The Myth of Oedipus

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The next text is translated from

J. Kleijntjens, & Dr. H.H. Knippenberg 
Van Goden en Helden, Groningen, Wolters, 1933

The indented text comes from other sources:

Hans Korteweg,  Hanneke Korteweg-Frankhuisen & Jaap Voigt,
De grote sprong; Gaan in vertrouwen,
Servire, Utrecht 1990
Sophocles, The Theban Plays, 
Dutch translation by E.F. Watling,
Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England 1985,
translated into English by me.


The ancient Greeks believed some humans could be forced by fate to act wrongly, even if they didn't want to. Nevertheless, the gods sometimes punished such unintentional wrongdoing. 

Laios, son of Labdakos, from Kadmos' ancient family, the king of Thebes, was married to Jokaste. Because this marriage was childless, Laios consulted the Oracle of Delphi, who replied: "You ask for a son, Laios. You will get one. But you have to know that you will die by the hand of your own child. This is because Zeus granted the anathema of Pelops, whose son Chrysippos was carried off by you during the Nemesis Games."

Once upon a time, when Laios was King Pelops' guest, he was tempted by Laios' son Chrysoppos' beauty and had carried him off.

[The element of the homosexual seduction was never confided to us, high school students at that time.]

Thereupon, Pelops had pronounced an anathema on Laios: if he should beget a son, he should be murdered by that son.

Pelops had had problems with his father. He was the son of Tantalus, well known because of Tantalus' torment. Tantalus had slaughtered his son Pelops and had served him as dinner for the gods. However, the gods saw through this and punished him with the well known Tantalus' torment. 

Pelops, in turn, was no sweetheart. He murdered his father-in-law King Oenomaos with the purpose of taking his daughter Hippodames as his wife.

Pelops' sons Atreus and Thyrestes hated each other and continually fought. Atreus  followed his grandfather by slaughtering the two sons of Thyrestes and serving them as  dinner for his brother.

Eating one's own children was not unknown to the ancient Greeks - however, not as a crime but as a symbol. The ancient father Chronos had eaten his own children, but they  became alive again. The moral of these kind of myths might have been that a human is not allowed to do this; the beginning and the end of human life must only be in the gods' hands.

In turn, Atreus' sons were fighters: Agamemnon and Menelaos, both well known from Homer's Iliad

All in all, Laios had to cope with a family history full of fights and feuds. On the other hand, he could manage his son:

In order to avert his fate, he had tied his just-born son with drilled-through feet to a tree in the woods, expecting that the wild animals would devour him. However, the boy was found by a shepherd of the Corinthian king Polybos. He took pity on the infant and brought him to his king, who was childless and gladly adopted him. He gave him the name Oedipus, which means 'with swollen feet', because his drilled feet.

Oedipus prospered, growing up to be a strongly-built youngster. But at a banquet, a drunken Corinthian told him that Polybos was not his genuine father. Oedipus questioned the king and the queen, but they side-stepped the answer.

His doubt made him restless. He wanted certainty and he went to the Oracle of Delphi. Here, he also did not receive a direct answer. The oracle said to him that Oeidipus should kill his father, marry his mother and father a damned generation.

This message filled him with untold misery and fear. Still believing the fallacy that Polybos and his wife were his genuine parents, he decided to avert his fate and to not return to Corinth. Instead, he choose the way to Thebes.

On a road he came across a wagon on which were an unknown old man, his herald, two servants and a wagoner. In a harsh voice, the wagoner commanded Oedipus to swerve. Being a hothead, Oedipus hit the man instead. This annoyed the old man, who then started a fight with the impudent youngster. Furious, Oedipus raised his cane against the old man. The latter fell backwards off the wagon. A fight arose, in which Oedipus had to defend himself against all of the strangers. He killed four, among which the old man - his father Laios. Only one servant could escape.


In those days, the Thebans were very afraid of a winged monster with the body of a lion and the face of a young woman. Its name was The Sphinx and it lay on a rock, from which it confronted every passer-by with an enigma. Those who could not resolve the enigma were killed.

