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King of Thebes
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Personal information
ParentsLaius and Jocasta (biological)
Polybus and Merope (adoptive)

Oedipus (UK: /ˈdɪpəs/, also US: /ˈɛdə-/; Greek: Οἰδίπους "swollen foot") was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. A tragic hero in Greek mythology, Oedipus accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother, thereby bringing disaster to his city and family.

The story of Oedipus is the subject of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex, which is followed in the narrative sequence by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. Together, these plays make up Sophocles' 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.

In the best-known version of the myth, Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Laius wished to thwart the prophecy, so he sent a shepherd-servant to leave Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, the shepherd took pity on the baby and passed him to another shepherd who gave Oedipus to King Polybus and Queen Merope to raise as their own. Oedipus learned from the oracle at Delphi of the prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother but, unaware of his true parentage, believed he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope, so left for Thebes. On his way, he met an older man and killed him in a quarrel. Continuing on to Thebes, he found that the king of the city (Laius) had recently been 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, who was also (unbeknownst to him) his mother Jocasta.

Detail of ancient fresco in which Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx. Egyptian Museum, 2nd c. CE
Detail of ancient fresco in which Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx. Egyptian Museum, 2nd c. CE

Years later, to end a plague on Thebes, Oedipus searched to find who had killed Laius and discovered that he himself was responsible. Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married her own son, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them.

The legend of Oedipus has been retold in many versions and was used by Sigmund Freud to name and give mythic precedent to the Oedipus complex.

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  • Fate, Family, and Oedipus Rex: Crash Course Literature 202
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  • Oedipus the King - So You Haven't Read Sophocles
  • Classics Summarized: Oedipus Rex
  • The Story of Oedipus


