My knowledge of King Oedipus was merely based on what I’ve read from Freud’s theory. As defined, Oedipus Complex is an unconscious sexual desire of a child for his mother and hate toward his father as the child considers him a rival for his mother’s affection. I thought that the story of Oedipus the King was just about a man killing his own father to sleep with his mother. It was only when I read the play that I learned that it wasn’t Oedipus’s intention to murder his father, let alone copulate with his mother. But it was fated, some would say, that’s why it happened, or perhaps it’s a subconscious process, if you ask Freud:
His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (Sigmund Freud)
An oracle informed King Laius and Queen Jocasta that they will have a child that is destined to murder his father and sleep with his mother. Upon knowing this, King Laius pinned the infant’s feet together and decided to cast the infant away to die. Unable to bear doing it with their own hands, the queen commanded a servant to take the infant to the mountainside and let the infant die there “from exposure.”
The servant brought the infant to the mountainside but could not bear the guilt of committing the act, so he handed the infant to a shepherd whom carried the infant to Corinth where the infant was given to a childless royalty. The infant was then named Oedipus because of his swollen feet.
Growing up, Oedipus heard rumors that he was not of the king and queen’s flesh, so he confronted his parents about this. But he was told that those stories were all untruth, that he was their own child. Still suspicious, Oedipus went to the oracle of Delphi to ask who his real parents were. The oracle ignored his question but told him of his fate: that he was to kill father and marry his mother. After that, he made a choice to “put the stars between him and Corinth” and never to return again to avoid the aforementioned oracle.
On his way to Thebes, where “three roads meet,” he had an encounter with a carriage, which pushed him off the road. A violent quarrel ensued over the “right of way,” and this led to him killing the rest of the group but one. Unbeknownst to him, one of whom he killed was his father, King Laius, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.
When he arrived in Thebes, the country was under the curse of the sphinx who kept asking a riddle, destroying those who can’t answer it:
What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?
Oedipus gave his answer:
A man. (As an infant, a man crawls in all fours, growing up, he walks on two feet until he walks with a walking stick [three legs] in old age).
This released the city from the sphinx’s curse. Oedipus was rewarded the kingship of Thebes, marrying Jocasta, his own mother.
The prophecy has been fulfilled without any of them knowing it.
The city of Thebes was stricken by a plague, and the people went to the king’s palace to seek aid. The king already sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to the oracle of Delphi to ask how to stop the plague. The king was waiting for the oracle, he told his people.
Then Creon had arrived and asked King Oedipus whether they speak in private or he speak the oracle in front of the people. Oedipus opted for the latter, for “nothing is more important to him that the suffering of his people.”
The oracle said that a murderer of the previous king was polluting the soil of Thebes and justice must be served in order to free the city from the plague. With characteristic pride, Oedipus promised that he will find the murderer and serve justice.
In the palace, Tiresias, the blind seer the king has sent for, told Oedipus, during a heated argument, that he is the polluter, King Laius’s murderer. Insulted, Oedipus fumed from the seer’s statement, then put two and two together: he thought that this was one of Creon’s schemes to destroy his kingship. He took pride at his “discovery,” his seeing through things, even telling the seer how he, being just Oedipus, answered the sphinx’s riddle and freed the whole land of Thebes.
The blind seer told Oedipus that what he said was the unblemished truth, that he was polluter. But Oedipus proceeding with his arguments, irritating Tiresias. “You are please to mock my blindness,” the blind seer said, “but have you eyes and do not see your own damnation?” Tiresias exited the palace, angered by the king’s actions.
Creon knew about the king’s accusations on him and swore that if the king proves him guilty, the king is free to implement justice. After being told by the chorus to take Creon’s word for it, Oedipus then allowed Creon to go.
