O is for Oedipus

Published April 17, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, obviously, right?  (Okay, maybe with my fixation on the Trojan War, you’d expect it to be “O is for Odysseus” but…after “J is for Jocasta“, this had to be told sooner rather than later!)


As the prince of Corinth, Oedipus had grown up well loved and well cared for.  He was an only child, so he got all his father’s care and devotion.  And yet sometimes his mother looked sad when she looked at him.  But normally she doted on him just as much as his father did, so he tended to live his life without worries or regrets.  He did suffer a bit when he walked sometimes, due to a slight limp from a childhood injury, but most of the time it wasn’t a problem, and since he was the prince, no one had ever been cruel to him about the wound or the limp.

As he was about to turn eighteen, he set out on a journey to Delphi, to consult the oracle about his future fate.  It seemed an important thing for a prince on the edge of manhood to know what the gods had in store for him, after all!

When he arrived, he made his offering to Apollo, and then told the priest what he wished to know.  The priest went into the enclosure to consult with the Pythia, and soon emerged again, pale-faced.

“Is anything amiss?” Oedpius asked.

“You have an evil destiny,” the priest told him.  “You must leave these sacred grounds at once, before you pollute them with your very presence!”

“What?  What is this destiny?  What are you condemning me for, when I haven’t even done it yet?”

“You are destined to kill your father and marry your mother,” the priest told him, his voice dripping with disgust.

“Kill my–I would never harm my father!” Oedipus assured him.  Of course, the priest insisted that the Pythia spoke the words of Lord Apollo himself, and that she was never wrong, and so he forced Oedipus to leave at once.

As he was making his way down the road away from Delphi, Oedipus turned the Pythia’s words over and over in his head.  How could such a terrible thing come to pass?  Killing his father…well, those sorts of things happened sometimes.  Sometimes a discus or javelin would go astray, and accidentally kill a bystander.  Sometimes a man lost control of his horses and crashed his chariot.  It was the sort of destiny that could usually be prevented with a little extra caution.

But marrying his mother?  What sort of sick mind could conceive of such an act?  Oedipus couldn’t imagine any circumstance that would ever prompt him to commit such a vile and incestuous act.

Still, it was best not to take any chances, he figured.  So long as he never returned to Corinth while his parents still lived, the Pythia’s words could never come true.

Deciding that had to be the best of all possible courses of action, Oedipus continued on his way, wondering where he should go, since he was suddenly without a home to return to.

As the nearest crossroads, Oedipus stopped, and looked around.  Which way should he go?  Which path would keep him furthest from his innocent parents?

While he stood there, wondering what to do, a group of men came up, carrying a litter.  Seated on the litter was an old man, a bit younger than Oedipus’ father.  The man on the litter glared at Oedipus, gestured at him dismissively, and said something to his servants.  One of the servants shouted at Oedipus to stop blocking the road.

“It’s a public road,” Oedipus replied.  “I’ve as much right to stand on it as you have to walk along it.  Tell your grand master to get out and walk if there’s no room for his litter.  Or is he some Anatolian king who thinks himself too good to walk on Hellenic soil?”

“Impudent mooncalf!” the servant shouted back at him.  “Remove yourself and that club leg of yours if you don’t want a thrashing!”

“I’ll give you the thrashing you so richly deserve!” Oedipus replied, and set about beating the rude servants with his sheathed sword.

But without meaning to, he had taken out his anger at the Pythia’s prophecy on them as well, and by the time he had finished, most of the servants were dead, and their master lay very still, with his face buried in blood-soaked mud.

Horrified at what he had done, Oedipus set out running as quickly as he could in the opposite direction.

It was definitely best that he never return home.  That was clear.  What if he had unleashed that kind of temper where he could harm people he cared about?

Instead, he set out on a journey to the unknown, accepting the hospitality of any who would offer it, even the lowliest of farmers and cowherds.

It was from one such farmer that he heard the terrifying tale, after he had been on the road for many long months.  “You haven’t heard of the Sphinx?” the farmer asked, astonished.  “Why, it’s the most terrifyin’ beast to walk these lands since…well, since ever!”

“What is it?” Oedipus asked.

