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We remember Oedipous thanks to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a psychoanalyst with a fixation on Greek myth who has disturbed us all, and made me self conscious just now of the words ‘fixation’ and ‘anal’ in this sentence.
We refer condescendingly to someone as a “mommy’s boy” if they as a full grown person seem too dependent on their mother, or if a man marries an older woman very like his mother. We suspect such things.
For Freud the Oedipus Complex was a fixation on one stage of early development normally resolved by experiencing later stages, and manifesting with a subconscious sexual desire of a boy for his mother, and jealousy of his father. According to Freud it is accompanied with a castration complex, and if not resolved with same sex identification (ie with his father) may lead to behavioural disfunction in adult life.
This is the opposite to what happened in Greek mythology. Oedipous left home in Corinth to avoid marrying his mother as Apollo had prophesied. He killed a man accidentally on the way to Thebes, and there married the widowed queen Jocasta, having successfully, he thought, avoided Apollo’s prediction. Freud would have wondered why, of all the places he could have gone to, he chose Thebes.
Oedipous’ tale is part of the matter of Thebes, an ancient city in central Greece to the north of Athens. To the west was the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and south in the Peloponnesos were Mycenae and Argos. These cities were sites of Bronze Age settlement by the Indo-European tribes called Achaeans by Homer, who displaced earlier peoples of these sites in several waves of invasion about 1400-1200 BC.
Thebes, with its Egyptian name, was said to be founded by Cadmus, a prince from somewhere in Phoenicia who supposedly bought the alphabet to Greece. Ties between Egypt and Greece were traditional, as seen in Aeschylus’ play the Suppliants, in which a group of Egyptian maidens flee their suitors and ask for refuge in Argos. Aeschylus again, in his play The Seven Against Thebes, tells of Oedipous’ children and how their rivalry led to a war between Thebes and Argos.
The king of Thebes now was Laios, of the line of Cadmus, who was married to Jocasta. The oracle at Delphi foretold that his son would kill him, and Laios abandoned his baby Oedipous on a hillside to die of exposure. Oedipous was rescued, and ended up with foster parents whom he thought his own, the king and queen of Corinth.
The Egyptian connection with Thebes perhaps explains the Sphinx. These composite beings were boundary markers, generally set up in temple compounds to deter the sacrilegious, as the Cherubim were to protect the Gates of Eden. In the temples of the Great Goddess they were female. But by the time of Oedipous they had come to serve another function.
The Sphinx was the child of Chimera. It was a monster with a human female head, a lion’s body, eagle’s wings and snake’s tail. It terrorised the route toThebes, killing unwary travellers. Oedipous fought and defeated it, by solving a riddle. The Theban Sphinx is one of the few known to have a female head; another was one with Hatshepsut’s head in Egypt. Mycenaean Greeks traded with, and fought as mercenaries in wars for, Egypt and Syria in this early period.
If we ignore the riddle and its solution, which apparently is a late addition to the story, we see that Oedipous was a hero passing through the various stages of a hero’s life. These stages can be seen, not just in the story of Oedipous, but in that of other heroes of the same period such as Perseus and Theseus.
All three heroes were sons of Olympian gods, Theseus and Oedipous of Poseidon and Perseus of Zeus.
It’s even clearer if we ignore Oedipous’ marriage to his mother. All three were the subject of a prophecy that they would kill their father.
All three were raised by foster parents, Perseus first cast adrift in the sea in a wooden chest, and Oedipous lamed and left on a mountain side to die.
All three proved themselves by defeating monsters. Oedipous defeated the Sphinx, Perseus the Gorgon Medusa and Theseus the Minotaur.
All three reigned in powerful cities, Theseus in Athens, Perseus in Mycenae and Oedipous in Thebes.
This pattern inspired the great Victorian anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941), whose monumental 12 volume work The Golden Bough (1915) advanced the view that all religions began as fertility cults in which a king died to save his people and was supplanted by a new king, in a pattern modelled on the succession of the seasons.
Anthropologists think it possible this ritual was of the old religion before the Achaean tribes came to Greece, in which a high priestess of the Great Mother was the principal power and the annual king ancillary. The heroes were Archaeans who conquered the earlier inhabitants and ended the rites of the Great Mother, substituting those of the Olympian gods. This idea is explored by Mary Renault in her novels about Theseus, The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull From the Sea (1962).
Frazer’s work inspired three great books on mythology: amateur anthropologist Lord Raglan’s The Hero (1937); the poet Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (1948); and fiction writer Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which was influenced by the work of Carl Jung.
I myself think it unlikely any human institution such as religion would have had a uniform structure all over the world. But I do think it likely a cultural clash, as the coming of the Achaeans was, might have inspired traditional tales which perhaps were related to religious practice. I agree with Lord Raglan that ritual came first, then myth to elaborate ritual, and myth took on a separate life as traditional tale and even pseudo history long after ritual had been forgotten.
