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The Tragic Tale of Oedipus: An Exploration of Fate, Family, and Self-Discovery

François-Xavier Fabre - Oedipus and the Sphinx

The tale of Oedipus, a prominent figure in Greek mythology, is a story that has fascinated and puzzled scholars, playwrights, and readers for centuries. Originating from ancient Greece, it is a narrative that explores profound themes such as fate, free will, and the consequences of defying the natural order. This article delves into this tragic story, tracing its path from prophecy to fulfillment and from triumph to downfall.

The Prophesied Birth of Oedipus

The story of Oedipus begins even before his birth, shrouded by a prophecy that would define his life. King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, desperate for a child, sought the guidance of the Oracle of Delphi. But they were met with a chilling prophecy: their son would kill his father and marry his mother.

Frightened by this ominous prediction, they attempted to defy the will of the gods. When their son was born, they ordered a shepherd to abandon the infant on the desolate slopes of Mount Cithaeron, hoping to avert the prophecy. Little did they know that their actions would only serve to set the prophecy in motion, marking the beginning of a tragic tale that would echo through the ages.

The Unintended Fulfillment of the Prophecy

Far from perishing on the barren slopes of Mount Cithaeron as intended, the infant Oedipus was found by a shepherd from the neighboring kingdom of Corinth. The shepherd, moved by the infant’s plight, took him to the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope, who adopted him as their own. Oedipus was thus raised as a prince, oblivious to his true origins and the dark prophecy that loomed over his fate.

The Finding of Oedipus, artist unknown, c. 1600-1799, Bolton Library and Museum Services

As he grew into a young man, Oedipus was confronted by a drunkard who claimed he was not truly the son of Polybus and Merope. Troubled by this assertion, Oedipus sought the truth from the Oracle of Delphi, the same Oracle that had prophesied his fate at birth. Instead of answers about his parentage, Oedipus received a horrifying prophecy: he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother.

Horrified and determined to prevent this fate, Oedipus fled Corinth, believing Polybus and Merope to be the parents mentioned in the prophecy. In his desperation to escape his fate, Oedipus was in fact, rushing towards it, setting the stage for the tragic fulfillment of the prophecy.

The Unraveling of Destiny at the Crossroads

As Oedipus journeyed away from Corinth, he found himself at a fateful crossroads. Here, he was confronted by a chariot, inside of which was an older man of regal bearing. A heated dispute erupted, tempers flared, and in the ensuing chaos, Oedipus killed the older man. Unbeknownst to him, this man was King Laius of Thebes—his biological father. With this single act of violence, Oedipus set into motion the fulfillment of the first half of the oracle’s prophecy.

Oedipus pressed on, his journey eventually leading him to the beleaguered city of Thebes. The city was held captive by a fearsome Sphinx, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. The Sphinx posed a riddle to all who sought passage, promising to relinquish her grip on the city if anyone could solve it. Those who failed to provide the correct answer were mercilessly killed.

The Sphinx’s riddle was a test of wit and wisdom: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” With his keen intellect, Oedipus correctly surmised that the answer was a human, progressing from crawling as an infant to walking on two feet, to using a cane in old age.

His correct answer lifted the city’s torment, freeing Thebes from the monstrous Sphinx. In gratitude, the Thebans hailed Oedipus as their savior and made him their king, offering him the hand of the recently widowed Queen Jocasta—his biological mother. Swallowed by relief and joy at his perceived evasion of the prophecy, Oedipus remained ignorant of the horrifying truth of his actions and the profound implications they held.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau

The Plague and the Truth

Oedipus ruled Thebes with wisdom and justice, and for a time, the city flourished. However, this period of peace and prosperity was short-lived. A devastating plague descended upon Thebes, causing widespread death and suffering. The Oracle of Delphi revealed that the plague was a punishment from the gods, inflicted because the murderer of King Laius had not been brought to justice.

Oedipus, ever the dutiful ruler, pledged to discover and punish the murderer. He summoned the blind prophet Tiresias, renowned for his ability to communicate with the gods. Initially, Tiresias refused to reveal the identity of the murderer. When pressed, he reluctantly revealed a horrifying truth – the murderer of King Laius was none other than Oedipus himself.

