Oedipus – The Story of the Tragic Greek Hero

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The story of King Oedipus of Thebes was an influential part of Greek mythology, which was widely covered by many famous poets and writers. It’s a story that highlights the inevitability of destiny and the devastation that occurs when you try to thwart your fate. Here’s a closer look.

Who Was Oedipus?

Oedipus was the son of King Laius of Thebes and Queen Jocasta. Before his conception, King Laius visited the oracle of Delphi to find out if he and his wife would ever have a son.

The prophecy, however, was not the expected; the oracle told him that if he ever had a son, the boy would be the one to kill him and would later marry Jocasta, his mother. Despite the efforts of King Laius to prevent impregnating his wife, he failed. Oedipus was born, and King Laius decided to get rid of him. 

His first act was to pierce the ankles of Oedipus to cripple him. That way, the boy could never walk, let alone harm him. After that, King Laius gave the boy to a shepherd to take him to the mountains and leave him to die. 

Oedipus and King Polybus

Oedipus
Oedipus consulting the Oracle at Delphi

The shepherd could not leave the child in that way, so he took Oedipus to the court of King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Oedipus would grow as a son of Polybus, who was childless, and would live his life with them.

When he had grown up, Oedipus heard that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents, and to find answers, he went to the Oracle at Delphi to discover his origin. The Oracle, however, did not answer his questions but told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In fear of killing Polybus, Oedipus left Corinth and never returned.

Oedipus and Laius

Oedipus and his biological father, Laius crossed paths one day, and unaware of who they were to the other, a fight began in which Oedipus killed Laius and all his companions but one. That way, Oedipus fulfilled the first part of the prophecy. The death of King Laius would send a plague to Thebes until his killer was made responsible. After that, Oedipus headed to Thebes, where he would find the sphinx, answer its riddle and become king.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus sphinx riddle
Greek sphinxes

The Sphinx was a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. In most myths, the sphinx was a creature who presented riddles to those who engaged with her, and those who failed to answer the riddle correctly suffered a terrible fate.

In the myths of Oedipus, the Sphinx had been terrorizing Thebes since the death of King Laius. The monster presented a riddle given by the muses to those who tried to pass and devoured those who failed to answer. 

Reportedly, the riddle was:

What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? 

Oedipus sphinx talking
Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx (c. 1805) – Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Source.

And upon facing the monster, Oedipus’ answer was man, who at the beginning life crawls on hands and feet, later stands on two legs, and then finally in old age uses a staff to help them walk. 

This was the correct answer. In despair, the sphinx killed herself, and Oedipus received the throne and the hand of Queen Jocasta for freeing the city of the sphinx.

King Oedipus’ Rule and Demise

Oedipus ruled Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, not knowing that they were related. He had fulfilled the prophecy of the oracle. Jocasta and Oedipus had four children: Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene.

However, the plague caused by Laius’ death was threatening the city, and Oedipus started looking for Laius’ killer. The closer he got to finding the responsible, the closer he got to his demise. He didn’t know that the man he had killed had been Laius.

Finally, a companion of Laius, who had survived the conflict, shared the story of what had happened. In some depictions, this character was also the shepherd who took Oedipus to King Polybus’ court.

When Oedipus and Jocasta learned the truth about their relationship, they were horrified, and she hanged herself. When Oedipus discovered that he had fulfilled the prophecy, he gouged his eyes, blinding himself, and banished himself from the city. 

Years after, Oedipus, tired, old and blind, arrived in Athens, where King Theseus warmly welcomed him, and there he lived the rest of his days until his death, accompanied by his sisters and daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

Oedipus’ Curse

When Oedipus was exiled, his sons did not oppose it; for this, Oedipus cursed them, saying that each would die at the hands of the other, fighting for the throne. Other sources say that his son Eteocles went looking for Oedipus’ help to claim the throne and that Oedipus cursed him and his brother to die in their fight to be king.

After Oedipus’ demise, he left Creon, his half-brother, as the regent ruling Thebes. The line of succession was not clear, and Polynices and Eteocles started quarreling about their claim to the throne. In the end, they decided to share it; each one of them would rule for some time and then leave the throne to the other. This arrangement did not last, because when the time came for Polynices to leave the throne for his brother, he refused. As Oedipus prophesied, the two brothers killed each other fighting for the throne.

Oedipus story importance

Oedipus in Art

Several Greek poets wrote about the myths of Oedipus and his sons. Sophocles wrote three plays about the story of Oedipus and Thebes: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Colonus, and Antigone. Aeschylus also wrote a trilogy about Oedipus and his sons, and so did Euripides with his Phoenician Women

There are several depictions of Oedipus in ancient Greek pottery and vase paintings. Even Julius Ceaser is known to have written a play about Oedipus, but the play hasn’t survived.

The myth of Oedipus transcended Greek mythology and became a common theme in plays, paintings, and music of the 18th and 19th centuries. Authors such as Voltaire and musicians such as Stravinsky wrote based on Oedipus’ myths. 

The Influence of Oedipus on Modern Culture

Oedipus appears as a cultural figure not only in Greece, but also in Albania, Cyprus, and Finland.

The Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term Oedipus complex to refer to the sexual love a son could feel towards his mother and the jealousy and hatred he would develop against his father. Although this was the term Freud chose, the actual myth does not fit into this description, since Oedipus’ actions were not emotionally driven. 

There have been several studies, comparisons, and contrasts about the different approaches of the writings of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. These studies have delved into notions such as the role of women, fatherhood, and fratricide, which are deeply related to the plot of Oedipus’ story.

Oedipus Facts

1- Who are Oedipus’ parents?

His parents are Laius and Jacosta.

2- Where did Oedipus live?

Oedipus lived in Thebes.

3- Did Oedipus have siblings?

Yes, Oedipus had four siblings – Antigone, Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles.

4- Did Oedipus have children?

His siblings were also his children, as they were the children of incest. His children were Antigone, Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles.

5- Who did Oedipus marry?

Oedipus married Jacosta, his mother.

6- What was the prophecy about Oedipus?

The Oracle at Delphi prophesied that the son of Laius and Jacosta would kill his father and marry his mother.

In Brief

The story of Oedipus has become one of the most famous myths of Ancient Greece and has widely spread beyond the frontiers of Greek mythology. The themes of his story have been taken into consideration for many artists and scientists, making Oedipus a remarkable character in history.