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April 25, 2013

Having seen a fantastic performance of Oedipus Rex last night at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham I have been inspired to write about the myth of Oedipus.

The most commonly recounted version of the myth is that Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta (King and Queen of Thebes). However, the Oracle of Delphi foresaw that Oedipus would kill his father, marry his mother and have children by her. In order to ensure the prophecy could not be fulfilled Laius decided to expose his son upon a hill to die. However, unknown to the King and Queen Oedipus was found by a shepherd who gave him up for adoption to Polybus and Merope (King and Queen of Corinth) to raise as their own. When Oedipus came of age he heard of the prophecy and, believing that Polybus was his father, left Corinth and headed in the direction of Thebes.

On route to Thebes Oedipus was met by a carriage; a dispute broke out between the carriage and Oedipus as to who should give way. During the ensuing battle King Laius, whose carriage it was, and three of his bodyguard died; a fourth person made it away to recount a version of the story to Queen Jocasta. Oedipus went on to Thebes and found the city under siege by the Sphinx. In order to defeat the Sphinx Oedipus had to solve a riddle; which he successfully did and was crowned king of Thebes in recognition of his success, taking Jocasta as his wife.

Oedipus and Jocasta had children together. The murder of Laius and the incest caused a pollution within the city of Thebes which the gods punished with a plague. In order to appease the gods and lift the plague the person who was the cause of the pollution needed to be banished from Thebes forever.

Over the course of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex the truth is revealed to Oedipus. Jocasta commits suicide following the revelation of the truth and Oedipus, realising how blind he has been, takes the brooch from her dress and blinds himself.

I believe that one of the central themes in Oedipus Rex is that of destiny. Oedipus could not escape his fate; despite both his and Laius’ attempts to avoid it. I agree with Kovacs (2009:359) view that ‘in the world of the play all of Oedipus’ actions are perfectly free, but that in the case of the parricide and incest Apollo created a situation where Oedipus, a free agent acting on the information available to him, unwittingly carried out Apollo’s designs’. Oedipus’ destiny is set as a result of his father’s action; the rape of Chrysippus. The gods took offence to the rape and as a result Laius and his descendants became enemies of them. Although it was not Oedipus’  crime it passed to him as the son of Laius. Oedipus unknowingly became the instrument of his father’s death and, in turn, his own actions would result in the destruction of his families blood line. It is likely that to ‘a Greek of the fifth century the morality of dealing harshly with personal enemies had few if any critics, and such treatment often extended to the children of enemies’ (Kovacs 2009:368). Kovacs assertion is of particular interest given the evidence in other myths, such as that of Thyestes and Atreus, there is a cycle of death and destruction wrought over several generations.


Kovacs, David. “The Role Of Apollo In Oedipus Tyrannus.” The Play of Texts and Fragments: Essays in Honour of Martin Cropp. Eds. J.R.C. Cousland and J.R. Hume. Brill, 2009. Brill E-Books. 25 April 2013 DOI:101163/ej.9789004174733.i-580.59


From → Greek Tragedy

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  1. Oedipus Rex (ΣΟΦΟΚΛΗΣ #6) | Peter J Verdil

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