This happened just when the news about the king's death was spread. The brother of Queen Jokaste, Kreon, became head of the government. His son fell prey to the Sphinx. So, Kreon suffered heavily. He declared that the person who could free the city from the monster would be the next king and might marry his sister Jokaste. As that declaration was proclaimed, Oedipus arrived at Thebes.

Immediately, he went to the Sphinx and asked for the enigma. It was: "Which creature walks in the morning with four feet, in the afternoon with two, and in the evening with three feet? But the more feet it uses, the less are its power and speed."

"The human being." replied Oedipus, "In the morning of his life he creeps on hands and feet. When he reaches the afternoon of life as a man, he walks proudly with raised head. As an old man, in life's evening, a supporting stick is his third leg."

The Sphinx, furious at the solution to the enigma, fell down from the rock into the ravine and Oedipus re-entered Thebes as the victor. He became Queen Jokaste's husband. Four children were born from this marriage: two sons, Eteokles and Polynices, and two daughters: Antigone and Ismene.


During a long time, Oedipus reigned over Thebes as a righteous and beloved king for a long time. 

Then, suddenly, a plague broke out. Oedipus sent Kreon to the Oracle of Delphi to ask the cause of the divine punishment. He brought back the answer that the wrath of the gods was upon the people, because the murderer of Laios had not been punished and exiled. 

Oedipus commanded everyone who knew anything about the case to tell him and decreed heavy punishment for whoever willingly kept silent or whoever would be found guilty for forced silence. He called for the most gruesome plagues to befall the culprit. In addition, he sent two messengers to the seer Tiresias. 

Tiresias appeared in Thebes' community meeting. Oedipus asked him to point to any clue that could lead to the discovery of the king's murderer. Tiresias, however, gave a loud cry. He stretched out his hands out inspuplication to the king and said: "Gruesome is the knowledge, which only brings disaster to the knower! Let me go, oh king!"

These words were like gasoline on the fire. Even more insistently, Oedipus commanded him to speak. But Tiresias kept silence. Then the king scolded the blind seer as being an accessory to the evil outrage. Tiresias did not put up with the accusation. 

"Oedipus," he said softly and somberly, "you, yourself are to blame for the disaster that has hit the city, because you are the king's murderer and you are living in great shame."

Furiously, thinking that a game was being played on him, Oedipus flew at Tiresias. He accused him of preying on his throne and seeking his ruin in cooperation with Kreon. But the seer predicted to him the disasters which would yet come over him. Wrathful, the blind old man left the meeting.

The dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias belongs to the world literature thanks to Sophocles' dramas. Tiresias is named as "the prophet in whom lives the incarnated truth." He is blind in earthly sense, but a seer in spiritual matters. Oedipus, on the other hand, is a seer in earthly matters, but is blind for the hidden truth.
So, the next dialogue is quite famous:

"The dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias is the breathtaking dialogue between someone who commands  help, but who refuses to hear the answer, and the bringer of truth."
Korteweg e.a., p. 118

"The murderer you search for, is you, yourself."

"You - you are no more then a merchant in deceptive magic tricks, with eyes only for profit, but blind to what really is happening."

"I am not your servant, but the goddess' servant. With pleasure, you deride my blindness. But you, what do you do with your own eyes? Do you see your own damnation? Do you see with whom you cohabit? Whose son are you? 
I say to you: you have sinned - and you don't know it - against your progeny on earth and in the grave.
Laios' murderer - this man is here (...) He came here seeing, blind he shall go. Now he is rich, as a beggar he shall be, blind roaming in exile. Brother, and also - so shall be revealed - father of the children he lovingly nurtures. Son and husband of the wife who gave him birth. Father murderer and father ouster.
Turn to yourself and think about this. 
Call me blind if you can prove I am wrong."

There occurred a quarrel between Oedipus and Kreon, which Jokaste vainly tried to stop. She was also embittered at the seer. "What value have such prophecies?" she scornfully cried. "I was once forecast that my first husband Laios would be killed by the hand of his son. Well, what happened? He was killed by robbers at the crossroads by the ravine. Our only-born son with his drilled feet became the prey of the wild animals in the woods. He would have lived only a few days."

