De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 3)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part three of a three-part series on Oedipus. This continues from where part two left off. If you haven’t read the previous parts, do go and read Part one and Part two before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

Oedipus Rex has all the elements of a pretty classic Greek tragedy and is considered by many if not the greatest, one of the greatest Greek dramas ever written. The first in Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, I’m sure you’ll not argue with me when I say that the tale itself is pretty macabre. It has quite a few deaths; out of which two are suicides(Jocasta and the Sphinx), two are natural deaths(Polybus and of course, Oedipus himself) and god knows how many are murders(Laius, his charioteer, other people travelling with Laius, all of the Sphinx’s victims, the list goes on.) There is also a healthy dose of incest, patricide, possible intent to harm an infant, possible indirect infanticide, self-harm and what I’m positive is some sort of sadism(Or whatever you’d choose to call what the shepherd who dropped baby Oedipus off at Corinth, who knew everything did, by choosing to say nothing while Oedipus went off killing his dad and marrying his mom and then turning up at the very last minute to drop his dramatic reveal)

(Some of)The deaths in Oedipus Rex

This entire story banks on one of the most popular tropes of classic Greek dramas; the self-fulfilling nature of prophecies, seemingly triggered by its knowledge. Basically, the fact that the whole mess can almost always be traced to just one integral prophecy. If you’ll notice, whenever one of the characters finds out about the prophecy, they end up taking a drastic step which in their mind is preventing the prophecy but ends up ensuring that it comes to be. (Be it Laius trying to indirectly kill his child and ensuring his child wouldn’t recognise him in the future or Oedipus trying to go away from who he thought were his parents but actually ending up going towards his real parents and the many more times that it happens throughout the story, go on, read it again if you’d like. )

And before you fight me and say that the prophecy probably still would have happened, no matter what, I’ll have to tell you that I know that but still hear me out. What if Laius never knew about the prophecy and chose to raise his son himself and with love and then Oedipus would have at least certainly known who his parents were and would at least definitely not have married his mom even if the first half could not be averted. In my opinion, even the first half wouldn’t have happened simply if the characters did not know about the prophecy. Ah well, we can never know for sure, it is all speculation and it wouldn’t make for a good story, would it?

There is also the fact that if you look at every character, they are all victims of their fates, tied to their destiny. First, there’s Laius, cursed to fear his own child and live with the knowledge that his own child would be the cause of his death. Then there’s Jocasta, cursed to be widowed and to eventually marry her own son and beget his children. Then come, the King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, Oedipus’ adopted parents cursed to have no biological children and then to be denied time with their adopted child because of his fears due to a prophecy that never referred to them. There are so many more characters to go into but the bottom line is the same: everyone is a slave to their fate. I mean, the apparent hero of our tale, Oedipus has it the worst of all, cursed to perform incest and patricide, cursed because of performing them. Can he even be considered a hero then at all?

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The man of the hour himself: Sophocles

This is something that Sophocles did happen to acknowledge in his play and is considered one of the central themes of his story. I’d like to conclude our sojourn with this myth with the closing line of the play, a common Greek maxim, “No man should be considered fortunate until he is dead.”

Until our next Greek adventure! (Or wherever we choose to go)

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What were your thoughts on this series on Oedipus?Which myth should I do next? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 2)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part two of a three-part series on Oedipus. This continues from where part one left off. If you haven’t read it, do go and read Part one before you continue here.

The Sphinx would ask every person who encountered it the same riddle and upon getting the wrong answer would murder and devour them.(A bit of an overreaction, if you ask me) So, she asked Oedipus the riddle that many unfortunate souls before him had lost their lives to, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” Oedipus was a clever man, he thought carefully and did what no one else before him had done; he solved the riddle. I’ll let you take a second to think about it, try to see if your smarts measure up to Oedipus’. If you already know, shush, don’t spoil it for anyone else.

The Sphinx

Here is Oedipus’ answer: “Man-he crawls on all fours as a child, walks on two feet as an adult and uses a walking stick as an old man.” The Sphinx, in a very un-ladylike manner, was unable to handle her ego after her defeat and jumped off the rock it was sitting on and fell to its death. Hurray! The Sphinx was vanquished. Now Oedipus gets his prize! (Yikes.) The throne of his father(who, I have to remind you he killed) and his mother as his wife. Talk about tough luck.

And thus, Oedipus was crowned king and married Jocasta, both unaware of their true relationship and had four children: Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. He ruled well for many years, with his mom-wife by his side. Then one day, a terrible plague struck Thebes. Determined to cure his city, he sends his brother-in-law/uncle Creon to the Oracle at Delphi to find out the cause for it. Creon comes back to report that is the gods’ punishment for the killer of Laius was never brought to justice. (Just by the way, Oedipus is Laius’ killer. And he doesn’t know that.)

Oedipus then swears to find and punish the man responsible. He summons the blind prophet Tiresias to seek answers. At first, Tiresias refuses to answer but when forced, he points an accusing finger at Oedipus himself. (Damn, that’s a power move right there.) Unable to fathom how he could be Laius’ murderer he decides that Tiresias had been paid by Creon to blame Oedipus and steal his throne. This is where shit, finally, totally hits the fan.

 

 

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Tiresias, the blind prophet.

