Greek Hero

Oedipus

Oedipus, son of Laius and Jocasta, was a king of Thebes celebrated for defeating the fearsome Sphinx. He suffered a famous downfall, however, when he discovered that he had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

Oedipus, Greek Hero (3x2)

Top Questions

  • Did Oedipus purposely kill his father and marry his mother?

    No. Oedipus had never met his biological parents, so he could not have known that the old man he killed was his father or that the widow he married was his mother.

  • Did Oedipus kill Jocasta?

    No. According to one well-known tradition, Jocasta committed suicide after discovering that she had unknowingly married her long-lost son.

  • Did Oedipus kill himself?

    No. In the most familiar version of the myth, Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile after he discovered that he had killed his father and married his mother. But he did not kill himself.

Overview

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.

Etymology

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.[1]

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.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    OedipusΟἰδίπους
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [ED-uh-puhs, EE-duh-]/ˈɛd ə pəs, ˈi də-/

Alternate Names

There are a handful of variants of Oedipus’ name, including Oedipos, Oedipodos, and Oedipoun.

Family

Oedipus’ father was Laius, a king of Thebes. His mother was usually named as Jocasta,[2] though ancient sources did not all agree on this name: Homer, for example, called Oedipus’ mother Epicasta.[3] In some traditions, Laius fathered several other children, including the Sphinx, with various concubines.[4]

After being raised in Corinth by Polybus and his wife (whose name was either Merope,[5] Periboea,[6] or Medusa[7]), Oedipus found his way back to Thebes and unknowingly married his own mother.

In the common tradition, Oedipus fathered four children through this incestuous union: Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices.[8] Because the mother of Oedipus’ children was also his own mother, his children were also his siblings. 

But in other traditions, the aforementioned children (together with an additional daughter named Jocasta) were actually born to Oedipus’ second wife, Eurygania (sometimes also called Eurygane).[9] In yet another tradition, Oedipus had another wife named Astymedusa.[10]

Family Tree

  • Parents
    Father
    Mother
    • Laius
    • Jocasta/Epicasta
  • Siblings
    Brothers
    Sisters
    • Eteocles
    • Polyneices
  • Consorts
    Wives
    • Jocasta/Epicasta
    • Eurygania
    • Astymedusa
  • Children
    Daughters
    Sons
    • Antigone
    • Ismene
    • Eteocles
    • Polyneices

Mythology

Origins

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.[11]

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.[12]

The Sphinx

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.[13] 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.

Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums (9665213064)

Red-figure Kylix from Vulci showing Oedipus and the Sphinx. Attributed to the Oedipus Painter (ca. 470 BCE). Vatican Museums, Vatican.

Carole RaddatoCC BY-SA 2.0

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?”[14]

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.[15]

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,[16] while in others she was actually a bastard daughter of Laius who murdered all who claimed to be Laius’ sons until Oedipus outsmarted her.[17]

Downfall

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.[18]

Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods

The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux (1784). Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

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.[19] Possibly even more surprising are the traditions in which Oedipus did not blind himself but rather was blinded much earlier—either by Laius’ servants[20] or even by his foster father, Polybus.[21]

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.[22] In other traditions, Eteocles and Polyneices imprisoned Oedipus in Thebes to hide his disgrace from the world.[23] Finally, according to Homer, nothing changed at all: Oedipus continued to rule Thebes until he eventually fell in battle.[24]

In many traditions, Oedipus also cursed his sons, either because they disrespected him,[25] because they did not help him when he was exiled from his city,[26] or because they imprisoned him in Thebes.[27] 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.

Oedipus at Colonus Cursing Polynices

Oedipus at Colonus, Cursing his Son Polynices by Henry Fuseli (1777).

Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

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.[28]

Worship

There were tombs and hero cults of Oedipus in the region of ancient Attica, including in Colonus and Athens itself.[29] Oedipus was also worshipped in other parts of the Greek world, including Sparta, the island of Thera,[30] and the Boeotian town of Eteonus.[31]

Pop Culture

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).

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1054.

  2. E.g., Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus; Euripides, Phoenician Women; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7; etc.

  3. Homer, Odyssey 11.271ff; cf. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26.3. Other names have been suggested for Oedipus’ mother, such as Euryclea (as reported in the scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 26).

  4. E.g., Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26.3.

  5. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 775; Seneca, Oedipus 272, 661, 802.

  6. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7.

  7. Pherecydes, FHG 1 F 47 (reported in the scholia on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus 785).

  8. E.g., Euripides, Phoenician Women 55ff; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.4; Hyginus, Fabulae 67; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8; etc.

  9. Oedipodia (fragments); Pherecydes, FHG 1 F 48 (reported in the scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 53), who adds that Oedipus had two children from his marriage to his mother and that their names were Phrastor and Laonytus, while Eurygania was the mother of not only Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices but also of another daughter named Jocasta; Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.5.11; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8; scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 13, 53, 1760. In most sources, Eurygania appears to have been the daughter of a man named either Hyperphas or Periphas, and thus of no relation to Oedipus, while in others she was Jocasta’s sister and Oedipus’ aunt.

  10. Pherecydes, FHG 1 F 48 (reported in the scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 53); Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad 4.376; scholia on Homer’s Iliad 4.376.

