Oedipus as archetype

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Myths, the language of truth 
The figures of the parents 
The Sphinx 
The fairy tale becomes a myth 

"Everyone of us recognises Oedipus as well the blind Tiresias in him or herself. They are directly linked, one with other.
It is difficult to hear the truth and to tell the truth.
Only those who are able to hear the truth about her or himself can tell the truth to another."
Korteweg e.a., 1996, p. 122.


Myths, the language of truth

From time immemorial, myths speak the language in which the fundamental questions of life arise  -- questions every human will confront. The figures in the myths are archetypes, figures every human constructs in his or her inner self and with which they must live. Oedipus is such a storyas is the Odyssey. They do not so much concern a king in the distant past, but rather the human and the forces within and without him and her. 

Supposedly, the ancient Greek heard the myths in this way: not so much as history, but rather as an approach to the secrets within the human and their world. The story of Oedipus who kills his father fits in this tradition.

In the beginning, there was the Ancient Father Chronos, born from the marriage of Heaven and Earth. He ate his children, because it had been foretold to him that a son would dethrone him.
Therefore, Ancient Mother Rhea gave him, after he had eaten the sixth child, a stone wrapped up in a cloth.
The trick was successful. For safety, Rhea gave her son Zeus to her sister Themis -- a theme which we saw also in Oedipus' story: the child grew up far from his dangerous father.
Then, Zeus, sun of the ancient god, took over the kingdom from his father - a theme also seen in the Gnostic and Christian traditions. 
Today, we know a dangerous ancient Father in the figure of God who demanded Abraham's son and who let his own son Jesus be killed.

In a kinder form, we know Chronos - remember the word chronological - as Father Time who comes to fetch his children if their time has come, but later gives them new lives, just as Chronos' children gained new lives. 

These myths may be seen as analogous answers to the fundamental questions of life which every human and culture confront. Every culture searches for answers in its own way, but there is much agreement.

Crucial to this story is the blind seer, who we have met in the myth of Narcissus, as well as the oracle. The prophet and the oracle are able to see the truth for what exists on a deeper or higher level than the human in his earthly blindness does not see. 

For the ancient Greeks especially Fate was an appealing theme. Oedipus' parents wanted to avoid the prophecy, the truth, and so they exiled their son. Because of this, he returned as an unknown. Oedipus' foster parents didn't want to reveal the truth. Because of this, he went to the oracle. Oedipus, in turn, wanted to avoid the prophecy, the truth, by not returning to his foster parents. Because of this, he met his father on the crossroads. Thus Fate was inevitable. 

Nowadays we say: you cannot escape from the truth -- or we say: you cannot escape from your real identity. Thus, one should search for these rather than avoiding them. 

Also, the prophet Jonas had to find the truth. He wanted to avoid his real destiny, to be a prophet, and he fled to the sea. The story is well known: after his repenting and prayer in the dark stomach of the whale ('the cellar') he came back to land and went on to prophesize. 
Again, he had to discover that the deeper truth is the kernel, and not the fulfilling of a prophecy. His prophecy that the city of Nineveh would be destroyed did not come to pass, because the people  mended their ways. He felt ashamed, as a prophet whose prophesy had not come true. But the kernel was the deeper truth which is inevitable, as well as his true identity: a prophet is not a foreseer of things of earth, but rather a messenger of what God has to say.

The figures of the parents

In this story, two pairs of parents play a role: the bad ones who exile their child to the woods and the good ones who care for their child. Here we see archetypical parents, i.e.: figures every human has constructed as an inner image. We see the same in our fairy tales such as Tom Thumb and Hansel and Gretel. Every child discovers his parents are not perfect. It is at this point the child starts to form its own identity.

The child discovers another thing: that his or her parents are each other's partners. This is shocking to the little child. It had the illusion that its mother only existed for him or her: a dyad. Now it appears that mom has another relationship: there appears to be a triangle - the Oedipal triangle

A young child can feel this very intensely, as if the mother (as an inner dyadic figure) had completely disappeared and gone away with the father. The child feels itself abandoned and banished. In the Oedipal myth, this was dramatized: the child was literally cast off and its parents stayed happily together at home. The myth is an archetypical image of what every child has gone through and must go through, because its personal identity begins to dawn precisely at this moment.

The child copes with the shock, the frustration and fear by constructing inner figures: the inner archetypical parents. Doing so, the child is able to idealize or vilify its parents -- or to both idealize and vilify them. In that case there appear two inner pairs of parents, the good ones and the bad ones, just as Oedipus had. Or, the child may idealize one parent and vilify, or even kill, the other, just as Oedipus did.

Another archetypical phenomenon is the doubt which overcame Oedipus when he asked himself if his parents were his genuine parents -- or: who actually was he himself; what was his real identity? Searching for the truth, he went to the oracle. Thereafter, he wanted to avoid truth, and because of this he fulfilled the prophecy. Thus he killed his father and married his mother. 

This happened unconsciously. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks and their gods as cosmic forces didn't want to have anything to do with that -- just like the forces of our deeper inner self, in which the same forces are alive. These forces may say: guilt is guilt, conscious or not. For the rest of his life, Oedipus' fundamental task was to come to terms with, and to accept, this cosmic law. 

