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Image:Oedipus and sphinx.jpg
Oedipus with the Sphinx, from an Attic red-figure cylix from the Vatican Museum, ca. 470 BC
Topics in Greek mythology

Oedipus was the mythical king of Thebes, son of Laius and Jocasta, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Greek poets explain the name (Greek Οἰδίπους, transliterated directly as Oidipous) as meaning "swollen-foot."


[edit] Oedipus the King

Laius, Oedipus' father, kidnapped and raped the young boy Chrysippus and was then cursed by Chrysippus' father, Pelops. The weight of this curse bore down onto Oedipus himself. At his birth, an oracle prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Seeking to avoid such a fate, Laius had the infant's ankles pierced with nails and had him exposed (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 parentage, not believing the man, Oedipus sought out the Oracle at Delphi. Instead of telling him his parentage, 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 goad 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 goad. Oedipus, as the times permitted to defend oneself, killed the stranger and all but one of his entourage. The man, 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 mystical creature that was terrorizing Thebes. Oedipus saved the city by answering the riddle of the Sphinx ("What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?": Man, as a baby man crawls on four legs; as an adult walks on two legs; when old, man uses a cane.) and was rewarded with the now-vacant throne of Thebes and the widowed queen Jocasta's hand in marriage. In Sophocles' play, Oedipus the King, Oedipus has four children with Jocasta, though this may have been a plot device he employed, as incest was not part of the original myth.

Within a short time, divine signs of misfortune and pollution began to appear in Thebes, which caused the king to seek out their cause. Finally, the seer Tiresias revealed to Oedipus that Oedipus himself was the source of the pollution. Oedipus, not believing this soothsayer, came to the conclusion that it is Creon, Jocasta's brother who was plotting to usurp Oedipus from the throne. Oedipus accuses Tiresias of lying and also denies that he is a seer. It is not until a messenger arrives with news that his foster father Polybus had died of natural causes that Oedipus finally pierces the mystery surrounding his birth. The messenger tells Oedipus that he was not the son of Polybus but was given to Polybus by this particular messenger. Jocasta, upon hearing this, finally understands the horrible truth and pleads with Oedipus that he not pursue the truth of his birth anymore. Oedipus, believing that Jocasta is afraid that he was born of a lower class, does not heed her warning. She runs into her royal chamber. Oedipus, wanting to know more, asks the messenger to reveal who had delivered him to Polybus. The messenger reveals it was a shepherd, who is then summoned to speak with Oedipus. The shepherd reveals that Oedipus was given to him from the house of King Laius to be killed. It is then that Oedipus realises the truth: he is the son of Laius and Jocasta and the prophecy had indeed come to pass. He discovers then that Jocasta, mother and wife, hanged herself in the closet, in the chamber where he had unknowingly committed incest. Oedipus blinds himself by forcing her brooch pins into his eyes.

It should be noted that the answer to the Sphinx's riddle applies to Oedipus more than any other man. As an infant with hobbled ankles, it is fair to assume he took much longer to learn to walk than normal. As a blind man in his old age, he required the use of a cane more than normal.

[edit] 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 (as portrayed in the Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus and the Phoenician Women by Euripides). 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 Thesues took care of him and his daughter, Antigone. He died a peaceful death and his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.

[edit] In popular culture

  • An episode of Animaniacs is based on the story of Oedipus.
  • The Steven Berkoff play Greek is a modern appropriation of the story of Oedipus.
  • The German movie Ödipussi (starring Loriot) features a man who is still dependent on his mother even as a middle-aged man - until he falls in love.
  • Jason Wishnow created a movie of the Oedipus story, performed by vegetables, which has been screened at a number of film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, where it received its world premier. The movie also features the voice of Billy Dee Williams as the bartender.
  • The song The End by the American rock group The Doors makes allusions to a man who desires to kill his father and then have sex with his mother.
  • Oedipus makes a brief appearance in History of the World, Part I. He is supposedly blind, yet he recognizes Josephus (Gregory Hines). It should be noted that the events of The Roman Empire would not have coincided (in place or time) with those of the life of Oedipus.
  • The Haruki Murakami novel Kafka on the Shore features a protagonist with an oedipal prophecy, although the plot plays out much differently than the Greek story
  • The humorous essay "Planes, Trains, and Plantains: The story of Oedipus" can be found here.
  • In the British sitcom Green Wing, two characters, Kim Alabaster and Naughty Rachel both read books about Oedipus, as a way of mocking their boss Joanna Clore who unknowingly slept with her son Guy Secretan.
  • Peter Schickele, in his alias as P. D. Q. Bach, created the humorous oratorio Oedipus Tex, a western setting of the story.
  • In 2006 the musical parody Oedipus for Kids came out.
  • In the popular American series The Simpsons, Homer has a dream where Bart has hunted him down and married his wife after learning about Oedipus from Lisa.
  • Reference is made to the "Oedipus Rex" story by Tom Lehrer in Regina Spektor's 2001 song entitled "Oedipus".
  • In the season one episode "The Puppet Show" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow, Xander and Buffy are doing a scene of Oedipus Rex in the closing credits.
  • In the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode "Rebel With a Cause," Oedipus is seen being saved by Hercules.
  • The film Minority Report contains numerous references to Oedipus the storyline and its characters.
  • In popular American series Frasier, Frasier Crane begins to date a woman who is a doppelganger of his mother, and everyone can see it but him.
  • Regina Spektor (American/Russian singer/songwrite) wrote and performed a song called Oedipus.
  • The Kannada (Indian) movie Ranganayaki, directed by Puttanna Kanagal, revolves around the story of a young man who (unknowingly) falls in love with his mother. His parents would have separated soon after his birth, and he would have never seen or known his mother.
  • In an episode of Disney's Hercules: The Animated Series Hercules finds the Sphinx which asks the riddle: "A man does it standing up, a woman does it sitting down, and a dog does it on three legs." Though a crude answer may seem obvious to viewers, the true answer is: "Shake Hands."

[edit] Further reading

Dallas, Ian, Oedipus and Dionysus, Freiburg Press, Granada 1991. ISBN 1-874216-02-9.

[edit] See also

ca:Èdip cs:Oidipus da:Ødipus de:Ödipus et:Oidipus el:Οιδίποδας es:Edipo eo:Edipo fa:ادیپ fr:Œdipe gl:Edipo it:Edipo (mitologia) he:אדיפוס ka:ოიდიპოსი la:Oedipus lb:Ödipus lt:Edipas hu:Oidipusz nl:Oedipus ja:オイディプス no:Kong Oidipus pl:Edyp pt:Édipo ro:Oedip ru:Эдип sk:Oidipus sr:Едип fi:Oidipus sv:Oidipus tr:Oedipus ur:اڈیپس yi:עדיפוס zh:俄狄浦斯


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