The Theban story and its interpretation

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Oedipus the King by Sophocles

There once lived a man called Oedipus Rex.
You must have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud's index
Because he loved his mother ...

Tom Lehrer

There are a number a versions of the myth, which differ in important details - but the starting point must be the story as told by SOPHOCLES in Oedipus Tyrannus (King Oedipus) performed in Athens for the first time in about 425 BC.

The First Oracle

Laius, ruler of Thebes is told in an oracle that his son will kill him. With agreement of his wife, Jocasta, the baby's feet are pinioned and it's given to a slave to be "exposed" on nearby Mt Cithaeron, haunt of wolves and other wild beasts. The slave, a shepherd of Laius' flocks, takes pity on the baby, and instead of leaving it to die, gives the boy to a fellow-shepherd from Corinth, the other side of the mountain. The Corinthian shepherd presents the baby to the childless King of Corinth, Polybus, who brings him up as his own, presumably giving him the name "Oedipus" (Swollen Foot) because of his deformity.

The Second Oracle

[A Map to show the location] Eighteen years (or so) later, someone at a party calls the young Oedipus a bastard - and the insult rankles. He leaves Corinth for Delphi, to confirm his parentage at the oracle of Apollo. The oracle, however, gives him instead a horrific prediction : he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. In case the oracle could conceivably come true accidentally, he sets off in the opposite direction to Corinth, and heads towards Thebes. As he descends from Parnassus towards the foothills, he meets an old man driving a waggon with a retinue of slaves at a place where three roads meet. The man is rude and aggressive, and orders him off the road. Oedipus refuses to budge and the man lashes out with his goad. Oedipus (an early instance of "road rage"?) sees red, and kills the man and - as he thinks - all the guards. He continues to Thebes.

[Thumbnail view of Oedipus Crossroads]Click for full picture and discussion of the Oedipus Crossroads location.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

[A picture of Oedipus and the Sphinx]

Thebes is terrorised by a monster - the Sphinx (a hybrid creature, with the body of a lioness. the head of a woman, and wings), who destroys all who cannot solve her riddle. Sophocles doesn't go into any detail about this riddle - other writers tell us it was: "Which animal has one voice, but two, three or four feet being slowest on three?" Perhaps Oedipus, as a man with three feet thanks to his disability was uniquely well placed to answer it : "Man". Oedipus' staff will be crutch, murder weapon and blind man's stick before the play is over. Thebes welcomes her saviour and offers him the vacant job of ruler, and the hand of Laius' widow, Jocasta, as an extra reward.

Click here or on the picture for a very full discussion of the Sphinx.

The Third Oracle

More years pass, during which Oedipus fathers four children by Jocasta. Gradually Thebes succumbs to a vile plague, which kills animals, children and crops alike. Oedipus, the king, promises to save his city. Plagues are caused by pollution which is caused by sin - and only the god can reveal its cause. Thus Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to consult the oracle at Delphi once more: the god's answer is that the plague is caused by an unpunished murder - that of the former ruler, Laius. Oedipus places a terrible curse on the killer - whoever he may be, and turns for help to Teiresias, the respected prophet. Teiresias tells Oedipus that he is the killer, and hints at even worse crimes. Oedipus is enraged, believing that Teiresias and Creon have concocted this story to dethrone him and seize power for themselves. Teiresias departs with dire threats, while Creon tries to argue his innocence. Oedipus rejects his pleading, and would have had him executed but for the intervention of Jocasta - who has close ties to them both.

The Place where Three Roads Meet

Hearing that their quarrel was about an oracle, Jocasta reassures her husband by saying that oracles are nonsense - she and her Laius were given one telling them that their son would kill its father. The father was killed, by robbers at a place where three roads meet, and the son died an innocent baby. But Oedipus remembers killing a man at such a place - what if he was Laius? He himself would be the cursed polluter of Thebes. No, says Jocasta, the witness - the man who escaped - said it was robbers. One man cannot equal many. Oedipus fears will only be laid to rest if the witness can be found. He's sent for.

The Corinthian Messenger

But the new arrival isn't the witness - it's a messenger from Corinth, to tell Oedipus that Polybus, his father is dead - he will now be King of Corinth too. Oedipus says he can never go back to Corinth while his mother is alive. "But there's nothing to fear,"says the messenger, hoping to ingratiate himself with his new king, "She wasn't your mother, nor was Polybus your father." He explains how the baby was given to him by a shepherd from Thebes. Jocasta now knows the truth - that Oedipus is her son - and rushes out. Oedipus thinks she's embarrassed because her husband might have been an unwanted child, perhaps a slave's.

The Old Shepherd - the Truth at last.

At last the Theban shepherd arrives. This turns out to be the same man who had been sent for as the witness to the murder of Laius. He is very reluctant to say anything to Oedipus. Under threat of torture, he reveals that the baby was given to him by Jocasta to be killed - and that he'd passed it on to the Corinthian out of pity. Oedipus now knows the whole truth and rushes off to find Jocasta - but she 's already hanged herself. He takes the shoulder-pins from her dress and blinds himself. And so Creon does become ruler, and after allowing the blinded Oedipus to say goodbye to his daughters, orders him into the house, to await disposal at the god's pleasure. Oedipus goes in, continuing to insist he should be left to die on Cithaeron as the gods originally intended.

Possible interpretations

Ancient background

Apart from the obviously significant religious message that "you can't escape your fate" it's important to realise :

Modern links

Oedipus is thus the patron saint of philosophers, scientists, poets and artists - of all truth-seekers. Like Mulder and Scully in the X Files, Oedipus knows "the truth is out there", but unlike them, he doesn't expect to have his eyesight restored for next week's episode!


Oedipus Sheepibus

Jocasta's remarks about mother-love ("every man has dreamed of it" ie sleeping with mother), built by Freud into a whole psychological system, have now been confirmed by strong biological evidence. Experiments at Cambridge University on sheep and goats have shown that male sheep, when brought up by nanny-goats, have a distinct sexual preference for nanny-goats when they grow up. In other words, they want to marry a girl just like mum. According to the report, published in Nature, the goat-reared rams "strongly preferred to socialise with females of their maternal species" - even though the rest of their behaviour was appropriately sheep-like. Interestingly, fostered female sheep showed no such inclination to bond with their mothers. (Guardian 17 September 1998)

Oedipus for the blind

"Oedipus could be naked, transsexual, Polynesian, older than his mother, riding a unicycle picking his nose and it would not matter." Why not? Tom Morris' new production of Oedipus Tyrannus at the Battersea Arts Centre, London will take place in pitch darkness. Apart from saving on costumes, makeup and electricity, Morris wants to force audiences (audience derived from audio, I hear), jaded with hi-tech productions, to get back to using their imagination. Personally, I'd find it very distracting to imagine that Jocasta might be a stark naked Fijian doing the Times crossword while massaging low fat margarine into her buttocks. Anyway, hasn't this guy heard of radio? (Report in the Guardian, May 12th, 1998)