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Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

Credit : classicalwisdom.com

In my exploration of Greek and Roman Mythology with  Dr. Peter Struck we continue with more plays. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides make up the three great playwrights of ancient Athens. In this course we sample materials that survived from each of these poets. For Sophocles we read his play Oedipus.

Oedipus is confident that he can escape the unthinkable fate that was foretold by the Delphic oracle; we watch as he eventually realizes the horror of what he has done. With Odysseus, we saw how a great hero can re-build his identity after struggles, while Oedipus shows us how our identities can dissolve before our very eyes. The myth of Oedipus is one of transgressions—intentional and unintentional—and about the limits of human knowledge.

Introduction to Oedipus

Sophocles (Credit : gutenberg.org)

With Odysseus we looked at the question of identity and the elements that make up a Greek identity. Odysseus had to recover all the things that make him an important and powerful Greek male, his name, his lineage, the place he’s from and his history. What Sophocles does in the story of Oedipus is to treat this question of identity in a different way. For Oedipus the question of identity at each turn is inverted.  Oedipus’ doesn’t quite understand the significance of his own name. His lineage is not only upset it’s perverted. He thinks he knows where he is from but he doesn’t. He’s completely unaware of his past. All these important pieces of a Greek identity, for Oedipus, are upside down.

The story of Oedipus was mentioned before when Odysseus went to the Underworld.

And I saw the mother of Oedipus, beautiful Epicaste. What a monstrous thing she did, in all innocence—she married her own son …who’d killed his father, then he married her! 
But the gods soon made it known to all mankind. So he in growing pain ruled on in beloved Thebes, lording Cadmus’ people—thanks to the gods’ brutal plan—while she went down to Death who guards the massive gates. Lashing a noose to a steep rafter, there she hanged aloft, strangling in all her anguish, leaving her son to bear the world of horror a mother’s Furies bring to life.

Hades- Homer (Credit : homere.iliadeodyssee.free.)

Oedipus’ mother is called Epicaste here from the Ancient Greek: Ἰοκάστη, Epikastê or Iokastê. Her other names are Jocasta and  Jocaste. She was a daughter of Menoeceus and Queen consort of Thebes, Greece. She was the wife of Laius, mother of Oedipus, and both mother and grandmother of AntigoneEteoclesPolynices and Ismene. She was also sister of Creon and mother-in-law of Haimon. (Source Wikipedia) .

Homer doesn’t go into any depth. Sophocles remakes these bare details into an extremely powerful statement and exploration of Greek ideas of identity. In trying to discover the murderer of the prior king of Thebes, Laius, he’s also, unknowingly, pursuing the question of his own identity.

In the staging of the play we see much the same as in all tragedies.  There’s a central door at the back of the stage where a lot of the violence happens.  Oedipus stands center stage and messengers come to him with information that he then has to figure out. Jocasta comes out from behind the door, she commits suicide behind it .Oedipus rips out his eyeballs behind that door.

(Credit : theoi.com)

There are background pieces to this play. Oedipus has an interesting background, we learn it in choral odes and in the reminisces of other characters. Oedipus was born from Laius and Jocasta , prior to that was an oracle that their son would overthrow Laius. He decided to leave the baby out on a hillside to die. The idea is that the baby was to be a gift to the gods. He gave this duty to one of his servants, a shepherd, who took the child into the hillside. He met another shepherd from Corinth. Rather than exposing the child he gave baby Oedipus to this Corinthian shepherd. The Corinthian shepherd returned to Corinth and presented it to the king who was looking for a child. The king and his wife are thrilled to adopt and call him their own.

The king raises the child, and all is well until Oedipus hears another oracle, which tells him that at some point, he’s going to kill his father and marry his mother. He runs away and on the way kills a man at a crossroad. He returns to the city of Thebes where a sphinx is plaguing their city. It won’t leave until someone is capable of answering its riddle. Oedipus is a very smart man and he answers the riddle. The sphinx then goes away. The plague is lifted and, as an extreme example of Xenia, the people of Thebes offer him their kingdom and the recently widowed Queen. Oedipus accept, but all is still not quite right in Thebes, another plague arrives from Apollo. This is where the story begins. Oedipus discovers that the plague was sent because of the murder of Lias, the murderer was never found, and there’s going to be trouble.