Hi! I'm John Green. Welcome to Crash Course Literature. Today we're going to talk about Oedipus. Leo Tolstoy once famously wrote that "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And I certainly hope that there's no family as unhappy as Oedipus'. Ancient Greek playwrights really specialized in the dysfunctional family. I mean, they had plays about wives killing husbands, parents killing children, children killing parents, siblings killing each other, and they also wrote tragedies. But it's hard to imagine a more tragic, dysfunctional family than the Theban clan that Sophocles writes about in Oedipus the King. I mean, except for the Kardashians. John from the Past: Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Who are the Kardashians? That sounds exotic! Is it something from Star Wars? Oh yeah, Me from the Past! You don't know about the Kardashians. Right now, to you, the only Kardashian you know is OJ Simpson's defense attorney. Anyway, don't worry about it. Just imagine a green light on the other side of the bay that represents the glory you'll never reach. That's the Kardashians! (Intro) Okay, so Oedipus is King of Thebes, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved the city from destruction. But now a plague is devastating Thebes, and various oracles and bird entrails suggest it's because the murderer of the old king, Laius, still lives there unpunished. Oedipus decides to investigate the murder, only to discover that -- mind blown -- HE is the one who killed Laius and married his queen, Jocasta. THEN he finds out that Laius was actually his father, and Jocasta is his mother, so he's had four children with his mom, fulfilling an earlier prophecy, because bird entrails are never wrong. It's the old "Accidentally Kill Your Father, Accidentally Marry Your Mother" plot. It goes way back. Freud can tell you a lot about it in Crash Course Psychology. Anyway, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gauges out his own eyes with her jewelery, then goes into exile. In subsequent plays, his two sons murder each other and one of his daughters commits suicide. So... You know, it could have gone better. So for a little context, theater was a really big deal to the Greeks. I mean, if you were a male citizen -- not a woman, not a slave -- attending it was your civic duty. It was sort of like voting, except that it began with ritual animal sacrifice, so it was really nothing like voting. But this civic duty aspect is interesting, because a lot of the plays ask really troubling questions about power and control and the wisdom of rulers. Like, playwrights masked their commentary by setting plays in earlier, mythic eras or in foreign lands, just like Shakespeare did. But they were quite provocative then, and what's most important is that the best of them are still interesting now. Three playwrights would each present four plays: a cycle of three related tragedies, and then a satyr play, which would be funny and would often involve enormous phalluses and/or poop jokes. Citizens would watch play after play while judges would determine a winner. So it was kind of like Sundance or Cannes, but again, with the ritual animal sacrifice, and there was no multi-million dollar theatrical distribution guild. You know, but there was glory. Unfortunately, we only have a small portion of these plays today -- many were lost over the millennia, including some that were destroyed at the burning of the Library of Alexandria. In Sophocles' day, the cast was made of three male actors, some of whom took on multiple roles, and also a chorus. Playwrights were typically the director, the composer, the set designer, and often also the lead actor, although apparently, Sophocles did not appear in his plays because he was, I guess, a terrible actor. But the choruses were drawn from the Athenian citizenry, and generally served as like, stand ins for the audience, asserting conventional wisdom and asking the questions that a typical audience member might. The actors wore masks that were made of linen and hairs, as well as enormous robes and platform sandals so you could still see them, even if you were in the cheap seats. So Sophocles lived throughout nearly all of the fifth century B.C.E, and he wrote a hundred and twenty-three plays. We have seven. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff people got up to in the other ones. The first person to offer literary criticism of Greek drama was my old nemesis, Aristotle, whom you'll remember was wrong about everything. This was a guy who believed that people were naturally born to slavery. Except, he was actually kind of right about a lot of theatre stuff. It pains me to say this, because I do genuinely despise him, but Aristotle had a lot of interesting ideas about story. For instance, he noticed that in a lot of stories, the main character has a recognition and a reversal. He's also responsible for a lot of classical ideas about tragedy and comedy, and Oedipus fits his definition of tragedy very well -- probably because it was his favorite play. Aristotle defines tragedy as, quote, "An imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude." Tragedy is also meant to evoke both pity and fear. I mean, when Oedipus returns at the play's end wearing a new mask that shows his gouged out eyes, you feel bad for him; you also feel afraid. But here's the tricky part. Aristotle wrote that tragedy should afflict a mostly good character who makes a big mistake. I mean, it can't be about a bad character, because then you don't feel any pity. And it can't be about a perfect character who does everything right and still suffers a tragic end, because, one, that wouldn't be very satisfying, and two, it would imply that the universe doesn't reward goodness and punish evil, which is kind of a terrifying thought. So instead, it has to be about a good guy afflicted with a hamartia, or a ha-marsha, depending on how pretentious you are. This word is sometimes mistranslated, including by the protagonist of my novel, The Fault in Our Stars -- available in book stores everywhere -- as a tragic flaw. But actually, it's a term from archery that means you aim for the bulls eye, but you miss. Now, I would argue that in the twenty-five hundred years since Oedipus, there have been some very good tragedies that evoke fear and pity without the argument that the universe is interested in the lives of individuals, but you know, this is the classical definition. So could Oedipus really... Uh oh, my desk disappeared. That means it's time for the open letter. Hey there, Chewbacca. An open letter to the tragic hero, a type of character, of course, exemplified by Chewbacca. He was a wookie. He was strong. He was loyal. He was a great man, or at least, a great wookie. But it was his loyalty, a desirable trait, that also, ultimately, made him kind of a complicated hero. I mean, Chewbacca made a blood oath to Han Solo, so if you mess with Han Solo, Chewbacca's gonna rip your arms off. And for those of you who know the Star Wars universe outside the movies, you already know that eventually, that does prove tragic. Chewbacca, you're a hero, but it's your heroism that also was ultimately your undoing. Best wishes, John Green. So, is Oedipus a good character, and does he make a great mistake? Well, let's go to the Thought Bubble. So, at the beginning of the play, Oedipus definitely seems like an A++ king, I mean, the priest calls him "the first of men in all the chances of this life." When the priest comes to tell him about the suffering in the city, Oedipus says he knows about it already: "I have known the story before you told it." Oedipus is already worried about what's happening to his people -- in fact, he's dispatched his brother-in-law, Creon, to visit an oracle and find out the source of the pestilence. And let's not forget that Oedipus has already saved the city once by answering the riddle of the Sphinx; the Sphinx had the body of a woman, the wings of an eagle, and a really bad temper. She had the habit of killing everyone who answered her riddle incorrectly. So, I mean, you know, it takes a measure of courage to try to answer the riddle. He's a good guy; he's a great king, right? Meh. I mean, when Creon gives answers that Oedipus doesn't like, Oedipus accuses him of plotting against him. He also has some harsh words for the blind seer, Tiresias, when Tiresias correctly names Oedipus as the source of the contagion. When the shepherd is brought to Oedipus and resists revealing the truth of Oedipus' birth, because he knows it will upset the king, Oedipus threatens the man with torture. Then there's the ambiguity of missing the mark. I mean, what was Oedipus' error in this play? Was it killing Laius at the crossroads? I mean, that's maybe a little bit aggressive, but Sophocles makes it pretty clear that Laius had some chariot-era road rage, and Oedipus was acting in self-defense. Was it sleeping with Jocasta? Well, that's pretty icky, but again, not really a choice. She was presented to him along with the kingdom when he defeated the Sphinx, and as we've said, he treats other characters pretty shabbily, but those are small mistakes, rather than great ones. Maybe his mistake is believing he can outrun or escape his own fate, but if you were told you were gonna murder your father and marry your mother, wouldn't you try to escape it? Now, maybe you're thinking, "Well if I heard a prophecy that I was going to be a father-killer and a mother-- I would, you know, avoid fights with older men and sex with older women." And fair enough, but remember, Laius and Jocasta had attempted to kill Oedipus -- they received a prophecy about this, too, so Oedipus was brought up by the king and queen of Corinth, who he assumed were his parents. How is it a mistake to stay very far away from your parents and in the process, save the city of Thebes? And if you can't outrun your fate, how is your fate a result of your flaws? So the play depends a lot on ironies. The guy who seem the smartest is actually the most ignorant; the man who saved Thebes is actually the one destroying it; enlightenment leads to literal blindness... But that, combined with the aforementioned ambiguity, is a lot of what's made the play so enjoyable to so many generations of people. We, in the audience, are aware of all these ironies in a way that no one on stage is -- at least until the very end. Remember how Oedipus says, "I have known the story before you told it"? Well, just about everyone in the audience also knows the story before it's told. I mean, you probably knew the outlines of this story before you actually read the play, right? The gap between what we know in the audience and what the characters know on stage makes us uncomfortable and scared for them, and it ratchets up the tension. Oedipus is a detective story where it turns out, the detective is the murderer, and the detective doesn't know it, but the reader does, so with each new scene, with each new clue, the net draws more and more tightly around Oedipus. Every time a messenger comes with supposedly good news: "Hey, the King of Corinth is dead", "Hey, the King of Corinth wasn't your father", Oedipus is lead closer to the truth of his own guilt. And at several points, Jocasta tries to persuade Oedipus not to inquire further, but Oedipus can't help himself. He wants to know the whole story. For me, at least, that's what's admirable about him, and also what's pitiable. The play asks whether knowing is a good thing. I mean, Tiresias says: "Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that's wise." And Oedipus, at least, personally, probably would have been happier living in ignorance, although, then, the plague would have continued to devastate Thebes. So I think the play ultimately suggests that even though ignorance can be bliss, Oedipus' search for truth is right and just and brave and uncompromising, and that's what makes him great. It's also what ruins his life, as the critic E.R. Dodds says, "What causes his ruin is his strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes and his loyalty to the truth." And so, finally, thankfully, I do find myself disagreeing with Aristotle, because I don't think that Oedipus was a great man ruined by a great error. I think the story is more complicated than that. So, could Oedipus ever really have escaped his fate? Probably not, I mean, there are occasional examples in Greek myth of gods softening of fate or finding a loophole, but those are rare. So when you read Oedipus, you realize there are actually two stories: one is about what's already happened, and one is about what's happening now. It's the second one that interests Sophocles, like, killing the father and marrying the mother -- that stuff happens in the past, offstage. Sophocles concentrates on the choices that Oedipus freely makes to find the source of the plague, even when it means implicating himself to gouge out his eyes so that he won't have to look at his parents in the underworld. So Oedipus can't escape his fate, but he does have a measure of free will, he does make some choices. What's interesting to Sophocles isn't so much the fulfillment of the prophecy as HOW it is fulfilled, and how that affects the present. As the critic A.W. Gomme put it, "The gods know what the final score of the football game will be, but we still have to play it." Ultimately, the victory, Gomme says, "will depend on the skill, the determination, the fitness of the players, and a little on luck." Instead of using the play to stage some sort of fate versus free will debate, Sophocles is interested in asking questions of both fate AND free will. I mean, when we see Oedipus, we should ask ourselves, "How much control do we have over our lives? How much do we owe to genetics, to privilege, to upbringing, to accident, to the choices that we do or don't make?" And those are relevant questions today. Now, of course, not everyone thought that was the most interesting part of the play. Like, Sigmund Freud decided that the reason the play was so successful is because everyone suffers from a so-called "Oedipus Complex." Freud described this in the Interpretation of Dreams as "the fate to direct our first sexual impulse and our first hatred and our first murderous thought against our father." But, for the record, Oedipus does not have an Oedipus Complex. His tragedy is about a man who deliberately tried to avoid killing his father and impregnating his mother, not about a man who secretly wants to. But ultimately, what makes Oedipus such a great play is that it stands up to many readings, and can inform our lives in many ways. I mean, is he a great man? Does he make a great mistake? Does he suffer his fate because of personal flaws or because of the nature of the universe? Those are big, interesting questions, and it's nice to know that people have been asking them for millennia. Thanks for watching, I'll see you next week. Crash Course is made with the help of all of these nice people, and it exists thanks to the support of our subscribers over at Subbable. This particular episode of Crash Course was brought to you by co-sponsors Jim Origio and Matt Elie, so we want to thank them and all of our subscribers at Subbable. You can find great perks by clicking that link right there. There's also a link in the video info below. Thank you for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.