Oedipus grew pale

"What did you say, wife?" he asked with doubting voice. "Has Laois died at the crossroads? But how did he look? How old was he?"

Not understanding Oedipus' emotion, she answered: "He had a tall body and his hair was becoming grey."

"But in that case, Tiresias has said the truth!" exclaimed Oedipus.


Even so, at once new doubt pressed in on him. 'No, this could not be true, this was not possible.' He immediately started a careful investigation concerning the case. He heard that a servant who had been present in the woods still was alive. When Oedipus became king, the servant had asked permission to leave the town and since then he had lived in the country. He was immediately summoned to court. 

However, before he arrived, a messenger came from Corinth to report to Oedipus the death of his father Polybus and to ask him to ascend the vacant throne. 

"Another example of not trusting the prophecy!" said Jokaste triumphantly. "Oedipus should kill his father? See, he has died by the infirmity of old age!"

The result of these words was soon negated by the admission of the Corinthian servant. He assured Oedipus that Polybus was his adoptive father. "When Laios' son was abandoned, it was me who got the infant from a king's shepherd on the Cithaeron," he declared, "and it was me who saved his life by giving him to Polybus and his wife, who lovingly cared for him."

Nevertheless, Oedipus wanted to be certain. He ordered to investigate who had been the servant to whom Laios had given his child to bring it to the woods. He heard that this was the same servant who had been present at Laios' death and who was now living in the country. Summoned at court, the old servant was recognized by the Corinthian servant. Initially, he denied everything, but Oedipus' threats pushed him to tell the truth.

"Let all be visible, however base it might be! However deep I might have to go, I shall unlock the secret of my birth!"

Oedipus in King Oedipus


All doubts were gone. Despair overpowered Oedipus.

"Alas! Everything becomes visible! Everything becomes known!. Nothing more to hide! Oh Light! I never want to behold you, revealed as I am, a sinner in my procreation, a sinner in my marriage, a sinner in my murders!
Show me the man whose bliss was more than an illusion followed by disillusion. 
This is the proof, this Oedipus, this is the reason that I cannot call any mortal creature happy."

Like a madman, he ran through the palace. He looked for a sword with which to kill Jokaste, his wife and also his perverted mother. Entering her room, he found her corpse. She had killed herself.

Deranged, Oedipus fell upon the corpse, crying and moaning. He snatched some golden pins from her clothes. Then, he draw himself up to full length and, damning his his eyes, stabbed his irises, so that the blood from the hollows streamed along his pale cheeks.

"Oh! Dark unbearable inevitable night that knows no day! Cloud that cannot be taken away by any wind! Oh! Again that pain that penetrates everything, torment of the flesh and the soul, black memory!"

He wanted his servants to take him outside, to show him to the people as a horror of earth and a curse of heaven. This they did. However, instead of horror, his folk expressed compassion for their monarch. Even Kreon reconciled with him. Moved by those expressions of real love, he renounced the throne in favor of Kreon. He asked an honorable funeral for the unfortunate Jokaste and recommended his daughters to the favor of the new ruler. For himself, he requested exile to the mountain Cithaeron. 


Poor and lonesome as a beggar, the once mighty monarch quit his palace, stumbled out of the city's gate, lead by his daughter Antigone, who wanted to share her father's exile and to soften, as much as possible, his fate by her love. Ismene stayed at Kreon's court with her brothers, to, if necessary, be able to look after Oedipus' interests.  

Initially wanting to go to Cithaeron, Oedipus still wished to consult the Oracle of Delphi about which abode the gods would see him to. The Pythia did not give a direct answer. He only got the promise that his penalty would not be eternal, because he unwillingly had violated nature's laws. He should be reconciled to the gods as soon as he, after long and painful roaming, should arrive in the region by fate foretold, where the severe Eumenides would grant him a refuge. 

Thus he roamed, from town to town, begging and living by the gifts of generous people, being content with the few he got and suffering for what he had done. 