Oedipus and Fate

Oedipus and the Sphinx – Fabre, François-Xavier (Credit : terminartors.com)

There are several themes we can track in Sophocles’s Oedipus.  In some of the most prominent ones we see a lot of riddles. Some piece of information tries to send a message, but it’s doing it in some oblique, non-straightforward way. It places us in an unfamiliar position. The world doesn’t come with clear messages, in fact it often comes with messages that tempt you to misread. In Oedipus’s case, he’s put in a position of great jeopardy in his inability to understand the riddles. He’s famously good at riddles when it comes to the Sphinx, but messes up when it comes to the rest of the riddles that come to him through his life.

The question of blindness comes up. Oedipus has wonderful insight but he’s blind to certain truths even after he’s told over and over again by his messengers, people that he should trust, like Tiresias, Oedipus turns a blind eye on what’s going to come. That blindness, he then visits on himself in the very end through this horrific act of self-mutilation blinding himself.

There is also the question of locality and who belongs where. Odysseus was an elemental wanderer, he was in some important rudimentary way a wandering soul, so too is Oedipus. Odysseus embraced and relished that wandering spirit and treated it as a point of adventure. Oedipus ‘s dislocation is one of great tragedy and misunderstanding, this dislocation is a strong piece of the story.

The Oracle of Delphi (Credit :mlahanas.de)

The Delphic Oracle and it’s interactions with the rest of the world is the means by which Oedipus engages in his action. It’s a kind of continuous presence throughout his life. It knows everything that’s going to happen to him but as the riddles come to him, he’s not quite able to get the message that he should. How Delphi comes across in this story is very interesting, it’s complex. Oedipus should be very respectful and humble in front of Delphi, and he’s anything but that. On the other hand, there seems to be a certain cruelty that’s built into this question of faith. Oedipus tries hard to get himself out of trouble, but despite his best efforts he’s unable to do that. Delphi knows what’s going to happen but doesn’t quite give that information to Oedipus in a way that he can fully understand.

The theme of fate is also working in this story and a question of how much Oedipus is to blame for what happens or and how much he is a victim of fate. At first he seems very much not to bear any responsibility. He seems like a decent person. He tries to escape the oracle that he heard. He had heard that he would kill his father and marry his mother so he ran away from what he believes to be his own family in Corinth.In this state of banishment he shows himself to be very wise. He is able to unscramble the oracle of the Sphinx. He’s intelligent and well-centered, in doing that, he lifts an awful plague from a city. He also accepts what’s offered to him, the kingship of this new place which comes with a consort, the queen. He seems to be a good ruler and people seem to like him.

Oedipus and Thebes (Credit : pantherfile.uwm.edu)

Oedipus is diligently trying to stay away from what the oracle tells him he will do, but he also marries a woman that just happens to be the age of his mother. You might wonder why he would do that. He also kills a man, before this, a generation older than he is.

The story of the murder of Laius is a somewhat interesting one. Oedipus was coming down a path and Laius was coming the other way, the two of them ran into each other, but neither would give way. The highway is a scary place in ancient Greece, there are robbers and thieves all around. When two reasonable people run into each other on a pathway, it’s not typical that they should turn to blows, let alone wind up with murder. When you look into the details of the story, after they’ve run into each other they have some words. Laius reaches out with a stick and hits Oedipus on the head at which point, Oedipus kills everybody.

The Slaying of Laius by Kurt Seligmann … (Credit ;annexgalleries.com)

Something is a little wrong with the reaction there. It’s not totally understandable that such a thing would have happened.  It makes you wonder how good Oedipus’s internal judgment is. There’s no question about his raw intelligence. To be able to unscramble the riddle of the Sphinx makes him monumentally clever. Oedipus’s judgment may be just a little bit off, little suspicions raised by the events that happen around people that just happen to be a generation older than he is.

