THE BLACK FATE OF OEDIPUS
“Ah, Zeus, you are a tyrant. You have no pity upon Man. First you create him, then you fill his life with trials and tribulations.”
If the great poet Homer uses these harsh words to take the lord of gods and men to task for the sufferings of Odysseus, what words will suffice to tell of the fate the gods reserved for Oedipus, when they cast him into the blackest depths of misery and misfortune?
The destiny of Oedipus was fixed before he even came into the world. His father, Laius, was burdened with a dreadful curse. Welcomed as a guest by Pelops, king of Pisa, he had behaved so vilely towards his handsome son Chrysippus that the young man killed himself for shame. Wild with grief that could not be consoled, his father had cried out:
“Son of Labdacus, it is you who killed my boy, and so I give you both my wish and my curse, too. My wish is that you never bear a son to know the pain of losing him – but if you do, may you be cursed to meet death at your own son’s hand!”
Laius paid little heed to Pelops’ bitter words. He went back home to Thebes and in time inherited the throne of his father, Labdacus. Yet a day would come when he would pay a heavy price for having abused that hospitality so foully. Not only would he pay in person, but all the clan of Labdacus in their turn, and the innocent Oedipus most dearly of them all.
Years later, Laius married Iocaste, the daughter of Menoeceus. He had no children by her, though, and this weighed heavily with him, for now there would be no one of his line to rule the kingdom after him.
“I shall go to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi,” he told Iocaste, “to learn what is to blame and beg the god to grant us a son who shall succeed me.”
Although Iocaste did not have much faith in oracles, she nodded her agreement, and so, loaded with rich gifts, Laius set out to seek Apollo’s aid.
Yet when he heard the prophecy Apollo’s priestess had in store for him, Laius quailed in horror.
“Son of Labdacus,” intoned the Pythoness, voicing the stern god’s words, “you begged to know the joy of fatherhood. You shall have the son that you desire – but your fate shall be to die at the hands of your own child and all your line to drown in their own blood. It is the will of Zeus, the son of Cronus, that the death of Chrysippus may not go unavenged.”
With bowed head, Laius made the journey back to Thebes.
“So Pelops’ curse was not just bluster, after all,” he told himself, and as he rode, he pondered how he might evade his fate. At last he reached the palace, and when he found Iocaste he told her curtly:
“As of tonight, we sleep in separate rooms.”
“Why?” asked Iocaste in dismay.
“So that we never have a child.”
“You, of all people, now tell me such a thing?” she asked him in bewilderment.
“Yes, I – who longed so dearly for a son. But now, alas, the oracle at Delphi has warned me I shall die at the hands of my own child!”
Iocaste did not share her husband’s fears.
“Most oracles prove false,” she answered lightly, “and here you are telling me we should not have a child, when we both long for one so desperately?”
Yet Laius’ mind was not so easily to be changed, and Iocaste, who still yearned to have a baby, decided to trick her husband. On the next occasion that he held a banquet, she refilled Laius’ wine-cup time and time again until the king was drunk. Then she led him to her bedchamber and slept with him in the same bed.
Sure enough, nine months later the child was born whom Laius had been so anxious to avoid. It was a boy. His mother was delighted, but his father, fearing the oracle would prove true, had no thought in his mind but how he might destroy his son. And so, before the child was three days old, he gave it to a faithful herdsman, with orders to take the infant high up on the slopes of Mount Cythaeron and leave it there to be devoured by wild beasts. Fearing the baby might somehow crawl away and be found by kindly people, he drove an iron rod through its feet, bound them with rope, and ordered the herdsman to tie the baby to a tree. Seeing the horror in his servant’s eyes, he added:
“Do exactly as I tell you, or I shall tear you apart with my own hands!”
“Your majesty, I shall carry out your orders,” replied the shepherd, but as he left, his ears rang with Iocaste’s despairing cries, the grief of a mother losing all a woman holds most precious, be she queen or beggar. Her wailing drove out all thought of abandoning the child to the mercy of the wolves and vultures, and the poor fellow racked his brains to find a way of saving it.
On the hillside he met an old friend of his, another shepherd who was tending the flocks of king Polybus of Corinth. Knowing the man to be a good-hearted fellow, he told him how the infant had been given him by a cruel nobleman, with orders to leave it in the mountains, where the wild beasts would devour it.
“Give the lad to me,” the other shepherd offered. “I’ll take him down to Corinth and give him to king Polybus. He has no children, and I’m sure he will be glad to take him in.”
“On one condition, though,” replied king Laius’ shepherd. “Never tell anyone it was me who gave the child to you. Say that you found him, tell them any tale you like – but don’t reveal it was the king of Thebes’ man let you have the boy.”
Having agreed on this, the two of them released the poor child’s legs and cleaned the bloody wounds as best they could. Then the second shepherd cradled the baby gently in his arms and took him down to king Polybus in Corinth.
