The Tale of Oedipus


The Birth of Oedipus

ShepherdThe tragic tale of Oedipus began in the Greek city of Thebes, during the reign of King Laius and his wife Jocasta. Though the couple greatly desired children, their household remained barren and fruitless. This troubled Laius, and so with a heart laden with sorrow, the king set out to seek advice from the Delphic Oracle. Sadly, the priestess had only dire words to offer, for she stated that any son born to Jocasta would surely bring about the king's death. Time passed and finally the day came when Jocasta found herself to be with child. Filled with apprehension, Laius anxiously awaited the infant's arrival. When he saw that the new born was indeed a boy, he hastily whisked the child away from his mother's arms and had his feet pierced through with a sharp tool. He then gave the babe to a shepherd and instructed him to expose the deformed child atop Mount Cithaeron.

The shepherd was a good-hearted man and could not bring himself to leave the poor boy alone to die. Instead, he brought the infant to the house of King Polybus of Corinth. There the king and his wife Merope, who were also without children, readily took the orphan and raised him as their own. Because of his wounds, he was given the name of Oedipus, which means "Swollen Foot".


The Early Life of Oedipus

Delphic OracleOedipus happily grew to manhood under the roof of Polybus and Merope. One day a companion of his, who was quite tipsy from drinking too much wine, told the young man that he was not the true son of Polybus, but was actually a foundling that had been adopted by the king. Finding this news to be alarming, Oedipus traveled to Delphi to seek the truth from the oracle. To his surprise the priestess not only refused to entertain his question, but had him forcibly removed from the temple. As he turned his back to leave, he heard the seer call out from inside the shrine, "Pity to you dear sir, for you are destined to murder your father and marry your mother."

Horrified, Oedipus vowed never to return to Corinth, for he truly believed the parents referred to in the prophecy were Polybus and Merope. Unsure of what to do next, the youth left Delphi and headed east. After traveling for only a short time he came upon a place where three roads meet.

p>It was here that Oedipus encountered a chariot carrying a small party of men. The driver angrily demanded that he get out of their path, but Oedipus, having a slightly aggressive temperment refused to move.

The charioteer defiantly pushed the horses forward causing one of the carriage wheels to run over Oedipus' foot. A passenger then struck him violently over the head with his goad, a spiked stick commonly used for driving cattle.

Oedipus lost his temper and in a fit of anger killed the entire party. When the carnage was over, he thoughtlessly left their battered bodies scattered about the road and continued on his way.


Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the SphinxOedipus arrived in Thebes and found the city in great turmoil. It seems that a monster called the Sphinx had been sent by Hera to torment the town and all those dwelling there. Laius had angered the goddess by taking a boy named Chrysippus from Pisa and this was her way of punishing the land for his actions. The Sphinx was the daughter of Orthrus and Echidne. She had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the face and breasts of a woman. The beast settled herself just outside the city walls atop of Mount Phicium. From here she had a perfect view of Thebes and of all those coming and going from the fortress gates.

It was her practice to stop anyone passing by and pose to them an ancient riddle originally taught to her by three of the Muses. If the traveler answered correctly he was allowed to pass, but if he could not render the correct answer, the beast would dart forward and gobble him up on the spot. She would then contentedly retake her place on the mountain and wait patiently for the next victim to come along.

In an effort to end the acute suffering, Laius gathered together a small entourage and set out to seek help from the oracle at Delphi. And so with Creon, the brother of Jocasta acting as regent, the townspeople went on living fearfully in shadow of the Sphinx.

Oedipus and the SphinxSome time after Laius' departure from the city, it was reported that he and the bodies of his companions had been discovered along a roadway near Delphi. Though the news of his death was quite unsettling, the Thebans were more interested in disposing of the Sphinx than searching for the murderer of their king. When Creon's son Haemon fell victim to the monster, the grieving father issued a proposal. Whoever could solve the riddle of the Sphinx would be given the hand of the newly widowed Jocasta in marriage. In the midst of this ongoing crisis, Oedipus arrived at the entrance to the city, where he was greeted by the curious creature. The cocksure beast leaned forward and slyly whispered to the young man:

"What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening?"

