From New World Encyclopedia

Topics in Greek mythology
  • Satyrs, centaurs and dragons
  • Ancient Greek religion

Oedipus (pronounced /ˈɛdəpəs/ in American English or /ˈiːdəpəs/ in British English; Greek: Οἰδίπους Oidípous meaning "swollen-footed") was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. He fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus brought disaster on his city and family. This legend has been retold in many versions. The struggles of Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta, which spill over into the fraternal enmity between Oedipus' sons shares certain similarities with the biblical narratives of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Sigmund Freud used the story to explain his own self-analysis, postulating that every male wished to kill is father and marry his mother. He dubbed this the Oedipus complex; it served as the basis for the creation of psychoanalysis.

The story

Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Before his birth, it was prophesied that he would murder his father. To avoid this calamity, the child was given to a herdsman who was told to kill him. The herdsman, out of pity and yet fearing to disobey, instead gave him to another herdsman, tying his feet together and piercing them with a stake (which caused him to permanently have swollen feet–hence one meaning of Oedipus which translates to "swollen foot." It also comes from Greek root meaning knowledge). The herdsman took the infant Oedipus to his master, the king of Corinth, Polybus, who adopted him as his own son.

Many years later, Oedipus finds out that he is not the son of Polybus. To confirm this, he seeks help from an oracle and is told that he is destined to kill his father and mate with his mother. In his attempt to evade the dictates of the oracle, he decides to flee from home to Thebes on the other side of the mountains.

As Oedipus was traveling by horse to Thebes, he came to a crossroads where he met a chariot, which, unknown to him, was driven by Laius, his real father. A dispute arose over right of way, and in the ensuing fight, Oedipus killed Laius. Continuing his journey to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, who stopped any traveler and asked him a riddle that none had yet been able to solve. If the traveler failed, he was eaten by the Sphinx. The riddle was “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?" The answer was “Man." Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx threw herself to her death. The gratitude of the Thebans led them to anoint Oedipus as their king. Oedipus was also given Laius' widow, Jocasta (who was also his mother), as his wife. Over the years, Oedipus and Jocasta had four children–two sons, Polynices and Eteocles (see Seven Against Thebes), and two daughters Antigone and Ismene (see Antigone).

Many years after the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, a plague struck the city of Thebes. Oedipus, with his typical hubris, asserted that he could end the plague. He sent Creon, Jocasta's brother to the Oracle at Delphi seeking guidance. The Oracle explains that to remove the plague he must find the murderer of Laius. In a search for the identity of the killer, Oedipus sends for the blind prophet Tiresias, who warns him not to try to find the killer. In an angry exchange, Tiresias tells Oedipus that he is the killer and suggests that he is living in shame and doesn't know who his true parents are. Undaunted, Oedipus continues his search. When a messenger arrives from Corinth with the news that Polybus is dead, Oedipus is relieved that he can no longer fulfill the prophecy of murdering his father (so he thinks), but still worries that he will mate with his mother. The messenger reassures him with the news that he is adopted. Jocasta then realizes who Oedipus is and goes in to the palace to kill herself. Oedipus seeks verification of the messenger's story from the very same herdsman who was to have left Oedipus to die as a baby. From that herdsman, Oedipus learns that the infant raised as the adopted son of Polybus and Merope was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Thus, Oedipus finally sees the truth, that at the crossroads he had killed his own father, and then married his own mother.

Oedipus goes in search of Jocasta and finds she has killed herself. Taking brooches from her gown, Oedipus blinds himself. Oedipus leaves the city, and his daughter Antigone acts as his guide as he wanders blindly through the country, ultimately dying at Colonus, after being placed under the protection of Athens by Theseus, its king.

His two sons Eteocles and Polynices arranged to share the kingdom, each to take an alternating one-year reign. But Eteocles refused to give up his kingship after his year was up. Polynices then brought in an army, a battle ensued, and at the end of the battle the brothers killed each other. Jocasta's brother Creon then took the throne. He made the decision that Polynices was the "traitor," and should not be buried. Defying this edict, Antigone did attempt to bury her brother, and Creon ultimately had her killed—leading to tragedy for all of Creon's family. There are variants on this story's ending.

