The Link Between Oedipus Rex And Myth Essay Examples
The Greek myth of Oedipus is perhaps best known through the lens of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, telling the story of the king’s fall from grace due to the fulfillment of a prophecy that saw him unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. The myth itself has a fascinating relationship between Greek culture and the Sophocles play that tells its story; while Sophocles provides the basic framework of the story, there are subtle differences in the details and focus of the play that change the myth somewhat, further refining its relationship to Greek culture as a cautionary tale on the necessity of sight and the inevitability of fate.
As a myth, Oedipus has existed since at least the 5th century BC, and has been told many times by many other Greek Poets, including Homer (Wilson, 2007). Perhaps the most famous instance of Oedipus’ myth prior to Sophocles’ play is his small appearance in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus encounters Epikaste, Oedipus’ mother (Wilson, 2007). Epikaste tells Homer the story of how she “unwittingly” married her son after he killed his father without knowing it, only finding out after the gods told them (Homer 166). However, this is merely a second-hand telling of the Oedipus myth after it has occurred, which offers instead a way to inform Odysseus in the present of his current situation.
In the traditional myth, King Laius of Thebes is informed by an oracle that he will be killed by his son; as a result, when his wife Jocasta gave birth to a son, he chose to euthanize it by taking it up to Mount Cithaeron, punning his ankles together to make him immobile and leaving it to die. However, a shepherd came across the baby and took pity on him, eventually taking him to King Polybus of Corinth, who adopted him and raised him as his own. As a young man, Oedipus went to the oracle of Delphi and was told that he would kill his father and become a consort to his own mother; as a result, he vowed he would never come back to Corinth to fulfill that prophecy.
On his way to Thebes, he inadvertently ran into Laius; Laius then forced him to get into a fight, which ended with Oedipus killing him and going on his way, never the wiser. Arriving in Thebes, Oedipus saved the city from the threat of the Sphinx by solving the riddle he placed on all passersby, forcing the Sphinx to kill herself. As a thank you from the people of Thebes, he was made their king and given the missing king’s wife, Jocasta. Soon afterward, a plague struck Thebes leaving people infertile and dying in the streets, with Oedipus vowing he would put a stop to it. The Oracle at Delphi informs him he must solve the riddle of King Laius’ murder, as Oedipus did not know that he, in fact, killed him. Despite warnings from the prophet Tiresias, Oedipus continued, and Tiresias himself was eventually forced to reveal that Oedipus was, in fact, Laius’ killer (and son). Upon learning the truth, Jocasta killed herself; however, Oedipus continued to rule Thebes even after these revelations (Wilson, 2007).
In adapting the traditional myth to the stage, Sophocles placed a greater depth of character on Oedipus himself, and gave him a greater hand in securing his own fate. Unlike the Homeric version of the tale found in The Odyssey, Sophocles’ version offers a recounting of the Oedipus story firsthand through the experiences of the characters themselves, offering a greater sense of immediacy and links to modern concerns that were of note to the Greeks at the time. Sophocles, in placing the burden of Oedipus’ fate more squarely in the hands of this man, he restructures and refocuses he myth on the personal tale of someone trying to defy the will of the gods, minimizing the gods’ actual presence within it to increase the drama and make it seem as though he may have a chance to beat the odds. It is through Oedipus’ own investigations and searching that he finds out that he was the murderer of Laius; rather than justly adhering to the will of the gods, he believes he is the master of his fate, which is the central element of the tragedy (thus emphasized through a greater focus on Oedipus’ false sense of agency in the play over the myth).
First among these is the role of oracles, playing into the greater themes of sight and awareness that permeate the play. The interplay between Oedipus and Tiresias illustrates the complex relationship the Greeks have to prophecy and premonitions; Tiresias is a trusted advisor, but as soon as he acts in the best interests of the kingdom, rather than doing what Oedipus says (by simply telling Oedipus to stop investigating). Oedipus is skeptical of the oracle from the start, not believing him even when Tiresias starts to open up to him about the prophecy: “Thou lov'st to speak in riddles and dark words” (Sophocles 456). However, Oedipus’ own lack of sight (indicative of his ignorance of the gods and his fate) is described as a fatal flaw by Tiresias, who foreshadows his own literal blindness: “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step” (Sophocles 517). By ensuring this deeply literal and ironic fate for Oedipus, Sophocles adapts the myth to further illustrate the need to assert the supremacy of the gods and fate in Greek culture.