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 Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. Having been childless for some time, 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 son's 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 servant passed the baby on to a shepherd from Corinth, who then gave the child 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 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, Oedipus was told by a drunk that he was a "bastard", meaning at that time that he was not their biological son. Oedipus confronted his parents (the king and queen of Corinth) with the news, but they denied this. Oedipus went to the same oracle in Delphi that his birth parents had consulted. The oracle informed him that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to avoid such a fate, he decided not to return home to Corinth, but to travel to Thebes, which was closer to Delphi.

On the way, Oedipus came to Davlia, where three roads crossed. 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 when the charioteer tried to run him over. 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 the Sphinx allowed him to continue on.

Queen Jocasta's brother, Creon, had announced 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: sons Eteocles and Polynices (see Seven Against Thebes) and daughters Antigone and Ismene.

Many years later, a plague of infertility struck the city of Thebes, affecting crops, livestock, and the people. Oedipus asserted that he would end the pestilence. He sent his uncle, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi, seeking guidance. When Creon returned, Oedipus learned that the murderer of King Laius must be brought to justice, and Oedipus himself cursed the killer of his wife's late husband, saying that he would be exiled. Creon also suggested that they try to find the blind prophet, Tiresias, who was widely respected. Oedipus 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 argued. 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 for the prophecy 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 her motivation, thinking that she was ashamed of him because he might have been born of low birth. Jocasta in great distress 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 who was raised as the adopted son of Polybus and Merope, was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Thus, Oedipus finally realized that the man he had killed so many years before was his father and that he had married his mother.

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 blinded himself and was then exiled. His daughter Antigone acted as his guide as he wandered through the country, finally dying at Colonus where they had been welcomed by King Theseus of Athens. However, in Euripides' plays on the subject, Jocasta did not kill herself upon learning of Oedipus's 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.[1]

Oedipus's 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.

Ancient sources (5th century BC)

Oedipus Sphinx BM Vase E696.jpg
Oedipus slaying the sphinx
MaterialPottery, gold
Created420–400 BC
PlacePolis-tis-Chrysokhou, tomb, Cyprus
Present locationRoom 72, British Museum

Most, if not all, of our knowledge of Oedipus, comes from the 5th century BC. Though these stories principally deal with his downfall, various details still appear on how Oedipus rose to power.