Those little suspicions get more and more underlined as Oedipus starts to square off against the Delphic Oracle.  He continuously positions his own salvation, security, safety, and happiness against the Delphic Oracle. When people run into problems, the Delphic Oracle tells them something they don’t want to hear, they have to stay in conversation with the oracle. They may send back another messenger to say we didn’t like that oracle you gave; can you give us a different one? But usually, you don’t turn your back on the oracle and say, “it’s clear the oracle is wrong.” Anyone who goes around saying the oracle was wrong is setting themselves up for failure. Oedipus is definitely doing that in this story. Oedipus’s reaction goes from denial to outright attack against the Delphic Oracle. This is not a smart thing for him to do.

Oedipus and Oracles

Looking at Oedipus’ strained relationship with the Oracle of Delphi, we can take a step back and look at him as a great solver of riddles. Firstly he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? Most people will know that this is a man, as an infant, a grown up, and then an old man with a cane. In the play, we see him challenged over and over again by people who bring messages from Delphi. The messengers, Creon, Teiresias, Jocasta, a Corinthian messenger who comes, and finally, the herdsman from, Oedipus’ own home Thebes. These figures give him messages that are difficult to understand but surely can’t be much more difficult than the Sphinx. He’s unable to see through them and he pays a terrible price for that inability to understand.

Tiresias (Credit : mlahanas.de)

Creon, his borther-in-law, is the first to come back from Delphi. He was sent there by Oedipus to try to find out why there is a plague on the City. Creon comes with a message that, on the face of it is very clear. He too has a bright face, he thinks that he’s bringing good news. His message is clear

“King Phoebus in plain words commanded us to drive out pollution from our land, pollution grown ingrained within a land.”

There’s some problem here that needs to be solved, and we need to kick out the murderer of Laius.

Teiresias then tries to fill in some of the gaps that  Creon didn’t quite understand. The clarity that came with certain breeziness in Creon’s first message gets really convoluted and ugly when it comes to Teiresias, who knows the full story. He’s Apollo’s priest and we should listen to him. That Oedipus doesn’t is a problem.  Teiresias tells us:-

Teiresias
Alas, how terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it. I knew this well, but let it slip from my mind: otherwise I would not have come here.

Oedipus
What now? How disheartened you have come!

Teiresias
[320] Let me go home. For you will bear your own burden to the end, and I will bear mine, if you consent.

Oedipus
Your words are strange and unkind to the state which nurtured you, since you withhold this response.

Teiresias
I see that you, for your part, speak inappropriately. [325] Therefore do not speak, so I will not suffer the same.

Oedipus
For the love of the gods, do not turn away, if you have knowledge: all we suppliants implore you on our knees.

Teiresias
For all of you are without knowledge. But never will I reveal my troubles—not to call them yours.

He tries not to tell Oedipus what he knows. Oedipus doesn’t like someone messing with him as though there’s some great secret Teiresias knows and wont share. Eventually, after several more lines, Teiresias tells him that he is the pollution.

Teiresias
[350] In truth? I order you to abide by you own decree, and from this day forth not to speak to these men or to me: you are the accursed defiler of this land.

The play should be over, Apollo’s priests have just told Oedipus that he’s the one that killed Laius. Apollo said they need to get rid of this murderer; the murderer is pollution in the land.  It should be over at this point, but Oedipus doesn’t accept, the message.

Oedipus
What did you say? Speak again, so I may learn it better.

Teiresias
[360] Did you not understand before, or are you talking to test me?

Oedipus
I cannot say I understood fully. Tell me again.

Teiresias
I say that you are the killer of the man whose slayer you seek.

Then Oedipus turns nasty and starts accusing Teiresias of all kinds of things. Creon comes back and  Oedipus starts blaming Teiresias and Creon, at which point Creon says:-

No mind will become false while it is wise. No, I am no lover of such a policy, and if another put it into action, I could never bear to go along with him. And, in proof of this, first go to Pytho, and ask whether I brought a true report of the oracle. [605] Then next, if you have found that I have planned anything in concert with the soothsayer, take and slay me, by the sentence not of one mouth, but of two—by my own no less than yours. But do not assume my guilt on unproven inference. It is not just to judge bad men good at random, [610] or good men bad.

