One day not long after Ion had departed Delphi to start his new life in Athens, another proud young man came to the town. He was well-dressed, but his clothing was disordered, and he bore scrapes and bruises on his face and arms — the telltale signs of a fight. But when the people asked him about his injuries, he was dismissive. “Not terribly far from here,” he shrugged, “where the road splits to take one either to Daulis or Delphi, I met a young man driving and an older man riding in a horse-drawn wagon. They disrespected me — tried to force me to move aside for them. I slapped the driver for his insolence — whereupon the man riding in the back of the wagon tried to strike me with his goad! He paid dearly for that. I hit him in the face with my staff and sent him tumbling, head first, underneath the wheels of the wagon. The driver leaped down upon me, but I made short enough work of him as well. No one disrespects me!”
The people were taken aback by this arrogant young man’s story of casual bloodshed, but Delphi’s role was certainly not to police the roads of Greece. The town council saw no legitimate reason to deny him the audience he sought with the oracle.
He turned out to be seeking an answer to the very same question as that which had so recently tormented the more mild-mannered Ion. “My name is Oedipus,” he said after kneeling before the oracle. “I am the son of King Polybus of Corinth, and am the rightful heir to his throne — or so I have always believed. But recently a man who’d had his full measure of wine at dinner baited me, saying I was not my father’s son. I thrashed him roundly for his slander, but it troubled me nevertheless. On the next day, I went to my parents and questioned them on the matter. They made all the appropriate noises of outrage about the insult — but I saw a look pass between them which I liked not at all. Asking around the city, I soon learned that rumors about my origins have been in the air since I was a small child — yet no one seems to know the real truth of the matter. So, I have come to you for a definitive answer. Am I truly Polybus’s son? I have no definite grounds for suspicion beyond the idle gossip I’ve heard, but doubts, once they begin in one’s mind, can be hard to put to rest. I therefore ask Apollo to put my mind at ease once and for all.”
But the god Apollo, although he answered his oracle’s call after she had retired to his temple’s inner sanctum, refused to answer the question she relayed to him. Long experience had taught the oracle that the god’s personality ran hot and cold. At times, he could show great understanding and compassion for the mortals who came to him. At others, though, he would simply not allow himself to be moved by their plights; the oracle had come to suspect that some parts of the tapestry of existence woven by the inscrutable Fates were so tragic in their implacability that the god felt compelled to separate himself from the people they involved. She definitely had this feeling on this occasion. The content of his message today was as brutal as was his manner of delivering it. “It seems,” said Apollo, “that this arrogant youth has already told me what answer he expects to the question which brought him here. So, then, let him be content with his own answer to his own question, and we shall see how he likes another prophecy that he hasn’t anticipated.” What the god said next shocked the oracle to her core.
She stumbled back into Oedipus’s presence bearing the prophecy like a physical weight. “The god does not choose to answer the question which brought you here,” she said quietly. “But he does bid me to tell you that you are destined to kill your father and lie with your mother.”
Oedipus stared at her open-mouthed. His expression first registered surprise, then disgust, then anger. “What kind of miserable, shameful prophecy is this? What kind of a pathetic wretch do you take me for?”
She shrank in her seat as she eyed the volatile youth nervously. “I cannot speak for the god.”
Oedipus raised his hands as if he was about to commit violence here inside the holy temple. But then, much to the oracle’s relief, he turned and rushed away without another word.
He spent long days in private torment thereafter, raging at the Fates, at Apollo, at the world. As he wondered how he could avoid committing these dreadful acts, the suspicion which had originally brought him to Delphi was rendered quaint to the point of negligibility in comparison. After much agonizing, he decided that he had only one choice: he must exile himself from Corinth forever, renouncing his claim to the throne, having no further contact whatsoever with his parents. Surely that would safeguard him from whatever perverted impulses might lie sleeping within him.
Proud and ambitious young man that he still was, he decided to make his way to Thebes, a place sorely in need of a hero. The city was in fact in the throes of the worst crisis it had known since Dionysus’s tragic visit of many decades before. For the last several months, a terrible creature known as a sphinx — an enormous lion with the face of a woman and the wings of an eagle — had perched on a hilltop just outside of Thebes, swooping down on wayfarers on the road below whenever the mood struck her. She then propounded a riddle to each prospective victim, one which seemed to amuse her inordinately: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs during the heart of the day, and three legs in the evening?” When her victims failed to answer the riddle correctly — as they all had so far — she attacked them, killing the vast majority of them, allowing only a few fleet-legged souls here and there to flee. No quantity or quality of warriors seemed able to defeat the sphinx. Her intermittent carnage was devastating Thebes’s economy and, along with it, the city’s standing in the world. Few dared to visit anymore, whether to trade or for any other purpose.