King Laius of Thebes hears of a prophecy that his infant son will one day kill him.[2] He pierces Oedipus' feet and leaves him out to die, but a shepherd finds him and carries him away.[3] Years later, Oedipus, not knowing he was adopted, leaves home in fear of the same prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother.[4] Laius journeys out to seek a solution to the Sphinx's mysterious riddle.[5] As prophesied, Oedipus and Laius cross paths, but they do not recognize each other. A fight ensues, and Oedipus kills Laius and most of his guards.[6] Oedipus goes on to defeat the Sphinx by solving a riddle to become king.[7] He marries the widowed Queen Jocasta, unaware that she is his mother. A plague falls on the people of Thebes. Upon discovering the truth, Oedipus blinds himself, and Jocasta hangs herself.[8] After Oedipus is no longer king, Oedipus's brother-sons kill each other.

Some differences with older stories emerge. The curse of Oedipus' sons was elaborated on retroactively to include Oedipus and his father, Laius. Oedipus now steps down from the throne instead of dying in battle. Additionally, rather than his children being by a second wife, Oedipus's children are now by Jocasta (hence, they are his brothers as well).

Pindar's second Olympian Ode

In his second Olympian Ode, Pindar writes:[9]

Laius' tragic son, crossing his father's path, killed him and fulfilled the oracle spoken of old at Pytho. And sharp-eyed Erinys saw and slew his warlike children at each other's hands. Yet Thersandros survived fallen Polyneikes and won the honor in youthful contests and the brunt of war, a scion of aid to the house of Adrastos.

Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes trilogy (467 BC)

In 467 BC, the Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, most notably wrote a trilogy based on the myth of Oedipus, winning him the first prize at the City Dionysia. Of the plays, Laius was the first, Oedipus was second, and Seven Against Thebes was the third play and the only one to have survived.

In Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus's sons Eteocles and Polynices kill each other warring over the throne. Much like his Oresteia, the trilogy would have detailed the tribulations of a House over three successive generations. The satyr play that followed the trilogy was called The Sphinx.

Sophocles' Theban plays

The three surviving works of Sophocles' "Theban plays" consist of: Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. All three plays concern the fate of the City of Thebes, during and after the reign of King Oedipus,[10] and have often been published under a single cover.[11]

Originally, Sophocles had written the plays for three separate festival competitions, many years apart. Not only are the Theban plays not a true trilogy (three plays presented as a continuous narrative), they are not even an intentional series and contain some inconsistencies among them.[10]

Sophocles also wrote other plays focused on Thebes, most notably the Epigoni, of which only fragments have survived.[12]

Oedipus Rex

As Sophocles' Oedipus Rex begins, the people of Thebes are begging the king for help, begging him to discover the cause of the plague. Oedipus stands before them and swears to find the root of their suffering and to end it. Just then, Creon returns to Thebes from a visit to the oracle. Apollo has made it known that Thebes is harboring a terrible abomination and that the plague will only be lifted when the true murderer of old King Laius is discovered and punished for his crime. Oedipus swears to do this, not realizing that he is himself the culprit. The stark truth emerges slowly over the course of the play, as Oedipus clashes with the blind seer Tiresias, who senses the truth. Oedipus remains in strict denial, though, becoming convinced that Tiresias is somehow plotting with Creon to usurp the throne.

Realization begins to slowly dawn in Scene II of the play when Jocasta mentions out of hand that Laius was slain at a place where three roads meet. This stirs something in Oedipus's memory and he suddenly remembers the men he fought and killed one day long ago at a place where three roads met. He realizes, horrified, that he might be the man he's seeking. One household servant survived the attack and now lives out his old age in a frontier district of Thebes. Oedipus sends immediately for the man to either confirm or deny his guilt. At the very worst, though, he expects to find himself to be the unsuspecting murderer of a man unknown to him. The truth has not yet been made clear.

