“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind.”

F.D. Roosevelt


Oedipus is widely regarded as a story about man’s inability to escape his fate. But I believe that Oedipus could have had an altogether different destiny. None of this was Oedipus’ fault. He had the best intentions and did his utmost to be a good king. But from birth, fear caused his world to be distorted. His parents tried to have him killed, but the shepherd who was charged with the task gave him away instead. His adoptive parents refused to tell him that he was not their son. Everybody in this story lies, so that Oedipus, who wants to do the right thing, ends up doing the exact opposite. Could the course of events have been any different?


The prophecy

Laius, the king of Thebes, was married to Jocasta. They were childless and because the king and queen longed for an heir, Laius visited the Oracle of Delphi. Had he done something to displease the Gods? Was there anything he could do to placate them? The Oracle prophesied that a son would be born to them. But that this son would end up murdering his father. Laius and Jocasta were deeply shocked by this news and decided to avoid this fate by no longer sharing a bed. But you see, they loved each other a lot and as time passed the prophecy got pushed to the back of their minds and so it came to pass that the queen fell pregnant.


The birth

A son was born. Mindful of the prophecy, Laius became frightened and decided to kill his son three days after the birth. He cut the tendons in his little boy’s feet (Oedipus means literally swollen feet) and ordered a shepherd to leave the child behind in the mountains.

But the shepherd took pity on the boy and gave the child to a shepherd from the neighbouring city-state of Corinth. The baby’s clothes and blanket were so lavishly decorated that this shepherd decided to take the child to his king and queen, Polybos and Merope. They were childless and raised Oedipus as their own son.


Oedipus had all the qualities a royal prince needs. He was a little hot-tempered perhaps, but that is easily forgiven in a king’s son.


The truth

One day Oedipus and his friends were enjoying a meal with copious amounts of drink. Oedipus did most of the talking and that is when one of his friends became fed up. “Oedipus,” he yelled, “you ought to pipe down a bit. I’ll have you know that your mother and father are not your real mother and father!”

Oedipus got angry and was spoiling for a fight. But something had hit a nerve. He left the dining hall and walked around for hours in the dark night. He tried to accuse his friend of all kinds of evildoing. Still, he could not put it out of his mind and decided to ask his parents.

“Dear boy, look at the state of you! What happened?” his mother exclaimed. Oedipus responded: “Dear parents, during dinner last night a friend shouted that you’re not my real parents. Tell me, is it true?” The parents were shocked. “Who told you that?” Merope asked, and Polybos said: “My boy, see how you’re upsetting your mother.” Oedipus felt he was not getting an honest answer and did not want to upset his mother any further. He left the palace and headed straight for the Oracle of Delphi to make sure.


The Oracle

Oedipus was hoping that the Oracle would reassure him, but the opposite happened. The Oracle told him: “Oh Oedipus, what fate awaits thee! You are destined to murder your father and marry your mother.” Oedipus fled, away from the oracle. “This cannot be, it mustn’t be. I have such sweet parents. I must think of something. I must prevent this disaster.” While his head was spinning he arrived at the crossroads: to the left the road to Corinth, to the right the way to Thebes. Without any further thought, Oedipus turned right. If he never went home again, this dreadful prophecy could not come to pass. Gradually, he calmed down and slowed his pace. Having taken this decision, the weight of the prophecy was lifted off his shoulders and he even began to enjoy his new adventure.


The patricide

As Oedipus walked towards Thebes, a chariot approached him. In that chariot sat Laius. The king was on his way to the Pythian Oracle and was travelling incognito. There were no outward signs to suggest it was the king in the chariot, but the charioteer was the king’s charioteer and not accustomed to people not jumping out of the way upon his approach. When he spotted Oedipus walking, he began shouting from afar: “Out of the way, move out of the way, you idiot.” And as a royal prince, Oedipus was not used to being barked at like this. So Oedipus did not move out of the way. On the contrary. When the charioteer tried to force him off the road, Oedipus lashed out at him, whereupon his passenger, an old man, hit Oedipus with his stick. Oedipus then gave the old man such a forceful shove that he fell out of the chariot. It came to blows. Oedipus was up against four men, but he was young and fit and conquered three of them. The fourth ran off.

The old man was dead. Without realizing it, Oedipus had murdered his father. One part of the prophecy had come true.


The Sphinx

As he approached Thebes, Oedipus saw crowds gathered near the city walls. The people were wailing and lamenting. Oedipus learnt that the city was scourged by the Sphinx. Half-woman and half-lion, she set riddles to the city’s young men and devoured them if they could not come up with an answer. The city was still in mourning for the king, who had been murdered by a stranger, when this second horror befell them. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, promised the queen’s hand to whoever could deliver Thebes from this monster.

Not knowing what to do with his life, Oedipus accepted the challenge. He approached the sphinx and asked her for a riddle. The riddle was: “What creature walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” Oedipus answered: “Man, because as an infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age on three: two legs and a walking stick.”  And so he delivered the city from the monster. He became king and was invited to marry the queen, his mother, Jocasta.


The revelation

Oedipus tried hard to be a good king. He was a little hot-tempered at times, but that is easily forgiven in a king. He had four children with Jocasta and everything seemed to be going well until the rains stopped falling, the cattle died and the plague struck. The people besieged the palace, eager for their king to take action.


Oedipus promised to do everything in his power. He would severely punish whoever was responsible for this before banishing him forever. He sent a messenger to fetch the blind seer Tiresias. But Tiresias refused to come. “The king will not want to hear what I have to say,” he explained. But at the third request, Tiresias went to the palace. To Oedipus’ question whether he could see the cause of the adversity, Tiresias answered: “You, you, oh king, are the cause of this trouble, for you have killed your father and you are living in sin with your mother”

Of course Oedipus flew into a rage. But again, the truth had hit a nerve. And then Jocasta exclaimed: “See how little seers know, because Laius was foretold that he would be killed by his son. Instead he died by the hand of a robber on a lonely country road and our only son died in the mountains, barely three days old.

Oedipus’ world collapsed; the pieces of the puzzle of his life fell into place. A number of witnesses came forward, among them the servant who escaped the fight with Laius and the shepherd who had brought Oedipus to Corinth. But Oedipus needed no more evidence. He knew it was true and withdrew to his chambers. There he gouged out his eyes, crying: “If I was seeing yet blind, then let me be blind yet see!”


Oedipus’ wanderings

Oedipus was banished from Thebes and wandered the land, blind, led by his daughter Antigone. As a blind wanderer he got to know both the people and himself. He sensed what was true and what a lie; he sensed who was genuine and who was not. Eventually, he arrived at the grove of the Furies. Nobody could come through it alive. “I have arrived at my final destination,” Oedipus said. Everybody there tried to stop him. His sons, who had come to fetch him back, as well as his daughters. But Oedipus refused to go back and said to his sons: “You don’t want me back for myself, but for your own interest.” He embraced his daughters and said goodbye.

Then a female voice could be heard from the earth: “Oedipus, Oedipus, come.” And a male voice from heaven: “Oedipus, Oedipus, come.” And before the eyes of his children and all the bystanders, Oedipus walked across the field without being obliterated by the fire and disappeared from sight.


Source: Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece by Gustav von Schwab


Told by Marianne Pluim