What interests me more than any underlying ritual in the story of Oedipous is that the rationalist Greeks, inventors of virtually all the sciences, should turn out to be fatalists.
It’s common to read in Greek literature that the greatest of all the gods is Fate, who controls even the Olympians. The gods, though, know what Fate has in store. Humans don’t. That’s what the oracle does. Apollo tells what Fate has in store. Greek religion consisted of the mystery religions, but another major area was the great oracles spread all over the Greek world, where Greeks learnt what god had in store for them, and tried to prepare for it.
Fate, which controlled every life, human and divine, was personified as three figures who determine human birth (Clotho, the spinner); measure human life and its events (Lachesis, the allotter); and in due course end it (Apropos, the implacable).
This idea that everything is fixed, and nothing can change what has been allotted, was supplemented for the Greeks by the idea of hubris, lack of balance. What fate has allotted results in healthy life, as it does in animals. But some human beings show want of balance, pride, and are excessive in what they do, and this inevitably causes a negative, destructive reaction, usually destroying the life of the one who has erred, so as to restore the natural balance.
So the story of Oedipous shows what happens when a new culture meets an old one with different values, and the Great Goddess who demands human sacrifice to feed her fertility meets a sky god who values bravery and honour in men.
It preserves a memory of a religious ritual that demanded the death of a king, slain by the new king who then married the Priestess of the Great Mother, and who had to prove his right to do so by overcoming monsters who represented arcane knowledge of the gods.
And it includes the idea of hubris, of men who have overstepped the bounds of Fate. Laios had violated a guest friendship when a young man, by abducting the young son of his host. This was the gravest of crimes in ancient Greece. Laios is punished by Fate, and learns he cannot have a son because that son will kill him. When his wife Jocasta conceives, he takes the new born son, Oedipous, and lames him, then abandons him on a mountain side. In time, his son does kill him.
And the imbalance continues to the next generation. Oedipous is guiltless, yet the oracle reveals he will kill his father, then marry his mother. Oedipous does everything he can to avoid his fate. He flees his city Corinth and his beloved parents, who are really his foster parents. And kills his father and marries his mother nevertheless. He defeats the Sphinx, and yet Thebes is visited by a terrible plague, because the murderer has not been caught and punished. Attempting to bring justice to the crime, Oedipous uncovers the truth. Jocasta kills herself and Oedipous blinds himself.
In the third generation Oedipous’ children Eteokles and Polynikes fight a suicidal civil war. Oedipous, the virtuous man, suffers, not because he is guilty of sin, but because there has been an excess in the allotted fate of his family, and suffering must ensure until the balance has been restored. The fever must run its course.
The pattern is repeated in the story of Mycenae and king Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and their children Orestes and Electra. Agamemnon commits hubris when he sacrifices his daughter to obtain a following wind for the Greek fleet to Troy, and sets off a series of tragic events lasting several generations. And in the story of king Menelaus of Sparta and his wife Helen, and the war against Troy is the same pattern, Paris violating guest friendship by abducting Helen, and beginning another series of tragic events.
There is little possibility that these accounts could be based on historical events, or involve real people. As Raglan says, the heroes, like the gods, never age. Raglan notes that according to stories about Helen taken as historical she would have been over 100 when abducted by Paris. But Helen is always the most beautiful of women. The stories are likely myths based on an old religious rite of the accession of the new year king. But grafted on to this story, which eventually had no meaning for those who worshipped the Olympians, is a meditation on Fate, hubris, and excess. Apollo plays a real part in the story. His oracle had revealed what fate had in store. His teaching at Delphi was, “nothing to excess”.
There has been a change in man’s attitude to the gods. The old intercessory faith in the Great Goddess who nurtured her children has gone. ‘Civilisation’ has come, and with it a tragic sense of life. Do what he may, man must die. Along with this view came the idea of fault, hubris, excess, and in some cultures, not Greek ones, the idea of sin and guilt.
Myth becomes story when the old ritual has died, until taken up by poets who are inspired to make it myth again. In the old myth the Priestess married the new king when he had killed the old. Over this has been spread a reflection on what happens when hubris has been committed on the workings of Fate.
By restricting the compass of the story to the developing human psyche Freud made some enlightening suggestions on the stages of growth and maturation in the child. The correlation could not be said to be scientific. More like a modern myth.
Somehow we’ve turned it into the story of a man who wanted to have sex with his mother and so killed his father. Sounds like something you’d see on TV at three o’clock in the morning.
Nobody has ever stopped to ask Jocasta what she thought of all this. Nor the Moirai, Medusa or the Sphinx. Perhaps we could ask Mommy.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.