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Οἰδίπους). The son of Laïus, king of Thebes, and of Iocasta (called in the Odyssey Epicasté), the daughter of Menoeceus. An oracle had warned Laïus against having children, declaring that he would meet his death by means of his offspring; and the monarch accordingly practised continence until, after some lapse of time, having indulged in festivity, he forgot the injunction of the god, and Iocasta gave birth to a son. The father immediately delivered the child to his herdsman to expose on Mount Cithaeron. The herdsman, moved to compassion, according to one account (Oed. Tyr. 1038), gave the babe to a neat-herd belonging to Polybus, king of Corinth; or, as others say (Eurip. Phoeniss. 28), the neat-herds of Polybus found the infant after it had been exposed, and brought it to Periboea, the wife of Polybus, who, being childless, reared it as her own, and named it Oedipus, on account of its swollen feet (from οἰδέω, “to swell,” and πούς, “a foot”); for Laïus, previous to its exposure, had pierced its ankles, and had inserted through the wound a leathern thong. The foundling Oedipus was brought up by Polybus as his heir. Happening to be reproached by some one at a banquet with being a supposititious child, he besought Periboea to inform him of the truth; but, unable to get any satisfaction from her, he went to Delphi and consulted the oracle. The god directed him to shun his native country, or else he would be the slayer of his father and the sharer of his mother's bed. He therefore resolved never to return to Corinth, where so much crime, as he thought, awaited him, and he took his road through Phocis. Now it happened that Laïus, at this same time, was on his way to Delphi, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the child which had been exposed had perished or not. He was in a chariot, accompanied by his herald Polyphontes; a few attendants came after. The father and son, total strangers to each other, met in a narrow road in Phocis. Oedipus was ordered to make way, and, on his disregarding the command, the charioteer endeavoured to crowd him out of the path. A contest thereupon ensued, and both Laïus and the charioteer, together with all the attendants except one, who fled, were slain by the hand of Oedipus.

Immediately after the death of Laïus, Heré, always hostile to the city of Bacchus, sent a monster named the Sphinx to ravage the territory of Thebes. It had the face of a woman, the breast, feet, and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. This monster had been taught riddles by the Muses, and she sat on the Phicean Hill, and propounded one to the Thebans. It was this: “What is that which has one voice, is four-footed, twofooted, and at last three-footed?” or, as others give it, “What animal is that which goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noon, and on three at evening?” The oracle told the Thebans that they would not be delivered from her until they had solved her riddle. They often met to try their skill; and when they had failed, the Sphinx always carried off and devoured one of their number. At length Haemon, son of Creon , having become her victim, the father offered by public proclamation the throne, to which he had succeeded on the death of Laïus, and the hand of his sister Iocasta, to whoever should solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus, who was then at Thebes, hearing this, came forward and answered the Sphinx that it was Man, who, when an infant, creeps on all fours; when he has attained to manhood, goes on two feet; and when old, uses a staff, a third foot. The Sphinx thereupon flung herself down to the earth and perished; and Oedipus now unknowingly accomplished the remainder of the oracle. He had by his mother two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two daughters, Antigoné and Ismené.

After some years Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence; and the oracle being consulted, ordered the land to be purified of the blood which defiled it. Inquiry was set on foot after the murder of Laïus, and a variety of concurring circumstances brought the guilt home to Oedipus. Iocasta, on the discovery being made, hung herself, and her unhappy son and husband, in his grief and despair, put out his eyes. He was banished from Thebes; and, accompanied by his

Oedipus and the Sphinx. (Fragment of an archaic Greek Vase found at Daphnae.)

daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, he came, after a tedious period of miserable wandering, to the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, a village not far from Athens, and there found the termination of his wretched life, having mysteriously disappeared from mortal view, and been received into the bosom of the earth, the secret of his death and burial being known to Theseus only. The history of his sons will be found under the articles Eteocles; Polynices.

Such is the form in which the history of Oedipus has been transmitted to us by the Attic dramatists. We will now consider its most ancient shape. The hero of the Odyssey says: “I saw (in Erebus) the mother of Oedipodes, the fair Epicasta, who, in her ignorance, did an awful deed, marrying her own son; and he married, having slain his own father, and immediately the gods made this known unto men. Now he ruled over the Cadmaeans in desirable Thebes, suffering woes through the pernicious councils of the gods; but she, oppressed with grief, went to the abode of Aïdes, the strong gate-keeper, having fastened a long halter to the lofty roof, and left to him many woes, such as the avenging furies of a mother produce” ( Od. xi. 271 foll.). In the Iliad (xxiii. 679) the funeral games are mentioned which were celebrated at Thebes in honour of the “fallen Oedipodes.” Hesiod (Op. et D. 162) speaks of the heroes who fell fighting at the seven-gated Thebes, on account of the sheep of Oedipodes. It would also seem that, according to the above passage of the Odyssey and to the epic poem, the Oedipodea (Pausan. ix. 5, 11), Epicasta had not any children by her son; Eurygenia, the daughter of Hyperphas, being the mother of his well-known offspring. According to the cyclic Thebaïs, the fatal curse of Oedipus on his sons had the following origin: Polynices placed before his father a silver table which had belonged to Cadmus, and filled a golden cup with wine for him; but when Oedipus perceived the heir-looms of his family thus set before him, he raised his hands and prayed that his sons might never divide their inheritance peaceably, but ever be at strife. Elsewhere (ap. Schol. ad Oed. Col. 1440) the Thebaïs said that his sons, having sent him the loin, instead of the shoulder, of the victim, he flung it to the ground, and prayed that they might fall by each other's hands.

The story of Oedipus forms the subject of two plays of Sophocles, the Oedipus Tyrannus and the Oedipus Coloneus; and was also taken by Aeschylus as the subject of a trilogy, of which only the third play, the Seven against Thebes, remains. Seneca also wrote a Latin tragedy, the Oedipus, following the first play of Sophocles with considerable fidelity. In French, Corneille and Voltaire, and in English, Dryden, have also treated the same theme dramatically. See Antigoné, Creon; Seven against Thebes; and also Aeschylus; Sophocles.

hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Euripides, Phoenician Women, 28
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 162
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.679
    • Homer, Odyssey, 11.271
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.5.11
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1440
    • Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 1038
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