We have all heard of Oedipus, either as the ‘tragedy’ or the ‘complex’. Oedipus has been around in some form or another for well over 1000 years now. His beginnings are with ancient Greek poet Homer in fragments, then with Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides. It is, however, with Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) that the name became legendary.
The play begins in the court of Laius and Jocasta, the King and queen of Thebes, who are having trouble conceiving. Troubled by this Laius goes to see the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
The oracle prophesises that any son born to the couple would kill his father and marry his mother. Terrified and appalled by the prophesy when a son is born Laius pins the babies ankles together and sends it with a servant to be left in the desert. This he hopes will prevent what has been foretold.
The servant, however, cannot dispose of the child and instead hands him to a shepherd. The child ends up in the court of Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth and as they are childless they adopt him as their own.
Many years later as Oedipus becomes a man he is told by a drunk that he is a bastard. He asks his parents but they deny this to be true. Oedipus is not sure so he visits the Oracle of Apollo, the same oracle visited by his real father years before. The Oracle reveals the same Prophesy to Oedipus. Fearing he will kill his father and marry his mother he leaves Corinth immediately.
He heads toward Thebes but on his way he comes to a road with three paths. Once he decides on his path he sees Laius travelling in the same direction. Oedipus and his real father begin to quarrel and after a fight Oedipus kills Laius, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophesy.
As Oedipus nears Thebes he comes upon a sphinx that is plaguing the city. The sphinx has vowed to leave if someone will solve her riddle.
What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?
Oedipus answers correctly, it is man; Man crawls on all four as a baby, two feet as an adult and three (with a walking stick) in old age.
The sphynx allows him to pass and leaves the city in peace. As Jocasta’s brother Creon had promised the throne of Thebes and his sister’s hand in marriage to anyone who could rid the city of the sphinx, the second part of the prophesy comes to pass. Oedipus has now murdered his father and married his mother. The couple have four children together and after many years a plague of infertility befalls Thebes.
Oedipus sends his uncle to the Oracle of Delphi who warns him that the murderer of the former King Laius must be brought to justice and exiled. The blind prophet, Tiresias, is sent for and after many heated exchanges the truth is revealed. At first it is Jocasta who upon realising she has married her son, leaves and hangs herself. Next Oedipus finally realises who he is and what he has done. Taking the pin from Jocasta’s gown he gouges out his own eyes and leaves the city.
In other versions of Oedipus the ending differs greatly typically in Homers version where Oedipus continues to rule Thebes after Jocasta’s death. However in Sophocles’ version he roams the land with his daughter as a guide until he eventually dies at Colonus, where he is swallowed into the ground. Oedipus then becomes hero and guardian of Athens. Essentially a good luck charm. Finally we have to mention good old Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his Oedipus complex.
The term is used to describe his theory on psychosexual stages of development. His theory endeavours to explain a boys feelings of desire towards his mother and anger towards his father. Essentially a boy feels he is in direct competition with his father for possession of his mother. His father is a rival for her emotion and attention. It even goes as far as to theorise a boy’s desire for sexual involvement with his mother and his erotic fantasies about her. We have to profess here that these were not ever Oedipus Rex’s emotions or intentions that motivated him towards the path he took in any version of the ancient play.