Greek Myths: The hubris of Oedipus

16th September 2021

Oedipus | Story, Summary, & Facts | Britannica
Oedipus and the Sphinx. Representation on a cup circa 470 BCE, now in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

Oedipus, along with Sisyphus, Achilles and Odysseus, is a figure from Greek myth who is part of our modern psyche. His story, whose key points are widely known, belongs to our collective cultural history; he lends his name to a psychological complex. In philosophy, Oedipus can be discussed as a case of free will versus determinism.

Oedipus was certainly no hero in the Theseus or Perseus mold. An argument could be made that he was no hero at all, but a tragic figure. However, he was strong enough to overcome four royal guards single-handedly, and intelligent enough to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, thereby freeing the people of Thebes.

A warrior (like Achilles), an strategist (like Odysseus), a character doomed for unimaginable punishment (like Sisyphus) ? We see what a complex character Oedipus is, and why he still holds our interest and awe.

The Complex Case of Romanian Folklore in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex | The Attic
Oedipus Rex by Pier Paolo Pasolini 1967

So, the key points, what the ‘average person’ knows about Oedipus:

He killed his father and slept with his mother

He solved the Riddle of the Sphinx

Some background is necessary. Some clarification is absolutely necessary.

Firstly, he unwittingly killed his father (King Laius; I shall elucidate later). Secondly, as a reward for freeing Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, Oedipus was given Queen Jocasta, Laius’ widow, to wed. The patricide and insest were commited freely. Or were they ? Oedipus had been told that he would kill his father and marry his mother, which is exactly what happened, despite his determination to prove the prophecy false.

Therefore, it is my contention that Oedipus was punished for having the hubris to believe that he could defy fate. Yet, the question remains: why was Oedipus fated for such a punishment ? For that, we have to go back a generation and learn about his father, King Laius of Thebes.

Oedipus: Map of Thebes and Corinth

Laius was from the House of Thebes and, as a young man, left his home town and stayed in Elis with King Pelops, a grandson of Zeus and son of Tantalus (but that is another story). Laius was a guest, and became tutor to Pelops’ son Chrysippus. Laius committed the unpardonable sins of abducting and raping the boy. For this he was cursed. Should he ever have a son, that child would murder him, then marry the widow. Despite Laius forcing himself to decline the pleasure of his wife, nature, to employ a phrase, took its course. A son was born, a son that Laius demanded be left alone on a mountain, his feet pinned together.

Salvator Rosa Beach Towel featuring the painting The Abandoned Oedipus by Salvator Rosa
Oedipus abandoned, a print on a beach towel. A perfect illustration of how the myth permeates our culture.

The shepherd charged with this duty gave the baby to a friend from Corinth, where the baby was adopted by the childless King Polybus and Queen Meriope. The child was named Oedipus, meaning swollen foot (and from which we get the medical term oedema, swelling in the feet and ankles) [1]. Oedipus loved and was loved by his parents, and all was well in Corinth. Until, that is, a drunken man told Oedipus the truth, that he was not the natural child. Polybus and Meriope denied this, but Oedipus (in perhaps his first mistake, not believing his parents) travelled to the Oracle at Delphi to learn the truth. His origin was confirmed, and his fate, to kill his father and marry his mother, was proclaimed.

Delphi, home of the famous oracle

In an attempt to avoid this prophecy, Oedipus travelled instead to Thebes. On this journey, he met a carriage coming towards him. Either the driver grazed him, struck him, or demanded that he yield and give way. This infuriated Oedipus, and a fight ensued. In the carriage was an old man; King Laius. The King and all his guards, all but one of the retinue, were slain by Oedipus for their disrespectful treatment of a king’s son.

The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Joseph Blanc 1867

Whether he was brave to refuse this slight, or flawed by an uncontrollable albeit understandable anger, Oedipus had unwittingly fulfilled the first part of the prophecy.

Continuing on to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx and solved the riddle (which I’m sure you are all familiar with). Defeated, the Sphinx killed herself and, as mentioned earlier, Oedipus was given the widowed Queen Jocasta. The had four children and all was well. For a time. A plague decimated Thebes, and it would not abate until the murderer of Laius was found and punished. Eventually, it was revealed that Oedipus was the killer. Jocasta hanged herself, Oedipus blinded himself and went into self-imposed exile, wandering the countryside and dying just outside Athens.

Oedipus Rex Fimonoi Athens
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Performed by the Fimonoi Theatre Group in Athens, Greece

The Greek myths, unlike theological texts such as the Talmud, Bible and Koran, are incredibly flexible and varied, altering from city to city, as well as over time. Just how much people believed or accepted them will never be known, but many people would have been aware of the more famous myths.