The Downfall of Oedipus

Oedipus initially refused to believe Tiresias’s accusations, branding him a liar and a traitor. But as further evidence came to light, the horrific truth became impossible to deny. Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother.

Upon discovering the truth, Jocasta ended her life, unable to bear the weight of their shared sin. Oedipus, filled with despair and disgust, blinded himself, declaring that he would rather live in darkness than see the world that his actions had tainted.

Oedipus at Colonus: The Exile

Exiled from Thebes and accompanied only by his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus lived out the remainder of his tragic life as a blind beggar, an embodiment of the price of hubris and the inexorable power of fate.

Throughout his exile, Oedipus, guided by his faithful daughter Antigone, wandered the lands until they found themselves in the sacred city of Colonus, a suburb of Athens. The city was sacred to the Eumenides, also known as the Furies, the goddesses of retribution. After recognizing the location from a prophecy he had received years ago, Oedipus knew that this was where he was destined to die.

Oedipus At Colonus, Painted By Jean Antoine Théodore Giroust

In Colonus, rumors of the cursed king’s arrival piqued the interest of Theseus, the reigning king of Athens. Understanding the power his prophesied grave would hold, Oedipus promised Theseus that his final resting place would bestow protection upon Athens. In return, Theseus offered Oedipus refuge, assuring him he would not be forcibly returned to Thebes.

News of Oedipus’s potential power reached Thebes, igniting a struggle to control his grave. Creon, the current ruler of Thebes, tried to persuade or forcefully take Oedipus back to Thebes, hoping to secure the prophesied power for his city. However, the intervention of Theseus ensured that Oedipus was able to live out his remaining days in Colonus.

Amidst the power struggle, Oedipus was visited by his exiled son, Polynices. Seeking his father’s blessing in a war against his brother Eteocles for the throne of Thebes, Polynices was instead greeted with a curse. Bittering over his sons’ lack of support during his exile, Oedipus prophesied that Polynices and Eteocles would kill each other in the battle for Thebes.

As the end of his life approached, Oedipus bid an emotional farewell to his daughters and led Theseus to where he was to be buried. The exact location was kept a secret, known only to Theseus, to protect Athens from potential threats.

In the end, Oedipus, the blind beggar, became the protector of Athens. His life, marred by the weight of sin and the harshness of fate, ended in a sacred city, with his grave serving as a symbol of redemption and the relentless power of prophecy.

The Moral of the Story of Oedipus

The tale of Oedipus, rife with tragedy and irony, imparts profound moral lessons. It is a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of hubris—excessive pride or self-confidence. In his belief that he could outmaneuver the prophecy and alter his predestined fate, Oedipus embodies this hubris. His tragic downfall underscores the ancient Greeks’ belief in the inexorability of destiny and the dire consequences of attempting to defy the gods.

Moreover, the story emphasizes the importance of truth and self-knowledge. Despite the painful reality of his circumstances, Oedipus insists on uncovering the truth of his identity. Despite its devastating consequences, his pursuit of truth reflects the Greek maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Finally, the story of Oedipus is a potent exploration of justice and the consequences of one’s actions. Despite his ignorance of his real identity, Oedipus is not absolved of his sins. His punishment—self-inflicted blindness and exile—is a reflection of the Greek belief in retributive justice, where punishment is proportional to the crime.

Alternate Versions

While the narrative shared above is the most widely accepted version of the Oedipus myth, various interpretations and alternate versions exist, highlighting the fluid nature of oral traditions and mythology. Some of these variations include:

Variations in Birth and Upbringing

In some versions of the myth, Oedipus is not abandoned immediately after birth. Instead, Laius and Jocasta keep him until he is three years old. Only then do they send him away when signs of the prophecy begin to manifest.

Different Interpretations of the Sphinx’s Riddle

The riddle of the Sphinx is an integral part of the Oedipus story. However, the riddle varies across different versions, each providing a unique twist to Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx.

Some alternate versions propose different questions or solutions. One such version asks, “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other, who gives birth to the first. Who are they?” The answer to this riddle is day and night, which perpetually give birth to each other in the cycle of time.

Oedipus’s Self-Blinding

While Oedipus’s self-blinding is generally accepted, some versions suggest that it was instead a punishment inflicted by the gods. Others posit that Oedipus did not blind himself but was overwhelmed by the gods when he dared to solve the Sphinx’s riddle.

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