Jocasta: Shows — Oedipus (Credit : shows.vtheatre.net)

He’s telling Oedipus to pay some respect in homage to the Oracle and if he doesn’t believe his messengers then he should go himself.  Creon then puts in a really important message that Oedipus is not quite ready to hear.

Creon
[625] Are you resolved not to yield or believe?

Oedipus
<No, for you persuade me that you are unworthy of trust.>

Creon
No, for I see you are not sane.

Oedipus
Sane, at least, in my own interest.

Creon
But you should be so in mine also.

Oedipus
You are false.

Creon
But if you understand nothing?

Suppose you do not understand?  Human beings have to be ready to reckon with times when their knowledge is incomplete, when they can’t solve the riddle.  Oedipus is unable to do that. He’s consistently saying he will prove that this oracle from Delphi is wrong. He will not find a solution down that path.

Jocasta tries to reassure him and affirm that the oracle was wrong.

Listen to me, and take comfort in learning that nothing of mortal birth shares in the science of the seer. [710] I will give you a pithy proof of this. An oracle came to Laius once—I will not say from Phoebus himself, but from his ministers—saying that he would suffer his doom at the hands of the child to be born to him and me. [715] And Laius—as, at least, the rumor goes—was murdered one day by foreign robbers at a place where the three highways meet. And the child’s birth was not yet three days past, when Laius pinned his ankles together and had him thrown, by others’ hands, on a remote mountain.

Oedipus is shocked, What?  When? Where? at the crossroads? He thinks back to that time and the person in his way, and when in a frenzy of fury he’d killed the king and his attendants. Now he realizes that what’s been said all along is true, he’s Laius’ murderer. His reaction:-

“What restlessness of soul, lady, what tumult has come upon me since I heard you speak!”

(credit : moviegoods.com)

He realizes now, about half way through the play, that what the oracle said is true, he is responsible for the king’s death. He doesn’t have the whole picture quite yet. That takes a couple of things to come together, a couple of pieces of the story. He sends for the herdsman who happened to escape when Laius was killed. He wants the herdsman to try to exonerate him from the problem. He’s hanging onto the story that Laius was killed by thieves, multiple people and he can’t have been thieves in the plural. He wants the herdsman to confirm that story.

The Theban herdsman who survived Laius’s murder is also the one who Laius gave the infant Oedipus to when he was born.  This person is already playing multiple important roles in Oedipus’ past. The fact that Oedipus is in the dark about this is the most important piece of the play.

In the meantime, a messenger from Corinth arrived who thinks that he has wonderful news for Oedipus. The king his father, Polybus, the king of Corinth is dead. That of course is sad, but they want him to be king of Corinth. Oedipus and Jocasta at that point rejoice because the oracle that said Oedipus would kill his own father can’t be true. But, the messenger from Corinth says, oh no don’t worry about that. There’s no way you could have killed your own father, because he’s not your father. I got you from a Theban herdsman, who handed you over to me, saying that you were no longer wanted in your kingdom, you were an adopted son. Oedipus thinks this is not good news at all, and when the herdsman comes back in, the Theban herdsman now, two pieces of Oedipus past have come together. When he was a child and exposed on the hill, this Theban herdsman was supposed to abandon him there and rather do that he handed him to a Corinthian.

Polybus and Creon. (Credit :mlaworldlit.blogspot.com)

The Theban herdsman’s identity is confirmed three times. Oedipus, the chorus, and the Corinthian messenger each recognize him as playing an important role in Oedipus’s past. Oedipus hears the tale of how he was exposed on the barren wilderness, with his ankles pinioned together, and left to die. Laius had hoped never to be a part of his life, he understands himself to have been the murderer of his own father Laius. Soon enough it dawns on him that he’s also now currently sleeping with his mother.

Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus rips out his eyes, trading this wonderful insight that he has, for blindness. In a certain sense, Oedipus’s coming to a point of blindness physically is an enactment of an inability to see the depth of things around him even though he’s the smartest, cleverest man around he has limits. Oedipus has to deal with this, though he had refused to do it in the past.

