Oedipus Rex, his story misunderstood and misinterpreted by Sigmund Freud and the disciples of Freudian theory, was in fact a very proud man. He never suffered from, or indulged in the Oedipus complex; he did, and it’s a minor detail, kill his father and sleep with his Mother but it was all a silly mistake. Never once on his journey did Oedipus actually harbour any desire to commit either offence; it just happened that way.
He had no idea that his biological father King Laius had ordered his execution based on prophesies foretold by the oracle at Delphi. Murdering your own child – unless for sacrifice –was frowned upon, rather, any unwanted baby, be it female, disabled or deceased was exposed to the elements. Exposing a baby meant that technically you, the parents were not responsible for the death of a child, that instead the child’s fate lay in the lap of the Gods; a rather sneaky little loophole.
For Laius it was imperative that the child died, after all his own life depended on it. Incapable of killing his own heir the king asked his wife Jocasta to do it. He said ‘go on Joss it’s your turn; besides you’re better at it than me. Don’t forget the little shit will kill me if you don’t and I may add, have sex with you!’
However, like all good Queens, not wanting to damage her nails or bloody her hands, Jocasta ordered someone else to do her dirty work. The infant, swaddled and bound, was slipped to a servant in the dead of the Thebesian night. The servant, who in turn couldn’t bring himself to drive a sword into the powerless baby, abandoned the child on a mountain top to perish; as was the custom. Whether the mountain top played host to a cluster of forsaken feral toddlers I dread to think; oh the nightmares!
So far so good, to recap; the King and Queen think that they have avoided a terrible fate, that their child rests at the bottom of a pit somewhere with a sword thrust though its heart. The servant charged with one simple command (how hard can it be for God’s sake) thinks the child has frozen to death on a remote mountain top or, better still, been eaten by toddlers! These people are happy about this because in mythical Greek times that’s how they rolled.
Oedipus, oblivious to the truth, had no idea that he had been left for dead by his paranoid parents. Or that, miraculously, he’d been found alive by a passing Sheppard; who just happened to be out for a stroll on a mountain top! The Sheppard, having more children than he had sheep – it wasn’t the first time – handed the wretch over to the childless King Polybus of Corinth. Polybus then raised Oedipus as his own. The Sheppard, having acquired a nose for finding abandoned children sold his flock to a local kebab stall owner. With his earnings he built a chariot, bought a fine horse and learnt to play the flute. The last we hear of him he’s operating a lost person’s bureau on the outskirts of Hamelin….*
No Oedipus knew none of this, and despite the rumours that were openly brought to his attention he refused to listen. People were just jealous, that’s why whenever he popped into his local tavern for a quick Sambuca, men would snigger and point with derision.
Oedipus took no heed of these fools, while the other men drank their mead and laughed at his expense he knew that he, Oedipus would eventually find his way into the annuals of history; albeit not quite as he had expected. Others mocked him, questioned his parentage, his dress sense, his destiny, he paid no mind; nor would he. Until that is, one night during a banquet at the palace a drunkard shouts out for all to hear, ‘he doesn’t even know who is parents are.’ The very next day Oedipus, incensed and hung over, travels to the Oracle to be presented with the prophecy that will determine the rest of his life….
When he eventually learns of the prophecy, Oedipus refuses to believe that he is anything but a Corinthian prince and son of Polybus. Wanting to avoid an unpleasant forecast he packed his things and buggered off to Thebes. He thought that removing himself from his parent’s home would be ruse enough to fool fate, to pull the wool over her eyes; oh please, come on!
On the road to Thebes he meets his biological father, Laius, although neither Oedipus nor Laius knows this. They have an argument over who has right of way (no really) and in one of the earliest examples of road rage Oedipus slays his father and all but one of his men. He continues on his journey completely oblivious to the fact that the first part of the prophecy has been fulfilled…dun…dun…dun. Also he, despite his prestigious education failed to remember the old maxim, ‘leave no witnesses’.*
When our hero eventually arrives at the city of Thebes he is confronted by a Sphinx; an everyday occurrence back in the day. The Sphinx- body of a lion and face of a woman – devoured any visitors unable to answer her riddles. Oedipus, unfazed, stood his ground as the despairing towns people looked on from the battlements. If there was one thing he was proud of it was his uncanny ability to outwit a sphinx; he happened also to be rather good at riddles.
The Sphinx, with all the self-assurance and swagger that comes with the job whispers her riddle while reaching for her napkin. History has since forgotten the riddle although many report it to be this: ‘What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?’ Oedipus whispers back his answer, while reaching in turn for his sword:
The crowd goes wild. After years of oppression, hunger and pestilence their city is finally free of tyranny. Men, women and children slap their heads and go ‘Oh for fuck sake, man! Why didn’t I think of that? It’s bloody obvious.’ While others just muttered, ‘nope, I don’t get it.’
All very George and the dragon if you ask me, besides if the Sphinx was so easily slain why hadn’t anyone done it before. No, instead they scratched their heads, asked to phone a friend and eventually succumbed to the aforementioned devouring.
No sooner had Oedipus defeated the Sphinx the town’s people, recently bereft of King in a mysterious road side murder, appoint Oedipus their new king and he is wedded immediately to the grieving widow! Unaware that his new bride is actually his mother and fired with the pride that comes with conquest and promotion, he fathers four children with her! Four really ugly children I wager, children with twelve toes or mono-brows or gutter lips or three ears or…..ok you get the message.
This is by no means the end of the story, only act one. In act two we see a successful Oedipus, King, husband, father and a ruler that all agree is the wisest man amongst them. He believes that he has not only triumphed over the Sphinx, won the hand of maiden fair and become Oedipus Rex but also avoided the prophecy. This is confirmed to him when he receives word from home that his Father is dead. Oh how he jumped for joy, this was wonderful news for Oedipus, although not so good for Polybus. Never has a son been so euphoric, so overjoyed at the news of his Father’s death.
Unfortunately times are hard, a plague of infertility has cursed the city, no crops bear fruit, no woman fall pregnant and no animals have young. In his hubris Oedipus decides to sort it out rather than prey to the Gods for help; after all if you want something doing, do it yourself.
He sends his brother in law/uncle Creon to the oracle for answers. When Creon returns to Thebes he comes with a solution, the city is infected and until the killer of the late King Laius is found the city will remain so. Oedipus, wanting to do all he can to save his people swears that the killer will be found and banished forever. Little does he know that he, Oedipus, is the killer he seeks!
After consulting the blind prophet – how very apt – he finally realises the truth but not before his wife/mother hangs herself from a bedpost with shame. After he cuts her down Oedipus takes two broach pins from her frock and stabs them into his own eyes, blinding himself and despite his subjects urging him to stay, he throws himself out of Thebes. No one really blames Oedipus for any of this, he wasn’t to know, he was just a pawn in a game played by fate and the Gods, if anything he was the greatest victim. Without hubris, without pride, none of this would have happened; hubris was, without doubt, his downfall.
The Sheppard that found him in the beginning was also the one man left standing after Oedipus killed his father! So he plays two very critical roles in the story, he effectively gives Oedipus life by rescuing him, then much later takes it away by confirming that Oedipus was indeed the very man who killed Laius.
All very tragic…