Jocasta came in and asked what’s happening. Creon told her the king’s accusations. Jocasta convinced the king that her brother is telling the truth and that the blind prophet Tiresias was wrong—that many prophets had been wrong before. She told Oedipus the story of King Laius’s child, a child that was said to be fated to kill his own father and sleep with his mother. She told him they “killed” their own child to avoid the oracle. Oedipus was told that King Laius was killed by robbers, not by his own son. But something in story troubled Oedipus as Laius was killed at a place “where three roads meet.” He was reminded of an incident wherein he killed a group of people. He asked Jocasta for Laius’s descriptions, which matched exactly to one of whom he killed. Jocasta comforted Oedipus, telling him that there was a survivor, a shepherd, who swore that several robbers, not one person, killed the king and his men. Oedipus then sent for that shepherd.
While waiting, Oedipus recounted to Jocasta his past and how he arrived to Thebes. He told him why he left Corinth because of an oracle and how he killed a group of people on his way to Thebes. He was frightened that he might have killed King Laius and his men.
Jocasta went out to the holy temple to pray for Oedipus. Then a messenger from Corinth arrived and said that Polybus, king of Corinth, the father of Oedipus, was dead. Good news! Jocasta thought as she went back to palace, along with the messenger. The news brought relief to Oedipus but was still worried that maybe it was because of the grief he caused by leaving Corinth that killed his father. He was still afraid of the oracle: that he will marry his own mother. The messenger told him to fear not as he was not of the king and queen’s flesh.
Oedipus was stunned, and he asked the messenger why he knew all this. The messenger replied that in the past, a fellow shepherd gave him an infant, which he brought to the childless king of Corinth. That infant grew up to be Oedipus. For further proof of his tale, he told Oedipus about his ankles, how they were swollen because they were pierced. Oedipus asked who gave the baby to him. The messenger said that it was one of Laius’s servants. By this time, Jocasta turned white as she now knew the truth. She stopped Oedipus from questioning further, but Oedipus ignored her, saying that he wants to know the truth—who he really is—and wouldn’t stop until he finds it. Jocasta ran out of the palace, cursing.
The shepherd Oedipus sent for had arrived. The messenger of Corinth reminded the shepherd of the their past and told him that the infant was now in front of them: Oedipus. The shepherd was in terror, asking Oedipus not to question him any further, but the king threatened to kill him if he wouldn’t utter the truth.
Finally, the secret was revealed. The shepherd cried out loud that it was done to avoid the oracle: he was commanded by the king and queen to let the infant die in the mountainside but had not the heart to do it, thus giving it to a fellow shepherd.
Oedipus broke down in disbelief, in rage, and felt the curse of his fate. How vile the gods were to make him subject of their whims! He told the servants to bring him a sword so he would tear his mother’s wombs. He went to their home, rushed into Jocasta’s room, and found her body hanging dead. He took her down, removed the gold pins from her dress, and plunged them into his eyes.
He pierced his eyes time and again until bloody tears ran down his beard—not in drops but in full spate a whole cascade descending in drenching cataracts of scarlet rain.
Now blind, Oedipus begged to be exiled, but Creon told him that it was for the gods to decide. Oedipus asked for his daughters and begged Creon to take care for them. Oedipus was then led away from the city.
Love and Self-Preservation
What struck me first was King Laius’s immediate, bold, and seemingly cold-blooded decision to kill his own child—which was still an infant—upon knowing the oracle. I felt no love coming from both parents, only the guilt of staining their hands and concern of their fame and power and, mostly, of themselves. But it’s their child, the union of their own flesh. It was a wonder to me how they could resort to infanticide. When I read about ancient Greek history, I found out that “infanticide through exposure” was widely practiced during that time. It was a “preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself is not murder…the child had technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or a passerby.” This was once acceptable.
It’s evident that they have no love for their own child. Instead of suffering—or maybe even dying for their own beloved child, they have chosen themselves. It’s this absence of parental love that disturbs me; its what led to the act of disposing the infant as if it were just an object, a piece of furniture that keeps on bringing bad luck.
The oracle and King Laius’s choice to kill his own child were the first major events of the play. This is the advent of the doomed fate of Oedipus, who lived and obliviously killed his father and slept with his mother, and even sired offsprings. When Oedipus discovered the truth, he was in the fullness of his rage toward his fate and his parents that he wanted to rip her mother’s womb apart with a sword. But Jocasta, choked by the guilt, hanged herself as she could not face her son. So Oedipus took the golden pins from his mother’s dress and plunged them into his eyes repeatedly, perhaps for seeing the horrible truth.