Polybus and his wife Merope were delighted by the unexpected gift, and as they had not been blessed with children they decided to bring the boy up as their own, so that one day he might rule over Corinth. Now a name was needed, and looking at the swellings where the poor child’s feet had been so cruelly pierced, they decided to call him Oedipus, or ‘Swollen-foot’.
Oedipus spent his childhood in the palace of Polybus, believing the king and Merope to be his real parents. With the passing of the years he grew into a fine young man – handsome, strong, clever and brave. Victor in every athletic contest save for running and jumping, he was admired by all his peers. He had one failing: his temper was quick to flare – and in this he was just like Laius, his true father.
Once, at a drinking session, a young noble who had taken more wine than he could hold, started to laugh at Oedipus and make fun of him, forgetting it was the heir to the throne of Corinth that he was addressing. Oedipus answered angrily, insulting the youth in front of everybody present, only to have an even deeper insult flung straight back in his face:
“Bastard! Do you really think Polybus is your father?”
“What did you say, fellow?” roared Oedipus, beside himself with rage – and with a single blow he laid the other senseless on the floor.
Yet from that moment onwards, Oedipus was plagued by doubts. He voiced his fears to Polybus and Merope, who tried to allay them by assuring him he was their real son. But Oedipus could not let the matter rest and decided to go to Delphi and ask Apollo’s oracle. When he came before the Pythoness to put his question, he was determined to accept whatever prophecy the god might grant to him, even if it revealed that he was the son of the humblest beggar.
The answer the god voiced through his priestess’ lips was more horrifying still:
“Leave this place, cursed mortal. You will ascend your father’s throne when you have killed him, then marry your own mother, and father children on her who will be loathed by gods and men alike.”
Shaken to the core, and believing that the oracle spoke of Polybus and Merope, Oedipus decided he would not return to Corinth. Instead he took the road which led to Thebes, the city where his real father, Laius, lived and ruled.
That very day, Laius himself had set out from Thebes for Delphi. He was coming to ask the oracle how the Thebans might be delivered from the Sphinx, a fearsome monster which was terrorising the city and all the lands about it. Drawn by his charioteer, Laius was accompanied by his herald and three serving men. As fate would have it, father and son, who were strangers to each other, were destined to meet at a crossing of the ways, where a road led off to nearby Daulis, and in a spot so narrow there was just room for one chariot to get through.
Not guessing that this was a royal party bearing down on him, Oedipus did not think to stand aside, sure there was room for the chariot to pass if he kept well to his side of the road.
“Stop where you are, young man!” cried Laius. “First let your betters pass!”
“I have no betters but my parents and the gods!” retorted Oedipus and instead of waiting for the chariot to go first, he tried to make his way past it.
“I’ll make pulp of you, you braggart!” screamed the charioteer in fury, and pulled on the reins so that the heavy, iron-bound wheel ran over Oedipus’ left foot. At the same moment, Laius lifted high his whip and brought it slashing down across the young man’s face. What followed was inevitable: raging with pain, Oedipus struck the king fair and square in the chest with his staff – so hard that Laius toppled lifeless from the chariot. The others fell on him with swords and spears but none had Oedipus’s strength and skill, and one by one his attackers met their death. Only one of them had not dared use his weapon, preferring to escape the danger as fast as his legs would carry him.
After the killings at the crossroad, Oedipus continued on his way to Thebes, not guessing he had just slain the ruler of that city, and that this man was his father. As he was crossing Mount Phikion, he caught sight of the Sphinx, perched on a rock beside the road.
The Sphinx was a monster with a woman’s head and breasts, the body of a lion, an eagle’s wings, iron talons and a tail which ended in a dragon’s jaws. This creature was the daughter of Typhoon and Echidne, and the Thebans lived in terror of her. Her claws could tear men and animals to shreds, and many a brave young fellow who had found the courage to challenge her had died in the attempt. Her favourite way of luring victims to destruction was to stop passers-by and give them a knotty riddle to solve. No one could ever answer, and each time, the Sphinx devoured another victim. However, it was said that if anyone could come up with the solution, the Sphinx would throw herself from the rock in furious rage and be dashed to pieces. Just what the riddle was, no one had ever learned, for of all those who had gone to hear it, none had ever returned.
Yet when the fearless Oedipus laid eyes on the Sphinx, he approached her determined to rid Thebes of her pestilential presence or die in the attempt like all the others.
Having caught sight of him, the winged monster showed no sign of wanting to attack. She preferred to humiliate the hero first by setting him a riddle he could never solve.
“What is the creature,” she asked him, “which moves in the morning on all fours, walks upright on two legs at noon, and in the evening walks three-legged?”