“They say it’s got the body of a lion–only twice as big, mind!–and the wings of an eagle, but the face of a beautiful woman,” the farmer replied, shaking his head.  “Been plaguing Thebes for years now.  Won’t let anyone in or out.  Lookin’ for a pretty boy, it says.  But it kills every boy who approaches it, pretty or naught.  So you’d best be keepin’ a wide berth to Thebes, lad, ‘less you wanna end up in the Sphinx’s belly!”

Oedipus nodded, but he was intrigued.  A terrible beast…what could be better?  If he could kill it, he could prove that he was not a monster himself.  And if it killed him, well…that at least would keep the Pythia’s awful prediction from coming true.

Yes, either way, this was for the best, he decided, as he set out for Thebes.  If he was able to save Thebes from the monster, lovely.  If not, then the monster would save Corinth from him.  It was perfect.  Ideal.

When he arrived outside Thebes, at first he saw no sign of the monster.  But then it suddenly leapt down in front of him.  “Are you the boy?” it asked.  “You seem the right age.  And you smell like a prince.  And like the man who took the boy away.  You must be the boy!”

Without another word of warning, the Sphinx grabbed him in its mouth as a lion would its cub, and took off into the air.  But then it landed again on a nearby mountain peak, and looked at him again more closely.  “Wait, are you the boy?” it asked.  “You don’t seem pretty enough to be the boy.”

“I am a young man, not a boy,” Oedipus corrected the beast.  “What boy are you looking for?”

The boy,” the Sphinx replied matter-of-factly.  “I suppose you might be the boy.  Are you good at riddles?”

“I am,” Oedipus assured her.  His father delighted in clever word games, after all, and had taught him many.

“Then perhaps you can answer this one,” the Sphinx chuckled with a cold mirth.  “There is an awful beast, the most terrible of monsters.”

“More terrible than you?”

“More terrible by far!” the Sphinx assured him.  “And this monster changes its form.  In the morning, it has four legs, in the afternoon it has but two, yet in the evening it has three!”

“Does it really?” Oedipus chuckled.

“It does indeed!” the Sphinx replied.  “Do you know the monster’s name?”

“The monster’s name is man,” Oedipus told her.  “In the morning of a man’s life, he crawls on all fours as an infant.  In the afternoon, he is a man and walks on his own two legs, but in the evening of his life, he needs a cane to get about.”

The Sphinx frowned.  “Maybe you are the boy,” it conceded, “but you really aren’t pretty enough.  No, I think I shall eat you.”

“I think you won’t,” Oedipus countered, drawing his sword and driving the blade into its chest.  The monster shrieked, and fell from the mountaintop, quite dead.

By the time that Oedipus had climbed back down from the mountain, the people of Thebes had gathered around the Sphinx’s corpse.  They insisted on taking him to see the regent, Creon.  Naturally, Oedipus agreed, hoping that he was going to be rewarded, not punished, for his action…though he knew there was never any telling with royalty.  There might have been some kind of curse or prophecy stopping people from turning their blades on the Sphinx…

The people led him into the throne room, where Creon sat upon the throne.  He was an old man, about the age of Oedipus’ father, and looked stern.  “The rumors say the Sphinx is dead,” Creon said.  “What happened?”

“She dove off the mountainside and took her own life!” one of the townspeople exclaimed.  “I saw it with my own eyes!”

Apparently, he hadn’t seen it very well, Oedipus reflected, but he decided that it was, perhaps, better that way.   Such a monster might have divine protection, after all.  “He’s telling the truth,” Oedipus agreed.  “When I answered her riddle correctly, she threw herself to her death.  It seemed most odd behavior…”

Creon smiled, and shook his head.  “All that matters is that the beast is finally slain!  You’ve saved us all, young man!”

“I’m glad I was able to be of assistance,” Oedipus replied.  He wanted to ask if there was any reward, but he didn’t want to sound greedy.  Before anyone could speak further, however, his stomach started growling.  It had been almost two days since he had eaten, and then it hadn’t been much, since his host had been a farmer.

Creon laughed.  “Forgive me for being a poor host!” he exclaimed, then clapped his hands to draw the attention of the servants.  “Prepare a feast immediately!  And someone take this fellow to get cleaned up from the dust of the road.”

