Sophocles' Oedipus

The Old Shepherd's story

"It all began when an oracle was given to Laius which said 'your son will kill you!'

Old Laius naturally didn't want this to happen, so to try and escape his fate he decided to leave nothing to chance. He wouldn't even have a son if he refused to sleep with his wife Jocasta - so she became strictly off limits. However, one night when he was drunk he forgot the oracle and indulged himself. His son was born, unfortunately for him, and unfortunately for me, because it fell to me to get rid of him.

There was pity in my soul and I so wanted to spare the young tyke. All I had to do was just leave him on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron. He'd die soon enough - the animals would see to that. But I coudn't do it. I gave him to an old acquaintance of mine, a Corinthian shepherd. I thought both the king and his son would be safe if a mountain lay between them.

Sheep on Mount Etna SicilyFrom then on I only heard rumours about the boy's welfare, but wasn't surprised when I heard that Oedipus, as he was now called, had been formally adopted by Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth.

I was mortally struck when I heard that the boy had been called a bastard, and set off to Delphi to learn the truth. I prayed he wouldn't. I only learned later that the oracle told Oedipus he would kill his father AND marry his mother. I knew things were coming to a climax.

My fear increased when I learned that king Laius wanted to go to Delphi. I was there when the son slew the father! Oh the sight! Oedipus fought like a lion, and slaughtered both the king and the royal guard: only I escaped. Alas - twice cursed to escape with my life.

From then on I knew the prophecy would come true; part of it was already fulfilled. Deep was my grief when I learned of Oedipus' victory over the Sphinx and elevation to his accursed birthright. Aye, but to marry his mother, and father children by her? The gods are too cruel. I knew his happiness couldn't last when I heard news of the plague. I knew the gods would have their vengeance!

I already knew the answer that Creon had been sent to Delphi to discover. Find the murderer of Laius? Hah! He was right there; had been on his father's throne for years. When Oedipus sent for Teiresias I knew the grisly truth would emerge. I felt so sorry for the boy, especially as went about accusing everyone else as he did.

It was when Jocasta told her tale of her own false prophecy (false as she supposed) and Laius' death at the place where three roads meet that Oedipus began to wonder and suspect, but never that he'd murdered his father and bedded his mother - only that he might have killed the king.

When he sent for me I knew it was all over. The secret I'd nursed for 35 years was about to be revealed to all. Oedipus had almost figured it out for himself with the arrival of my old friend the Corinthian shepherd, and his news that Polybus was dead - but also bearing the tidings that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents.

I did not want to tell Oedipus, but he forced me. I couldn't keep it inside any longer. The look on the lad's face when he realised the truth! Poor Jocasta could not bear to go on living. Oedipus' way of dealing with the knowledge was bloody but honorable. Blinding himself, rather that taking the coward's way out - suicide - took guts. He proved he was a real man, and I've never felt more proud of him than when he did that." by Toba Fayeye

This addition to the story is in Euripides' Phoenissae - Sophocles does not say why Laius and Jocasta had a child when Laius knew it was going to kill him.

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