Many myths that involve retribution, such as are found in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ are read as cautionary tales. Someone, a mortal, displayed a weakness that was so offensive they were punished. Some punishments were extremely harsh, but the reason could be clearly discerned. But how to understand Oedipus ? What, in fact was his digression ?

His fate was stated before he had done anything wrong. Maybe he didn’t accept his parent’s explanation, but that seems more contrary to Confucianism and filial piety. Greek myths are full of family in-fighting. He refused to yield to the carriage of King Laius and that pride led to fighting and murder, yet that could be attributed to self defense. Oedipus’ only fault seems to have been simply existing. Laius angered the gods. Why punish the son ?

I have read that some contemporary Greeks apparently thought the same, and began questioning the veracity of gods, myths and society. Such a harsh punishment for a young man who had rid a city of a curse made little if any sense. The psychological trauma would be unimaginable, which may explain the need to self mutilate, physical pain to numb the mental anguish.

To conclude, I am left to assert that Oedipus’ only crime was to try to defeat fate, to have the hubris to feel that a mere mortal, a king’s son notwithstanding, had the power to change the will of the gods. He honoured his father and mother but at the expense of the Immortals. Oedipus refused to accept his fate, for that he was doomed.

What else could Oedipus have done ? Should he have ignored the prophecy, or resign himself to the outcome ? The debate continues.

Stravinsky rehearsing his Oedipus Rex opera, first performed in 1927
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[1] Some scholars question this etymolgy.

Sources

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Oedipus-Greek-mythology

https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/862997/pages/the-story-of-oedipus?module_item_id=4891933

https://www2.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/tragedy/index.php?page=thebes

https://www.softschools.com/examples/literary_terms/hamartia_examples/257/

Love and Chaos Part 7(C) Chris 1

30th May 2021

The East German punks who helped bring down the Berlin Wall | Dazed
Berlin music Scene. Google Images

Part Seven. Berlin. May 1995

Chris and Richard met Daniel at the small kiosk situated in one of the exit tunnels of Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn. Daniel was looking at the window display which had miniature bottles of cheap and nasty looking hooch, labels and brands he had never seen before, alcohol he had never seen before.

They greeted and went straight to the club, a slight embarrassment at meeting away from the Czar Bar, as if that were their only common ground. The club was quite small, quite dark, one stage to the right, the bar opposite, and that was where they all headed.

By now, Richard and Chris could recognize many faces. Willem Dafoe was there, smiling broadly at each and every thing. Arizona Al was in another discussion with technicians about sound levels, but came over to say, “Hi,” and to meet Daniel,

“Cool, fresh blood, it’s getting kinda stale around here,” he admitted. ”Oh, Dude, listen, you can’t come onstage and blow me tonight, it’s a more conservative joint, here,” then he was dragged away by Bryan on a matter of the utmost urgency.

Daniel stood with his mouth open, not exactly sure what he was getting involved in.

Again, the room was half full at most when the first act went on. A petite, visibly terrified French girl played guitar and sang to the floorboards. Her between song banter was monosyllabic and mumbled, but she charmed everyone, winning them over with her nervousness and talent which was unmistakable, just hidden by a cloak of shyness.

But it was downhill after that. Singer-songwriters came and went, some bands played, more solo artists. Willem Dafoe played the exact same set with the exact same mannerisms and orchestrated spontaneity as before.

Bryan ‘Moonface’ came up to the bar with a young lady, and was speaking to her about Kafka, specifically ‘Metamorphosis’,

“It’s about a man who wakes up one morning and he’s been turned into a woman.”

“Oh, that sounds cool.”

Daniel exclaimed, “Fuck me,” loud enough to get Bryan’s attention, but ‘Moonface’ was too busy impressing his new friend with his broad knowledge of World Literature.

Richard and Chris played ‘name the influence’ as some bands were ripping off R.E.M., others Nirvana, while one electronic combo tried a reversal of Big Black, by playing a loud, Grunge song on keyboards and drum machines. It was a novelty for half a minute, but unfortunately went on for several.

Daniel wasn’t having as much fun as his companions. He had been expecting a great evening, but, despite the ever flowing beer, he was bored and that made him angry and frustrated. Which, of course, just made Richard and Chris laugh even more.

He got louder with his abuse and thought nothing of talking over an acoustic set. By the time Arizona went on, Daniel had just about had enough, but stayed because Al was the main reason they were there, although the sexualised parting words still played in his mind.

Tonight, Arizona Al announced, he was going to try some ‘mellow, chill-out vibes’. The absence of a guitar alarmed Richard, and Chris had a very bad feeling, which was confirmed by the opening note which continued without variation, while Arizona gradually added more single notes, together with some indistinct sound effects.

