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Oedipus and the Sphinx Essay

“Know Thyself” is sage advice. “All Things in Moderation” is also a wise saying. King Oedipus, subject of the most tragic story ever written, brought about his own downfall because of his excessive obsession to know himself. And, try as he might, the more he tried to escape his tragic Fate, the closer it got… Thus, some say that the moral of the story is, Even if you try to thwart your destiny, you won’t succeed. The concept of predestination plays a large role here. For example, if the gods know what will happen, and events are pre-ordained, how can people make free choices or have any semblance of free will? If the gods put challenges in our way that we fail to rise to, are we responsible for the consequences? Would knowing the future, as Oedipus does, cause us to act or behave any differently?

The ancient scribe Sophocles wrote “Oedipus the King” (between 441-427 B.C.E.) for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. These festivals were major civic occasions, with attendance expected of all noted writers. In his play Sophocles goes out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved ruler. It should be noted that Sophocles never suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny on himself by any “ungodly pride” (hubris) or “tragic flaw” (hamartia), common themes in Greek tragedies.

Sophocles also makes a special effort to explain that Oedipus killed King Laius in self-defense, and a major theme in the tragic play is whether one can believe in oracles and seers. The title of the play, from which is derived the story, is often given in its Latin translation (“Oedipus Rex”), rather than in its original Greek (“Oedipus Tyranneus”), since the Greek term for king is the English “tyrant”, which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people.

THE TRAGEDY BEGINS

Laius and his wife Jocasta (or Iocasta) were King and Queen of Thebes, a prosperous and famous city state in ancient Greece. King Laius, as many people did those days, consulted Apollo’s revered oracle of Delphi for advice and to find out what the future held for him. What the oracle announced shocked the royal couple — The Delphic oracle said that the King’s son would grow up and kill him! To make matters worse, it was prophesized that the son would marry his mother and produce offspring by her. King Laius and Queen Jocasta were understandably aghast! A short time later Queen Jocasta became pregnant and gave birth to a darling little baby boy. Remembering with fear the oracle of Delphi’s words, the royal couple of Thebes had the infant’s feet pierced and tied together — that’s the meaning of the name Oedipus, “swollen feet”. (Myth Man’s note: this mythical detail makes no sense. It must have been introduced to explain the hero’s name. (Hold everything, I stand corrected. Here is an informative note sent by reader Adam Johnston on July 1, 2011.) Hey there,

Just thought I’d let you know that the ‘pointless mythical detail’ about Oedipus’ feet being pierced and tied together actually has dual function. It was to ensure that the baby would not survive when exposed to the wilderness. But, more importantly, it is a detail that helps him decipher the answer to the sphinx’s riddle later in life. He is a crippled man who walks with a cane, and scholars see this as the assistance he needed to understand the part of the riddle regarding the 3 legs. Just thought you should know! ~Adam (Many thanks to Adam for taking time to bring this to my attention.) Laius and Jocasta knew that their baby son had to be destroyed, but they didn’t have the heart to do so themselves. They instructed their most trusted slave to expose the hapless baby on Mount Cithaeron, a wild and beast-filled place where the infant surely would perish. In those days, it was usual to leave an unwanted or defective baby in the wilderness.

However, the slave glanced down at the innocent child and took pity on it. Knowing that the royal couple of the nearby city state of Corinth was childless, and desperately desired a son, the slave left the crying infant, its feet still pierced and bound by a pin, in a place sure to be found. Sure enough, a kindly shepherd discovered the baby and brought the foundling for adoption to King Polibus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Oedipus was raised as a son by Polibus and Merope and grew to be a handsome, clever and brave young man, even though he walked with a slight limp from the wounds he suffered when his real parents pierced his feet. One day, while playing with his adolescent friends, he got into an argument with them. They insisted, as mean children sometimes do, that he was a fake son, and not the real child of Polibus and Merope. When Oedipus confronted his “parents” about this, they denied that he was adopted and swore that he was their legitimate child. They told Oedipus to forget what the mean kids had said, but now he was intrigued.

To discover the truth for himself, Oedipus journeyed to Delphi and asked of the oracle, “Who am I?” The oracle, cryptic as always, replied: “You are the man who will kill his father and breed children by his mother.” Confused and devastated, the young man started to head back home. Nearing the crossroad, Oedipus decided never to return to Corinth and go to Thebes instead. He dearly loved his parents and thought that by never returning home he would keep them safe and thus overcome his Fate according to Apollo’s oracle. As he was approaching the crossroad between Delphi, Thebes and Corinth, distraught and deep in thought, Oedipus came upon an old man in a chariot, escorted by a few attendants. It was a narrow passage between two rocks and hard to navigate safely.

The crabby old man in the chariot shouted: “Get lost! Go away! Get off this road!”, striking Oedipus with his long scepter. Adding further injury, the rude, regal old man ran over the young man’s sore foot with his chariot wheel. Oedipus angrily grabbed the staff from his tormentor’s hands and hit him on the head, killing the old man. The same fate befell the attendants, who tried to attack and arrest Oedipus – he valiantly fought and killed them too, save for one servant, who ran away in panic when the battle broke out. Hey, he just wanted to cross the narrow passage, that’s all! Besides, Oedipus was simply defending himself, and he got there first! Little did Oedipus suspect that the old man he had just slain was his own father, and that the first part of the oracle’s prophecy had come true…


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