Oedipus was the son of Laius, a king of Thebes, and his wife Jocasta (or Epicasta, according to some sources). When Laius learned from an oracle that he was destined to die at the hands of his son, he left the newborn Oedipus to die in the mountains. But Oedipus was rescued and raised by Polybus, the king of Corinth. Once he reached adulthood, Oedipus set out on a journey, during which he quarreled with and killed an old man, defeated the Sphinx, and became the king of Thebes by marrying the widow of the late king.
Oedipus soon discovered, however, that the old man he had killed on his travels was none other than his true father, Laius, and that the woman he had married was his mother, Jocasta. Horrified, Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile. Because of this sharp reversal in fortune, Oedipus is often remembered as the great “tragic hero” of Greek mythology.
The name “Oedipus” is derived from the Greek verb oideō, meaning “to swell,” and the noun pous, meaning “foot.” Oedipus’ name thus translates to “he who has a swollen foot.” This etymology is reflected in the myth that Oedipus’ ankles were pierced when he was abandoned as a baby.
An alternative etymology derives the name from the verb oida, “to know” (rather than oideō, “to swell”), so that Oedipus’ name means “he who knows feet.” This is also related to his mythology, for the famous “riddle of the Sphinx,” which Oedipus solved, was about feet.
[ED-uh-puhs, EE-duh-] /ˈɛd ə pəs, ˈi də-/
There are a handful of variants of Oedipus’ name, including Oedipos, Oedipodos, and Oedipoun.
Oedipus’ father was Laius, a king of Thebes. His mother was usually named as Jocasta, though ancient sources did not all agree on this name: Homer, for example, called Oedipus’ mother Epicasta. In some traditions, Laius fathered several other children, including the Sphinx, with various concubines.
After being raised in Corinth by Polybus and his wife (whose name was either Merope, Periboea, or Medusa), Oedipus found his way back to Thebes and unknowingly married his own mother.
Before Oedipus was born, the Theban king Laius had been warned by an oracle that if he ever had a son, that son would someday kill him. Despite the prophecy, Laius slept with his wife Jocasta (sometimes called Epicasta) one night while he was drunk. Soon after, Oedipus was born. Hoping to escape his preordained doom, Laius pierced the baby’s ankles with pins and left him to die in the mountains.
But a passing herdsman found the baby and took him to Polybus, the king of Corinth (about 85 miles southeast of Thebes). Polybus brought the child up as his own, naming him “Oedipus” (“he who has a swollen foot”) because the pins Laius had placed in the baby’s ankles left his feet permanently swollen.
Delphi and the Old King
Once Oedipus was an adult, he learned from the oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father and commit incest with his mother. He therefore vowed never to return to Corinth, believing that that was where his parents lived.
As he was leaving Delphi, Oedipus met an old man at a crossroads (often associated with a real crossroads in ancient Greece called the “Triple Way” or the “Cleft Way”). The two quarreled, the argument grew heated, and Oedipus ended up killing the old man. What he did not know was that the man was none other than Laius, the king of Thebes and his real father.
Continuing his travels, Oedipus crossed paths with the Sphinx, a creature usually represented with the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and bird’s wings. Ever since Laius’ death (by Oedipus), the Sphinx had been terrorizing Thebes by sitting on a cliff outside the city and putting a riddle to any Theban who passed by. If the Theban could not solve the riddle, she killed him on the spot.
When the Sphinx saw Oedipus, she presented her riddle as always, usually quoted as: “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
The answer, Oedipus realized, was “a human being”: humans crawl on four legs as babies, walk on two legs as adults, and become “three-footed” in old age (when they use a cane to walk). As soon as Oedipus solved the riddle, the Sphinx killed herself by leaping from her cliff.
The Thebans were overjoyed to finally be free of the Sphinx. To reward Oedipus, they made him their king and gave him as his bride Jocasta (or Epicasta), their queen and the widow of the late king Laius.
Though this was the most common version of the Sphinx myth, it was not the only one. In some traditions, the Sphinx was a bandit who was defeated by Oedipus and his Corinthian army, while in others she was actually a bastard daughter of Laius who murdered all who claimed to be Laius’ sons until Oedipus outsmarted her.
Eventually, however, Oedipus’ good fortune took a dark turn. He discovered that the old man he had killed was his true father, Laius, and that the queen he had married was his mother. He had thus fulfilled the prophecy, despite his best efforts to avoid it.
In the most familiar version, first attested in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus’ downfall all began with a plague. After consulting an oracle, Oedipus discovered that Thebes was under blood-guilt for the murder of the old king Laius: the plague would end only after the killer had been exiled from the city. Oedipus immediately began investigating the murder, only to discover not only that he was the one who had committed the deed, but that Laius was in fact his real father—and that Laius’ widow, to whom he was married, was his mother!
Oedipus and Jocasta were both horrified by this discovery. In the common tradition, Jocasta killed herself, while Oedipus blinded himself.
However, not all sources agreed about the fates of Oedipus and Jocasta. According to some traditions, Jocasta did not kill herself until much later, after the deaths of her sons Eteocles and Polyneices. Possibly even more surprising are the traditions in which Oedipus did not blind himself but rather was blinded much earlier—either by Laius’ servants or even by his foster father, Polybus.
The Fate of Oedipus
What happened to Oedipus after he discovered his crimes was much contested in antiquity.
In some traditions, Oedipus was sent into exile by either his brother-in-law (and uncle) Creon or by his own sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. Only his devoted daughter Antigone accompanied him, helping him in his blindness and his old age. In other traditions, Eteocles and Polyneices imprisoned Oedipus in Thebes to hide his disgrace from the world. Finally, according to Homer, nothing changed at all: Oedipus continued to rule Thebes until he eventually fell in battle.
In many traditions, Oedipus also cursed his sons, either because they disrespected him, because they did not help him when he was exiled from his city, or because they imprisoned him in Thebes. In time, the curse was fulfilled: Eteocles and Polyneices quarreled over which one of them should rule Thebes and ultimately killed each other in battle.
According to a popular tradition, Oedipus eventually came to the Attic town of Colonus, not far from Athens. An old and broken man, he finally found some peace: he was honored by the Athenian king Theseus and given a funeral after he died. The spot at Colonus where he died was considered sacred.
There were tombs and hero cults of Oedipus in the region of ancient Attica, including in Colonus and Athens itself. Oedipus was also worshipped in other parts of the Greek world, including Sparta, the island of Thera, and the Boeotian town of Eteonus.
In modern pop culture, Oedipus is perhaps best remembered through Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “Oedipus complex.” Freud used the myth of Oedipus (specifically, Sophocles’ version) to illustrate the male’s unconscious desire to become the sole object of his mother’s love by killing his father. The Oedipus complex remains a famous and central tenet of psychoanalytic theory.
The myth of Oedipus has also been adapted for the arts. He was a strangely popular figure in the 1960s, a decade that saw the release of at least two films based on the Oedipus myth: Oedipus Rex (1967), from Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Oedipus the King (1968), starring Christopher Plummer in the titular role. Rota Otimi’s novel The Gods Are Not to Blame (1971) is an adaptation of the myth set in a Yoruba kingdom (originally published as a play in 1968).