Oedipus on his Life’s Path

Elżbieta Wesołowska

One writes about Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BC) with trepidation. This feeling is likely to be compounded by the fact that this inexhaustible and multifaceted play continues to animate countless scholarly and critical debates which are becoming ever more narrow and focused. The depth and timelessness of this trademark Sophoclean tragedy inspire scholars to explore the complexity and originality of this most tragic of all tragic heroes about the famous parricide who wedded and bedded his own mother.[1]

A medieval monk’s refashioning of the fallen Oedipus, Bury St Edmund’s, 1450s (in a manuscript of John Lydgate’s poem The Fall of Princes (composed 1430s), British Library Harl. MS 1766 f.48r).

The aim of this short article is to examine the role of literary topography from the perspective of geopoetics – where place and space bear an intimate relationship within the text that contains them. My reflections on the life of Oedipus will be based on the analysis of the map of Sophocles’ Greece. I will focus on the places the hero visited (albeit at times unintentionally)[2] and influenced in turn:

For clarity, as a self-standing schema, the route looks like this:

This route charts the places that mark the most important and dramatic events of Oedipus’s life. He is born in Thebes (1). Burdened with a curse, he is left to die on Mount Cithaeron (2). Saved by a well-meaning servant, he is first taken by a shepherd and later by the king of Corinth (3), Polybius. At (3) he is told about being a changeling. He then secretly leaves for Delphi (4), across the sea. Hoping to learn about his origins, he consults the Oracle of Apollo but is left without a direct answer (vv. 280–1).

Instead, he is told (in the form of a refined presupposition)[3] about two crimes he is fated to commit: he will kill his father and wed his mother. It is the combination of the oracle’s cryptic presupposition, the young age of Oedipus, and the sense of anxiety about his origins that drives the protagonist far away from the place where he fears he may encounter his parents.[4] At this point, he travels on foot and encounters a group of travellers at the crossroads (5). Offended and assaulted by the strangers, Oedipus kills all but one of them.[5]

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau, 1864 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Oedipus then takes the road from which the travellers came and heads for Thebes. Note that this event marks the last time that the youth can choose his way. After all, he might as well have taken the highroad to Daulis (6), which would help him stay away from Corinth, as intended. Instead, Oedipus chooses his way, determined always to keep right. Along the way, he comes across the monstrous Sphinx (7), which he vanquishes using the strength of his intellect, and returns to Thebes. Oedipus then basks in glory as the slayer of the monster that has plagued the local inhabitants for some time. In return for his achievement, he is awarded the hand of the widowed Queen and the throne of Thebes.[6]  He therefore accidentally becomes the ruler of the land, which he should have inherited as the only rightful son of the king.

Let us consider the route marked by numbers 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 7 – 8, i.e disregarding Daulis (6). The closed curve of the route is fairly unambiguous. Other characters of the play follow this trajectory too, both in the fictional present and the past. The events involving these characters are as follows:

  • Past events:
    1. The servant takes the infant away onto a hilltop (2)
    2. The shepherd takes the baby to the palace in Corinth (3)
    3. King Laius consults the Oracle of Delphi (4)[7]
  • Present events:
    1. The envoy arrives from Corinth (3)
    2. The servant arrives from the outskirts of the town (1)
    3. The shepherd arrives from Cithaeron (2)
    4. Teiresias arrives from the town (1)
    5. Sent to consult the oracle, Creon returns from Delphi (4)
    6. After his self-mutilation and the death of his wife, Oedipus wants to head for Cithaeron (2), which he chooses as the place of his death and which is where he was meant to die from the beginning.
    7. However Creon wishes to consult the Oracle of Delphi again (4), before making any decisions concerning the fate of Oedipus.
Oedipus confronts the Sphinx of Thebes (detail of Athenian vase by the ‘Achilles painter’, c. 445 BC; now in the Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany).

Moreover, the mystery of Oedipus’ life can be explained by the fact that Oedipus hoped to avoid his future without knowing his past. His symbolic death as a blind man seems to mirror his life of blindly following the paths of fate. It is also worth considering two adverbs of place and time in ancient Greek: opisthen (denoting that which takes place in the future and is situated “behind” something) and prosthen (that which takes place in the past and is situated “in front of” something). The Greeks believed that since the past had already happened, we can see it “in front of us”, while we can’t see the future, so it is “behind our back”.