 

 

Jocasta in an attempt to comfort her husband-son, tells Oedipus that Laius was killed by bandits on the road and narrates the circumstances of her husband’s(her actual husband) death. Oedipus is extremely unnerved by the similarity between one of the encounters he had on the road and his mom-wife’s narration. He is understandably, shaken up and sends for that one servant of Lauis’ who survived that encounter.

Before the servant, however, a messenger from Corinth arrives informing him of Polybus’ death (From natural causes). Oedipus is visibly relieved to hear this as that meant he had evaded the first half of the prophecy(You wish Oedipus, you wish.) but fearing that the second half might still come to be, declines to attend the funeral. The messenger, however, tells him to not worry about that as Merope and Polybus were never his real parents. How does this messenger know that? Get ready for the most telenovela and soap opera-esque twist. This messenger is none other than the shepherd who dropped him off at Corinth as a baby all those years ago. (Mic drop.)

 

 

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta by Alexandre Cabanel

 

 

Hearing this and realising that the prophecy had, in fact, had its way, Jocasta flees to her chamber and hangs herself in despair. Oedipus however, still needs more proof and it walks right in as the servant who he summoned comes and verifies the horrifying truth: Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. When Oedipus realises what he has done, he tried to find Jocasta and finds her lifeless body. At this point, he takes two golden pins from her dress and blinds himself in his fury. He banishes himself from Thebes, as he had promised to do to the killer of Laius and lives a long, miserable, guilt-ridden life, to eventually die, as all mortals do. And with that, we come to the disturbing end of Oedipus’s story. ( For real though, thank all the greek gods we’re finally here. The man has been through enough.)

To be continued.

THIS POST’ QUESTION: This is the story of characters with terrible luck.Who do you think has it worst of them all and why? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 1)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part one of a three-part series on Oedipus.

Oedipus’ story begins in typical Greek fashion, with a prophecy. When Laius, the king of Thebes decided to consult the Oracle at Delphi(It was believed that Apollo, the god of prophecy spoke through the Oracle who sat in the ancient sanctuary in Delphi) on whether he and his wife would ever have a son. What he learned, however, was that any son they have is destined to kill Laius and marry Jocasta, Laius’ wife.

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The Oracle at Delphi. (I found this image at ancient-origins.net )

Then, Laius reacted in a way that would be expected of him, he avoided his wife’s bed and decided to do away with any and all hopes for children. However, in what is truly the ultimate millennial move all the way back in ancient Greece, alcohol got the best of him. Jocasta got pregnant and in 9 months, the drunken mistake(read: the baby) was here.

Some believe that Laius pierced the baby’s ankles so that it wouldn’t even be able to crawl, let alone hurt him. (Oedipus means swollen foot in ancient Greek) This is, however, a pretty disputed fact among researchers. This is also where I remind you that killing family was one of the biggest sins in ancient Greece and you would certainly end up cursed and facing the wrath of the gods. This is why Laius, that little sneak, found a loophole in this whole shebang and instead asked some shepherd to drop his baby off at the mountains to die.

The shepherd, just a regular dude was obviously not quite that cold-hearted and handed the baby to a second shepherd passing his infanticidal duties on to on him. This shepherd, also not an infanticidal maniac and a Corinthian, could not bring himself to leave him to die. Instead, he took him to the childless King and Queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope, who took the baby in and raised him as their own.

The Finding of Oedipus
The Finding Of Oedipus, a 17th/18th-century painting depicting the adoption of baby Oedipus by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth

So, Oedipus grew up, believing himself to be the prince of Corinth, that Polybus and Merope were his parents and blissfully unaware of the extraordinary circumstances that brought him to Corinth. One day, a drunkard told Oedipus that his parents were not his birth parents and you know, basically his whole life was a lie and all that and Oedipus obviously chose to give a drunk man’s word merit and investigate this little rumour. He ended up at Delphi, much like his father before him(you know Laius, his actual dad) seeking answers. This is where he heard the prophecy that had defined his life from even before he existed: he would kill his father and marry his mother. This is also where the intermission would come if this was a movie.

Then, Oedipus reacted in a way that would be expected of him, he decided to head far far away from Corinth and head north towards, you guessed it, Thebes. Along the way, at one point, his charioteer and another charioteer coming from the opposite direction got into a fight over who had the right to pass first. This little squabble ended with Oedipus killing the other charioteer and person he was carrying, who, surprise surprise, was none other than his actual daddy, the genius King of Thebes, Laius and just like that half the prophecy was fulfilled. Oh and also, a servant of Laius’ was the only survivor of Oedipus’ wrath. Keep that in mind. Moving on.

The Murder of Laius by Oedipus, by Joseph Blanc.

Oedipus was finally almost at his birthplace, Thebes. It was here that he encountered the legendary Sphinx with its head of a human, body of a lion and the wings of an eagle, an encounter that is part of popular lore and is pretty well known. The lesser-known fact of that story is that the Sphinx had been plaguing Thebes for a long time and it had been decreed that the one who managed to relieve Thebes of this terror would be crowned the king and get the widowed queen’s hand in marriage. I’m sure you can guess what happened next but I still have a story to tell and hence comes part two of this story.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What do you think of Laius’ reaction to finding out about the prophecy ? Do you think it is cold or do you think it is justified,given the circumstances? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!