Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Oedipus the King

Some men were born to suffer. One such man was Oedipus. No matter how noble your heart, how skilled in war, how quick of wit or how reverent toward the skies, the gods cared nothing if you harboured pride within your soul. The gods were fickle. One moment you could be a broken pauper, another a great king, the most admired man in town, to an accursed blight on the land. This is the story of such a man.

Oedipus and the Sphinx
Painting by Fran├žois-Xavier Fabre
One day, the young prince Oedipus hears a drunk man at a banquet shout at him that he is not the true son of King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Angered by the man's ill words, Oedipus questions the King and Queen, who are enraged at the accusation and the foolish man who spread it. Though reassured by their words, the slander and rumours spread, and Oedipus decides to make sure, setting off  with a limp (caused by an injury to his feet he could not remember) on the road to Delphi - the centre of the world and home to Apollo's most holy Oracle. Asking the priestess of the sanctuary if the rumours are true, Oedipus was horrified by her response. "You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see - you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!" Revulsion and terror coursing through his frame, Oedipus fled the sanctuary, and so that the terrible prophecy may never come to pass, Oedipus resolves never to return to Corinth and the court of his mother and father. Taking to the road, running, burdened with shame, Oedipus comes to a crossroads, where a wagon approaches, within which several people ride. Ordering the saddened man to make way, one of the men moves to strike Oedipus with his sceptre. Angered by this insult, Oedipus lashes out and fells the man and his companions, all but for one who escapes. Following the road onward, just before reaching the city of Thebes, a strange sight greets the eyes of Oedipus - a creature with the haunches of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the face and chest of a woman. A Sphinx, one of the dread brood of Typhon and Echidna (for more on this, click here), guarding the road to Thebes. The Thebans had once heard an oracle that they would be freed of the Sphinx if they could answer her riddle, and so many had debated and attempted to answer. All attempts so far had failed, and the Sphinx had slain and devoured all those who had failed to answer her riddle. The Sphinx now fixed Oedipus with her murderous stare and posed the cryptic question:

                “ What speaks with one voice, walks with four feet in the morning,
                   Two at midday and three in the evening? ”
                                    - THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX                                                

Boldly confident and possessed of a sharp intellect, Oedipus replies:

                “ A man, for he is four footed as a baby when he crawls on all fours,
                  two footed as an adult and takes on a third limb as a walking stick in old age. ”
                                    - OEDIPUS SOLVES THE RIDDLE

Furious that her scheme was unveiled, the Sphinx hurls herself from her rock to her death. The Thebans rejoice, and hail Oedipus as their saviour, rewarding him with their throne and the hand of their Queen Jocasta, whose husband King Laius had recently been killed.

The Plague of Thebes
Painting by Charles Fran├žois Jalabert.
One day, many years later, plague once again strikes the city of Thebes. The people suffer and die. A priest ventures to the palace of Thebes, to the court of King Oedipus and Queen Jocasta, and their two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, and their two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Begging for Oedipus to save the Theban people once again, the priest see the concern in his King's eyes. Oedipus expresses sorrow for the lot of the people, and reveals he had already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi to determine how they are to be rid of this pestilence, and that even now he awaits his return. Just then, Creon returns, bearing grave news. Asking to go inside and discuss it privately, Oedipus joyfully rebukes him, telling him to reveal the god's words here, in front of the people and before him, for after all, it was he and he alone who saved the people from the Sphinx and he vows to do so again. Creon reveals that Apollo demands that the killer of King Laius, who was murdered shortly before Oedipus's arrival, be brought to justice. Vowing to bring divine wrath upon the culprit and cursing him for the plague he spreads, Oedipus enquires as to Laius' murder. "He went to consult an oracle, Apollo said, and he set out and never came home again", Creon tells him. Was there no one who saw this most heinous crime? asked King Oedipus. "No, they were all killed but one", came the reply, and word that the lone survivor had fled in terror, claiming they had been ambushed by robbers. Calling himself Apollo's champion, Oedipus declares that he will not stop in his pursuit of the truth.
Promising that if the culprit comes forward, he will face only exile, Oedipus sends for the blind prophet Tiresias, through whom the visions and knowledge of Apollo flow. Oedipus asks him what he knows of Laius' killer and the blind prophet trembles, begging the King to allow him to go. But quick-witted Oedipus bids him stay and tell all he knows. When the prophet stubbornly refuses to speak, Oedipus' temper begins to wear, shouting at Tiresias for allowing the city to fall to doom. Accusing Tiresias himself of slaying Laius, the prophet then cracks, and speaks in anger:

                              “ Is that so!
                                I charge you, then, to submit to that decree
                                You just laid down: from this day onward
                                Speak to no one, not these citizens, not myself.
                                You are the curse, the corruption of the land! ”
                                              - TIRESIAS NAMES OEDIPUS AS THE MURDERER

The Road to Delphi
Photograph by the author.
Furious at his unfounded charge, Oedipus sends the old prophet away, mocking his blindness. Tiresias turns to him, "I pity you, flinging at me the very insults each man here will fling at you so soon". Ridiculing Oedipus' accusation that he is plotting against the throne, the blind prophet tells the King not to forget his words, and departs. Still reeling with anger, and suspicious of all around him, Oedipus turns to greet his Queen, Jocasta, who enters. Asking her husband what is wrong, Oedipus tells her of Tiresias' words. Her face relaxing, Jocasta smiles and begs Oedipus be reassured. A long time ago, she tells him, an oracle came to Laius, declaring that "doom would strike him down at the hands of a son", but Laius was killed by robbers on his way to Delphi "at a place where three roads meet". Not only that, Laius ordered his infant son's feet bound, and the baby cast onto the mountainside, abandoned to die. "There you see? Apollo brought neither thing to pass", Jocasta assures Oedipus. But Oedipus's mind was racing, he had always limped from a forgotten injury, and "a place where three roads meet", that couldn't possibly be the crossroads where he had been assailed by that vile man could it? But the messengers had said Laius was set upon by robbers, not just one man. Quickly asking Jocasta if the man who escaped the murder still lives, she confirms that he does, though far away. Oedipus sends for the man with all haste. Everything depends on his confirmation that there was more than one robber, he thought. If he confirms his old story, his conscience can rest. But if he doesn't, the consequences could be terrible. The fate of Oedipus hung in the balance...
Oedipus the King, widely renowned and lauded as the greatest tragedy ever written, both by contemporaries and modern critics alike, is a masterpiece of theatre. Winning first prize in the theatrical festival in Athens when it was first staged in ancient times, it is the perfect study in tension, drama and suspense. The first act of a grand trilogy, the powerful story of the House of Oedipus is epic indeed. In future posts, we will continue with the saga, from Oedipus' frantic inevstigations to its bitter end. The Trilogy, known as The Three Theban Plays is easily available, at a good price, from Amazon. Read them. They're pretty good.

United Kingdom
The Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus):
The Three Theban Plays (Penguin Classics)
(A masterpiece. Accessible, readable, enjoyable)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A much later book of mythology, containing the backstory of Oedipus)

United States
The Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus):
The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus
(A masterpiece. Accessible, readable, enjoyable)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A much later book of mythology, containing the backstory of Oedipus)


  1. As a student of literature, I admire classic Greek tragedies. Loved your article.

    1. As a student of such things too, we are of united mind. Welcome! I am pleased you enjoyed it!

  2. Oedipus the King is very interesting. You know that there is such mental disorder exists with its name, Oedipus Complex.