The Importance of Being Oedipus

Oedipus, from an unidentified dramatic production

Oedipus, who was to become the King, is said in ancient greek as "Oidipous," a name with two potential meanings. The first, and more obvious to the listeners is "Swollen Feet," the second is "Knowing Feet." The riddle contained in these two meanings is, in many ways, the backbone of this story. But you have to pay attention!

It began, as so many things do, in bed. The two rulers of Thebes were doing what any red-blooded young Theban couple would do: they were trying to make babies. But, maybe because Iocaste (you may have heard her called "Jocasta" - it's the same thing) was pretty darn young, she had trouble conceiving. Then the tragedy is put into motion. Get ready for a depressing ride. Laius, the king and Iocaste's husband, goes to Delphi to get some advice from the oracle, but the oracle makes it clear that any child born to Iocaste is going to murder Laius. You can imagine how that made Laius feel, and upon returning home to Thebes, he peaced on his spouse and moved back into his bachelor pad and swore off sleeping with women (although this didn't stop him from some hanky-panky with boys). Iocaste was not happy, and so one night she got Laius super drunk and slept with him (nowadays we call this rape - DO NOT BE LIKE IOCASTE: MORAL TO FOLLOW). Not surprisingly, Iocaste got pregnant, and Laius wigged out.

Oedipus and the shepherd on an ancient greek pot

It was a baby boy. It's unclear whether or not Iocaste knew about the oracle. In some versions she did and in others she didn't. But nevertheless, as soon as the baby was born, Laius pierced his ankles andtied them together (so that he wouldn't be able to move) and gave him to a shepherd to expose on the mountain. I think it's safe to say that Iocaste and Laius never slept together again, but don't worry (actually, feel free to worry), it wasn't the end of her sexual life. Speaking of her future sexual life, the baby on the mountainside wasn't getting nearly abandoned as he should have been. It's hard, I imagine, to leave a really beautiful little child alone in the wilderness knowing that you're killing it. I don't think I could do it. The shepherd of Laius couldn't do it either, and when he got to Mt. Cithaeron, he passed on the little boy to another shepherd. This shepherd was actually from Corinth, and he took the baby, who got the name "Oidipous" because of his pierced and hurt feet, back with him to his boss, who happened to be the King and Queen of Corinth. There must have been something in the water, because the Queen of Corinth, Merope, and her husband, Polybus, weren't getting pregnant either. And when they saw this little baby out of no where they adopted him.

So Oedipus grows up the Prince of Corinth and everyone thinks he's the cat's meow. They just love him. He's an extrovert, he's confident (arrogant even, but he was raised to be King, so what do you expect), he's cute, he's all about being a hero. But one day, probably as he was coming into adulthood, he, too, went to the Oracle at Delphi. You'll never guess what he was told: not only would he kill his father, he was also going to sleep with his mother! Well, Oedipus loved Polybus and Merope (who never mentioned to him that he had been adopted) and couldn't bear the thought of doing such a thing, so he decided that he was going to keep the oracle from coming true if it was the last thing he did, and he left Corinth. He just began to wander around, looking for trouble, when one day almost got run down by this chariot! And the dude in the chariot was all like, "Move it, moron!" and Oedipus was all like, "Jigga what?" and then commenced the killing of everyone present (except this one dude got away). Interestingly enough, Laius had just started out on a "business trip," probably to see some very attractive young man, some days before.

The Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau

Back in Thebes, Iocaste - who was pretty much holding down the fort - got really bad news. Not only had her husband died (which might have worked for her personally, but was really bad for the rest of the kingdom, and frankly, not fabulous for her livelihood either since she was a childless widow), but this Sphinx moved in! Creon, who was Iocaste's brother and the regent of Thebes, put an ad out that whoever got rid of the Sphinx got to marry Iocaste and become king. Oedipus, who was still wandering around, heard about it, and made a beeline for Thebes.

Sure enough, the Sphinx was still there when Oedipus arrived and Oedipus went straight to her. The Sphinx had been hanging out and enjoying herself and eating passing travelers. I don't want you to think she was all bad, she did give them an opportunity to avoid being eaten: she told them a really difficult riddle. Okay, it's not that difficult, but no Greek managed to solve it. That is, until Oedipus. So he saunters up and the Riddler (that's the Sphinx) says:

"What creature walks on four legs, then two, then three and is strongest when it has the fewest legs?"

And then Oedipus said,

So then the Sphinx gets really cranky and flies away. Or something. Anyway, the answer was right (baby, young adult, old man with cane), and the Sphinx was gone and sure enough, Oedipus wins the prize. Everyone in Thebes loved Oedipus more than anything, and everyone celebrated their king, the man who knew feet. I'm thinking that Iocaste was maybe in her early 30's and that Oedipus was about 18, but hey, if Demi Moore can do it ... So life was pretty good for a while. Oedipus missed his parents, but was soon a daddy in his own right. He and Iocaste raised two sons and two daughters: Antigone, Polyneices, Eteocles, and Ismene.

Oedipus the King, from an unidentified production

Then things went bad again. A plague came to Thebes, and with the help of the seer Teiresias (who's over a hundred years old by now), it comes to light that both the prophesies have come true. At first, both Oedipus and Iocaste refuse to believe it (would you), but it eventually becomes really clear (with the help of the guy who escaped Oedipus' beatdown at the crossroads and shepherds' testimonies) what has happened. Iocaste, when it becomes obvious, excuses herself and hangs herself in her room. Oedipus freaks out for a little while and then stabs himself with pins from Iocaste's clothing (she's already dead).

Antigone and Oedipus, unknown artist

Oedipus left Thebes. Antigone still only a little girl, but she went with her dad to lead him. They wandered a lot, but eventually settled down in Colonus, near the grove of the Erinnyes. Oedipus was near death, but he still had some prophesies to manipulate. However, this time, instead of trying to fight against them, he worked with them. He was royally pissed off at his two sons, as well as Creon and Thebes, and cursed them, near death (which is a really hardcore curse in the ancient greek mythology, not to mention really harsh in and of itself). Antigone, the perfect family girl (how ironic), tried to get her father to forgive them, but without luck. Theseus (you know him! he did the whole hero bit with Ariadne), who was King of Athens, went with him when he went to die in the Grove of the Erinnyes, and then buried his body according to his wishes within Athens' borders (so that his body's final resting place wouldn't bring a blessing to Thebes). Antigone and Theseus mourned Oedipus together.

The story does not end here, only Oedipus' part in it. The next story to read is the story of what went down between Polyneices and Eteocles in The Seven Against Thebes. Or you can skip their story (which you shouldn't) and go straight to what happens in the life of Antigone.

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Last Updated January 17, 2008