Oedipus, king of Thebes.

The myth of Oedipus is probably the best known of all Greco-Roman myths. It was dramatised into play form by Sophocles in about 430 BC, this being its most famous incarnation until Freud. Representations of the Oedipal tale were popular amongst nineteenth century German scholars and writers, and Freud himself, who had studied Oedipus at school, had always been fascinated by it (1).

Oedipus, born in the Greek city of Thebes, was the first son of King Laius and his wife Jocasta. His birth was not an occasion for rejoicing for his parents, however, as the god Apollo had previously warned Laius that he would one day die by the hand of his own child. He therefore ordered that the boy be abandoned in the mountains, first piercing his feet (Oedipus="swollen foot") to be certain that he would die. Unfortunately for Laius, the babe was saved and later adopted by the King and Queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope, who raised him to believe that he was their own child. When the grown Oedipus learned (through the famous Delphi oracle) that he was destined to slay his father, marry his mother and bring sorrow on his native city, he assumed that this terrible prophecy must refer to Polybus and Merope, and thus fled Corinth, resolving never to return.

It was whilst on his journey from Corinth that the fateful encounter occurred: Oedipus met with his natural father on a road and slew him and his attendants in a fury after being told to stand aside for the royal chariot. Unaware that the first part of the curse had been fulfilled, Oedipus continued to Thebes, which was then under threat from a Sphinx, a monster with the head and shoulders of a woman and the body of a lioness. She guarded the city wall and asked riddles of every traveller who passed, devouring all who failed to provide the correct answer. Oedipus, however, succeeded in solving the riddle and thus vanquished the Sphinx. The grateful Thebans, not knowing that it was he who had killed their king, gave him the crown, together with Jocasta's hand in marriage.

Oedipus ruled peacefully for many years, together with Jocasta who bore him four children. A terrible plague then descended on the city. Oedipus consulted the prophets for advice, and was told that it would not lift until the murderer of Laius was discovered and banished. When Oedipus's attempts to find the guilty party eventually revealed it to be himself, and upon finding Jocasta dead by her own hand, he put out his eyes with one of her brooches. Oedipus fled to the mountains where he had first been abandoned, leaving his sons and brother-in-law to wage a bitter battle for the crown that was recounted in the later legends of Antigone and The Seven against Thebes.

The Oedipus myth is fairly typical of the Greco-Roman school, whose main themes, much like those of the Bible, include incestuous unions, vengeful murders and cruel betrayals. The myth of Uranus, Kronos and Zeus was in fact seen by Henri Ellenberger as a more suitable mythological model of the Oedipus complex than the Oedipus myth itself, since Kronos accomplishes a literal as well as a symbolic castration when he cuts off his father's genitals and throws them into the sea (2). This act is later repeated on him by his own son Zeus (3) - thus the castrator becomes the castrated. In addition, like Oedipus (who was descended from them), both gods also committed incest with family members. Zeus was probably the most famous godly purveyor of incest as he copulated with two of his sisters (Hera and Demeter) and two of his aunts (Themis and Mnemosyne), as well as countless other lesser goddesses. Due to this constant inbreeding, Zeus was both great great great great grandfather (by Hera) and great great great great great great grandfather (by Io) to Oedipus!


1) See Rudnytsky, Peter L. (1987) Freud and Oedipus, Columbia University Press, New York.

2) See Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970) Discovery of the Unconscious, Basic Books Inc, New York, p.506.

3) Zeus's literal repetition of Kronos's castrating act only happens in some versions of the myth; in others he merely overpowers him and imprisons him under the sea. This, of course, is still a "castration" of sorts.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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