Gods’ Punishment: The Second and Third Generations

All is good in the kingdom of Thebes until everything suddenly falls apart. The Olympians deliver on their en bank decision to teach the insolent mortals a lesson. Gods unleashed their Furies, from the women’s bar associations. Folks quickly lose 75% of their net worth to divorce lawyers, a plague of unhappiness and infertility is brought upon them, and famine ensues: there were no crops, no vine grapes to harvest; “Trader Joe’s” supermarkets did not exist then, so broken families had no food on their table. In addition, dogs, sheep, cows and women could not conceive and produce offspring to lighten the people’s hearts with how cute the youngsters looked.  Children were dying in the streets.

It was the work of the Furies, punishing the people, allegedly for the sins of their forefathers and in the name of “social justice.” Poets often described and artists depicted Furies as crones with fiery eyes, bats' wings and snake hair, barking like bitches, grossly overweight and stinking of rotting flesh – their victims’ and their own. That said, in the name of aesthetics, we use a chance here to appreciate an idealized female form, so we depict them much-much cuter and pleasing to the eye, than they really ever are. But you get the idea.

To get to the truth behind the plague, king Oedipus begins a rigorous investigation from which LAPD, NYPD and FBI could learn some good techniques but probably won’t, for one reason: It was politically-incorrect to begin with, an investigation he would wish he never embarked on, uncovering Thebes’s vilest secrets and his own dark past, his hidden origin and the terrible crimes of patricide and incest he himself committed. He did not drop it in midstream, as most politicians and PD’s would, despite Jocaste urging him to stop. This story of the struggle between one’s fate and Oedipus the King, from an unidentified productionfree will is beautifully crafted, nuanced and deep, as only Greek playwrights of the age of antiquity wrote. Contemporary plays are damn primitive in comparison.

At some point a psychic is brought into the palace, the blind seer Teiresias, who is over a hundred years old and is known for his infallible foresight. Years ago, Hera, the first lady, and “second in command” among the Olympian Gods, blinded Teiresias in anger for revealing to her husband, “almighty” Zeus, a deep secret – that women have a greater capacity to enjoy sex than men, albeit dormant in some. (Why she wished this feminine secret to remain hush-hush, and why she flew into rages when it was revealed, is a whole another story, which we have no time to discuss. The theme of Hera, the first matron, blinding Teiresias for revealing this dark secret to men is a very popular trope in the Greek mythology, where Teiresias, the blind seer, is featured prominently.)

For the first 300 lines of the play, before Teiresias appears on stage and enigmatically refuses to tell what he knows, Oedipus speaks to all and sundry—the Priest, Creon, the Chorus, the populace—in a dignified and respectful manner. Oedipus addresses Teiresias with the humility and respect, which is due to a seer of his stature, but soon shows impatience and anger at the seer’s reluctant responses. The wise psychic begins by reminding everyone of the old prophecy they knew or were supposed to know. He hints that two parts of the prophetic oracle have already come true. Did they think about that? Why didn’t they?

Jocasta’s family is built on lies. She knows that the truth, if uncovered, will lead her family into ruin. She begs Oedipus to “give up now” [line 1160]. She begs of him to “Stop- in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search! My suffering is enough.” [line 1163]

Teiresias hints that the killer of king Laius is someone Oedipus knows, but does not wish to find. Oedipus gets uncomfortable with this innuendo. He wants to provoke Teiresias to speak unambiguously, straight to his face, in plain English… ehr, Greek.  So, he deliberately angers the blind seer by telling him that he has no foresight, and that Teiresias himself must have had a hand in the murder of king Laius. (Or is he angered himself, thus demonstrating that he easily flies off the handle?) The angered seer replies:

“I am blind, and thou

Hast mocked my blindness.                                                                                           

Yea, I will speak now.

Eyes hast thou, but thy deeds thou canst not see

Nor where thou art, nor what things dwell with thee.”


In other words, “You call be blind, but despite your precious eyes, you do not see what you have done, where you came from, and what terrible things you are doing.”

"You speak in dark riddles," challenges him the King.