The moment of epiphany comes late in the play. At the beginning of Scene III, Oedipus is still waiting for the servant to be brought into the city, when a messenger arrives from Corinth to declare that King Polybus of Corinth is dead. Oedipus, when he hears this news, feels much relieved, because he believed that Polybus was the father whom the oracle had destined him to murder, and he momentarily believes himself to have escaped fate. He tells this all to the present company, including the messenger, but the messenger knows that it is not true. He is the man who found Oedipus as a baby in the pass of Cithaeron and gave him to King Polybus to raise. He reveals, furthermore that the servant who is being brought to the city as they speak is the very same man who took Oedipus up into the mountains as a baby. Jocasta realizes now all that has happened. She begs Oedipus not to pursue the matter further. He refuses, and she withdraws into the palace as the servant is arriving. The old man arrives, and it is clear at once that he knows everything. At the behest of Oedipus, he tells it all.

Overwhelmed with the knowledge of all his crimes, Oedipus rushes into the palace where he finds his mother-wife, dead by her own hand. Ripping a brooch from her dress, Oedipus blinds himself with it. Bleeding from the eyes, he begs his uncle and brother-in-law Creon, who has just arrived on the scene, to exile him forever from Thebes. Creon agrees to this request. Oedipus begs to hold his two daughters Antigone and Ismene with his hands one more time to have their eyes full of tears and Creon out of pity sends the girls in to see Oedipus one more time.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus at Colonus

In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus becomes a wanderer, pursued by Creon and his men. He finally finds refuge in the holy wilderness right outside Athens, where it is said that Theseus took care of Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone. Creon eventually catches up to Oedipus. He asks Oedipus to come back from Colonus to bless his son, Eteocles. Angry that his son did not love him enough to take care of him, he curses both Eteocles and his brother, condemning them both to kill each other in battle. Oedipus dies a peaceful death; his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.


The blind Oedipus led by his daughter Antigone
The blind Oedipus led by his daughter Antigone

In Sophocles' Antigone, when Oedipus stepped down as king of Thebes, he gave the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, both of whom agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, they showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters (as portrayed in the Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus and the Phoenician Women by Euripides). The two brothers killed each other in battle. King Creon, who ascended to the throne of Thebes, decreed that Polynices was not to be buried. Antigone, Polynices' sister, defied the order but was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be put into a stone box in the ground, this in spite of her betrothal to his son Haemon. Antigone's sister, Ismene, then declared she had aided Antigone and wanted the same fate, but Creon eventually declined to execute her. The gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, expressed their disapproval of Creon's decision, which convinced him to rescind his order, and he went to bury Polynices himself. However, Antigone had already hanged herself in her tomb, rather than suffering the slow death of being buried alive. When Creon arrived at the tomb where she had been interred, his son Haemon attacked him upon seeing the body of his deceased fiancée but failing to kill Creon he killed himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, was informed of the death of Haemon, she too took her own life.

Euripides' Phoenissae, Chrysippus, and Oedipus

At the beginning of Euripides' Phoenissae, Jocasta recalls the story of Oedipus. Generally, the play weaves together the plots of the Seven Against Thebes and Antigone. The play differs from the other tales in two major respects. First, it describes in detail why Laius and Oedipus had a feud: Laius ordered Oedipus out of the road so his chariot could pass, but proud Oedipus refused to move. Second, in the play Jocasta has not killed herself at the discovery of her incest – otherwise, she could not play the prologue, for fathomable reasons – nor has Oedipus fled into exile, but they have stayed in Thebes only to delay their doom until the fatal duel of their sons/brothers/nephews Eteocles and Polynices: Jocasta commits suicide over the two men's dead bodies, and Antigone follows Oedipus into exile.

In Chrysippus, Euripides develops backstory on the curse: Laius' sin was to have kidnapped Chrysippus, Pelops' son, in order to violate him, and this caused the gods' revenge on all his family. Laius was the tutor of Chrysippus, and raping his student was a severe violation of his position as both guest and tutor in the house of the royal family hosting him at the time. Extant vases show a fury hovering over the lecherous Laius as he abducts the rape victim.[13] Furies avenged violations of good order in households, as can be seen most clearly in such texts as The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus.