The Land and the Identity

In teasing out his own identity, Oedipus, has to reckon with his lineage; his background, with Jocasta and with Laius. He has to wrestle with the conclusions and winds up in a terrible state. As that part of his story was unfolding, another one was also piecing itself together, which is another piece of what Greek identity is all about, not just your lineage, but also where you’re from, the city, the land you’re from.

Picture Credit : Peter Struck

Picture Credit : Peter Struck

Oedipus’ story of where he’s from is interesting and complex. We can take a look at a map to try to get a grip on how this story starts.  Thebes, Cithaeron and Corinth are around from mainland Greece down to the Peloponnese or the Corinthian peninsula. Thebes is famous and has a rich, complex background. Corinth is also well-known, very civilized and very well-settled. Cithaeron is different it is a trackless wilderness out on the hillside, not well-known. Oedipus in trying to figure out his own background and the land he’s from, toys with his connection to Thebes on the one hand, and to Corinth on the other.  The mean vector connecting Oedipus to the soil around him goes back to this trackless wilderness of Cithaeron. Oedipus is a hero, such as he is, from a place that is absolutely uncivilized. The question about land and where Oedipus is connected to comes up at the very beginning of the play when Creon is talking. It is in the oracle that he got from, Delphi.

Creon
[110] In this land, the god said. What is sought for can be caught; only that which is not watched escapes.

The clue is in the land. He’s talking to Oedipus about how they have to find the murderer of Laius and the murderer of Laius is still among them, the clue is in their land. But the statement’s also very general and in that sense invites us to read into a second layer of meaning that says the clue to finding out what Oedipus is about is also in the land.

Oedipus starts to develop a further and deeper identity to Cithaeron. It lies in the middle, between the two places he thinks he might belong to, Thebes and Corinth. We hear from Jocasta (720) talking about how Laius cast Oedipus out forth on a ‘pathless hillside’, at that point an unnamed infant son.  Oedipus starts to realize there’s some connection and when the Corinthian messenger starts to piece together Oedipus’s story in front of him. He says ” on Cithaeron slopes in the twisting thickets you were found”  he has a connection to this pathless hillside.

Credit ; wikimedia

The chorus addresses Cithaeron directly:-

Chorus
If I am a seer or wise of heart, [1090] Cithaeron, you will not fail—by heaven, you will not—to know at tomorrow’s full moon that Oedipus honours you as native to him, as his nurse, and his mother, and that you are celebrated in our dance and song, [1095] because you are well-pleasing to our prince. O Phoebus, to whom we cry, may these things find favour in your sight!

Cithaeron is now getting the position of being the actual lineage that makes Oedipus who Oedipus is.  Then Oedipus talks directly to Cithaeron.

“Alas, Cithaeron, why did you provide a shelter for me? When I was given to you, why did you not slay me straightway, that I might never reveal my origin to men?”

Then finally

“But never let this city of my father be condemned [1450] to have me dwelling within, as long as I live. No, allow me to live in the hills, where Cithaeron, famed as mine, sits, which my mother and father, while they lived, fixed as my appointed tomb, so that I may die according to the decree of those who sought to slay me. “

Oedipus starts to honor Cithaeron, as a womb, the entity that gave him his start in life. He claims to be directly from the land. This is an important piece of Greek identity. Cithaeron introduces us to how his connection to the land is compromised. He finds that he is from a  pathless uncivilized place in the middle of two great places.

Chtonic Identity

Kadmos (credit : wikipedia )

Oedipus’ story of Thebes is rooted in a family with close connections to the land. Cadmus is part of Oedipus’ background. The founding families of Thebes emerged when Cadmus was on a journey from his ancestral home in Phoenicia and came to Thebes. There was a serpent that wound itself around a spring and threatened people. Cadmus slays the serpent, takes its teeth and throws them into the ground. From these teeth sprout armed grand heroes. They have a massive battle. Five of them survive and they become the founding families of Thebes. This is the story where the Thebans understand themselves to come from, or at least where the Athenians understand the Thebans to come from.