Teiresias replies tauntingly,

“Aye, you too were a reader of riddles once.  But now I tell you that the unclean murderer, whom you seek, is here."

Outraged with such insolence, Oedipus The King throws the old psychic out of the joint. Is he angry at the seer, or is his anger caused by a subconscious fear of discovering the truth? He’s filled with suspicion that the seer’s words are part of a plot by Jocasta’s brother Crone to subvert his rule and ascend to the throne. Intuitively, he already knows that he cannot trust even his wife, Jocaste, let alone her brother. He’s wrong about her brother.

Up until his clash with Teiresias, Oedipus comes across as an exemplary man and king. From the opening of the play he is a compassionate and devoted ruler who fully identifies with the sufferings of his people and who is prepared to take any and every step to put an end to the devastating plague that befalls  upon his city. He is a “good king,” liberal and democratic as he permits the Chorus to speak their minds, and offers immunity from punishment to anyone who comes forth with information about Laius’ murderer. As he gets quite angry with Teiresias, he shows his other side. Now the murder of Laius and his entourage is no longer out of character.

By having Teiresias provoke Oedipus’ anger, Sophocles lets the audience see Oedipus’ explosive temper and to accept that the much admired king really killed a man and five of his servants at an isolated crossroads, and was so unconcerned with the act that he never bothered to mention it afterward.

During the sleepless nights of agonizing soul-searching, Oedipus has been piecing evidence together, despite being misled.  He interrogates two shepherds separately, then makes them face each other as he confronts the Old Shepherd, the only eyewitness to king Laius’ death. The Old Shepherd is recognized by the shepherd from Corinth, the one who had brought Oedipus, a baby with feet pierced and bound by Jocaste’s pin, to the royal palace of Corinth. The Old Shepherd is finally forced to say the truth. Oedipus acts as the detective, eager to unlock a terrible secret, confronting his own worst fears and ultimately – he condemns  himself. He looks at his scarred feet, then suddenly the pieces of the puzzle connect together and he realizes the horrific truth.  In utmost anguish, he turns to question Jocaste, his wife (and mother!) who probably knew or should have known these secrets all along, but did not protect him, herself and their children from the terrible curse of incest.

All these years Jocaste was avoiding anything that might even remotely jeopardize her bliss. She even sent the only witness, her trusted shepherd, as far away from the palace as possible. As for the potential incest – she preferred to keep her eyes closed on that minor detail.  Now her gig is up. Nowadays she would make a beeline to the family court, tell ‘em she is “afraid” ‘cause he’s “getting crazy,” and had the police throw him out of the Palace on the order of protection, obtained ex parte. But in those prehistoric days, she just excuses herself to a rest-room to puff-up her crying eyes, and hangs herself.

Blinded by self-hatred and eager to end an excruciating emotional pain, Oedipus scours the house in search of a sword to kill himself, but the servants have removed all weapons. He cannot believe how blind he was all these years. Oh, the blindness! Now that he can see the truth, he must be blinded! In a heart-wrenching scene, true to the traditions of the Greek tragedy at its most intense, he discovers Jocaste, already dead, takes the golden pins that hold her tunic together and blinds himself. Oedipus Rex has come to his demise. His story is almost over, while the story of his daughter (and sister) Antigone is just beginning. The stage now is empty. Only the traditional chorus of 15 masked actors sings the Greek maxim that we cannot deem anyone “great” or “happy” until they are dead.

Wretched and blind, and unable to think straight, Oedipus handed the rule of Thebes to his sons Eteocles and Polynices.  Apollo, the Sun, indicated through oracle that he must leave at once and seek Gods’ forgiveness for the people of Thebes. His sweet young daughter (and half-sister at the same time,) Antigone, is still only a little girl, but she dutifully sets off on the road to lead her blind father (and half-brother.) Oedipus is utterly distressed for bringing the plague upon his people, and bringing into the world children of incest, cursed by Gods. The third part of the prophecy is that he must find the Grove of Furies and die there to ameliorate his sins and save the citizens of Thebe from the wrath of Furies.


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