  11. See Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 711ff; Euripides, Phoenician Women 13ff; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.1–2; Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.5.10, 10.5.3; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7; Hyginus, Fabulae 66; etc. According to a lesser-known alternative, Laius tried to kill Oedipus not by leaving him in the mountains but by putting him in a chest and tossing it into the sea (see also the myth of Perseus); eventually, the chest drifted to Corinth, where Oedipus was discovered and raised by Polybus (scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 26).

  12. See Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 718ff, 800ff; Euripides, Phoenician Women 32ff; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.2; Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.2.4, 9.5.10, 10.5.3; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7; Hyginus, Fabulae 67; etc.

  13. See Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.3; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8; etc.

  14. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8. Cf. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.3.

  15. See Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 391ff; Euripides, Phoenician Women 45ff; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.64.4; Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26.2; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8; Hyginus, Fabulae 67; etc.

  16. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26.2.

  17. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.26.3–4. According to this version, the Sphinx asked those who claimed to be Laius’ sons about a prophecy that had once been given to Cadmus and that Laius had shared with her. When the claimants admitted that they did not know the prophecy, the Sphinx killed them. But Oedipus had learned the prophecy in a dream and was able to answer his half-sister.

  18. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 1235ff; Seneca, Oedipus 915ff, 1034ff; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.9; etc. Homer also mentions the suicide of Epicasta in the Odyssey 11.277ff. In most traditions, Jocasta/Epicasta hangs herself, but according to Seneca she stabs herself with a sword.

  19. Euripides, Phoenician Women 1455–59; Statius, Thebaid 7.474ff, 11.634ff.

  20. Euripides, Oedipus frag. 541 Nauck (reported in the scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 61).

  21. Scholia on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 26.

  22. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.9; Hyginus, Fabulae 67, where Oedipus flees from Thebes voluntarily.

  23. Euripides, Phoenician Women 63ff; Statius, Thebaid 1.46ff.

  24. Homer, Odyssey 11.271ff; cf. Iliad 23.679.

  25. Thebaid frag. 2 and 3.

  26. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1374; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.9.

  27. Euripides, Phoenician Women 66ff; Statius, Thebaid 1.46ff.

  28. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1661ff; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.9. Cf. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.30.4.

  29. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.28.7, 1.30.4.

  30. Herodotus, Histories 4.149.

  31. Scholia on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus 91.

Primary Sources

Though Oedipus is perhaps best known through Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, there were many different sources for his myth circulating in the ancient world. Some of these texts—for example, the Oedipodia, the Thebaid, Aeschylus’ Oedipus trilogy, Euripides’ Oedipus, and Julius Caesar’s Oedipus—no longer survive. But the list of extant sources for the myth of Oedipus is long and varied, often presenting versions of the myth that are radically at odds with one another.

Greek

  • Homer: Oedipus is briefly mentioned in both the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE), where his mother is called Epicasta rather than Jocasta.

  • Pindar: Oedipus is mentioned very briefly in the second Olympian Ode (476 BCE).

  • Aeschylus: The tragedy Seven against Thebes is the only surviving play from Aeschylus’ Oedipus trilogy (467 BCE), which would have dealt with the entire myth of Oedipus from his birth to the deaths of his sons. Seven against Thebes tells of how Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, destroyed one another in war.

  • Sophocles: The Oedipus myth is central to three of Sophocles’ surviving tragedies: Antigone (ca. 440 BCE), Oedipus Tyrannus (ca. 430 BCE), and Oedipus at Colonus (405 BCE).

  • Euripides: Oedipus is a character in the Phoenician Women (409 BCE), which, like Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, describes the conflict between Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polyneices.

  • Diodorus of Sicily: The Library of History, a work of universal history covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE), contains references to the myths of Oedipus (in Book 4).

  • Pausanias: Oedipus and several myths about him are mentioned in the Description of Greece, a second-century CE travelogue and an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Apollodorus: The myths of Oedipus are summarized in the Library and Epitome, representing a single mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE.

Roman

  • Ovid: Oedipus and his encounter with the Sphinx are mentioned briefly in the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).

  • Seneca: Oedipus is the main character of the tragedy Oedipus, written at the end of the first century BCE or the beginning of the first century CE.

  • Statius: Oedipus is represented as a prisoner of his sons in the Thebaid, an epic of the late first century CE.

  • Hyginus: The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook from the first or second century CE, includes sections on the myths of Oedipus.

Secondary Sources

  • Ahl, Frederick. Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles’ “Oedipus Tyrannus” and Seneca’s “Oedipus.” Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

  • Brown, Andrew. “Oedipus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1033–34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Edmunds, Lowell. “The Cults and the Legend of Oedipus.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85 (1981): 221–38.

  • Edmunds, Lowell. Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

  • Edmunds, Lowell. Oedipus. New York: Routledge, 2006.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Gide, André. Two Legends: Oedipus and Theseus. Translated by John Russell. New York: Knopf, 1950.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

  • Krauskopf, Ingrid. “Oidipous.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 7, 1–15. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Oedipus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed September 10, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DO%3Aentry+group%3D2%3Aentry%3Doedipus-bio-1.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Oedipus.” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oedipus.

Kapach, Avi. “Oedipus.” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oedipus. Accessed on 3 Dec. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Oedipus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oedipus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

    Avi Kapach Profile Photo