Bleak and miserable, the play exposes the extent of selfishness and how far humans will go just to survive—that even a parent will kill, eat, his own child if the situation demands it. This same act, though varying in degrees and in methods, is happening in this world. It’s a wickedness that never fades with time. Humans will do anything for self-preservation no matter how ruthless they’ll become. Man is part animal; man can just throw away all morals and sink in depravity. Morality is maybe an illusion. (What kind of morals do gods have putting Oedipus and his parents in that situation?)
As a child, for example, I even saw a mother cat eating her own kittens out of hunger. (Humans too have done this.) It’s either the lack of love or just the powerful instinct for self-preservation—the life instinct that “screams bloody murder.” Humans, undoubtedly, do this in a number of ways. But we know humans have the ability to transcend such circumstances, and that’s through selfless acts of love and sacrifice, which are perhaps alien to the gods. Immortals will never know what dying for someone means.
Love and sacrifice are the most beautiful and heartbreaking of human acts because in doing so, human show courage to face their own vulnerability and mortality for what they love. A deed gods can never do—completely fading into the darkness without salvation and be nothing more. Love, when strong enough, is a respite from death.
(Many times , I was tempted to respond to Christians saying that Jesus died on the cross for us sinners; I want to tell them that technically, Jesus died for three days and was resurrected. It’s a divine act, the resurrection, I know, but what I am referring to here is a savior, a Messiah, without a promise of resurrection, like a soldier, a mere mortal, dying in war whose name is now forgotten.)
Now I imagine King Laius and Queen Jocasta loving and raising Oedipus despite knowing the oracle, even accepting it wholeheartedly because of their love for the child. Perhaps this selfless love alone can make the gods tremble and Oedipus will change his fate.
I say this not out of pride but because of hope for humanity: We may suffer heavily from our weaknesses, but we can be stronger than the gods if we choose to be. We can create a better world because we are mere mortals; we know what life really means because we know what it means to only live once.
Free Will and Fate
Was Oedipus merely a puppet of fate or…
I pondered whether it was entirely the gods’ fault that the prophecy has been fulfilled or it was solely because of Oedipus’s own choices, since the oracle did not directly influence his actions when he killed his father and slept with his mother.
We cannot deny that those acts were because of his own choosing, but we also cannot just leave behind the oracle as it may be the one that started the chain of events that led him to where he ended. (Paraphrasing from Albert Camus’s The Rebel: It’s impossible to live a life without choices, but it’s also impossible to live a life of perpertual choosing.) As for the reason behind the oracle, we can never know what the gods wanted to happen in the first place, why such cursed fate had befallen on Oedipus.
Despite the prophecy, it can never be denied that Oedipus and his parents had made the choices, not the oracle. This is what torments us, being humans: we have free will, but we can never control everything.
From another perspective, it can be simply seen that Oedipus was a puppet of fate as if he made no conscious choices, because it’s all written and God knows everything that will happen. To think of it that way, we see that we are but phantoms of the past and no longer responsible for our present actions. Since the present is highly dependent on the past conditions (the Butterfly Effect), for example, the oracle, how can we accountable for our present choices? In this play, without the oracle being made, things would have been different for Oedipus and his family. A single element creates a chain of infinite continuity, and this single element also stems from a previous one and the previous one from a previous… It roots all the way back to beginning. We can even think that the oracle has been made as punishment because of King Laius’s or Queen Jocasta’s actions in the past.
I believe in making conscious choices, but I also believe that there are things that go beyond our choosing, that even if we were to make that choice, it won’t make a difference as we can only choose based on what the circumstance permits. I can “choose” to fly by flapping my hands, but that doesn’t mean I can do it. I can choose to live forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible. But here we see the “act of choosing,” which is the heart of the matter. We can choose what we want to become. The curse is that our capacities are finite; we are not gods. What happened to Oedipus was the torture of being human, and the same curse is on us.