Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Myth of Oedipus

Oedipus, Son of Laius and Jocasta
Oedipus is one of the most important and famous figures in mythology. He was the son of Laius, King of Thebes. When Amphion and Zethus gained possession of Thebes, Laws had taken refuge with Pelops, but had repaid his kindness by kidnapping his son Chrysippus, thereby bringing a curse on his own family. Laius recovered his kingdom after the death of Amphion and Zethus, and married Jocasta, but was warned by Apollo that his own son by Jocasta would kill him.
In order to escape death at the hands of his son, Laius had the child, Oedipus, exposed on Mt. Cithaeron with a spike driven through the child’s feet. There the child was discovered by a shepherd who took it to Polybus, King of Corinth, and Merope his Queen, who brought up the child as their own son. Later, being taunted with being no true son of Polybus, Oedipus enquired of the Delphic Oracle about his parentage, but was only told that he would kill his own father and get married to his own mother.
Killed His Father and Married His Mother in Ignorance
Thinking that this prophecy referred to Polybus and Merope, Oedipus determined never to see Corinth again. At a place where three roads met, he encountered Laius whom he did not know, and was ordered to make way. A quarrel followed, in which Oedipus killed Laius, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophecy but without realising the identity of the man he had killed. He then went on to Thebes, which was at that time suffering great misfortunes at the hands of a monster called the Sphinx who asked people riddles and killed those who could not give the correct answers. As the monster’s riddles could not be answered by anyone, all those entering the city were being killed by it. Creon, brother of Jocasta and regent of Thebes, offered the kingdom and Jocasta’s hand to whoever should rid the country of the monster. Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx and thus became the King of Thebes and married Jocasta (his own mother) without knowing who she really was.
Oedipus Blinded Herself
Oedipus and Jocasta had two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two daughters, Ismene and Antigone. At last in a time of famine and pestilence, the Oracle announced that these disasters could be averted only if the slayer of Laius were expelled from the city. Oedipus thereupon started a search for the man who had killed Laius. The result was to establish that he himself was Laius’s son and also his murderer. On this discovery, Jocasta, finding that she had been married to her own son, hanged herself while Oedipus blinded himself. Oedipus was removed from the throne and banished.
His Two Sons and How they Died
Attended by his daughter Antigone, he wandered to Colonus in Attica, where he was protected by Theseus and where he met his end. According to another version, Oedipus remained shut up in Thebes. His sons having given him cause for displeasure, he put a curse on them that they should die by each other’s hand. When they succeeded to the throne, on the deposition of Oedipus, they agreed to divide the inheritance, ruling in alternate years. But Eteocles, who ruled first, refused to make way for Polynices when his year of kingship ended. Polynices had spent his year of absence from Thebes at the court of Adrastus, King of Argos, and had married his daughter. Adrastus now assembled an army to support the claims of his son-in-law. The army was headed by seven champions, the famous “Seven against Thebes.” To each of the seven champions was allotted one of the gates of Thebes to attack, while Eteocles likewise entrusted a Theban warrior to defend each gate. The invading army suffered a heavy defeat. Eteocles engaged in a combat with his brother Polynices, and the two killed each other. Creon, now King of Thebes, ordered that the bodies of the enemies and particularly that of Polynices should be refused burial. (This was a grave punishment, for unless buried, the dead could not enter Hades, the kingdom of death).
The Tragedy of Antigone, a Daughter of Oedipus
What followed is variously told. One version is that given by Euripides in his play, the Suppliants. Another version is that Antigone, rebelling against Creon’s decree, managed secretly to perform the rites of burial over her brother. For this she was placed alive by Creon’s order in a sepulchre, even though she was betrothed to his son Haemon, and there she killed herself while Haemon stabbed himself beside her dead body. This is the version in the Antigone of Sophocles. (According to yet another version, Antigone, detected in the act of cremating her brother’s dead body at night, was handed over by Creon to Haemon to be killed. But Haemon hid her in a shepherd’s hut and pretended that he had killed her. Later, their son, having come to Thebes for a festival, was recognised by a birthmark common to all his family. To escape from Creon’s vengeance, Haemon and Antigone killed themselves or perhaps were saved by divine intervention).

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