared that if Laius produced a son, that son would ultimately kill him. Laius did not heed the oracle’s warning, however, and the couple soon gave birth to a son.
Despite ignoring the warnings, Laius was still fearful of the prophecy coming true. To prevent this, he pierced his son's ankles and joined them together. Once this was done, and the infant was unable to crawl and eventually walk, Laius prepared to get rid of the child.
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The priestess of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece, by John Collier (Public Domain)
The couple passed their infant son to one of the servants and implored him to hide the baby out in the mountains where he would eventually perish. In some accounts he was cast into the sea, where he was eventually found by a fisherman. Somehow (accounts vary according to the source), Oedipus was eventually saved when he was rescued and taken to a nearby king who had no children of his own. In the account where he was abandoned on a mountain, he was often saved by a shepherd.
The king was named Polybus, and he ruled over Corinth with his wife, Queen Merope. The pair adopted the baby and named him Oedipus because of his swollen feet.
A Weighty Prophecy
Oedipus then grew up happily under the care of Polybus and his wife, never once questioning his true lineage. Eventually he was motivated to leave home. The cause of this differs from source to source. Some claim he went off to steal horses, others claim that he was insulted by someone who called him a bastard.
According to sources that tell the latter story, Oedipus was shaken by the insult and asked Polybus about it. Here again, accounts differ. In some, Polybus admitted the circumstances of his birth. In others, Oedipus traveled, rather ironically, to the same oracle his father had visited and asked the question. In this telling, the oracle warned Oedipus of the prophecy that he would eventually kill his father. Believing Polybus to be his birth father, Oedipus left Corinth, vowing to never return for fear the prophecy may be fulfilled.
The Crossroads of Fate
On his journey (either back to Corinth from the oracle, or while stealing horses, or on his way to Thebes depending on the account you read), Oedipus encountered an old man. The man was driving a chariot and taking up most of the road. Oedipus ordered the old man to move aside and allow him to pass.
The old man refused, and the two began to fight. The conflict escalated, and Oedipus eventually killed the man. Unknown to Oedipus, this was not just any old man, but in fact his birth father, Laius. Oedipus had just unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy he and his father had been trying so desperately to avoid.
None the wiser to what he had just done, Oedipus continued his journey. He eventually found himself on the road to Thebes where he came across a sphinx, a beast that was half woman and half lion. The sphinx stated that she told riddles to passing travelers, and only those who answered correctly were able to pass with their life.
The riddle the sphinx posed to Oedipus was: “ What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs at night?” Luckily Oedipus provided the correct answer - a human being, the passage of day representing the passage of time.
Some sources say that the sphinx became so angry with Oedipus for out-witting her that she then killed herself. Others claim that in solving the riddle, Oedipus vanquished the sphinx. Either way, Oedipus was responsible for ridding Thebes of the sphinx for good, something they had been trying to do for years.
A Reunion of the Ignorant
When Oedipus eventually arrived in Thebes, word of his journey had got out. The people of Thebes were delighted that someone had finally destroyed the monstrous sphinx that had been plaguing their roads for so long. Obviously, they were still unaware that it was also Oedipus who had murdered their king!
As a reward, Oedipus was offered the hand of the recently widowed Queen Jocasta (yes, his mother), which he accepted. It is said that the couple had four children, and in the early years of marriage they lived happily.
This did not last long, however, and eventually the land was subject to a devastating plague of infertility. Crops, livestock and people were affected. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Oedipus once again travelled to the Oracle at Delphi and asked what must be done to end the suffering.
The Oracle replied that in order to end the plague, the man who murdered King Laius must be brought to justice. Still unaware that this man was him, Oedipus vowed to see this done.
Oedipus at Colonus (Thomas Hawk / CC BY NC 2.0)
Vengeance and Revelations
Oedipus then began his search for the murderer, vowing to see him punished and exiled. In some sources, he enlists the help of the blind prophet Tiresias. When he eventually located the prophet, he was unwilling to tell Oedipus the truth because it would mean accusing his king of murder.
As in other parts of the legend, sources differ as to what happened next. In some cases, Oedipus was suspicious of the fact that Tiresias would not tell him, and so began to accuse Tiresias and Creon (his brother-in-law who had been helping in the ordeal), of being the murderers.
Jocasta, in order to diffuse the rising tension, sought to cast doubt on the seer's ability by pointing out that Laius had been warned that he would be killed by his own son. However, he had been killed on the road by what appeared to be robbers, so the seer was clearly incorrect. Oedipus then asked for a description of the king and slowly began to piece together what had happened. Eventually he realized he had murdered his father.
In other accounts, a message arrived from Corinth which stated that the King Polybus had passed away. Believing him to be his true father, Oedipus was under the impression that the prophecy could no longer be fulfilled, and he was finally safe. However, because his adoptive mother (who he believed to be his birth mother) was still alive, he refused to travel to Corinth for the funeral. In order to diffuse the tension, the messenger revealed his true parents.
Antigone being captured and arrested for the burial of her brother Polynices (CC BY SA 3.0)
According to Sophocles, Oedipus then searched for his birth mother, Jocasta, who had hung herself upon realizing she had not only married her son, but also her husband’s murderer. Oedipus then discovered his wife and mother’s body, and was so distraught that he took the pin from one of her brooches and blinded himself with it.
Oedipus then proceeded to exile himself, and with his daughter, Antigone, as his guide, traveled the country. He eventually made it to Colonus, where he would later die, and was welcomed by King Theseus of Athens.
According to Euripides’ plays, however, Jocasta did not kill herself, nor did Oedipus blind himself. Instead, Oedipus was blinded by one of Laius’ vengeful servants.
In other sources, the blinding does not happen at all. It appears to not be included in anything written earlier than Aeschylus. According to Homer, Oedipus even continued to rule Thebes after he realized who his parents were and after his mother hung herself.
In the accounts where Oedipus left in self-imposed exile, his two sons Eteocles and Polynices ruled in his place. They agreed to share the kingdom between them, each taking a year to rule, then passing the throne back over to the other. However, after his first year, Eteocles felt a little too comfortable on the throne and refused to hand it back over.
Polynices then retaliated by bringing his army to take the throne by force. Ironically, both brothers lost their lives in the ensuing battle, and Jocasta’s brother Creon was left to take the throne.
There are many differing sources on the tale of Oedipus’ life, and when combined they all provide an interesting story. It remains a moral tale which warns of the dangers of tempting fate and attempting to avert its course. It is also demonstrative of how ancient myths would morph and change with time as they were passed down through generations, each adding their own additions until there remains for us many different versions.
Top Image: Oedipus the King of Sophoces theatrical costume Athens Greece. Source: Susan Vineyard / Adobe Stock
By Molly Dowdeswell
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