Classical Mythology: Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero

Oedipus was hailed as a hero in his new hometown. As Creon had promised, the riddle-solver won the hand of Jocasta and was acclaimed king of Thebes. The one man who had seen the answer to the Sphinx's riddle and won praise as the cleverest of all men was blind to the fact that he had married his mother, fulfilling the entire prophecy of the oracle at Delphi.

The one attendant who survived the death of Laius might have identified Oedipus as his master's killer. When he returned to Thebes, the servant recognized King Oedipus. Fearing the new king's power as well as the bloody rage he had already witnessed, the servant invented the tale that Laius and his retinue had been slain by several highwaymen (robbers who preyed upon travelers). To escape recognition himself, the servant then asked to be given the duties of a shepherd far from the city.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Oedipus ruled Thebes—or as some narrators tell it, shared rule with Jocasta and Creon, the only known descendents of Cadmus—for perhaps two decades. As ruler, Oedipus enjoyed the blessings of fame, fortune, and power.

With Jocasta, Oedipus had four children: two sons named Eteocles and Polyneices and two daughters named Antigone and Ismene. The king would not discover until much later that he was not only father, but also brother to these children.

After 20 years or so, a great plague descended upon Thebes. Crops and livestock suffered from blight, women stopped bearing children, and a deadly pestilence swept across the land. Oedipus sent the aged Creon to Delphi to find out the cause of this plague.

Creon returned with word that the city was suffering because the murderer of Laius still lived unpunished among them. Oedipus—cursing Laius's unknown murderer and promising to banish him upon discovery—ordered an immediate investigation of the ancient crime.

What a Life!

One legend holds that Teiresias, too, was blinded for seeing what he should not have seen. As Actaeon had, Teiresias stumbled upon a bathing goddess: Athena. After Athena blinded Teiresias by laying her hands over his eyes, his mother, who served as one of Athena's attendants, appealed to the goddess for mercy. Athena acquiesced, commanding the serpent Erichthonius to clean Teiresias's ears with its tongue. This treatment gave the blind man the ability to interpret the language of prophetic birds.

Oedipus immediately sent for aged Teiresias, a blind seer. Teiresias told Oedipus that the plague would end only if a sown man (one of the descendents of the Spartoi) died for the city. Menoeceus, Jocasta's father and great-grandson of Echion, threw himself from the city's walls and earned the praise of all Thebans for his sacrifice and devotion to the city.

Teiresias then announced that though the plague would indeed end, the gods had expected the sacrifice not of Menoeceus, but of Menoeceus's grandson, who had killed his father and married his mother. Evidence of Oedipus's true identity and his guilt began to come to light. According to various sources, these included:

  • The testimony of the shepherd charged with leaving Laius's infant son on a mountaintop, who confessed that he hadn't done so.
  • A letter from Periboea that confided the details of Oedipus's adoption.
  • The testimony of the attendant who had survived the attack on Laius, who confirmed that Oedipus was indeed the murderer.

Confronted with these facts, Oedipus (and Jocasta) could no longer deny the truth: Wife and husband were truly mother and son. And the son had murdered the father.

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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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