Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Oedipus

Oedipus is remembered today largely in the context of the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, as the mythic archetype of the allegedly universal psychic phenomenon that men unconsciously desire to kill their fathers and have sexual relations with their mothers. Regardless of the validity of Freud’s theory, it is important to note that the theory does not provide a wholly accurate description of the Oedipus of classical mythology. Indeed, Oedipus does end up killing his father and marrying his mother, but he does so entirely without awareness. It is interesting that Freud looks to Oedipus as an incarnation of a supposedly universal trait, as there is indeed much in the story of Oedipus that makes him resonate in universal ways. First, and most apparent, is the case of the riddle of the Sphinx, which Oedipus solves at the gates of Thebes. The Sphinx asks which creature walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening. Oedipus’s answer is man, because man crawls as a baby, walks upright in maturity, and walks with a cane in old age. Perhaps the most direct and universal statement on the nature of man to be found in classical myth, this riddle retains its accuracy even today and still lies within our own power to answer.

Oedipus’s subtler universality is evident later, when he learns the incredible truth about his mother and father. In despair, he puts out his own eyes and leaves his city to wander and eventually die. This form of self-punishment is an unusual choice: while we imagine he might choose to kill himself like his mother or the Sphinx have, his choice to blind himself is a poignant statement on the human condition. In putting out his eyes, Oedipus creates an actual, physical manifestation of what he understands his condition as a human being to be—that we are often blind to our true fate and, as a result, do not know the consequences of our actions. Oedipus thus also acknowledges that fate guides our steps from birth to death, brooding over us however or wherever we wander through life.