Oedipus thought for a moment and replied:

"Man. He crawls as an infant, walks upright in his prime and uses a staff in old age."

Hearing the correct answer, the Sphinx shuddered with despair and promptly hurled herself over the side of the mountain. The city was now free of its tormentor, and Oedipus was hailed as a hero. With his new bride Jocasata at his side, the former vagabond gratefully accepted his place upon the throne of Thebes.


Oedipus the King

The once saddened city was now overcome with joy. The sounds of suffering were replaced with music and laughter, as all celebrated their new king and the aura of peace that accompanied him. It was as if the citizens of Thebes had virtually forgot about Laius and his murderer.

As Oedipus basked in the glory of having saved Thebes from the Sphinx, his disposition began to change. He became somewhat arrogant and prideful, and it was apparent to all that the king thought quite highly of himself.

During the course of their marriage Jocasta bore Oedipus four children; two sons named Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, called Antigone and Ismene. All would play a part in the tragic events destined to forever haunt the House of Thebes.


The Fall of Oedipus

Plague of ThebesIt came to be that after the passing of twenty years a great plague spread across the entire city of Thebes. The crops refused to grow and the women no longer produced children. In order to put an end to the misery, Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to question the oracle at Delphi. The words of the priestess were dark and foreboding. As the spirit of Apollo filled her body she divulged that the slayer of Laius could be found living happily within the city walls. She forewarned her petitioner that as long as he remained unpunished, Thebes would continue to be ravaged with sickness and death. When Creon returned with the news, Oedipus cursed the unknown killer and vowed to have him exiled from the city the moment he was found. Creon proposed that the blind seer Teiresias be summoned to the palace, for though he was old and sightless, he was truly the most respected visionary in all of Greece. Teiresias stood silent before the king. Hesitant to offer any information concerning the identity of Laius' murderer, he repeatedly reminded Oedipus that some things are best left hidden.

Refusing to heed the warning, Oedipus continued to prod the old man until Teiresias finally gave in. The seer reluctantly revealed that the curse could only be lifted if one of the Sown-Men would offer up his life for the good of the city.

Upon hearing these words, Jocasta's father Menoeceus, rightly believed the prophecy could only pertain to himself, as he was one of the original Sparti who sprang forth from the earth when Cadmus planted the teeth of the dragon.

In order to save Thebes, Menoeceus sacrificed his life by jumping off of the walls of the citadel, but to the dismay of everyone Teiresias subsequently declared that the prediction had been meant for some else.

TeiresiasThis man would be of the third generation of Sparti and could easily be recognized by one of his deeds. He was a man who had sinned deeply against the gods by murdering his father and then marrying his mother. Knowing that he had no other direction to go but forward, Teiresias loudly proclaimed that the guilty party was none other than Oedipus himself. The king stood perfectly still, a look of astonishment frozen upon his face, while feelings of shock and disbelief permeated the room. To serve as a witness, the shepherd originally responsible for placing baby Oedipus in the care of Polybus was called forth to the palace. There he confirmed that the king was not the begotten son of Polybus and Merope, but instead was adopted by them when he was just an infant. Oedipus gazed intently into the eyes of the sheepherder, and with a pounding heart listened as the old man spoke the forbidden truth.

Oedipus was the blood son of King Laius of Thebes and his wife Jocasta! The prophecy had come true. Oedipus had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Filled with shame Jocasta ran down the corridor and swiftly hung herself within the walls of her wardrobe.

Oedipus went from room to room until he finally came upon the lifeles body of his queen. To punish himself for disgracing his mother, Oedipus removed the brooch she was wearing and used it to gouge out his eyes. The palace stood silent, and as the once prosperous king hung his head in despair, a thick cloud of darkness settled itself comfortably over the House of Thebes.


Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus and AntigoneIn a effort to cleanse the city of this abominable sin, Creon stripped Oedipus of all royal titles and had him banished from Thebes. With only his daughter Antigone as a companion, he wandered about as an outcast until settling in the town of Colonus, where he fell under the protection of King Theseus of Athens. It was rumored that Creon had devised a plot to have Oedipus kidnapped and brought back to Thebes. His intentions were to have the body buried outside the surrounding walls to prevent invaders from entering the city. This plan was foiled by Theseus, who boldly came to the old king's rescue.

Oedipus died quietly shortly therafter and was buried in a location known only to Theseus. It was believed that the tomb would bring blessings and happiness to the land of Attica.


The Children of Oedipus

Oedipus Cursing PolyneicesBefore Oedipus left the city of Thebes, he placed a curse upon his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. There are conflicting accounts as to why he chose to do this. One version tells us that it was because the pair did nothing to oppose his banishment. Another states that it was in retaliation for the boys taking the best portion of meat for themselves rather than offering it to their father. We do know for sure that when Oedipus departed from Thebes he had only his daughter Antigone by his side. She felt great pity for the fallen king, who was now only a vague shadow of his former self.

Like a dutiful daughter, she led Oedipus blind and helpless from the city gates in search of a new place to call home. In order to stay atop of her father's interests, Ismene chose to stay behind in Thebes.

As for Eteocles and Polyneices, the two young men quickly turned upon each other, for each had a profound desire to sit upon the throne on Thebes.

Eteocles was victorious over his brother and had Polyneices banished from the city. Refusing to give up the fight, he traveled to Argos in hopes of persuading the townspeople to join his cause and march with him against both Eteocles and Thebes herself.

It was at this time that Oedipus and Antigone had arrived in Colonus, where they were welcomed and granted sanctuary from King Theseus of Athens. Ismene had joined the duo and was present in Attica when Oedipus finally died. After the quiet passing of their father, Theseus sent the two sisters home to Thebes.


The Seven Against Thebes

Antigone and IsmeneThe two women returned home only to find one brother viciously fighting against the other. Eteocles, who had proclaimed himself the new king of Thebes was inside the city, earnestly trying to ward off the attack of Polyneices. Polyneices was joined by six chieftains of various towns across the Greek world. Of these brave men, it was prophesied that only King Adrastus of Argos would emerge from the battle alive. Each side boasted seven champions, one for every gate leading into the city of Thebes. As the battle waged on, Eteocles fought fiercely to defended his gate from Polyneices' assault.

Not wanting to choose sides, Antigone and Ismene waited helplessly inside the citadel until one brother proved himself champion over the other. It had been decided among the Argives that if Eteocles was victorious, they would withdraw their armies and return at once to their proper homelands.

If in turn he was defeated, they would promptly crown Polyneices king of Thebes. But fate had another ending in mind for the two brothers. Each would slay the other, leaving Creon free to once again take possession of the throne.

As predicted, all of the Argive champions were killed except for Adrastus, who together with his battered army, fled back to Athens. To punish those who participated in the attack, Creon issued a decree preventing all those who fought against Thebes from being buried.

This created quiet a serious problem for in the ancient world burying the dead was considered to be a sacred duty. It was believed that all those who did not receive a proper burial would be refused entrance into hades. Instead they would be doomed to wander aimlessly along the bank of the River Styx for the rest of eternity.

Antigone buries PolyneicesCreon ordered for Eteocles to be put to rest with honors, while Polyneices was to be left for wild beasts to devour. In addition he stated that anyone caught trying to retrieve the young man's body for interment would be executed. Though both sisters were overcome with bitterness, Ismene chose to obey the order. Knowing that Creon's edict defied the laws of the gods, Antigone defiantly set out alone to bury Polyneices. Ismene later had a change of heart and decided to help her sister carry out the dangerous task.

Unforunately the two were captured by the palace guards and brought before Creon. Though Creon decided to spare Ismene, Antigone was sentenced to death. She was imprisoned in a cave or by some accounts buried alive inside the tomb of Polyneices.

In most cases it is agreed that in the end Antigone took her own life to escape her cruel and unjust punishment. So concludes the sad tale of Oedipus, a tragedy that will forever haunt the House of Thebes.


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