Universal law number seven: a deep connection to the land is a common human expression. Humans love to claim deep connections to the land.

There is an aristocratic dimension to this that shows up in Greek materials.  People have a certain pride when claiming to have been connected to the land. There’s some residual sense, back in a feudal society, that this land just came to them, and it belongs to them in some sense. The idea of being dislocated and wandering, such as, Odysseus embraces, is a little bit disconcerting. Roots and connection to land, is comforting.  In a story like the stories like we see in the founding families of Thebes, there’s a strong, connection to the land. The idea shows up in this idea of birth from the land itself.

There’s a Greek term for this, called ‘autochthony’ meaning from the ground itself. ‘Chthonic’ is about earth-based things and ‘auto’, added in front of that means the earth itself. Autochthony is a theory that people were born from the earth itself. This expresses a deep connection to the land. Stories of autochthonous birth are common in ancient myth. Great heroes in the past have these connections. When people have autochthonous connection to the land they also have some defect in the foot. This is typically associated with ideas of autochthony. The claim is that if you grow up like a plant out of the ground, at some point, someone has to pick you, they pluck you out of the Earth. When they do your feet get disfigured.

Achilles has his heel, this is probably connected with that background. Jason, a famous Greek hero, famously loses a sandal early on in his adventures. Feet are typically a side of vulnerability in Homer. We see this in the case of Hector. Achilles uses Hector’s feet to drag him around. Lameness of the feet shows up in other lineages of grand heroes where we think autochthony is being hinted at. Whether it all coheres together in a single picture is another question.

In the case of Oedipus, it seems clearly to be something that’s going on. Oedipus’ name is pretty closely linked to the Greek term for swollenness, ‘Oideo’, a Greek term meaning to swell, plus pous, foot. So Oedipus is: he of swollen foot. There are multiple reasons why his foot is swollen. His father cut right through his tendons, and binds his feet together at his ankles. But there is a further connection to the autochthonous background that’s being hinted at in talking about Oedipus’ lameness. The feet come up in several places in Oedipus’ story.

Creon, talks about line 130, this sphinx.

The riddling sphinx induces us to neglect the mysterious crimes and rather seek solution of troubles at our feet.

(Translated differently in the perseus.tufts edition)  Something right in front of them that seems to be what he’s saying but also, there’s a bit of a trouble when we get to Oedipus, with his feet. There’s a riddle that needs solving. Why is it that he has this terrible scar there? Taureseus (417)  talks about ‘a deadly footed, double-striking curse from father and mother both shall drive you forth.‘ Again there is a different translation in the on-line version making me wonder what else I have missed.

Tiresias appears to Odysseus (credit Wikimedia)

Oedipus’ curse is connected with his feet, through Tiresias, this prophet, who has, Apollo’s own insight. Jocasta tells us that King Laius pierced his ankles. Oedipus talks about going on foot, recounting his own version of the event where Lias was killed. There’s a connection with Oedipus’ rootedness in his foot-based identity. The messenger as he’s telling Oedipus his own background says: “I loosed you, the tendons of your feet were pierced and fettered, so that from this you’re called by your present name, Oedipus of the swollen foot.” Each of these points in the story links us back to Oedipus’ foot defect and the foot defect typically, in mythology, is tied to a background of autochthonous birth, a pure connection to the land.

What Sophocles has done, extremely skillfully in tying these two things together, is to take some piece of Oedipus’ past that is a purposeful intervention by his father in order to try to kill him, and links it to another way of talking about Oedipus’ own background. The scar on his feet can be emblematic of the father’s attempt to kill him and  also of Oedipus’ own connection to Cithaeron. He belongs in a special way to this land. This earth born connection is going to give him roots that, despite his  father’s attempts to erase his connection to Oedipus, Oedipus still survived and grew. If his father had not tried to ostracize him Oedipus would not have been reborn and had this special connection to Cithaeron. The only thing that has grounded truth for Oedipus is this autochthonous connection to Cithaeron, giving us this iteration of a deep connectiveness which has a sad kind of pathetic quality to it. All that Oedipus has left is this barren wasteland and the idea that he’s abandoned.