Significant variations on the Oedipus legend are mentioned in fragments by several ancient Greek poets including Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. Most of what is known of Oedipus comes from a set of plays by Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

Myths of Oedipus

Oedipus almost certainly derives from an oral tradition. The story merged tales from several sources. The first written references to appear in the seventh-eighth century B.C.E.


Homer makes a passing reference to Oedipus in both the Odyssey and the Iliad. Without any mention of a Sphinx, Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother and becomes king. Oedipus later dies in exile.

I also saw angels Epicaste mother of god Oedipodes whose awful lot it was to marry her own son without suspecting it. He married her after having killed his father, but the gods proclaimed the whole story to the world; whereon he remained king of Thebes, in great grief for the spite the gods had borne him; but Epicaste went to the house of the mighty jailer Hades, having hanged herself for grief, he also was mad despite the drafting for the Eagles and the avenging spirits haunted him as for an outraged mother—to his ruing bitterly thereafter.[1]

"Macisteus went once to Thebes after the fall of Oedipus, to attend his funeral, and he beat all the people of Cadmus."[2]


The poet Hesiod wrote on the Sphinx in Thebes, but with no reference to Oedipus.

"Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans."[3]

Unrelated to the Sphinx, Hesiod is the first to poetically call an old man "three-legged," which then becomes part of the Sphinx's riddle.[4]


The poet Cinaethon of Sparta wrote an epic called the The Story of Oedipus (also called Oedipodea). Though it did not survive, a few scattered commentaries on the epic did. The story seems to connect the Oedipus and Sphinx stories, but details are unclear.

"The authors of the Story of Oedipus (say) of the Sphinx: But furthermore (she killed) noble Haemon, the dear son of blameless Creon, the comeliest and loveliest of boys."[5]

"Judging by Homer, I do not believe that Oedipus had children by Iocasta: His sons were born of Euryganeia as the writer of the Epic called the Story of Oedipus clearly shows."[6]

Curse of warring sons

An unknown author wrote the Thebaid, of which only fragments exist. It first tells of a curse on Oedipus' sons and how they will kill each other.

Then the hell-born hero, golden-haired Polyneices, first played beside Oedipus a rich table of silver which once belonged to Cadmus the divinely wise: next he filled a fine golden cup with sweet wine. But when Oedipus perceived these treasures of his father, great misery fell on his heart, and he straight-way called down bitter curses there in the presence of both his sons. And the avenging Fury of the gods failed not to hear him as he prayed that they might never divide their father's goods in loving brotherhood, but that war and fighting might be ever the portion of them both.[7]

And when Oedipus noticed the haunch he threw it on the ground and said: "Oh! Oh! my sons have sent this mocking me ..." So he prayed to Zeus the king and the other deathless gods that each might fall by his brother's hand and go down into the house of Hades.[8]

  • Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius later wrote his analogous Thebaid, which has been preserved in its entirety.

Fifth century B.C.E.

Most writing on Oedipus comes from the fifth century B.C.E., though the stories deal mostly with Oedipus' downfall. Various details appeared on how Oedipus rose to power.

Laius hears a prophecy that his son will kill him.[9] Fearing the prophecy, Laius pierces Oedipus' feet and leaves him out to die, but a herdsman finds him and takes him away from Thebes.[10] Oedipus, not knowing he was adopted, leaves home in fear of the same prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.[11] Laius, meanwhile, ventures out to find a solution to the Sphinx's riddle.[12] As prophesied, Oedipus crossed paths with Laius and this leads to a fight where Oedipus slays Laius.[13] Oedipus then defeats the Sphinx by solving a mysterious riddle to become king.[14] He marries the widow queen Jocasta not knowing it is his mother. A plague falls on the people of Thebes. Upon discovery of the truth, Oedipus blinds himself and Jocasta hangs herself.[15] After Oedipus is no longer king, Oedipus' sons kill each other.