Daniel simply turned his back to the stage and ordered three vodkas. Arizona was now on his second song, a variation of the first, with even less going on.

Daniel turned to Chris,

“You enjoying this shit ?”

“Not at all.”

“Czar Bar open ?”

“Yep. Andrei working. And Olga.”

“Olga ?” asked Richard.

“Let’s go,” said Daniel, finishing his beer and walking out. Chris and Richard followed, both giving a wave to Arizona as he played on, with a surprised and hurt look on his face. Richard was already on damage control, telling Chris that they could say that their friend had to get a connection. Chris shrugged his shoulders,

“Or we could just say that he was shit.”

“Yeah, you could.”

Daniel was asking how to get to the bar. Chris explained,

“We’ll take the U-Bahn and change at Alex. U5. Five stops, total.”

Walking to the U5 platform, Daniel put his arms around the two others,

“Right, we need to get laid tonight. Agreed ?”

“Not even a question,” replied Chris.

“Tonight ?” repeated Richard, “anytime this decade would work for me.”

They walked down the escalators and waited on the platform. Daniel took out his cigarettes and passed them around.

“So, pussy action. What’s the deal ? Chris, you must get a nice bit of snatch, working the bar, hey ?”

“Have you been in the Czar Bar ?”

“Yeah, fair enough. Thought they’d be a few more girls in, tonight. Not much doing, was there ? Couple of knackered old slappers. I’d have liked that French bird, but she’d scarpered. ‘Bout you, Rich ?”

“Going through a fallow period. Got the seed, but no where to plant it.”

“We’re both going through an adjustment,” Chris intervened. “I was dumped by my girlfriend and Richard . . . “ the later himself completed the ellipsis,

“Is hung up on a girl who just isn’t interested,”

Daniel turned to him,

“Didn’t you have any other girlfriends ?”

“No. I was saving myself for her.”

“Ah, well, that’s the problem. To get a girl, you have to have a girl.”

“Thanks, Buddha, great advice.”

“Naw, listen. It’s like an auction. You put a piece up, no one’s interested, it gets tossed. Pun intended. But, someone likes it, others get interested. Get it ?”

“So,” asked Richard, trying to follow the logic, “if Lorelei had known I had a girlfriend, she’d have been more interested ?”

“Couldn’t have been less interested,” quipped Chris.

“Oy, shut it, you,” threatened Daniel.


“Oh, I see, he can get away with the insults, but I say something and I get the ‘I can kill you with one fingernail’ shit ?”

“Yeah. He’s not a plonker like you,” clarified Daniel with a subtle wink at Richard.

“He has a point, there, he has several points there,” added Richard. Daniel continued,

“You just gotta get a girl first, any girl. You can do that, can’t ya ?” Richard just shrugged. “Fuck me,” concluded Daniel.

“He may have to. Oh, come on, that was funny. OK, I know, I’ll shut it.” Chris walked off a little down the platform.

On the train, they continued the seminar, Daniel giving advice to Richard, and then learnt why Chris was dumped.

“She heard you say she were shit in bed ? Fuck, that’s hard. Now, tonight; I know that Al’s yer pal and all that guff, but . . . fucking hell, what a stinking pile of shit. I’ve heard some wank in my time, but that . . . “

“It’s part of the Berlin scene,” began Richard. “Anybody can get up and do something.”

“Problem is,” continued Chris, “most people do and most people aren’t overburdened with talent.”

“Not tonight, anyway,” laughed Daniel. “Thanks, guys, for taking me. Load of bollocks, but still thanks.”

They all laughed. Chris, followed by Richard, began to give more sage Berlin advice,

“Never presume that because it’s office hours, offices will be open.”

“Don’t touch Schultheiss beer. I know the logo is real inviting, but your stomach won’t thank you for it.”

Chris picked up the slack,

“Following on from there, don’t ever drink from the tap, despite all the assurances,”

“He’s right. May as well just drink out of the toilet bowl.”

More laughter. Then Daniel returned to the former subject of performing in Berlin.

“I mean, I could do better than that.”

“Well, then,” challenged Richard, “do it.”


“Yeah, but I don’t know any musicians, or anybody, just you two tossers.”

“But we know people,” argued Richard

“Oh, yeah, like that guy with the fucking pumpkin head ? No, thanks. Man turning into a woman. Fucking idiot.”

“No,” said Chris calmly. “The Russians. Andrei is a bass player. Boris is a fucking wild hot gypsy guitarist. Another guy who lives with them, Sascha, is a drummer. They’ve all played in bands, always looking for a singer. We’ll see some, if not all, of them tonight. Time to put up or shut up. Or are you just all talk ?”

“Mouthy little sod, ain’t ya ?”

“Yeah,” replied Chris with a swagger. “I am.”