Readings of Oedipus

Oedipus gives us a wonderful opportunity to dip into our toolbox. Oedipus is incredibly rich and has given scholars in many different fields a good opportunity to think with the materials that Sophocles presents us. Peter Struck presented a few ideas of what can be learned from it.

A functionalist reading.

Functionalism says that myths are told in order to legitimize and authorize social norms in the culture that is telling the myths. In this case there are multiple social norms that are authorized and legitimized. Firstly the prohibition against incest is being shown to be the right thing to do. Where it’s being exhibited to us, the possibilities of awfulness that come from committing incest and the prohibition against it is definitely here being underlined, authorized, and legitimized.

Secondly is the importance of the role of Delphi in ancient Greek Society. There is a very strong message built into this play that divine wisdom that comes from oracles should be heeded. The traditional set of structures around the oracles, the temple sights, the people that run the oracles. These people are being authorized by the story.  Oedipus turns against the oracle and tries to talk about his own grandeur, as opposed to the oracle being wrong. The right thing to do if an oracle tells you some disturbing piece of information is to go back to the oracle. Oedipus takes it into his own hands to try to run away from the things that the oracle has told him. He eventually turns against the oracle. That’s strategically a blunder. You should never put yourself in a position like that. Oedipus’s play through a functionalist’s lens is authorizing this important social role of the oracle as a keeper and protector of truths in a society.

A Freudian reading

Freud would tell us, sure, of course we’re repulsed by Oedipus, but it’s true that all of us are in the end, repellent to ourselves because we have these, core, primal desires. We live in ignorance of these primal desires. So like Oedipus, we’re in ignorance of our own crimes, since we’re constantly repressing them. Freud says we have conflicting feelings about our parents. We have feelings that are maybe too strong, they’re upsetting to us and so, we consistently repress them. Freud will tell us yes, the Oedipus story grows out of precisely those strong repressed emotions, of a sense of the son having competitiveness with father, and a sense of intimacy with the mother. These desires come out, we repress them, but they have to make their way out or otherwise the steam kettle is in danger of blowing. So we have things like dreams, which consistently do show things, as people collect examples of dreams across societies. Struggles with fathers are common, intimacy with mothers. Mothers are common in these kinds of dreams. Freud would say Oedipus grows out of a primeval set of these dreams, and his myth is like the dream of an entire culture trying to live out these, allowing a repressed desire to come out in a displaced form onto a now separate human being, Oedipus, on to whom we can kind of drop all these desires, let him express them for us.

We live out those desires through him and in the end find him repulsive, so we, shoe him and send him on his way.

A structuralist reading.

There were hints in Oedipus’ tale of a connection that he feels with Cithaeron.  He is expressing a very old and stubborn idea about where humans come from, in Greek mythology. The idea that human beings might just sprout up from the Earth itself is something that shows up in ancient Greek mythology. It is hard to eradicate because of its appeal. It gets rid of the problem of wandering, it shows that human beings do indeed belong to a certain kind of birth, because the earth gives birth to them. It also allows for a certain kind of escapism from the complexities that we have with genealogical descent. To claim that a person is from a mother and a father, and has a crazy uncle, and a strange cousin, and all of the complexities that a family entails, can be burdensome. The idea of autochthony gives you not only this connection and roots to the land, but also a chance to think of yourself as having a lineage that is displaced from all the people and the family background.

A structuralist might look at the Oedipus story, and see the whole story, from Cadmus forward, as a family that’s oscillating between on the one hand, embracing the idea of genetic lineage and background in their family, and on the other hand, talking about autochthonous birth from the land itself.  Neither one of them is exactly resolved,  the tension between these two ideas is not worked out through the story. Instead you’ve got a human realization that we come from other people, which make our lives complex, and a human fantasy, which turns out to be very hard to eradicate, that claims that we come from the land itself. These two things are in tension, and the tension. A structuralist would claim that the Oedipus myth is a result of the tense voltage between these two poles that can’t really be reconciled but who’s expression we find both side by side in Sophocles’ very rich tale of Oedipus.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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