Euripides wrote also an Oedipus, of which only a few fragments survive.[14] The first line of the prologue recalled Laius' hubristic action of conceiving a son against Apollo's command. At some point in the action of the play, a character engaged in a lengthy and detailed description of the Sphinx and her riddle – preserved in five fragments from Oxyrhynchus, P.Oxy. 2459 (published by Eric Gardner Turner in 1962).[15] The tragedy featured also many moral maxims on the theme of marriage, preserved in the Anthologion of Stobaeus. The most striking lines, however, state that in this play Oedipus was blinded by Laius' attendants and that this happened before his identity as Laius' son had been discovered, therefore marking important differences with the Sophoclean treatment of the myth, which is now regarded as the 'standard' version. Many attempts have been made to reconstruct the plot of the play, but none of them is more than hypothetical, because of the scanty remains that survive from its text and of the total absence of ancient descriptions or résumés – though it has been suggested that a part of Hyginus' narration of the Oedipus myth might in fact derive from Euripides' play. Some echoes of the Euripidean Oedipus have been traced also in a scene of Seneca's Oedipus (see below), in which Oedipus himself describes to Jocasta his adventure with the Sphinx.[16]

Other playwrights

At least three other 5th-century BC authors who were younger than Sophocles wrote plays about Oedipus. These include Achaeus of Eretria, Nichomachus and the elder Xenocles.[17]

Later additions

The Bibliotheca, a Roman-era mythological handbook, includes a riddle for the Sphinx, borrowing the poetry of Hesiod:

What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?[18]

Later addition to Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes

Due to the popularity of Sophocles's Antigone (c. 442 BC), the ending (lines 1005–78) of Seven against Thebes was added some fifty years after Aeschylus' death.[19] Whereas the play (and the trilogy of which it is the last play) was meant to end with somber mourning for the dead brothers, the spurious ending features a herald announcing the prohibition against burying Polynices, and Antigone's declaration that she will defy that edict.

Post-Classical literature

Oedipus was a figure who was also used in the Latin literature of ancient Rome. Julius Caesar wrote a play on Oedipus, but it has not survived into modern times.[20] Ovid included Oedipus in Metamorphoses, but only as the person who defeated the Sphinx. He makes no mention of Oedipus's troubled experiences with his father and mother. Seneca the Younger wrote his own play on the story of Oedipus in the first century AD. It differs in significant ways from the work of Sophocles.

Some scholars have argued that Seneca's play on the myth was intended to be recited at private gatherings and not actually performed. It has however been successfully staged since the Renaissance. It was adapted by John Dryden in his very successful heroic drama Oedipus, licensed in 1678. The 1718 Oedipus was also the first play written by Voltaire. A version of Oedipus by Frank McGuinness was performed at the National Theatre in late 2008, starring Ralph Fiennes and Claire Higgins.

In the late 1960s Ola Rotimi published a novel and play, The Gods Are Not To Blame, which retell the Oedipus myth happening in the Yoruba kingdom.[21]

In 2011, U.S. writer David Guterson published his Oedipus-inspired novel "Ed King".[citation needed]

In folkloristics, the myth of Oedipus is classified in the international Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index as tale type ATU 931, "Oedipus".[22][23][24]

Family tree

Royal house of Thebes family tree
  • Solid lines indicate descendants.
  • Dashed lines indicate marriages.
  • Dotted lines indicate extra-marital relationships or adoptions.
  • Kings of Thebes are numbered with bold names and a light purple background.
    • Joint rules are indicated by a number and lowercase letter, for example, 5a. Amphion shared the throne with 5b. Zethus.
  • Regents of Thebes are alphanumbered (format AN) with bold names and a light red background.
    • The number N refers to the regency preceding the reign of the Nth king. Generally this means the regent served the Nth king but not always, as Creon (A9) was serving as regent to Laodamas (the 10th King) when he was slain by Lycus II (the usurping 9th king).
    • The letter A refers to the regency sequence. "A" is the first regent, "B" is the second, etc.
  • Deities have a yellow background color and italic names.

