The Story of Oedipus  (Rated “R”). 1

Predestination.. 2

Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides — the competing Playwrights. 4

 The King is Born.. 6

Oedipus’ Youth.. 9

 

The Story of Oedipus  (Rated “R”)

 

This narration is not sanitized, whitewashed or contrived to be age-appropriate for the 6th graders; nor is it politically correct to satisfy the fickle tastes of women studies professors. Ancient Greeks appreciated the human form, so there may be some limited nudity in illustrations, though not much, and some sexuality, though far less explicit, let alone offensive, than much of today’s TV programming.  Some aspects of the narration and certain images may be disturbing or objectionable to certain audiences, but we are here to say the long concealed truth, rather than to please everyone. 

For thousands of years the legend of Oedipus was relayed in the ancient oral tradition, predating any scripts. By the time Homer recorded the story, it was already 1000-year-old: Oedipus gratuitously kills his father, and then marries his mother. It was not just as simple, though: he had to become a hero first.  In his mind, to qualify to marry his mother, the queen, and to win her fancy, Oedipus had to do some heroic act first, like killing a monster, so he slaughtered the sphinx, which made it OK then to sleep with his mother, because now he earned it. End of story.

 

Yet, the story of Oedipus, as explored and recorded by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides in their plays, is infinitely more complex and marked with keen insights into personalities and conflicts; insights that transcended thousands of years and are no less important today than they were 2500 years ago, when humankind was more cultured in many ways. In fact, it seems as if humankind has lost a good deal of what we call culture since then, a measure of respect for what distinguishes a human from other animals.   The depth of insight and keen observations of the human condition in the original scripts inspired numerous artists, sculptors, playwrights, composers, choreographers, psychologists and philosophers, movie directors and actors. 

Predestination

As it often happens in life, much of the story of Oedipus is pre-destined by the karma of his parents, if we were to explain “fate” in Buddhist terms.  But ancient Greeks did not believe in Karma, so his parents went on sinning.

His future daddy, Laius, was once a guest in the palace of the king of Elis, and an instructor in chariot racing to the king’s youngest son, Chrysippus. Not to offend sensibilities of the GBLT community, but that’s where everyone’s trouble began.

In those days, some ancient Greeks had a nasty habit of blaming their social psychodynamics on the will of the Olympian Gods, rather than to take responsibility for their own actions, often quite ugly. So did Laius: he blamed Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, for a great mischief he himself committed – he raped the young Chrysippus, who subsequently killed himself in shame. Well, according to Laius, it was Aphrodite who “pierced his heart with an arrow of passion.” But blaming the goddess was a little farfetched, and he darn well knew it. Laius was sometimes credited with the “invention” of homosexuality, but that’s apparently not true either. 

Oedipus, who was to become the King, is pronounced in Greek as “Oidipous,” the word which has two meanings. The Greek Οδίπους means “swollen-feet,” while the second meaning can be translated as “the one who knows feet.” A similar word oedema (British English) or edema (American English) is from a Greek word for swelling: οδημα, or oedēma, widely in use by American medical doctors who prefer to speak Greek to their patients, least the patients would presume the treatment is cheap. In some way, much of our story is conveyed by the name alone, but you have to read on to get its meaning.

This tragic legend has been retold in many versions, in theater, opera, paintings, sculptures and literary essays. It was used by Sigmund Freud to name the Oedipus complex, widely recognized by all schools of psychoanalysis as a phase in child’s development, in which the child is secretly and erotically in love with mommy-dearest, and has a secret unconscious desire to murder his daddy, competitor in a love triangle, a phase on which some unfortunate folks get stuck for good.  A well-recognized is also the Jocaste complex, which possess some mommies with a great desire to control their sons and manipulate everyone else. But even today the story has not been fully explored for all of its dimensions. This brief narration is one of such explorations.

Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides — the competing Playwrights

Our narration is inspired mainly by the texts by two ancient Greek playwrights named above. In 467 BC the Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, presented a trilogy based upon the Oedipus story, winning the first prize at the City of Dionysia theater festival. The First play was Laius, the second was Oedipus, and the third was Seven against Thebes. Only the third play survived the competition from another playwright, Sophocles, whose play Oedipus the King premiered about 429 B.C., almost 40 years after Aeschylus. The play’s title in Greek Οδίπους Τύραννος (Oidipous Tyrannos, or Oedipus Tyrannus), is often known by its Latin translation Oedipus Rex. The narration here is hundred times shorter, omitting the most delicious details, each of them a universe unto itself. The obvious advantage of our narration is that it comes from the 20-20 hindsight, from the lessons of crossing the many shiny peaks and dark valleys in the development of human civilization in the last 2500 years.  

Theater of Apollo at DelphiThere were no “endowments for the arts” in those days, and “Oedipus, the King” was a clear winner just by popular vote, as were other plays named above. It was an instant hit at the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. A Greek theater festival in those days was a major civic event, with huge attendance. Greek theaters were magnificent, sitting an audience of 12,000 – 14,000, their superb acoustic design conveying even a whisper on stage to the farthest of the seats. 

Their plays brought stupendous recognition to Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides for over 2500 years now. Their language is phenomenally exquisite. The writing is concise and full of succinctly expressed keen observations on life and human personalities. The plays leave the audience in tears and a state of shock; but they are also no less thought-provoking.

In the original “Oedipus Tyrannus,” the second word is a Greek word for “king.” The English “tyrant” means a monarch, who rules without the consent of the people, but Oedipus was a good king who took good care of his people. So “tyranneus” is not the same as “tyrant.” He did his best to be a good man and a good king. Yet, his fate is really tragic.

–Why? Why do bad things happen to good people? Throughout the centuries, including today, philosophers answer this question differently, each answer can be the subject of a separate discussion in its own right. 

Oedipus and all his children were punished for the incest he unwittingly committed, unbeknownst to him.  They were all punished, in turn, for their own sins and “for the sins of the forefathers.” The protagonists’ actions often defy or disagree with their words, and contradict even the “insightful” narration of the chorus, leaving the search of truth up to the audience, to some degree. The dialogues are rich, powerful and immortal in their appeal to the modern day.

 The King is Born

The story began, as so many life stories do, in bed. The ruler of the kingdom of Thebes and his young wife Jocaste were doing what any red-blooded young couple does in bed: they were making a baby. Jocaste, is also known in world literature as Jocasta, or Iocaste (Greek: Iοκαστη, or Iokastę.) Whether she fooled around too much before the marriage, or for whatever other reason, but Jocaste, our protagonist’s future mom, had trouble conceiving. That’s when the first signs of trouble appeared. Laius, Jocaste's husband and the king of Thebes, goes to Delphi to talk to the oracle to get some practical insights on baby-making. In Classical Antiquity, “Oracle” the software company did not exist, an oracle was a priest or priestess considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic foresight. Consulted for predictions of the future, oracles were “channels” through whom the gods spoke their will to humans. The word “oracle” is derived from the Latin verb ōrāre, “to speak” and also refers to the geographic site of the oracle, and to the oracular utterance itself. 

The oracle revealed to Laius that a child born of Jocaste will murder Laius, then sleep with Jocaste. Needless to say, this makes Laius unhappy about his marriage: upon returning home to Thebes, Laius swears to never touch Jocaste again (or any woman for that matter, just to be safe.) He moves back into his bachelor’s den, and goes back to his barbaric habits of sleeping with young men. Don’t ask me what that entails, as I can only guess and do not wish my mind to go there.

Jocaste was not a happy camper: after all, she had to have a baby to take care of her financial future and did not really give a damn whether Laius lived or died. Also, what about her conjugal rights? Besides, she had to outsmart this damn fool, her husband, and show him just who was in control, after all.

So, she mixes some humongous dosages of ancient Viagra and Cialis into the wine and gets Laius drunk as a skunk on this potent date-rape potion. He gets totally inebriated and is asleep under the table, sporting a major chemically-induced erection, worthy of a TV commercial for the pharmacological industry. While he, in his wet dream, was having an imaginary orgy with his favorite Hollywood stars, Playboy models, or whomever else that tickled his imagination, Jocaste had her way with him (nowadays we call this rape).