As soon as Oedipus had heard the riddle, he answered without hesitation: “It is man. In the morning of his life he crawls on hands and knees, and that makes four; when he grows to manhood he walks on two legs; and when he grows old he needs a stick to help him get along, and that makes three.”
Before he had even finished speaking, the Sphinx swelled up and shook with rage, so violently that she toppled from her rocky perch and fell with a thunderous crash which shook the countryside for miles around. The fearsome monster was no more. Oedipus, using no other weapon but the power of his mind, had saved Thebes from disaster. Soon, all those who had gone into hiding for fear of the Sphinx emerged and ran to smother Oedipus in their embraces. Then they lifted their new hero shoulder-high and carried him in triumph off to Thebes.
Meanwhile, the survivor of the battle at the crossroads had got back to the city. Hardly daring to reveal his dreadful news, he told how the king and all his other followers had been killed. Ashamed to admit that a single man on foot had defeated them unaided, he made out that a whole gang of robbers had fallen on the royal party.
When the people’s grief at the king’s death had subsided, Iocaste’s brother Creon called all the citizens to a public meeting.
“Men of Thebes,” he told them. “Evils fall upon us thick and fast. Not only do we live in terror of the Sphinx, but now we have lost our king, just as he was on his way to Delphi to learn how we might rid ourselves of that vile monster. For days, our state has been ungoverned, for as you know, there is no successor to the throne. A ship without a captain will not sail far, but when the captain has to face a menace like the Sphinx, the ship is just as much at risk, however good he is. I thus propose that we come to a decision which will both save us from the monster and give a new king to our people. Let us announce that whoever succeeds in rescuing Thebes from the clutches of the Sphinx will take the throne of Laius as his prize, and with it queen Iocaste for a wife.”
When the Thebans heard these words, they were paralysed with fear. The bravest young men of the city had already lost their lives in trying to defeat the fearsome monster. Was anyone left who would dare approach the Sphinx, when it was common knowledge he would be walking straight into the jaws of death?
As they stood there trembling, a messenger came running in.
“Brothers!” he cried. “The Sphinx is no more! There is nothing left to be afraid of. A hero dared to face her. He solved the riddle and the monster toppled from the rock and fell to her death below.”
The news was incredible. In a moment a thousand voices rose in a clamour. Some wept for joy, while others could not believe that at last the curse had been lifted from their land.
Then a huge throng came streaming through one of the great gates in the city walls, carrying Oedipus along with them, and they bore him up the steps to where Creon was standing. There was no longer any doubt: the monster was dead and this hero was the saviour of the city. Now his prize would be the throne of Thebes and the hand of queen Iocaste.
And so Oedipus, who had killed his father without knowing it, now took Laius’ place and married his own mother. He was delighted at the turn events had taken, for he believed he had escaped his fate, not only for the present but for all time to come. Even so, he kept one thing in mind: he must never set foot in Corinth.
Poor, deluded Oedipus! How could you have guessed that you had already killed your father, that the marriage with your mother was now a fact – and all because you were burdened with a fate that was ordained for you before you even came into the world? Such was the will of Apollo – that Pelops’ curse should take effect and Laius’ hideous crime be punished.
Oedipus had four children by Iocaste: two boys, Eteocles and Polyneices and two girls, Antigone and Ismene.
Thus the final part of the oracle was fulfilled: Oedipus had children by his own mother, children who were at one and the same time his brothers and sisters, too. Yet he and everybody else in Thebes was completely ignorant of the fact. Only Teiresias, the blind seer of the city, would turn his face away whenever he sensed that Oedipus was near him, but even he said nothing.
Oedipus ruled wisely over Thebes, loved by a people who continued to look upon him as their saviour. For many years, no shadow fell upon his reign, while he considered himself the happiest of men, convinced that the gods had looked upon his deeds with favour.
Yet up on Olympus, it had not been forgotten that Labdacus’ descendants must be made to pay. If that punishment was slow in coming, it was not because the outrages Oedipus had committed in his ignorance had been forgiven, or because Pelops’ curse had been overlooked. If he was left, and even helped in his long climb up the stairway to earthly happiness, it was only to make his fall more horrible and his pain the more unbearable.
Simply to make men understand the power of the gods.
No, they did not forget the luckless Oedipus, innocent though he might be. And fate so worked that it was he himself who started to reveal the truth. When the first horrible glimmerings of that truth appeared, he was the one who wanted it laid bare in all its horror, and stubbornly insisted that full light be shed on it, not counting the price that he would pay. And since the pangs of conscience always torture the innocent far more sharply than the guilty, he condemned himself by his own insistence to a punishment harsher perhaps than any mortal had ever had to bear.
All this is told in Sophocles’ immortal tragedy ‘King Oedipus’, on which the tale that follows has been based.
Excerpted from Oedipus - The Tragedies by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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