Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

4
The Oedipus Myth and Its Interpretation

THE MYTH BEFORE SOPHOCLES

The myth of Oedipus is very old and formed part of a series (or cycle) of epics about Thebes In Works and Days (between 740 and 700 B.C.E.) Hesiod refers in passing to the heroes of old who fought “at seven-gated Thebes over the flocks of Oedipus” (lines 162–63), a possible reference to the struggle between Oedipus' two sons for the throne after their father's death. In the Iliad, Homer mentions “the grave of Oedipus who had fallen in battle” (23.679–80), a version of the story that suggests that Oedipus continues to rule in Thebes and is honored at his death. Presumably too he is not blind.

Our fullest early account of the myth occurs in the Odyssey. Odysseus, recounting his adventures in the palace of the Phaeacians, tells how he saw the famous heroines in the underworld, among whom is Jocasta, here called Epicaste:

And I saw the beautiful Epicaste, Oedipus' mother,
who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous
thing and married her own son. He killed his father
and married her, but the gods soon made it all known to mortals.
But he, for all his sorrows, in beloved Thebes continued
to be lord over the Cadmeans, all through the bitter designing
of the gods; while she went down to Hades of the gates, the strong one,
knotting a noose and hanging sheer from the high ceiling,
in the constraint of her sorrow, but left to him who survived her
all the sorrows that are brought to pass by a mother's Furies.

(Lattimore's translation, 11.271–80)

This version says nothing about the oracles, the self-blinding, or the couple's children, but it does give a prominent place to the gods' intervention, with suggestions of divine malevolence or cruelty. It vividly depicts Jocasta's suffering in the “sorrow” that accompanies her suicide, a small anticipation of the tragic

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