Some differences with older versions emerge. The curse of the Oedipus' sons is expanded backward to include Oedipus and his father, Laius. Oedipus now steps down from the throne instead of dying in battle. Additionally, his children are now attributed to Jocasta, rather than his second wife.

Pindar's Second Olympian Ode

In the Second Olympian Ode Pindar wrote:

Laios' tragic son, crossing his father's path, killed him and fulfilled the oracle spoken of old at Pytho. And sharp-eyed Erinys saw and slew his warlike children at each other's hands. Yet Thersandros survived fallen Polyneikes and won honor in youthful contests and the brunt of war, a scion of aid to the house of Adrastos.[16]

Aeschylus' Oedipus trilogy

In 467 B.C.E., the Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, is known to have presented an entire trilogy based upon the Oedipus myth, winning the first prize at the City Dionysia. The First play was Laius, the second was Oedipus, and the third was Seven against Thebes. Only the third play survives, in which Oedipus' sons Eteocles and Polynices kill each other warring over the throne. Much like his Oresteia, this trilogy would have detailed the tribulations of a House over three successive generations. The satyr play that followed the trilogy was called the Sphinx.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King

Sophocles' Oedipus the King is a masterwork that compresses the elements of the story into the Aristotlean unities and exploits the tragic irony implicit in Oedipus' search for the cause of his peoples' dilemma. As begins, the people of Thebes are begging the king for help, begging him to discover the cause of the plague. Oedipus stands before them and swears to find the root of their suffering and to end it. Just then, Creon returns to Thebes from a visit to the oracle. Apollo has made it known that Thebes is harboring a terrible abomination and that the plague will only be lifted when the true murderer of old King Laius is discovered and punished for his crime. Oedipus swears to do this, not realizing of course that he himself is the abomination that he has sworn to exorcise. The stark truth emerges slowly over the course of the play, as Oedipus clashes with the blind seer Tiresias, who senses the truth. Oedipus remains in strict denial, though, becoming convinced that Tiresias is somehow plotting with Creon to usurp the throne.

Realization begins to slowly dawn in Scene II, as Jocasta mentions out of hand that Laius was slain at a place where three roads meet. This stirs something in Oedipus' memory and he suddenly recalls the men that he fought and killed one day long ago at a place where three roads met. He realizes, horrified, that he might be the man he's seeking. One household servant survived the attack and now lives out his old age in a frontier district of Thebes. Oedipus sends immediately for the man to either confirm or deny his guilt. At the very worst, though, he expects to find himself to be the unsuspecting murder of a man unknown to him. The truth has not yet been made clear.

The moment of epiphany comes late in the play. At the beginning of Scene III, Oedipus is still waiting for the servant to be brought into the city, when a messenger arrives from Corinth to declare the King Polybos is dead. Oedipus, when he hears this news is overwhelmed with relief, because he believed that Polybos was the father whom the oracle had destined him to murder, and he momentarily believes himself to have escaped fate. He tells this all to the present company, including the messenger, but the messenger knows that it is not true. He is the man who found Oedipus as a baby in the pass of Kithairon and gave him to King Polybos to raise. He reveals, furthermore that the servant who is being brought to the city as they speak is the very same man who took Oedipus up into the mountains as a baby. Jocasta realizes now all that has happened. She begs Oedipus not to pursue the matter further. He refuses, and she withdraws into the palace as the servant is arriving. The old man arrives, and it is clear at once that he knows everything. At the behest of Oedipus, he tells it all.

Overwhelmed with the knowledge of all his crimes, Oedipus rushes into the palace, where he finds his mother, his wife, dead by her own hand. Ripping a brooch from her dress, Oedipus blinds himself with it. Bleeding from the eyes, he begs Creon, who has just arrived on the scene, to exile him forever from Thebes. Creon agrees to this request, but when Oedipus begs to have his two daughters Antigone and Ismene sent with him, Creon refuses, condemning him instead to wander alone and in darkness throughout the land for the rest of his life.

Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus

In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus becomes a wanderer, pursued by Creon and his men. He finally finds refuge at the holy wilderness right outside of Athens, where it is said that Theseus took care of him and his daughter, Antigone. Creon eventually catches up to Oedipus. He asks Oedipus to come back from Colonus to bless his son, Eteocles. Angry that his son did not care for him enough to take care of him, he curses both Eteocles and his brother, Polynices, condemning them to die sudden deaths. He died a peaceful death and his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.

Sophocles' Antigone

In Sophocles' Antigone, when Oedipus stepped down as King of Thebes he gave the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who both agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, they showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters (as portrayed in the Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus and the Phoenician Women by Euripides). Both brothers died in the battle. King Creon, who ascended to the throne of Thebes, decreed that Polynices was not to be buried. Antigone, his sister, defied the order, but was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be put into a stone box in the ground, this in spite of her betrothal to his son Haemon. Antigone's sister, Ismene, then declared she had aided Antigone and wanted the same fate. The gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, expressed their disapproval of Creon's decision, which convinced him to rescind his order, and he went to bury Polynices himself. However, Antigone had already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrived at the tomb where she was to be interred, Haemon attacked him and then killed himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, was informed of their deaths, she too took her own life.

Euripides' Phoenissae and Chrysippus

In the beginning of Euripides' Phoenissae, Jocasta recalls the story of Oedipus. Generally, the play weaves together the plots of the Seven Against Thebes and Antigone. The play differs from the other tales in two major respects. First, it describes in detail why Laius and Oedipus had a feud: Laius ordered Oedipus out of the road so his chariot could pass, but proud Oedipus refused to move. Second, in the play Jocasta has not killed herself at the discovery of her incest nor has Oedipus fled into exile, but they have stayed in Thebes only to delay their doom until the fatal duel of their sons/brothers/nephews Eteocles and Polynices: Jocasta commits suicide over the two men's dead bodies, and Antigone follows Oedipus into exile.

In Chrysippus, Euripides develops a backstory on the curse: Laius' "sin" was to have kidnapped Chrysippus, Pelops' son, in order to violate him, and this caused the gods' revenge on all his family—boy-loving having been so far an exclusive domain of the gods themselves, unknown to mortals.

Euripides wrote also an "Oedipus," of which only a few fragments survive.[17] The first line of the prologue recalled Laius' hubristic action of conceiving a son against Apollo's command. At some point in the action of the play, a character engaged in a lengthy and detailed description of the Sphinx and her riddle—preserved in five fragments from Oxyrhynchus, P.Oxy. 2459 (published by Eric Gardner Turner in 1962).[18] The tragedy featured also many moral maxims on the theme of marriage, preserved in the Anthologion of Stobaeus. The most striking lines, however, portray Oedipus as blinded by Laius' attendants, and that this happened before his identity as Laius' son had been discovered, and marking important differences with the Sophoclean treatment of the myth. Many attempts have been made to reconstruct the plot of the play, but none of them is definitive, as scanty remains have survived. There is also a total absence of ancient descriptions or résumés—though it has been suggested that a part of Hyginus' narration of the Oedipus myth might in fact derive from Euripides' play. Some echoes of the Euripidean Oedipus have been traced also in a scene of Seneca's Oedipus (see below), in which Oedipus himself describes to Jocasta his adventure with the Sphinx.[19]

Later additions

In the second century B.C.E., Apollodorus writes down an actual riddle for the Sphinx while borrowing the poetry of Hesiod: "What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"[20]

Later Addition to Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes

Due to the popularity of Sophocles's Antigone (ca. 442 B.C.E.), the ending (lines 1005-78) of Seven against Thebes was added some fifty years after Aeschylus' death.[21] Whereas the play (and the trilogy of which it is the last play) was meant to end with somber mourning for the dead brothers, the spurious ending features a herald announcing the prohibition against burying Polynices, and Antigone's declaration that she will defy that edict.