Several of the servants led Oedipus into a chamber with a stone bathing tub, where they quickly rinsed the sweat and dirt off his body, and then rubbed him down with finely scented Pylian oil.  Then they led him back into the throne room, where the banquet was already being laid out.  Oedipus couldn’t remember the last time he had been so glad to see food!

He hadn’t eaten so well since he left Corinth, and by the time his appetite calmed down again, he realized that the rest of the court had arrived, and begun to eat.  Ashamed of his behavior, he apologized to Creon for his rudeness.

Creon chuckled, and told him he had nothing to apologize for.  The woman beside Creon also laughed charmingly, and commented on what a sweet young man he was.

Oedipus was floored by the comment.  No, not by the comment.  By the woman.  She was perhaps as old as forty, yet she was still magnificently beautiful.  Her long, dark hair curled down past her shoulders, with a few locks falling in front of them, hanging down to the tips of her surprisingly tantalizing breasts.

Something about the woman excited him in a way he’d never felt before.  The way she smiled, the way she laughed, the way she turned her head, every movement felt somehow so perfect, so natural, so right.  There was something warm and almost familiar about her, and he wanted desperately to understand what it was.

After some time, he realized he was staring, and forced himself to look back at his food.  But he wasn’t hungry anymore.  Not for food…

Once the feast was over, Creon dismissed the rest of the court, and Oedipus found himself alone with the regent once more, though the beautiful woman had lingered at Creon’s side for a long time, smiling warmly at Oedipus, even as she stood beside the other man.  He wondered if she was Creon’s wife.  She seemed about the right age for it, about ten or twenty years younger than Creon seemed to be.  But what would it mean if she was his wife?  Had he been making eyes at his host’s wife?  That was the sort of crime that carried heavy penalties…

“Now that you’ve been fed, perhaps you’d favor us with your name?”

“My name is Oedipus,” he replied, “of Corinth.”  He didn’t dare give his father’s name, just in case.

“How much did you know about the Sphinx before you arrived in Thebes?”

“Only that it was tormenting the city,” Oedipus replied.  It seemed an odd question, to say the least.

“So you hadn’t heard about the reward for killing it, then?” Creon asked, sounding surprised.

Oedipus shook his head.  “Not a word, no.  I suppose I’ll have to wait for the king to return to receive it?”

Creon sighed sadly.  “The king is dead.  Went off to find a way to be rid of the Sphinx, and met his death on the road.  In light of that, it was announced that whoever finished off the monster would get his throne as payment.”

“His throne?!” Oedipus repeated.  That seemed astonishingly generous!

“There is a condition, though,” Creon added.  “So the bloodline isn’t entirely broken, the new king is expected to marry the widowed queen.”

“Oh?  Well, that’s not so bad,” Oedipus replied, though without meeting the queen, he couldn’t know just how good or bad it was.  But it wasn’t like marrying her would force him to make love to her as well…  “What does the queen look like?” he couldn’t help but ask.

Creon laughed.  “You were staring at her all through the feast!”

“That–that was the queen?”  Oedipus hoped he hadn’t gone red in the face.

Creon nodded.  “My sister, Jocasta.  If a young fellow like yourself won’t feel too uncomfortable married to a woman her age, we can arrange everything right away.  But…well, she’s childless, and very lonely.  You’ll have to make certain…concessions to her desires.  Despite how much older she is.”

“I’m sure I won’t mind,” Oedipus assured him.  If all older women were as exciting as Jocasta, then men would surely always marry women fifteen years their elder instead of fifteen years their junior!

Creon seemed amused by his eager certainty, and began explaining all that Oedipus would be inheriting from Jocasta’s late husband Laios.  Oedipus did his best to listen to the explanation, but his mind was elsewhere, and the wedding feast couldn’t come soon enough!

The people of the Theban court seemed to think that Oedipus was unlucky to be forced into a marriage to an older woman, but he couldn’t see it that way.  And his new wife seemed quite thrilled by his performance!  She told him repeatedly how much more she enjoyed his bed than her late husband’s.

Though a number of the men of the court had said that Jocasta must be beyond her child-bearing years, it was less than half a year before she reported to her young husband that she was with child.  Unfortunately, that first child turned out to be a daughter, not a fine son to be their heir.  But she was a beautiful child none the less, and they decided to name her Antigone.

Not more than a year later, Jocasta was with child again, and this time, she gave birth not only to one son, but to two!  The one who emerged from the womb first they named Eteocles, and the other Polynices.