Sure enough, Jocaste got herself pregnant. But the rape of her rapist husband makes the Olympian Gods double angry: The Gods are not going to take any crap from this dysfunctional couple any more. As the genre of shocking audiences with people’s outrageously gross behavior would not be perfected by Jerry Springer until some 2500 years later, the Gods decided to produce their own freak show, making an example of this dysfunctional family. The  mortals were in dire need of Gods’ fear struck into their hearts. After all, not only did Laius violate the sacred laws of hospitality, which doomed him and his offspring, but now his wife broke the laws of spousal trust and consent. Aphrodite was seething with anger, the Love Goddess’ furor now burning red-hot. Laius was in big trouble. Jocaste was in big trouble. Their offspring in the 2nd and 3d generations were in big trouble. The Immortal Gods, as you should know, are unforgiving and merciless. As Laius was himself a king, his actions brought trouble to thousands of his other “children” – the People of his kingdom. Remember what The Father of All Nations, Joseph Stalin, said in 1943 about the peoples of his Communist kingdom? – “They are all my children.” Fair enough, he got the whole country in trouble for years to come. And so, the entire kingdom of Thebes was in trouble because of their promiscuous, indiscreet king.

Oedipus and the shepherd on an ancient greek pot

Meanwhile, Jocaste gives birth to an adorable baby boy, but Laius is not about to let his future murderer to be admired for long. Jocaste and he bind the baby’s feet with a pin, and order a shepherd to take the newborn to the mountain top and leave him there overnight to die of exposure. It's safe to say that Laius never let himself into Jocaste’s bed again. As there was no Family Court in those prehistoric days, neither of them could file a claim of “constructive abandonment” nor file for a no-fault divorce, which even in New York was not adopted until 2010.  But, their separation did not have to be and wasn't the end of their separate sexual lives, to which today’s GBLT activists would gladly attest.

 

Speaking of Jocaste’s future heterosexual sexual life, the baby on the mountainside wasn't nearly as abandoned as his future wife thought. What kind of monster would leave a beautiful newborn baby alone in the wilderness?  − The kind-hearted shepherd, when he got to the mountain top, fed the boy some sheep milk and gave him to another shepherd. This other shepherd was actually from the neighboring kingdom of Corinth. He took the baby, whom he named “Oidipous” because of the swelling on his feet, back with him to his boss, who happened to be the King of Corinth. It just so happened that the Queen of Corinth, Merope, and her husband, King Polybus, couldn’t get pregnant either, though they tried hard. When they saw this radiant, adorable baby (all babies are, you know) their hearts melted and they immediately adopted him, and loved the child like their own.

 

Oedipus’ Youth

So Oedipus grows up as the Prince of Corinth and everyone thinks he’s the cat’s meow and the bee’s knees. The young brat is adorable, he’s charming, he’s confident, he’s cute and arrogant like a true future King, and the People just totally love him. He becomes almost as popular as Princess Diana was in the U.K., only dark and handsome and male with a hairy chest and legs. Masculinity was still a good thing in those days.

As he grew older, he heard rumors about his adoption and he, too, went to the oracle at Delphi to ask about his past. You'll never guess what a horror he was told, instead, about his future: not only would he slaughter his father, he was also going to marry… his own mother! Yikes! There were so many cute young Greek girls throwing themselves at his swollen feet! – No way! Polybus and Merope were his beloved parents, and Oedipus couldn't bear the thought of doing such terrible things to them, so he left Corinth at once. He had to put a great distance between himself and his beloved “parents.” The young hero, now in his prime, 18-year-old, trained in the arts of war, philosophy and diplomacy, set off on his wanderlust journey, looking for trouble, adventure and fame. His feet were still swollen and somewhat disfigured by his mother’s pin, with which his real parents bound his feet as a newborn baby, the bondage symbolizing the self-fulfilling prophecy, which bound (sealed) his fate.

 

 

           

All rights reserved ● Copyright ©  2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.