Did Oedipus really marry his mother?
Posted on Wednesday, 17 August, 2011 | 4 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack
Most people know the story of Oedipus, made famous by Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which was first performed in Athens in 429 BCE. In the play, King Oedipus of Thebes is deeply concerned about a plague afflicting his city. He is told that the suffering is caused by the gods, who are angry that the death of Laius, the previous king, was never avenged. The killer needs to be properly punished.
Oedipus sets out to solve the murder (one of the world’s first “cold cases”). His sleuthing leads in a circle and he discovers, to his horror, that he is Laius’ killer! To make matters worse, Laius was his father, which means that Oedipus has committed patricide, a crime considered much more terrible than an “ordinary” murder. In marrying Laius’ widow, Jocasta – which the people of Thebes invited Oedipus to do after he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, freeing them from that monster – Oedipus has inadvertently married his mother. By the time the Sophocles’ play opens, Oedipus and Jocasta have been married for many years and have produced four children.
But did it really happen? Did Oedipus really marry his mother?
If you consider only the elements of Sophocles’ play, then the answer is a resounding yes, of course he did! That’s the point of the story. However, if you are asking whether these events really occurred at some point in history, determining the answer is more difficult.
Some may argue that Oedipus is only a myth; that he never existed. That’s certainly possible. However, if he did exist, he would have lived in the Late Bronze Age, approximately 1300 BCE – a few generations before the traditional date ascribed to the Trojan War (another still-debated “event”).
The time period makes things difficult. In 1300 BCE Greece a few people were writing things down – pottery shards dating back to this era have been discovered in Thebes bearing scraps of writing – but the script used, Linear B, was employed mostly for making inventories rather than recording history. And shortly after 1200 BCE, the region went through some sort of cataclysm. During this period, the population decreased significantly and most cities were burned and/or abandoned. Some, like Mycenae, were never repopulated. Written language became a lost art in both the Aegean and western Anatolia.
The cause of this upheaval has not been determined. There are many theories, including natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, climate change, and invasions from distant marauders who had mastered the use of iron. But for the purpose of this article what matters is that there was a break in the continuity of knowledge and history. Hence, the playwrights of Classical Greece – such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides – based their dramas on stories that had been passed down for generations by word of mouth. They may have not cared whether the stories were actually true.
So, perhaps our first question should not be whether Oedipus really married his mother. Instead it should be: Did Oedipus even exist?
Legends place Oedipus mostly in Thebes (the city in central Greece, not the city in Egypt bearing the same name). Excavating in Thebes poses problems not faced by the archaeologists digging up Troy in what is now Turkey, or Mycenae in the Peloponnese, because Thebes is still inhabited – and has been for millennia. It’s harder to dig where a house currently exists: the owners may object! Moreover, because of the long inhabitation, much of the past has been destroyed. Those engaged in construction a thousand years ago saved themselves time and effort by taking stones out of the crumbling city wall rather than traveling to a distant quarry to chip out new ones. Hence, the ancient city walls of Thebes, among many other structures, no longer exist.
So searching for evidence of Oedipus in Thebes is problematic. Nevertheless, there has been some success. Although I know of no direct evidence – yet – of that ill-fated king, a pair of caves just east of Thebes has been determined to be a pair of royal tombs. Some claim that these tombs belonged to Polynikes and Eteokles, the twin sons of Oedipus. If archaeologists can show that Oedipus’ sons existed, then that makes it more likely that Oedipus did as well.
A visitor to Thebes can find other places associated with the Oedipus myth. The locals can point out the crossroads where Oedipus allegedly killed Laius, as well as a spring where Oedipus supposedly washed off Laius’ blood. The route to the north leads between two mountains, where the Sphinx was reputed to attack travelers (certainly it would have been an ideal place for bandits).
Oedipus’ grave may never be found in Thebes because the stories say he’s not buried there. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus has him dying in a precinct of Athens; according to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, written in the second century CE, Oedipus’ grave could be seen near Athens, the body having been brought over from Thebes.
These bits of information could have been passed down for generations. After all, those living near Troy never “forgot” where it was. So it’s possible that the events actually took place where people today say they did. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the sites were assigned to certain spots by locals wanting to take advantage of the tourist trade. At any rate, oral tradition claims that Oedipus at least existed.
Assuming that Oedipus did exist, could he have really killed his father and married his mother?
Even if we prefer to stay with the natural, as opposed to the supernatural – not permitting gods, for example, to influence our speculations – we have to admit that such an awful coincidence is possible. And given the billions of couples which have existed since the beginning of time, probably a mother-son pairing has happened more than once. But how likely is it that this happened to Oedipus?