In Oedipus’ life the reverse, however, is true: he doesn’t know his past, which is in front of him, but he knows the future, once revealed to him by the oracle. Oedipus lives in the illusion of his future life without having access to his past, in which his present life is rooted. Unable to make sense of his life out of the incoherent scraps of knowledge about his past, he is doomed to fail. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus blinds himself at the end. Before that he mocks Tiresias, a blind prophet, for his physical blindness, without realizing that he is the one who doesn’t know the truth about himself and his past.[8]

An experiment carried out in the early 2000s and involving blindfolded participants who were asked to walk straight ahead showed that the participants tended to stray to one side. If the participants had continued to walk long enough, the trajectory would have ended up in a near-circular pattern. Since Oedipus is reluctant to talk about his early days, of which he is anxious and uncertain,[9] it is impossible to retrace his route on the basis of the characters’ utterances. There are, however, descriptions of the protagonist’s disfigured feet (717–18 and 1032). He is so used to his disfigurement that, unlike the reader, he is unable to connect the dots, so to speak, when hearing the story of a child with injured feet abandoned in the mountains. It seems, therefore, that the circular route of Oedipus, as sketched on the map above, may be connected to his real disability and his mental blindness.

Oedipus and Antigone, Antoni Brodowski, 1828 (National Museum in Warsaw, Poland).

Sophocles ingenuously weaves another layer of meaning into an already rich and complex tapestry. When Oedipus, as a man of extraordinary insight, is manacled by his inability to relate to his past, he actually can see less than the blind prophet Tiresias, who has failed to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Thus the topographical and historical pattern of his life path, whether read on the page or seen on the stage, stands for the imaginary of his fate. Due to his mental blindness, Oedipus moves along a circle, like blindfolded individuals in the contemporary experiment. A wanderer and stranger to everyone, given to the weaknesses of the human condition,[10] he ends up destroying the lives of all who cross his path. From Corinth to Thebes, from the crossroads of Delphi to Thebes, he follows the pattern of a closed loop or a noose, such as the one tied around the neck of Jocasta who killed herself after learning the truth about Oedipus.

Aside from its wealth of meanings and contexts, the timeless tragedy of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex reveals the remarkable intuition of its author, who succeeded in animating the conventional topos of the journey of life by showing its complex topographical dimensions. Sophocles manages to reconstruct Oedipus’ life path against the background of Greek geography. In doing so, he constructs the protagonist’s imaginary, one that is inextricably linked to his mental blindness, as opposed to the tragic, self-inflicted blindness that will be meted out to him as a punishment for his crimes.

Elżbieta Wesołowska is a Professor of Latin and Ancient Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, where she was previously Director of the Institute of Classical Philology. She is especially interested in the works of Ovid and Seneca, but also in the modern reception of ancient literature, and in translating Latin poetry into Polish. Her previous article for Antigone discussed the manifold names of Helen of Troy/Sparta.


Further Reading

A.W.H. Adkins, “Aristotle and the Best Kind of Tragedy,” Classical Quarterly 16 (1966) 78–102.
C. Catenaccio, “Oedipus Tyrannus: the Riddle of the Feet,” Classical Outlook 89 (2012) 102–7.
J. Gregory, “The Encounter at the Crossroads in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995) 141–6.
M. Grelka, “On the Question of Knowledge and Blindness in the Oedipus Tyrannus,” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium 23 (2013) 19–33.
B.M.W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time (Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 1966).
M.L. Rose, The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Abilities in Ancient Greece (U. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2003).
J.L. Souman, I. Frissen, M.N. Sreenivasa, & M.O. Ernst, “Walking Straight into Circles (Report),” Current Biology 19 (2009) 1538–42.

Notes

Notes
1 The universal aspect of this famous tragedy has inspired many notable literary and film adaptations of the play, such as the drama Life Is a Dream (1627–9) written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the novel Homo Faber (1956) written by Max Frisch, and the film The Bourne Identity (2002) directed by Doug Liman.
2 Needless to say, as an infant, Oedipus could not have remembered his journey from Thebes to Corinth via Mount Cithaeron.
3 This denotes a situation in which the interlocutor provides answers which do not answer the speaker’s question directly but convey hidden messages.
4 It should be noted that Apollo says nothing about Oedipus’ past as a changeling. After hearing the augury, however, Oedipus is no longer concerned with his origins. This problem seems to pale in comparison with the horrific nature of the prophesy.
5 Note that Oedipus kills his oppressors (at 810ff.) with a staff, as he has no sword to hand.
6 The words that Oedipus utters when addressing his wife echo the protagonist’s tacit awareness that the throne comes with the dowry; see vv. 579–80.
7 We do not know what bothers the king at this point. It is unlikely that his inquiry is related to the Sphinx, as the monster makes his appearance on the road after this event. One may risk an assumption that Laius wants to consult the Oracle to find out whether he is fit to have children.
8 It is worth pointing out that, by blinding himself, Oedipus reduces himself in stature to Tiresias, whom he disagrees with and disparages. For instance, he accuses the blind prophet of failing to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and thus saving Thebes from the monster (vv. 390 ff.). Interestingly, the position of Tiresias is ambivalent and heavily contingent on the veracity of his prophecies.
9 Oedipus is deeply worried that he may be a changeling and a child of slaves, which can be gathered from his dramatic response.
10 It is probable that the title of Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber is an ironic reminder that man is not the architect of his own fortune in either a general or specific sense of the term.