Greek belief notes that men are tied to their fate, no matter what they try to do; Oedipus, in thinking he can escape his fate and the prophecy, lends him his quintessentially tragic nature, as the Chorus reminds him he cannot actually escape it: “What man can protect himself, warding away the shafts of anger when such things happen?” (Sophocles 921-922). Every action that the characters do to avoid their fate in the play (and its myth of origin) seemingly brings them closer to it; Laius’ attempts to drive his son away from him instead ensures his murder, as he turns Oedipus into a stranger who does not know whom he is killing in battle. Consequently, Oedipus himself marries his mother without even knowing it, and heads straight toward the truth despite the efforts of Tiresias to dissuade him. Even Oedipus, the man who fights against his fate, believes that the gods are unmovable in their plans: “You have spoken justly, but no man can compel the gods when they are unwilling” (Sophocles 291-292). The emphasis on the supreme will of the gods, and the futile attempts to fight it in Oedipus Rex, showcases the danger of violating these central Greek principles, acting as a cautionary tale for those Greeks who may feel they can tempt fate and defy their destinies.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the Oedipus myth as adapted to Oedipus Rex is the omission of the overt intervention of the gods; rather than the gods unveiling the plot of murder and marriage, the mystery is solved through Oedipus’ own doing and investigating, as well as the help of some oracles who offer nonspecific sources for their information. As a result, Sophocles’ primary change to the Oedipus myth is to place the fate of Oedipus in his own hands, while at the same time still leaving him a victim of fate. According to the oracle Tiresias, the only way Oedipus can solve this issue is by solving the riddle of the previous king’s murder, thematically tying Oedipus’ own personal journey and the fate of his people. Oedipus must answer to the people, as Tiresias notes in their first meeting: “you know, although you cannot see, how sick our state is. And so we find in you alone, great seer, our shield and savior” (Sophocles 358-361) .To that end, Sophocles cements the role of the leader as being inextricably tied to one’s own personal problems.
Sophocles also makes major changes to the myth’s ending in the play; whereas Homer’s account seems to indicate that Oedipus continued to rule after Jocasta’s death, Oedipus sends himself into exile after blinding himself with one of Jocasta’s pins. Ironically, it is only after blinding himself that he can truly ‘see’ the true nature of the world, and understands his need to supplicate himself before his family and his people. His final decree to his children is to not make the same mistakes he did: “I urge you— pray that you may live as best you can and lead your destined life more happily than your own father” (Sophocles 1512-1516). Accepting his true nature as a murderer and incestuous lover to his mother, Oedipus sends himself away from civilization after renouncing his family and his city (Wilson, 2007).
Oedipus’ eventual fate at the hands of the gods demonstrates the myth as an important barometer of Greek culture and value. Ancient Greek culture was, in essence, a unique blend of the power of democracy and fealty to the gods; people still had the impression they were largely in charge of their own fate, but the will of the gods could always supersede it (Wilson, 2007). Oedipus’ primary drama within the Sophocles version of the story is the need to assert his own will against that set by the gods, which is shown to be a deeply flawed and tragic mistake. Oedipus’ biggest mistake is in thinking he can best the gods and escape his fate; even the Chorus knows this as they cement how he cannot rate against the gods: “O King, here at thy hearth we sit, I and these children; not as deeming thee A new divinity, but the first of men” (Sophocles 38). Multiple instances within the play cement the difference between him and the gods, Oedipus constantly refusing that he is not in charge of his own fate.
