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Oedipus et Sphinx, 1808 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Oedipus
Oedipus et Sphinx, 1808 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Laius, Oedipus’ father, kidnapped, raped and beheaded the young boy Chrysippus and was then cursed by Chrysippus’ father, Pelops. The weight of this curse bore down onto Oedipus himself. An oracle prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Seeking to avoid such a fate, Laius was very careful with his wife Jocasta and did not touch her. Since Jocasta did not know of the prophecy, she felt she must have a child, for the only way for her to gain honour was to get pregnant.

When Oedipus was born, Lauis had the infant’s ankles pierced with a brooch and had him exposed on Mount Kithairon (placed in the wilderness to die). His soft-hearted servant, however, could not carry out Laius’ order and instead handed the boy to a shepherd who presented the child to King Polybus and Queen Merope (or Periboea) of Corinth, who raised him as their own son.

At a party thrown by King Polybus, a drunk guest called Oedipus a bastard. Seeking to confirm his lineage, not believing the man, Oedipus sought out the Oracle at Delphi. Instead of telling him his lineage, the Oracle related the same prophecy as was told to his father: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. After descending the mountain, on a road where three roads meet, he met an unarmed man with a staff on his own pilgrimage, riding a chariot. The man in the chariot demanded that Oedipus stand aside so he could pass, finally hitting Oedipus with his staff. Oedipus, as the times permitted to defend oneself, killed the stranger and all but one of his entourage. The man he had killed, unknown to Oedipus, was King Laius, Oedipus’ real father.

Oedipus decided that the drunkard at the party was lying, and decided not to return home in order to avoid Polybus. As he traveled, Oedipus encountered a mythical creature that was terrorizing Thebes. Oedipus saved the city by answering the riddle of the Sphinx. Q: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” A: “Man, as a baby man crawls on four legs; as an adult walks on two legs; when old, man uses a cane.” (The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle applies to Oedipus more than any other man. As an infant with hobbled ankles, he had difficulty in learning to walk. As a blind man in old age, he depended on a cane.) Since Oedipus answered the Sphinx’s riddle correctly, he was offered the now-vacant throne of Thebes and the now-widowed queen’s hand in marriage. Oedipus accepted both offers. Within a short time, divine signs of misfortune and pollution descended on Thebes.

Myths and legends of all nations; famous stories from the Greek, German, English, Spanish, Scandinavian, Danish, French, Russian, Bohemian, Italian and other sources by Marshall, Logan, tr Publication date 1914
Myths and legends of all nations; famous stories from the Greek, German, English, Spanish, Scandinavian, Danish, French, Russian, Bohemian, Italian and other sources by Marshall, Logan, tr Publication date 1914

The people of Thebes are begging the king for help; he must discover the cause of the plague. Oedipus swears to find the person responsible for the pestilence and execute him as well as anyone who aids him. He questions everyone in the palace, including his wife, Jocasta. Eventually, when the blind seer Tiresias informs Oedipus that he himself is both the source of the pollution and the murderer, the king does not believe him. Oedipus insists that the culprit is Creon, Jocasta’s brother, whom he believes is plotting to usurp the throne. Oedipus then accuses Tiresias of lying and being a false prophet. It is not until a messenger arrives with news that King Polybus of Corinth (his supposed father) has died of natural causes that a horrified Oedipus finally solves the mystery of his birth. In a moment of recognition, he realizes that he has not only killed his own father but has also married his own mother (with whom he has had four children). When Jocasta learns the horrible truth, she hangs herself in the very chamber where she and her son have unknowingly committed incest. Seizing the brooches from her dress, Oedipus blinds himself.

Detective, murderer, judge, and jury, Oedipus condemns himself to wander in darkness throughout the land for the rest of his life.

Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone

When Oedipus stepped down as King of Thebes, he gave the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who both agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, they showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters. Both brothers died in the battle. King Creon, who ascended to the throne of Thebes, decreed that Polynices was not to be buried. Antigone, his sister, defied the order, but was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be buried alive, this in spite of her betrothal to his son Haemon. Antigone’s sister, Ismene, then declared she had aided Antigone and wanted the same fate. The gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, expressed their disapproval of Creon’s decision, which convinced him to rescind his order, and he went to bury Polynices himself. However, Antigone had already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrived at the tomb where she was to be interred, Haemon attacked him and then killed himself. When Creon’s wife, Eurydice, was informed of their deaths, she too took her own life.

Oedipus becomes a wanderer, pursued by Creon and his men. He finally finds refuge at the holy wilderness right outside of Athens, where it is said that Theseus took care of him and his daughter. He died a peaceful death and his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.

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