Nycteus (Regent)
DirceB4 & A6.
Lycus (Regent)
EurydiceA7, A8 & A9.
Creon (Regent)
Lycus II
Peneleos (Regent)

Oedipus complex

Sigmund Freud used the name "the Oedipus complex" to explain the origin of certain neuroses in childhood. It is defined as a male child's unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother. This desire includes jealousy towards the father and the unconscious wish for that parent's death, as well as the unconscious desire for sexual intercourse with the mother. Oedipus himself, as portrayed in the myth, did not have this neurosis – at least, not towards Jocasta, whom he only met as an adult (if anything, such feelings would have been directed at Merope – but there is no hint of that). Freud reasoned that the ancient Greek audience, which heard the story told or saw the plays based on it, did know that Oedipus was actually killing his father and marrying his mother; the story being continually told and played therefore reflected a preoccupation with the theme.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Wilson, Christopher. "Oedipus: The message in the myth", The Open University
  2. ^ Euripides, Phoenissae
  3. ^ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 1220–1226; Euripides, Phoenissae
  4. ^ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 1026–1030; Euripides, Phoenissae
  5. ^ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 132–137
  6. ^ Pindar, Second Olympian Ode; Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 473–488; Euripides, Phoenissae
  7. ^ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 136, 1578; Euripides, Phoenissae
  8. ^ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 1316
  9. ^ Pindar, Second Olympian Ode
  10. ^ a b Sophocles. Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. 2nd ed. Grene, David and Lattimore, Richard, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. pp. 1–2.
  11. ^ see: "Sophocles: The Theban Plays", Penguin Books, 1947; Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, University of Chicago, 1991; Sophocles: The Theban Plays: Antigone/King Oidipous/Oidipous at Colonus, Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2002; Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Harvest Books, 2002; Sophocles, Works, Loeb Classical Library, Vol I. London, W. Heinemann; New York, Macmillan, 1912 (often reprinted) – the 1994 Loeb, however, prints Sophocles in chronological order.
  12. ^ Murray, Matthew, "Newly Readable Oxyrhynchus Papyri Reveal Works by Sophocles, Lucian, and Others Archived 11 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine", Theatermania, 18 April 2005. Retrieved 9 July 2007.
  13. ^ The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athenas by Eva Keuls (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993) p. 292.
  14. ^ R. Kannicht, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (TrGF) vol. 5.1, Göttingen 2004; see also F. Jouan – H. Van Looy, "Euripide. tome 8.2 – Fragments", Paris 2000
  15. ^ Reviewed by Hugh Lloyd-Jones in "Gnomon" 35 (1963), pp. 446–447
  16. ^ Joachim Dingel, in "Museum Helveticum" 27 (1970), 90–96
  17. ^ Burian, P. (2009). "Inconclusive Conclusion: the Ending(s) of Oedipus Tyrannus". In Goldhill, S.; Hall, E. (eds.). Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-521-88785-4.
  18. ^ Bibliotheca III.5.7
  19. ^ See (e.g.) Brown 1976, 206–19.
  20. ^ E.F. Watling's Introduction to Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia
  21. ^ Rotimi O., The Gods are Not to Blame, Three Crown Books, Nigeria 1974
  22. ^ Aarne, Antti; Thompson, Stith (1961). The types of the folktale: a classification and bibliography. Folklore Fellows Communications FFC. Vol. 184. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. p. 328.
  23. ^ Racėnaitė, Radvilė (2005). "Novelinė pasaka "Edipas" (AT 931) : individualaus atlikimo atspindžiai užrašytame pasakos tekste" [Novel tale Oedipus (AT 931): reflections of individual performance in the written text of the tale]. Tautosakos darbai [Folklore Studies] (in Lithuanian). 29: 100–110. ISSN 1392-2831.
  24. ^ Puchner, Walter [de]. "Ödipus (AaTh 931)". In: Enzyklopädie des Märchens. Edited by Rolf Wilhelm Brednich, Heidrun Alzheimer, Hermann Bausinger, Wolfgang Brückner, Daniel Drascek, Helge Gerndt, Ines Köhler-Zülch, Klaus Roth and Hans-Jörg Uther. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2016 [2002]. pp. 209-219. ISBN 978-3-11-016841-9. Accessed 2023-01-03.
  25. ^ Bruno Bettelheim (1983). Freud and Man's Soul. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-52481-0.


External links

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