Classical Mythology: Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King

Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King

The bare bones of the Oedipus story are familiar today to many people—even to those who know little of classical mythology: He killed his father and married his mother. Thanks to pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the story of Oedipus is in the twentieth century perhaps the best remembered of the classical hero myths.

Despite our familiarity with Oedipus and the notorious events of his life, few of us know the full story. Well, hang on: It's a tale of intrigue, deception, and family rivalries that spans generations and makes the Tony Sopranos and Michael Corleones of our world seem like children in a sandbox.

A House Divided: Oedipus's Ancestors

The story begins long before the tragic hero's birth. Thebes, the city that Oedipus would one day rule, had been founded by his great-great-grandfather, Cadmus.

Cadmus had come from Phoenicia to Greece in search of his sister Europa, whom Zeus had spirited away. At the site that would become Thebes, Cadmus met with a ferocious dragon that destroyed his army. Yet Cadmus ultimately defeated the dragon.

The House of Cadmus.

The House of Cadmus.

At the command of Athena, Cadmus then sowed the teeth of the dragon in the ground. At each spot where he planted a tooth, an armed warrior rose up out of the ground. The army of Spartoi (“sown men”) seemed ready to attack when Cadmus, again at Athena's bidding, threw a stone into the crowd. In the chaos that followed, all but five of the warriors killed one another. The five Spartoi who survived allied themselves with Cadmus and helped him build the city of Thebes.

Cadmus—the city's first king—later married Harmonia, a daughter of Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Ares (the god of war). The first rulers of Thebes had four daughters—Agave, Autonoe, Ino, and Semele—and one son: Polydorus. (See the following figure.)

Watch Where You're Looking: The Heirs of Cadmus

The next two generations of the House of Cadmus did not fare well. Most suffered grave misfortune or, even worse, died horrible deaths:

  • Semele. Semele became one of Zeus's many mistresses and conceived a son: Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry (see Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Dionysus). Deceived by jealous Hera, Semele demanded that Zeus show himself to her in his true form. Awestruck by the sight of the storm god, Semele was consumed by his lightning. (Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus, however, carrying the child to term in his own thigh.)
  • Autonoe. Autonoe had a son, Actaeon. A hunter, Actaeon came across the goddess of hunting, Artemis, and saw her bathing with her nymphs. Allowing a mortal to see her naked was something Artemis could not endure. She transformed the young man into a stag and his hounds ripped him to shreds and devoured him.
  • Ino. Ino became the second wife of Athamas, king of Orchomenus. The couple had two sons and Ino had great ambitions for them. To clear their way to the throne, Ino plotted to kill her stepchildren: Phrixus and Helle. But Zeus saved these children by sending a golden, winged ram to carry them to safety. (For more on this ram and its “Golden Fleece,” see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts.)
    Ino and Athamas also earned Hera's wrath by honoring Zeus's request to care for their nephew: the god's son, Dionysus. To punish them, Hera drove Ino and Athamas mad. Athamas, under the delusion that his son was a deer (or a lion cub), killed one of their children with a bow and arrow. Ino plunged their other son into a boiling cauldron, then leaped with the boy into the sea. (The two then became sea deities: Leucothea and Palaemon.)
  • Agave. Agave married Echion, one of the surviving Spartoi. They had a son, Pentheus, whom his grandfather Cadmus chose to succeed him as king of Thebes.
Read All About It

In his tragedy The Bacchae—which tells the tale of Pentheus and Agave—Euripides points out the parallels between their punishment and the fate of Actaeon at several crucial moments during the play.

Agave and her son made the mistake of offending Dionysus by denying that he was a god. Pentheus made matters worse by forbidding the women of Thebes from taking part in the wild rites held in Dionysus's honor. To punish them both, Dionysus drove Agave mad and tricked Pentheus into spying on a Dionysian festival open only to women. When they caught Pentheus, the revelers, deluded into believing he was a mountain lion, ferociously tore the king apart. Like his cousin Actaeon and his aunt Semele, Pentheus had suffered a gruesome death brought on by witnessing something he should never have seen.

The Sins of the Father

Two generations later, Laius—a great-grandson of Cadmus and Harmonia—should have ascended to the throne. But usurpers forced the young boy to run away to Olympia, site of the future Olympic Games. After he grew to manhood, Laius returned to Thebes to reclaim the throne.

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers contend that Hippodameia, Pelops's wife, spurred two of her sons, Atreus and Thyestes, to go to Thebes and kill Chrysippus to prevent Pelops from naming the boy as his successor. Others suggest that Hippodameia killed the boy herself, using Laius's sword after creeping into his bedchamber at night. Laius escaped punishment because Chrysippus named his stepmother as his murderer with his dying breath.

Yet before he left Olympia, Laius betrayed King Pelops—and the hospitality the monarch had shown in welcoming the boy into his home. Laius had become enamored with Chrysippus, Pelops's illegitimate son. Laius kidnapped the boy, bringing him to Thebes to serve as his sexual plaything. Chrysippus soon killed himself to escape his shame.

As king of Thebes, Laius married within the House of Cadmus. His wife Jocasta (called Epicasta by Homer and others) was the daughter of Menoeceus, a Theban noble descended from Agave and Echion.

Laius and Jocasta remained childless for many years. Troubled by this misfortune, Laius decided to consult the oracle at Delphi for a cure.

The oracle offered Laius no cure. Instead, he heard a warning: Have no child by this bride, for if you do, that child will kill you. Three times the oracle cautioned that a child of Laius would bring ruin not only upon his father, but on the city of Thebes as well.

Laius took this warning to heart. He quickly came to regard his childlessness not as a curse, but as a blessing. To guard against the possibility of begetting a child, Laius ceased having sexual relations with Jocasta altogether. Sadly, though, he never told her why.

Jocasta was not pleased. Whether impelled by maternal desire or amorousness, Jocasta contrived to get Laius drunk on wine one night. She then brought him into her bed, where the two conceived a son: Oedipus.

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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.

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