Exile and Triumphant Return
The only son of Laius and Jocasta was not well loved by his father. Fearful of the prophecy of doom for himself and his city, Laius and Jocasta (who now knew the secret) pierced the infant's feet with an iron spike and gave the baby to the king's shepherds, who were instructed to leave him exposed on Mount Cithaeron.
Abandonment and Adoption
The shepherds, pitying the defenseless child, disobeyed their king and queen. They saved the child and presented him to Periboea, the childless wife of Polybus, king of Corinth.
Mythed by a Mile
According to one tale spinner, the shepherds neither saved the baby nor left him on the mountaintop. Instead, they put the child in a chest and threw it into the sea. The chest soon washed up to shore near Corinth, where Periboea (also called Merope) was overseeing her servants as they did the royal laundry. The servants were too busy to notice the child, but Periboea found him, hid herself and the child in a thicket, and pretended to give birth. The queen told the truth about the baby's arrival only to her husband, Polybus.
No matter how the baby came to Periboea and Polybus, the Corinthian rulers welcomed him, named him Oedipus, and vowed to rear the child as their own. So Oedipus, like his father before him, grew up in exile—with the important distinction that Oedipus was entirely ignorant of his parentage.
After growing to adulthood, Oedipus, like Laius, received a warning from the oracle at Delphi. One night, a drunk taunted Oedipus for not resembling his father. Perhaps, the lout suggested, Oedipus was not really Polybus's son. Distraught by this thought, Oedipus traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle about his true parentage. But Oedipus never had a chance to pose his question. The Pythia, Apollo's prophetess, drove him from the shrine, shrieking that he would murder his father and marry his mother. His presence would defile the shrine.
Oedipus means Swollen Foot—a name that derives from the wounds on the tragic hero's feet.
Horrified by this prophecy, Oedipus headed toward the east, as far from Corinth as possible. Not knowing that the couple who had raised him and whom he loved so dearly were not really his parents, Oedipus vowed never again to see Periboea and Polybus.
In his ignorance, Oedipus headed straight for Thebes.
At the Crossroads
Meanwhile, back in Thebes, Laius was preoccupied with forebodings of his own. The Sphinx, a monster, was devouring the citizens of Thebes. In addition, Laius had recently learned of omens foretelling that, despite his ill treatment of his infant son, the king of Thebes had not escaped his fate.
Read All About It
The most fully realized version of the Oedipus myth can be found in three of Sophocles' plays: Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus (called Oedipus Rex in Latin or Oedipus the King in English), and Oedipus at Colonus. The plays, written over the span of about 37 years, show Sophocles' enduring interest in this mythic cycle.
Once again, Laius set out in his chariot for Delphi. Some say he went as the king—to ask the oracle how to get rid of the Sphinx who was terrorizing his city. Others suggest he went as a man—to seek further information on how he might avoid his fate.
As Laius's chariot approached a crossroads where the narrow road split—one road leading to Delphi, the other to Daulis—the king's party saw a solitary man traveling on foot.
“Step aside!” the charioteer shouted. “Make room for those better than you!”
But the young man—Oedipus himself, of course— refused to give way to let the chariot pass. He insisted that no one—save the gods and his own parents—was better than he.
As the chariot passed, Laius or one of his servants struck the stranger on the head or a wheel banged against the young man's foot—or both.
Mythed by a Mile
Who was really at fault at the crossroads? Sophocles—the most renowned teller of this tale—points a finger at the arrogance of Laius, who scorned the anonymous wayfarer. Other storytellers point to the arrogance of Oedipus, who refused to make room for the king.
In any case, the young man became enraged. He furiously pulled Laius from the chariot and beat him, the charioteer, and all but one of his servants to death with a stick.
Entirely unaware that the dreaded fate he had tried to avoid for so long had now come to pass, Laius died at the hands of this stranger, his son. Equally unaware, Oedipus left the dead where they lay. Laius was later buried with his attendants at this spot.
Trying to avoid their fate, both Laius and Oedipus had run headlong into it—and into each other—at the crossroads.
Riddle Me This
Without a clue that he had already fulfilled the first part of the oracle, Oedipus continued on to Thebes. When he arrived, he found the city at the mercy of the Sphinx. A monster who had the head of a woman, the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent, and the wings of an eagle, the Sphinx was devouring the young men of the city. Hera had sent the monster to punish the House of Cadmus, perhaps for Laius's abduction of Chrysippus.
Perched on nearby Mount Phicium—or, according to some, on the citadel's walls or on a pillar in the city's marketplace—the Sphinx tormented the Thebans with a riddle:
“What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?”
The More Things Change ...
Myths involving riddles have occurred in many cultures through the ages. In the famous fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” the Brothers Grimm tell of a magical dwarf who would claim the firstborn child of a queen if she could not guess his rather peculiar name. Through luck and quick wits, the queen discovered the name and the little man was destroyed with rage when she solved his “riddle.” So, too, the Sphinx destroyed herself when her riddle was solved.
Whoever answered the riddle of the Sphinx correctly, the oracle had foretold, would set the city free from the Sphinx. Unfortunately, whoever answered the riddle incorrectly was immediately strangled and devoured by the ravenous Sphinx—and no one had yet solved the riddle.
Just before Oedipus entered Thebes, the Sphinx had eaten Haemon, the son of Creon and nephew of Jocasta. (Creon, Jocasta's brother, was serving as regent of Thebes while his in-law King Laius was “away” at Delphi.)
Shortly after Oedipus arrived, the news came that King Laius and his attendants had been slain. Yet the city could spare no one to seek out and bring the murderer to justice. The Sphinx posed a much more immediate problem.
Creon, grieving over the deaths of both his son and his brother-in-law, offered up a handsome reward to anyone who could defeat the Sphinx. The solver of the riddle would win the hand of his sister, the recently widowed Jocasta, and a share in the kingdom of Thebes.
Oedipus volunteered to try and save the city. His answer to the riddle of the Sphinx? “Man—who crawls in his infancy, walks upright in his prime, and leans on a cane in his old age.” The enraged monster—furious that someone had solved her riddle—threw herself from her perch to her death.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.