During his journey, he finally began to forgive - the others, but particularly himself. He let loose the past and became silent. 
But just when he gradually came to peace, the past came up again. His son Polynices and his uncle Kreon, who was now the king of Thebes, made an appeal to him. They had conflicts and both tried to convince him to choose their side and to return to Thebes. They offered him to fulfill all his deepest wishes. 
Nevertheless, Oedipus refused. He saw through their intrigues. Moreover, he wished no longer to return and to be honored again. He did not strive to restore his former fortune. The only thing he wanted was redemption. (Korteweg e.a. p. 143) 

One night, the exiles entered a beautiful landscape. Nightingales' songs sounded as chorales from the woods. Raw rocks, gray between the green, gave shadow to laurels and olive trees. Antigone told her blind father, who inhaled the fresh scent of the herbs to refresh his somber mind, how the air glowed purplish-red and carmine while Helios' sun oxen descended.  The region breathed rest and peace in the rose light of the setting sun. In the far distance, the towers of a city pierced the air. That city was Athens, where Theseus reigned. 

Antigone heard from a passersby that they had set foot on holy ground. He warned the strangers to go away from that place as soon as possible, to prevent the gods' wrath. They had ended up at Kolonos, in the region of the Eumenides. Oedipus heaved a sigh of relief at hearing this. Finally, he had reached the end of his long, fearful journey. His redemption was near. 

The Eumenides were the goddesses of revenge. Awful creatures with serpents on their heads, who hunted after the humans who had violated life's laws, and who drove them to madness. However, if one lives through one's feelings of guilt, and regrets the former wrongdoing, then the Eumenides became 'The Well-Disposed' or 'Omniscient Benefactors'. Their ground is holy. On this ground Oedipus had set his feet. 

Lightning and thunder sounded from heaven. This was the sign prophesized to Oedipus which would occur when he should reach his destination.

A messenger tells about Oedipus' death:

Which kind of death was granted to the rambler,
only one mortal who can tell: Theseus, no other.

No sea of fire from the high god of lightning 
hit or wiped him out, no storm carried him off,
such storm as then arose from sea.

While a god was his guide, the darkest deepness,  
the underworld unlocked and welcomed him with favor.

So, without an illness, pain or sighs
he was taken away and so, if any mortal, 
is he to praise. Whoever me, for what I've told, might see
as mad, absurd - he might: it does not hurt me.

"Oedipos in Kolonos", Sophocles.

His time has come

The time, the time, my friend,
plays everywhere his crushing game,
he is invincible.
Only gods may live
without time and death,
anything else shall sink.
The sap of earth shall dry, flesh dies,
while you languish in faith,
the lie shall flourish. (...)
Joy moves in sorrow,
becomes joy again.


In the meantime, Oedipus had been purified. He was called "a holy man who brings blessing to the people". He had reached wisdom. 

"God send His voice from heaven and He calls me to my death. Now, it's time to go. God's hand leads me. Follow me, children, now it's my turn to lead the way on the path (...) This way... Hermes leads me and also the Queen of the Underworld. This way... This way..."

"Children, your father leaves you now. This is the end of all I was, and the end of your task to care for me. I know how difficult it was. Still, it was relieved by one thing: love. I have loved you as no one loved you. Now you have to live the rest of your lives without me."

Then, a voice shouted: "Oedipus! It is time! You stay too long!"
Oedipus departed. Only King Theseus accompanied him.

A messenger tells about this last part of his journey:

"When we had covered some distance, we turned round and watched. Oedipus was not visible. The king stood alone. He held his hand before his eyes, like he had seen something that was too awful to behold. Soon thereafter, we saw him greeting heaven and earth with a short prayer.
Nobody can tell how Oedipus left this earth. Only Theseus knows. We know that he was not destroyed by lightening from heaven or devoured by a tidal wave from the sea, because that kind of things didn't happen. Maybe, a guiding ghost from the gods took him along with him, or maybe the depths of the earth unlocked, and so he was welcomed without any pain. It is certain that he was taken away without any pain or fight, without any fear - a passing away more wonderful than that of any other man."

The final chorus reads:

"Now, the tears have ended. No laments anymore.
Unimpaired, this occurrence stands in the proceeding of the time."

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