Oedipus in classical Latin literature

Oedipus was a figure who was also used in the Latin literature of ancient Rome. Julius Caesar wrote a play on Oedipus, but it has not survived into modern times.[22] Ovid included Oedipus in Metamorphoses, but only as the person who defeated the Sphynx. He makes no mention of Oedipus' troubled experiences with his father and mother. Seneca the Younger wrote his own play on the story of Oedipus in the first century CE. It differs in significant ways from the work of Sophocles. The play was intended to be recited at private gatherings and not actually performed. It has however been successfully staged since the Renaissance. It was adapted by John Dryden in his very successful heroic drama Oedipus, licensed in 1678.

Oedipus or Oedipais?

It has been suggested by some that in the earliest Ur-myth of the hero, he was called Oedipais: "child of the swollen sea."[23] He was so named because of the method by which his birth parents tried to abandon him—by placing him in a chest and tossing it into the ocean. The mythic topos of forsaking a child to the sea or a river is well attested, found (e.g.) in the myths of Perseus, Telephus, Dionysus, Moses, and Romulus and Remus. Over the centuries, however, Oedipais seems to have been corrupted into the familiar Oedipus: "Swollen foot." And it was this new name that might have inspired the addition of a bizarre element to the story of Oedipus' abandonment on Mt. Cithaeron. Exposure on a mountain was in fact a common method of child abandonment in Ancient Greece. The binding of baby Oedipus' ankles, however, is unique; it can thus be argued that the ankle-binding was inelegantly grafted onto the Oedipus myth simply to explain his new name.

The Oedipus complex

Main article: Oedipus complex

Sigmund Freud used the name The Oedipus complex to explain the origin of certain neuroses in childhood. It is defined as a male child's unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother. This desire includes jealousy towards the father and the unconscious wish for that parent's death.

Oedipus himself, as portrayed in the myth, did not suffer from this neurosis—at least, not towards Jocasta, whom he only met as an adult. (If anything, such feelings would have been directed at Merope—but there is no hint of that.) However, Freud reasoned that the ancient Greek audience, which heard the story told or saw the plays based on it, did know that Oedipus was actually killing his father and marrying his mother; the story being continually told and played therefore reflected a preoccupation with the theme.

Modern interpretations

  • Jean Cocteau retold the Oedipus myth in the 1934 surrealist play, La Machine infernale (The Infernal Machine).
  • There is also a modern opera by Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky, Oedipus rex.
  • Steven Berkoff's 1980 play, Greek is based on Sophocles' story of Oedipus.
  • Frank O'Connor's short story, "My Oedipus Complex"


  1. Homer, Odyssey XI.
  2. Homer, Iliad XXIII.
  3. Hesiod, Theogony 326.
  4. Hesiod, Works and Days.
  5. Euripides, Phoenissae
  6. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26
  7. The Thebaid Fragment 2.
  8. The Thebaid Fragment 3
  9. Euripides, Phoenissae.
  10. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1220-1226; Euripides, Phoenissae.
  11. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1026-1030; Euripides, Phoenissae.
  12. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 132-137.
  13. Pindar, Second Olympian Ode; Sophocles, Oedipus the King 473-488; Euripides, Phoenissae.
  14. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 136, 1578; Euripides, Phoenissae
  15. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1316.
  16. Pindar, Second Olympian Ode
  17. Göttingen 2004.
  18. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1963), 446-447.
  19. Joachim Dingel, in "Museum Helveticum" 27 (1970), 90-96.
  20. Apollodorus, House of Oedipus III.5.7
  21. Brown 1976, 206-19.
  22. E.F. Watling.
  23. Lowry (1995), 879.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, A.L. "The End of the Seven Against Thebes" The Classical Quarterly 26.2 (1976): 206-19. ISSN 1471-6844.
  • Carloni, Glauco, and Nobili, Daniela. La Mamma Cattiva: fenomenologia, antropologia e clinica del figlicidio Rimini, 2004. ISBN 9788880492054.
  • Dallas, Ian. Oedipus and Dionysus. Freiburg Press, Granada 1991. ISBN 1-874216-02-9.
  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1992. ISBN 9780140171990.
  • Lowry, Malcolm. Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1995-1997. ISBN 9780802041180.

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Mythical King of Thebes
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