Prophecy & Oedipus

I just finished reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in Greek.  It struck me today as I was doing this how much force prophecy has.

The first prophecy (it is revealed that it is about Oedipus in ll. 1174-1176) that set the succession of events rolling is recalled by Jocasta:

For an oracle once came to Laius — I do not say from Phoebus himself, but from his attendants — that a fate held him to die at the hand of a child who would be born to me and him.  And, as they say, strangers, robbers killed him in the meeting of three highways: when the child was born and three days had not yet passed, after he had bound fast its ankles by feet, he threw it from an impassable mountain by the hands of others. (ll. 711-729)

Of course, we learn later in the play that the herdsman who was meant to kill baby Oedipus instead gave him to a Corinthian shepherd.  The shepherd gave the child to King Polybus and Queen Merope to raise as they were childless.  This first prophecy drove the action that led to Oedipus being raised as a prince in Corinth, not knowing his own origins.  It propels action towards its own fulfilment.

The second prophecy comes to Oedipus from the oracle at Delphi where he has gone seeking knowledge of his origins, plagued by the rumour that he is not Polybus’ and Merope’s son.  He is informed thus:

That I would have sex with my mother, and I would beget a generation that would be insufferable for men to look upon, and that I would be the killer of the father who begat me. (ll. 791-793)

Oedipus, therefore, doesn’t return to Corinth, mortified by the idea of killing dear old Polybus and begetting children by his mom!  Instead, he ends up meeting Laius by some crossroads where he kills him in an instance of the worst road rage.  Later, his journeys take him to Thebes where he answers the Sphinx’s riddle.  The Thebans are so glad to be freed from the Sphinx that he marries their widowed queen — Jocasta, wife of Laius.  His mother.

These two prophecies working together in concert bring about their own fulfilment.  Had Phoebus Apollo’s attendants never told Laius that his son would kill him, Oedipus would never have been exposed and set free in the world.  Had the oracle at Delphi not told Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he would have returned to Corinth where he would live to succeed Polybus as king.  Instead, he went out and killed his father and married his mother.

Of course, the dreadful necessity of the fated is the great looming horror of much in Greek tragedy.  Perhaps Oedipus would have fulfilled the first prophecy at some point had he lived on in Thebes.  After all, you can’t avoid fate.  And even if he had been unknowing of the second, he still could have fulfilled it, for the road rage incident could happen to anyone, and maybe he would have ended up at Thebes anyway.

Although the prophecies drive the human actions that lead to their fulfilment, the concepts of destiny and fate do not mean that the events would not have played out in a similar manner anyway.  The Fates weave the lives of men on their tapestry as they wish, knowing all and seeing to the end of the tale regardless of how much or how little we see.  The unseen hands of the gods are at play at all times and in all places.


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