Oedipus by Sophocles
Oedipus is a great Greek tragedy written by the inimitable playwright of his time, Sophocles, who lived in Greece in the fifth century BCE. Got to give it to Freud for spoiling the name and term once and for all when he coined “Odeipus Complex” in his book “Interpretation of Dreams”. In addition to already having suffered immensely, poor Oedipus gets to be remembered in even more ignominy. Freud’s term read by a casual or uninformed reader would probably make it sound like a scene out of a porn movie (or some relgious text where there is known incest). But the play is anything but. In fact, Oedipus would go to great lengths to stay away from any sin.
The story in short goes like this. Well, since most of you would know the crux of it anyways, let me narrate it in the chronological sequence in which it makes most sense.
Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes.
In his younger days, Laius commits a cardinal sin which is violate the trust of a host. The host-guest relationsihp is extremely sacred in Greek culture as is in many other cultures around the world. This is not in the book but a back story.
When Oedipus is born, Laius consults an Oracle who tells Laius that this child will kill his father and wed his mother.
Laius pins the baby’s two feet and orders his wife Jocasta to kill the baby. Jocasta does not have the heart to do it and so she gives the baby to a shepherd. The shepherd names the baby Oedipus which means “swollen feet”. But the shepherd ends up giving the baby to yet another shepherd.
This shepherd shows the baby Oedipus to his master, the childless King Polybus and his Queen Merope of the city Corinth. They adopt the baby and Oedipus is bought up as a Prince.
One day, in a party, someone under the influence of too much wine, ends up blurting that Oedipus is not the real son of the King and Queen. Even though everyone around deny the drunkard, this news disturbs Oedipus.
So as any self-respecting ancient times person would do, he seeks counsel with an Oracle who tells the same damn thing, “You will kill your father and wed your mother”. All Oedipus asked was if he was truly the son of the King and Queen but alas, ends up getting a deceptive message. Oedipus is beyond grief. He cannot think of doing such a thing. So without returning back home or informing his adopted parents (which he still does not know since the Oracle did not answer that question), he runs away to a foreign land. He has zero inclination to commit any sin and he doesn’t even want to see them lest he some mishap might make the prophecy true.
On his way to a new kingdom, he ends up having a fight with an old man and four of his guards and ends up killing them all. Then a Sphinx would stop any traveler on that way and ask them the age old riddle. Oedipus successfully answers both the riddles. These are very famous riddles. Here it is. The answers are at the end of this post.
Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?
The Spinx strangled and devoured anyone who could not answer.
A second riddle: "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?"
When he arrives in the city, he does a few more brave things and the city has now regained peace and the people anoint him the new King. As is the custom in the case of a captured kingdom, he ends up marrying the widowed queen. And they lived happily ever after - well, sorry, just for a while.
Do I need to tell the punch line?
The city Oedipus headed towards is Thebes.
The old man who Oedipus kills on the way is his real father, Laius.
The widowed queen whom Oedipus marries after the people anoint him the new King is his own mother, Jocasta.
Sad sad sad. Thus the Oracle deceive him by exactly telling him the what he is going to do and he ends up doing it even though he actively tried to avoid doing it. These are few recurring themes in Greek stories. One, where the cryptic saying of an Oracle seems to mean one thing but means another. Two, it has a way of becoming true, self-fulfilling prohecies, in spite of those involved trying to actively falsify it. Three, when someone tries to be clever, their cleverness becomes their own downfall.
Story As Told
The actual story is set in slightly different order and we can only imagine what a suspense this must have been for the ancient Greeks. The story starts off with Oedipus as the King of Thebes. A plague befalls the city and a seer says that someone in the city has sinned and must be removed. Thus starts the enquiry where one thing leads to another thereby slowly outing the puzzle and truth to everyone.
The seer’s lament and he finally tells the truth only when Oedipus threatens him with capital punishment.
TEIRESIAS (the seer)
Alas, alas, what misery to be wise When wisdom profits nothing! This old lore I had forgotten; else I were not here.
Thou art the man, Thou the accursed polluter of this land.
I say thou art the murderer of the man Whose murderer thou pursuest.
This is the next messenger (one of the shepherds) who does not want to say anything and begs Oedipus to let him go. But Oedipus wants to get to the bottom of it. The dialogues where he learns from the messenger.
Nay, I will ne'er go near my parents more.
My son, 'tis plain, thou know'st not what thou doest.
How so, old man? For heaven's sake tell me all.
If this is why thou dreadest to return.
Yea, lest the god's word be fulfilled in me.
Lest through thy parents thou shouldst be accursed?
This and none other is my constant dread.
Dost thou not know thy fears are baseless all?
How baseless, if I am their very son?
Since Polybus was naught to thee in blood.
What say'st thou? was not Polybus my sire?
As much thy sire as I am, and no more.
My sire no more to me than one who is naught?
Since I begat thee not, no more did he.
What reason had he then to call me son?
Know that he took thee from my hands, a gift.
Yet, if no child of his, he loved me well.
A childless man till then, he warmed to thee.
When Oedipus realizes the truth.
I am not so infatuate as to grasp The shadow when I hold the substance fast.
'Tis not right to adjudge Bad men at random good, or good men bad.
O woe is me! Mehtinks unwittingly I laid but now a dread curse on myself.
If one should say, this is the handiwork Of some inhuman power, who could blame His judgment? But, ye pure and awful gods, Forbid, forbid that I should see that day! May I be blotted out from living men Ere such a plague spot set on me its brand!
Oh, and the Chorus. This is a special part of the ancient Greek plays - they provide all the “special effects”.
From this dead calm will burst a storm of woes.
Races of mortal man Whose life is but a span, I count ye but the shadow of a shade!
The worst to bear are self-inflicted wounds.
The tragic story ends in even more tragedy. Jocasta hangs herself as soon as she hears this. Oedipus pokes his own eyes out and orders his people to throw him out of the country. He is led to a mountain by his two daughters where he believes he shoudl spend the rest of his life hoping for any redemption.
Well, this is all book one. There are two more which just turns the dial up to eleven - one daughter is kidnapped, another later, brother-in-law fights, other daughter returns, then commits suicide with her boyfriend and then Oedipus dies. Phew. Truth be told, I was done with Oedipus with just the one book. These books give out the synopsis titled as “Argument” at the start of the book - that giveaway was enough for me to set aside the other two volumes for another day.
Answer to Sphinx’s Riddles
Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: "Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age".
The answer is "day and night" (both words—ἡμέρα and νύξ, respectively—are feminine in Ancient Greek)
This book is available for free via Project Gutenberg as well as on Amazon Kindle.