When the boys were two years old, Jocasta once more conceived a child, but it was another daughter, much to the father’s dismay.  It would have been better, Oedipus was sure, to have three sons than to have two daughters.  But she, too, was a lovely child, and they named her Ismene.

After that, Jocasta really was too old to bear children, but even when all four of their children were approaching adulthood, she was still vibrant and beautiful, and Oedipus always delighted in her company, and listened to her advice gladly.

But there was nothing he heard more gladly than the tidings that came in, one day, from Corinth.  The news said that the king and queen had died peacefully, leaving their kingdom to the king’s nephew.  Oedipus rejoiced to learn that he had successfully thwarted the Pythia’s dire prediction!

And yet all too soon, Thebes started to suffer from a plague.  The seer Tiresias–a bent, blind, old man–was brought to the throne room, and he laughed cruelly when he was asked what was the cause of the plague.

“The gods can only tolerate arrogance and blood pollution for so long, you know,” Tiresias told them.  “When you let a murderer remain in town uncleansed, what else can happen but such a plague?”

“A murderer?” Oedipus repeated.  “Who?”

“Why, the king’s murderer, of course,” Tiresias chuckled.  “Laios met the fate the gods told him he would.  Prophecies cannot be avoided.  It was his fault for getting a child.  But now the city suffers for his foolish mistake.”

With that, the seer left.  To his surprise, Oedipus found that his wife had grown pale.  “What’s wrong, my dear?” he asked.

“It’s impossible!” she moaned.  “The child is dead!”

“What child?”

Weeping with shame, Jocasta recounted for her husband the tale of what had happened nearly forty years ago.  How the oracle at Delphi had told Laios that he would die at his son’s hands, and that Thebes would suffer terribly because of it.

“If he handed over the infant to a servant to kill,” Oedipus started to reply.

“Not to kill!  To expose!” Jocasta corrected.

“No matter what he told the servant to do to that infant, it’s clear that he did not do as he asked,” Oedipus said, frowning.  “We’ll have to hope we can find him, and find out what he did with the child instead.   No, that would take too long.  Surely we know who killed Laios?” he asked.  Somehow, despite that they had been married nearly twenty years, he had never thought to ask that question.

“Some traveler,” Jocasta answered.  “On the road to Delphi.  Only one of his servants survived, and he was very badly wounded.  He had to be carried back to the city to tell us of my husband’s death.”

“Does he still live?”

“Oh, no, I think he died years ago.  But I believe his daughter is still working in the palace kitchens.”

Oedipus nodded.  “Then you go and ask her if her father ever told her about the king’s killer.  I’ll ask your brother if he knows what servant handled the disposal of your late husband’s son,” he told her.  But he was alarmed that his wife had had a son by her first husband and yet had never before mentioned it to him.

He found his brother-in-law Creon supervising his son Haemon’s education.  “Good morning, Father,” Haemon said to him.  The young man was over-enthusiastic about his proposed marriage to Antigone, as always.  It sickened Oedipus just a little, but he tried not to let on about it.

“I need to speak to your father in private, Haemon,” Oedipus told him.  The youth politely excused himself, and left the room along with his tutors.  “Creon, Jocasta just told me about her previous son,” Oedipus said coldly.  “You knew about him, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” Creon agreed, “but I had promised Laios that I would never mention the child again.  It hurt my sister terribly to give up her son.”

“Do you know what happened to the child?”

“One of the servants took him away to expose him by the side of a river,” Creon answered.  “My late brother-in-law was very firm on making sure that it was a river quite far away, to ensure that Jocasta could not find the child and save him.”

“If the seer is right, someone saved him,” Oedipus grumbled.  “Does the servant still live?”

“I believe so,” Creon agreed, and began to lead his new brother-in-law to the place where the aged former servant could be found.

In the kitchens, meanwhile, Jocasta had just found the servant she was looking for.  “Did your father ever tell you anything about my late husband’s killer?” she asked.

“Only that he had a terrifying aspect,” the young woman said.  “Oh!  And that he was lame in one foot, with a hideous scar all around the back of his leg!”

