Oedipus – The Tragic Hero Who Solved the Riddle but Couldn’t Unravel His Fate

Oedipus was a man of many riddles but one tragic destiny. A figure so compelling, he’s been the subject of plays, books, and endless scholarly debates. To truly understand Oedipus, one must delve into his family background and the myths that surround him.

Oedipus Key Facts

ParentsLaius & Jocasta
PartnersJocasta
SiblingsNone
OffspringAntigone, Ismene, Polynices, Eteocles
Other NamesNone
Roman NameN/A
Best Known MythThe “Oedipus Rex Trilogy” and “Seven Against Thebes”

Name and Etymology

The name “Oedipus” is of Greek origin, meaning “swollen foot.” This peculiar name has its roots in the unfortunate circumstances of his infancy. His feet were bound when he was left to die on a mountainside. 

In Roman mythology, there isn’t a direct counterpart to Oedipus, making him uniquely Greek. Various epithets and titles have been used to describe him. However, none have stuck as much as the original name, which encapsulates his tragic life.

Oedipus ssolved the riddle of the Sphinx, saving Thebes.
Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oedipus’ Family and Relationships

Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. However, a prophecy foretold that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, his parents ordered him to be left on Mount Cithaeron to die. Fate however had other plans; he was found and raised by the King and Queen of Corinth.

Oedipus’ birth is shrouded in the dread of a prophecy. It plays a significant role in shaping his later life and relationships. His childhood in Corinth was relatively peaceful, but the revelation of the prophecy led him to leave his adoptive home, setting the stage for the tragic events that would follow.

As for love interests, Oedipus was tragically bound to his mother, Jocasta, whom he married unknowingly after solving the Sphinx’s riddle and saving Thebes. This incestuous relationship led to the birth of four children: Antigone, Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles, who would later become key figures in the Theban plays.

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Myths about Oedipus

The myths surrounding Oedipus are as intricate as the man himself. While various accounts exist, the most comprehensive portrayal of his life comes from the Theban plays, a trilogy by Sophocles that includes “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone.” Another significant source is Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes,” part of a trilogy whose first two plays are unfortunately lost to history. Let’s delve deeper into these compelling narratives.

Solving the Riddle of the Sphinx

Before delving into the Theban plays that chronicle the life of Oedipus, it’s crucial to understand the event that catapulted him into fame and, ironically, set the stage for his tragic downfall: solving the Riddle of the Sphinx. The Sphinx was a monstrous creature—part lion, part woman—that had been terrorizing the city of Thebes. She perched herself on a rock outside the city and posed a riddle to all who passed by, devouring those who failed to answer correctly. The city was in a state of despair, yearning for a savior to free them from this menace.

Enter Oedipus, a man of keen intellect and courage. He took on the Sphinx’s challenge and solved her riddle, which went: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” The answer, “Man,” was a reflection of the stages of human life. Upon hearing the correct answer, the Sphinx threw herself off the rock, effectively lifting the curse that had plagued Thebes. Oedipus was hailed as a hero and subsequently made king, unknowingly stepping onto a path that would lead to unimaginable tragedy. This seminal event serves as a prelude to the complex web of fate, free will, and human frailty that defines the life of Oedipus.

“Oedipus Rex”

The first play, “Oedipus Rex,” serves as a devastating introduction to the hero’s tragic life. Oedipus, already the King of Thebes and wedded to Jocasta, is faced with a plague ravaging his city. The Oracle of Delphi reveals that the plague will only lift when the murderer of the former king, Laius, is brought to justice. Oedipus, ever the seeker of truth, embarks on an investigation that leads him to a horrifying revelation: he himself is the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother.

The play is a masterful exploration of the themes of fate and free will. Despite his best efforts to escape destiny, Oedipus finds himself ensnared in a web of prophecies that he can’t evade. The climax is a cascade of tragedies: Jocasta hangs herself upon discovering the truth, and Oedipus, in a fit of despair, gouges out his own eyes, choosing blindness over the unbearable sight of his reality.

“Oedipus at Colonus”

The second play, “Oedipus at Colonus,” offers a glimpse into the twilight years of Oedipus’ life. Exiled from Thebes and accompanied by his loyal daughter Antigone, he seeks sanctuary in the city of Colonus. Here, Oedipus is portrayed as a man who has come to terms with his cruel fate, finding a form of redemption through his suffering. The gods, acknowledging his trials, grant him a unique form of immortality: he is swallowed by the earth, his body never to be found.

This play serves as a form of catharsis, both for Oedipus and the audience. It explores themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the transformative power of suffering. Oedipus, once a tragic figure, finds a semblance of peace and even heroism in his final moments, his life serving as a testament to the enduring human spirit.

“Antigone” 

The final play, “Antigone,” shifts the focus to Oedipus’ strong-willed daughter, who defies the authoritarian rule of King Creon to give her brother Polynices a proper burial. Antigone’s actions are driven by a sense of duty and justice, qualities she undoubtedly inherited from her father. She believes that divine laws trump human laws, a conviction that leads her to defy Creon’s edict and face the ultimate sacrifice—death.

Antigone’s tale is a powerful narrative in its own right, exploring themes of civil disobedience, morality, and the inexorable force of destiny. Her story ends tragically, serving as a catalyst for a series of devastating events, including the suicides of Creon’s son Haemon and his wife Eurydice. Thus, Antigone’s tale serves as both an extension and culmination of the tragic legacy of Oedipus.