Freud chose the story that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother as a representation of  what every child must go through, conscious or not, in her or his inner self as a wish or a fantasy. The mother is the most logical partner to chose for the boy, the father for the girl. The child knows them and does not have to go outside and search for an unknown partner. It does not have to take the plunge into the unknown. A young child does not differentiate between the generations. 

In real life, things go differently. You are not allowed to marry your parents, and thus you should not be attached to them for life but should let them loose. Neither should one idealize the one and vilify the other: pure admiration and pure condemnation do not work out well. Equally true is that every child must learn to differentiate between the generations. This differentiation is a fundamental one for creating new life and the continued existence of life. One's mother or father is not one's partner, and is not able to be so. A child is not a partner but rather a daughter or a son. Every child must discover and accept this. 

In the Oedipal phase, a child discovers this and has to accept it. Every child has got to find his or her personal answer to this discovery - every child: the myth is an archetypical story.

In the myth, however, Oedipus had not discovered this truth. His father was literally in the way when he was going to marry his mother. So, unconsciously, he literally got rid of the father. At that moment, both choices, eliminating the father and marrying the mother, seemed to be the most logical ones.

Freud chose this image to give a name to what he had discovered in the unconscious of his patients - and what he believed to occur in all human children. 

The Sphinx

The Sphinx is a mixed creature: woman, lion, eagle and snake. It represents the instinctive inner forces within the human being. Every human will meet these forces during her or his life's journey. They ask the human a question and an answer is necessary. 

For Oedipus, this was remarkably easy. The enigma was not difficult, and after his answer, the Sphinx fell in the ravine and seemed to have disappeared. 

Oedipus marries a beautiful wife and becomes the king of a flourishing kingdom. 


The fairy tale becomes a myth

"And they lived happily ever after." At this point a fairy tale ends. However, for Oedipus, it lasted only 15 years. The story goes on and the fairy tale becomes a myth. 

"Show me the man whose bless is more than illusion, followed by disillusion."

Oedipus in King Oedipus,  Sophocles.

Those 15 years belong to the story, the story of the human being. 
Those are the years of building, marriage, procreation, education and choice of profession, followed by success and a happy life.

But also living in 'blindness' and illusions -- as the human will see much later. A later disillusion is inevitable. The Sphinx returns as a crisis, perhaps as a mid life crisis.

We see this 'blindness', the illusion and the fruitful disillusion also in the way the human child has to go during the Oedipal phase: from illusion (the dyad) to disillusion (the existence of the triangle).

A child lives with the illusion that their mother exists only as a dyade. This illusion is temporary -- for some, it is lasting, but then it becomes pathological. A third person is absent, there is still no trangle -- until the child discovers the third person. This is the father and especially his relationship with the mother. It is the child who discovers the Oedipal triangle. 

This is the disillusion which punctures the illusion and results in the end of the dyad. In the Oedipus myth, this is dramatizedlitrally: as soon as Oedipus discovered the truth about the existence of his father, his relationship with his mother Iocaste ended -- the mother did not survive it.

In this crisis, the question is, what is the truth behind the success? What are the true identity, the true origin and destination? Just like Oedipus, the human offers at first a strong resistance against this quest. He or she does not want to know, wants to stay 'blind', and accuses the seer of blindness and deception. The crucial moment is when Oedipus decides to search for the truth and no to longer  avoid it. 

At that point, the story becomes even more dramatic. All Oedipus' aggression came out, the beast within him freed itself. Oedipus wanted to kill Iokaste, his mother and wife, as if she were guilty of deception. However, Iocaste was quicker and she killed herself. She could not cope with the shame, so the story usually reads. She could not cope with the truth, the disillusion that she did not have a partner, but a son. 

Oedipus had more courage: he didn't turn a blind eye to the truth and the disillusion. He acknowledged his guilt, be it an unconscious guilt, and drew his conclusion. He gave up all his wealth as the king of a kingdom. He started roaming as a blind beggar, loyally accompanied by his daughter as his guide, searching for his true destiny. Having given up everything, he became wise and mature. He was able to forgive humans, gods and particularly himself. Only then could he give instead of receive. He had been purified as "a holy man who brings blessings to the people" -- as the people called him. He had attained wisdom. This was not only Oedipus' true task and destiny, this holds for every human being. 

The end of the myth is just as archetypical as its earlier phases. Arrived at this point, one finally is able to live -- and just at that point the life on earth ends. The myth explicitly reads that Oedipus did not die, as is told about other great figures such as Christ and Buddha. Oedipus was going on to his next destination, a place we cannot know and, like Theseus, cannot see. This also belongs to the great enigmas or truths of life, which can be only slightly expressed in images, parables and myths, but which are, nontheless, no less true.

"Unimpaired, this occurrence stands in the proceeding of the time." 
(Sophocles, King Oedipus, end of final choir)


The time has gone further.
 So now we take a leap from this age-old myth to the way we, nowadays, try to understand the Oedipal phase of the child -- or the so-called "Oedipus complex" as it may exist in adulthood.

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