Jocasta’s blood ran cold.  That description sounded like…

The servant who had disposed of Laios’ child was a very old man, no longer able to see, so Creon told Oedipus to keep quiet, lest he be alarmed by the presence of a stranger.  “I wanted to ask you about my nephew,” Creon said to the servant.  “You were the one who exposed him, weren’t you?”

“That Laios was a cold-hearted monster,” the servant said, shaking his head.  “Drove a spike through his own baby’s leg, through the leg and the foot together.  To keep him from crawling away, he said.  Once he was left by the side of the river.”

“And you did leave him by the side of the river?” Creon prompted.

“I…”

“It’s all right,” Creon assured him.  “Just tell me the truth.  Tell me what you did with the child.”

“I was about to leave the child, like I was told.  Then I met up with this fellow I knew.  A shepherd from Corinth, he was.”  Oedipus felt his stomach grow queasy at the mention of Corinth.

“Did you give the child to him?” Creon asked.

“I…I did,” the servant admitted.  “I couldn’t bear to just leave the poor thing to die!  It was going to die anyhow, with a wound like that, and I thought it’d be better to let it die among people and have a proper burial, instead of lyin’ out on the grass to get eaten by animals.”

“What did the shepherd do with the baby?” Oedipus demanded, his heart racing.

“Who–who are you?” the servant asked, turning his blind face in Oedipus’ direction.

“This is my son, Haemon,” Creon lied quickly.  “But do answer his question.  Did the shepherd keep the child?”

“I…he said he was going to…but…”  The servant swallowed heavily.  “I heard…the king and queen of Corinth had been without children for a long time…everyone thought the queen was barren…but then suddenly they had a baby boy…I think it was the baby I didn’t kill…”

“By all the gods…” Oedipus murmured, sinking to his knees.

“Oh, but it’s all right!” the servant exclaimed.  “The boy did die!”

“He did?” Creon asked.

“Yes, yes, when he was a teenager.  Went off to Delphi and never returned.  Probably killed by the same highwayman that got poor old Laios!”

Oedipus ran out of the room, and back to the palace.  He headed straight for his chambers, where he found Jocasta weeping in Antigone’s arms.  “You have more cause to weep than you know,” he told her.

“You!” Jocasta shouted, rising to her feet.  “You slew my husband!”

Oedipus winced.  “The Pythia never lies,” he sighed sadly.

“Of course she does,” Jocasta insisted.  “She claimed he would be killed by our son.”

Oedipus wasn’t ready to say the words he needed to.  “The Pythia never lies,” he repeated instead.

“Father, what are you saying?” Antigone asked.

“The servant didn’t expose your son,” he told Jocasta slowly.  “He gave the baby to a Corinthian shepherd…”

Jocasta stared at him for a moment in horror, then let out a wail.  She knew all too well what he meant, and ran out of the room.

Oedipus went into the bedchamber that he had, for the last twenty years, been sharing with his own mother, and felt shivers of disgust run across his flesh.  How could he have been so blind?

He had cast eyes of desire at his own mother!  What had he been thinking?  How could he have been so blind?

He couldn’t bear the thought of keeping the eyes that had introduced him to such vile and unnatural thoughts.  Taking one of his wife’s–his mother’s–pins, he gouged himself in the eyes repeatedly, until both his sons grabbed his arms and stopped him from any further acts of self-mutilation.  Oedipus screamed words of rage at them, at the products of his own incestuous lust, but his words were so garbled that he didn’t know if they had understood him.

But the people of Thebes were still suffering from the plague.  The city was still cursed by his blood guilt.

The only thing he could do was to save them by going into exile.  Oedipus set out through the same gate he entered in triumph so many years ago, and set out walking, the wind stinging the holes where his eyes once were.  He prayed that the gods would bring him a swift death, but doubted that he would be so fortunate.


 

I’m sorry I had him kill the Sphinx outright like that.  I know she’s supposed to kill herself when he solves her riddle, but…I wasn’t thinking about that part when I set her up in the previous story.  As it stood, it wouldn’t have made sense for her to kill herself, since she thought she was trying to bring Chrysippos back to his father.  (Despite his father having since died.)

I feel a bit dirty for having written his attraction to Jocasta being so intense, though.  Yecch.  My own story makes my skin crawl.  That’s not right…

Anyway, no idea when I’ll get to the rest of the Theban cycle.  Maybe the first Thursday after April is over?

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