Seven Against Thebes

Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes” offers another perspective on the Oedipus mythos, focusing on the siege of Thebes led by seven champions, including Polynices, Oedipus’ son. The play serves as a grim epilogue to the Oedipus story, rooted in the curse he laid upon his sons to divide their inheritance “by the sword.” The narrative culminates in a tragic climax, with both sons killing each other, thereby fulfilling Oedipus’ curse and adding another layer of sorrow to his already tragic tale.

This play, though not part of Sophocles’ trilogy, enriches our understanding of the Oedipus narrative by focusing on the repercussions of his actions on the next generation. It serves as a poignant reminder that the sins of the father are often visited upon the children, completing the tragic cycle that began with Oedipus himself.

Depiction and Characteristics

Oedipus is often depicted as a strong, yet tragic figure. His most defining characteristic is his relentless pursuit of truth, regardless of the personal cost. This trait makes him both admirable and pitiable. In terms of symbols, the Sphinx often represents the riddles and tragedies that envelop his life.

His personality is complex; he is a man of action, quick to judge but also deeply introspective. The Ancient Greeks saw him as a cautionary figure, a man whose virtues could not save him from the cruel twists of fate. There are no specific animals or plants associated with Oedipus, but the Sphinx remains a lasting symbol of his story.

Representations of Oedipus in Art

Oedipus has been a popular subject in art, especially during the Renaissance. Perhaps the most famous depiction is “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. This painting captures the tense moment when Oedipus confronts the Sphinx, his face a mixture of determination and apprehension.

Another notable artwork is “The Blinding of Oedipus” by Bénigne Gagneraux, which portrays the tragic moment when Oedipus blinds himself. The painting captures the raw emotion and the horrific realization of his deeds.

In modern times, Oedipus continues to inspire artists, serving as a complex symbol of the human condition, caught between fate and free will.

Mentions in Ancient Texts

The story of Oedipus has been immortalized in various ancient texts, each offering a unique lens through which to view this complex character. From the plays of Sophocles to the epic poems of Homer, the tale of Oedipus has been told and retold, shaping our understanding of this tragic hero. Let’s explore some of these seminal works.

Oedipus and the Sphinx.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sophocles

Sophocles’ Theban plays, consisting of “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone,” are perhaps the most comprehensive accounts of Oedipus’ life. Written in the 5th century BCE, these plays delve deep into themes of fate, morality, and the complexities of human nature. Sophocles presents Oedipus as a tragic hero, a man of noble birth and virtuous character, yet doomed by fate to a life of suffering. His works have been the cornerstone for understanding Oedipus and have influenced countless adaptations and scholarly discussions.

Homer

Homer, the legendary author of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” also makes mention of Oedipus, albeit briefly. In “The Odyssey,” Oedipus is cited as a well-known tragic figure. Indeed a cautionary tale of the consequences of defying fate. While Homer’s account doesn’t offer a detailed narrative, it serves as an early testament to Oedipus’ widespread fame and the enduring impact of his story. The mere mention in such an epic work signifies the cultural importance of Oedipus in ancient Greece.

Aeschylus

Aeschylus, another giant of Greek tragedy, offers a different perspective on the Oedipus myth through his play “Seven Against Thebes.” Although the first two plays of this trilogy are lost, the surviving text focuses on the siege of Thebes and the tragic fate of Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Aeschylus’ work serves as a grim epilogue to the Oedipus story, emphasizing the cyclical nature of tragedy and the inescapable grip of fate.

Euripides

Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles and Aeschylus, also touched upon the Oedipus myth, most notably in his play “Phoenician Women.” This play explores the aftermath of Oedipus’ downfall. It is focusing on the siege of Thebes and the tragic fates of his offspring. While Euripides takes some liberties with the story, his portrayal adds another layer of complexity to the Oedipus narrative. Particularly in how it deals with themes of family, destiny, and the consequences of defying the gods.

Pseudo-Apollodorus

Pseudo-Apollodorus, often simply referred to as Apollodorus, is another important source for the Oedipus myth. Particularly in his work “Bibliotheca,” a comprehensive compilation of Greek myths and legends. While not as detailed as the plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ account is significant for its focus on the Riddle of the Sphinx, one of the most iconic episodes in Oedipus’ life.

In “Bibliotheca,” Apollodorus recounts how Oedipus solved the Sphinx’s riddle, thereby lifting the curse that had befallen Thebes. The Sphinx was a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. It had been terrorizing the city, killing anyone who failed to solve her riddle. Oedipus’ success in this intellectual challenge not only saved the city but also set the stage for the unfolding of his tragic destiny.

Apollodorus’ account serves as an essential reference point for understanding the mythological context in which Oedipus operated. It offers a more straightforward, less dramatized version of the events, focusing on the heroic aspects of Oedipus’ character.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the riddle of the Sphinx?

The riddle was: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus correctly answered, “Man.”

Did Oedipus have any siblings?

No, Oedipus did not have any siblings. He was the sole child of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes.

How did Oedipus become King of Thebes?

He became king after solving the Sphinx’s riddle, thereby saving Thebes from its curse.

What happened to Oedipus’ eyes?

Oedipus blinded himself after discovering the terrible truth of his life, using Jocasta’s brooch pins to gouge out his eyes.

Who were Oedipus’ children?

He had four children: Antigone, Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles, all born from his union with Jocasta.

Did Oedipus die a hero?

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” he finds a form of redemption and dies a mysterious, almost divine death. Moreover, suggesting that he did, in some sense, die a hero.

Featured Image Credit: Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia

Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of www.greek-gods.info which has been merged with Olympioi.com. She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.