Oedipus Rex

Delahoyde & Hughes


The Backstory:

An exiled Laius is received by Pelops, King of Elis. Laius becomes infatuated with Pelops’ son Chrysippus and abducts him, an act that will initiate the family curse for this ingrown branch of it. Laius journeys to Thebes and marries Jocasta, daughter of Menoeceus, the founder of the city. The oracle foretells that she will give birth to a son but he will bring about a curse on the parents because of the Pelops business. Therefore, when the child Oedipus is born, he is exposed on Cithaeron with a spike driven through his ankles. (Oedipus means something like “swollen-foot.”) The infant is discovered and adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope.

Years later, Oedipus is mocked by a drunken companion for being an adoptee, so he consults the oracle at Delphi and is told he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents, he takes the precautionary measure of leaving town and heading for Thebes. An incident of road-rage has him slay a man in a chariot. One servant escapes.

Outside Thebes is the Sphinx, a monster sent by Hera to plague the city. It asks those who pass by a riddle. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell discusses this:

The Sphinx in the Oedipus story is not the Egyptian Sphinx, but a female form with the wings of a bird, the body of an animal, and the breast, neck, and face of a woman. What she represents is the destiny of all life. She has sent a plague over the land, and to lift the plague, the hero has to answer the riddle that she presents: “What is it that walks on all four legs, then on two legs, and then on three?” The answer is “Man.” The child creeps about on four legs, the adult walks on two, and the aged walk with a cane.

The riddle of the Sphinx is the image of life itself through time — childhood, maturity, age, death. When without fear you have faced and accepted the riddle of the Sphinx, death has no further hold on you, and the curse of the Sphinx disappears. The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. (151-152)

The most interesting aspect about the Oedipus story is his metaphorical blindness. It seems obvious after a few moments of seeing him in action in the play that when, long before the events of the play, he answered the riddle of the Sphinx correctly, he treated it not as an insight but simply as a triumphant “getting the right answer.” Oedipus aced the test but did not become educated.

Works Consulted

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988.

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992.