Let’s consider the best-known source of the myth. Sophocles was an Athenian playwright, and Athens had a great rivalry with Thebes, partly because Thebes had sided with Xerxes during the Persian invasion. Setting scandals in Thebes was not unusual, and playing up a Theban scandal might have been a way to gain popularity with the Athenian audience and judges.
But Sophocles wasn’t the only playwright to write about Oedipus’ marriage with his mother; we know that others did as well, although their works have since perished. And there are earlier mentions of Oedipus; for example, Homer has his hero Odysseus meet Oedipus’ mother-wife in the Underworld. In The Odyssey her name is Epikaste, not Jocasta – but Epikaste, like Jocasta, hangs herself after learning the truth about her accidental marriage with her son.
As Homer lived more than two centuries before Sophocles, and in a very different part of the Greek-speaking world, we can conclude that the Oedipus myth was not the result of an Athenian grudge against Thebes. Sophocles did not invent this Theban scandal. Possibly – probably – he embellished it for dramatic purposes, but he didn’t make it all up. The story already existed.
Let’s consider the different elements of Sophocles’ version and ask ourselves what is likely to be true. Certainly it would not be so unusual if Oedipus killed Laius. Men have killed each other throughout history. Furthermore, it would not be strange for a new king – who had gained a kingdom through conquest or even as the victor in a riddle contest – to seal his claim to the throne by marrying into the local royalty. That’s a practice that has been repeated throughout the ages. So it’s not unlikely that Oedipus killed Laius, and that he subsequently married Jocasta (from now on I’ll use just that name as it’s the best known).
But what about the other parts of the story? Was Laius Oedipus’ biological father, and Jocasta his biological mother? And what about the prophecies: did an oracle really foretell Oedipus’ killing of Laius and marriage to Jocasta, impelling the parents to expose their infant son on the mountainside to die? And was the mirror message given to Oedipus, causing him to abandon his (adoptive) city and parents, the king and queen of Corinth?
Though people have sought oracles throughout history, I have trouble believing that such specific and accurate prophecies were actually given. I think it’s much more likely that Sophocles took established bits of myth – Oedipus’ killing of his father and marriage with his mother – and created something to motivate the characters’ actions. If Laius and Jocasta, and later Oedipus, had received such prophecies their actions – abandoning a healthy child, vowing never again to see beloved parents – would be more understandable. So dramatically the prophecies were extremely helpful. But I’m still very skeptical.
Two bits of circumstantial evidence support my doubt. First, Homer makes no mention of prophecies. While absence of evidence is not definitive evidence of absence, it helps. Second, the other prophecies that have come down to us – as in Herodotus’ Histories – are obscure and confusing, whereas those in Oedipus Rex are extraordinarily clear.
Although there’s reason to doubt the prophecies ever took place, what about the rest? Is there anything that indicates Oedipus was not really the son of Laius and Jocasta?
In Homer’s version of events, Oedipus remained king of Thebes even after his parentage was discovered. This is not logical: a man who had killed his father and committed incest with his mother would have been considered irredeemably cursed, and the Thebans would almost certainly have banished him or killed him (they had already killed three previous kings for offenses against the gods). Sophocles corrects this situation by having Oedipus blind himself and then go into exile, but it is not consistent with Homer.
It’s also possible that the Oedipus myth is an allegory, illustrating a sociopolitical shift. Some scholars have speculated that there was once a tradition whereby the throne passed along the female line – and so the king was the man who married the queen, rather than the son of the previous king. Killing the prior king could even have been a prerequisite to marrying the queen. The Oedipus myth could reflect tensions between these two systems of succession.
So one explanation is that Oedipus was unrelated to Laius and Jocasta – a foreign prince from Corinth who killed Laius in a roadside encounter, then married Laius’ widow and assumed the throne of Thebes. If Oedipus was revealed only much later as Laius’ killer, possibly this news could have motivated Jocasta to hang herself. If Oedipus subsequently needed to strengthen his claim to Thebes’ throne, reflecting the sociopolitical shift above, he could have claimed to be Laius’ long-lost son. Of course, this would have made him his father’s murderer and his mother’s second husband – odd, to say the least.
A further twist on this is that there may have been two women, as we have two different names. Perhaps Oedipus first married Epikaste, who committed suicide when she discovered that Oedipus killed Laius, and married Jocasta afterwards.
But in the tale that has been passed down across the millennia, Oedipus definitely kills his father and marries his mother. Perhaps the story has survived for so long because it truly did happen, and the morsel of history was too riveting to forget.
Without forensic evidence, it’s unlikely we will ever know the entire truth behind what happened – but this is the site for unexplained mysteries, where speculation is both welcomed and encouraged. What do you think happened?Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.
Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit www.tapestryofbronze.com. Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.