Oedipus in Oedipus Rex also showcases the need for Greek culture to respect governance, and the importance of reason as a defining attribute of a leader. Oedipus, as king of Thebes, chiefly rules with a strong sense of commitment and logic to his actions. At the beginning of the play, he clearly cares about his subjects and wishes to solve the issue of the plague as part of his duties as leader: “my people now all sick with plague, our minds can find no weapons to serve as our defense” (Sophocles 169-171). Having established himself as the champion and king of the Theban people, Oedipus recognizes his cultural role as the Theban people’s arbiter and solver of problems.
However, the events of the play begin to compromise his ability to think clearly. When Creon challenges him and accuses him of acting not in the best interests of the people, Oedipus angrily replies, “If you think that stubbornness is of value apart from reason, you are a madman!” (Sophocles 574-575). Creon’s accusations of irrationality are not incorrect, as Oedipus’ frustration and fear about this situation has clearly compromised his ability to lead. Even the Chorus mentions that there is a difference between “audacity” and reason, and believes that Oedipus is not going about his investigation in a reasonable way (Sophocles 902). In Greek culture, reason was valued above all else, thinking it to be the most valuable asset mankind had; as a result, it is necessary for leaders to lead with reason above all else, rather than emotion (Wilson, 2007).
Of central concern to the Oedipus myth, play, and Greek culture is the importance of family and lineage, which this myth explores. People were chiefly defined by who their kinsmen and family were, and committing a crime against family is shown to be especially heinous. Oedipus expresses his fealty to family when Creon is accused of sending Tiresias to Thebes as a plot to usurp him as King: “If you think a man that does his kinsman ill will not pay the price, you are a fool” (Sophocles 576-577). Oedipus’ righteous anger at his adopted relative’s possible betrayal showcases the absolutely horrifying stakes this kind of threat holds within Greek culture. Crimes against family are especially heinous, as revealed when the Chorus discusses Oedipus’ own sins against his father and mother, unleashing the “terrible unerring Furies” against those who do wrong against their family (Sophocles 496). The extremeness of Jocasta killing herself over the revelation of Laius’ murderer and the fulfillment of the prophecy, as well as Oedipus’ blinding of himself, also establishes the sheer horror of what these crimes implicate for Greeks in Greek culture.
The revelation of Oedipus’ murder of his father and bedding of his mother is said to bring great grief and admonishment upon their house, as the messengers from Oedipus’ palace note: “O you most honoured citizens of Thebes, what actions you will hear about and see, what sorrows you will bear, if, as natives here, you are still loyal to the house of Labdacus!” (Sophocles 1463-1467). As part of Oedipus’ own grief, his violation of his values and his betrayal of his family, he wishes to leave Thebes, the city he was asked to protect: “He wants them to cast him out of Thebes, so the curse he laid will not come on this house if he still lives inside” (Sophocles 1539-1541). In this respect, Oedipus acknowledges his betrayal of Greek values such as loyalty, family, reason and leadership, and refuses to take part in this part of the world any longer.
The ancient Greek myth of Oedipus is, at its core, about the interaction between fate and free will, as well as an example of the Greek virtues of logic, confidence, leadership and integrity. The tragedy of Oedipus is not that he fails to circumvent the will of the fates, but that he was foolish to think that he could in the first place. By adapting the original myth to give Oedipus more personal, complex stakes and characterization, as well as making him largely the engineer of his own fate as opposed to the gods, Sophocles demonstrated the inherent tragedy of believing that you can escape the gods and their plans for you. In many ways, Oedipus is the quintessential Greek – heroic, compassionate, deeply caring about his people and his responsibilities as a leader. However, even these incredible virtues cannot help someone when the gods assert their will upon others. In this sense, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex showcases the idea that Greek values are inherently tragic, as even the most idealized Greek hero can lose a battle because of the will of the gods.
Homer, (2000). The Odyssey. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing.
Sophocles. (2014). Oedipus Rex. Trans. Ian Johnston. Richer Resources Publications.
Wilson, C. (2007). Oedipus: the message in the myth. The Open University. Retrieved from
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