The apparently immortal blind prophet Tiresias was still alive and still in Thebes, still advising the city’s kings. Until recently, the king had been Laius, the grandson of Polydorus and the great-grandson of Thebes’s founder Cadmus; he was married to a woman named Jocasta. Tiresias had told Laius that the first person to solve the sphinx’s riddle would lift the scourge, but had provided no clues as to what the solution might be. So, Laius had sneaked out of the city in the dead of night, to make his way to Delphi and ask the oracle there for help. Sadly, though, no one had heard from him since; he had never arrived at his destination, much less returned home. Laius and Jocasta had no children, and so the stewardship of the city had been passed to Jocasta’s brother, whose name was Creon. It thus appeared that the house of Cadmus had run its course after four generations.
Recognizing this, a desperate Creon had issued a proclamation: the first person to solve the riddle of the sphinx and rid the city of her presence would become Thebes’s next duly anointed king, the founder of a new royal line, taking the still-desirable Jocasta, who was willing to sell herself if it meant saving her beloved city, as his wife. With such an incentive to inspire them, many brave or foolhardy commoners had walked the road outside the city waiting for a visit from the monster — but none of them as yet had walked away from such a visit.
Undaunted, Oedipus too now came to Thebes to try his luck. The riddle itself had been well-known throughout Greece for some time, having been brought back by the scattered survivors of the sphinx’s depredations. Oedipus was a clever man. Considering the riddle carefully, he had come to what he believed must be the answer.
So, he set off boldly down the road just outside of Thebes one bright morning. He walked back and forth along the same stretch for hours, waiting to capture the monster’s attention. Finally, a dark shape swooped down out of the sky and landed before him. The sphinx was far more terrifying than he could have imagined. Her sly trickster’s face contorted from grin to grimace and back again as her leonine body pranced before him and her eagle’s wings slapped the air, releasing a fetid odor with every stroke. Steeling himself, Oedipus waited patiently while she cackled out the riddle of which she was so proud. Then: “Man!” he said simply. “He goes on all fours when in the morning of his life, when he is a baby; walks upright on two legs through the majority of his life; then takes up a third leg — a cane — when he grows feeble in the evening of his life.”
The sphinx let forth a howl of rage at his response, which told him better than any words could have that he had answered correctly. She seemed about to spring upon him, prompting Oedipus to reach for his staff, futile though he knew it would be against such a monster. But the sphinx was apparently unable to violate whatever strange bargain with ineffable forces had led her to spend her days posing her riddle to passersby. She leaped into the sky instead of leaping to the attack, alighting on the hilltop from which she was wont to survey her potential victims. Then, to Oedipus’s astonishment, she threw herself bodily off her perch, deliberately eschewing the use of her wings as she tumbled down the steep hillside. When Oedipus rushed up to where she had rolled to a stop, she was nothing but a bloody heap of fur and feathers.
So, Oedipus marched back into Thebes as the hero who had saved the city with his wits in lieu of a weapon. He accepted gladly the rewards that had been promised to just such a hero by Creon.
There followed two decades of peace and happiness in Thebes. Oedipus proved a good ruler on the whole, despite occasional bouts of the impulsive temper which had once caused him to commit murder on the road to Delphi. He took advantage of his royal upbringing in Corinth to master the kingly protocols of his new home with alacrity; he grew into his role quickly, restoring to Thebes the prestige it had lost for a time thanks to the sphinx. His marriage to Jocasta may have started as a political transaction, but the two came in time to trust and love one another deeply. The inevitable scurrilous chitchat about this king with a queen old enough to be his mother didn’t bother the couple at all. Whatever had caused Jocasta’s barrenness during her first marriage to Laius didn’t affect her second one to Oedipus. Together the couple had two sons and two daughters while Jocasta was still able. Thus the new royal line of Thebes that began with Oedipus seemed well provided for, the city as a whole’s troubles well behind it. Even Creon, who had given up his power to this clever stranger who always refused to share his lineage or his place of birth, showed no sign of resenting him.
In fact, the only faint hint of discord involved Oedipus’s attitude toward Tiresias. He neither liked nor trusted the mysterious old prophet. Jocasta, for her part, agreed with her husband in this as in most things, vocally stating her distrust of all forms of prophecy. Believing equally that the house of Cadmus had relied too heavily upon the prophet’s advice, the two removed Tiresias from his traditional position of influence. But Tiresias himself showed little sign of distress at his diminishment. He went to live quietly in the countryside just outside of Thebes.
Of course, it didn’t take long for King Polybus of Corinth to realize that the new king of Thebes was his estranged son. Yet Oedipus continued to avoid all personal contact with the king of Corinth and his wife. Through an intermediary, he conveyed the message that they must never meet directly, not even in formal ceremonies as heads of state. Their familial relationship to one another must not be acknowledged as long as both of them remained alive. Polybus was confused and hurt by this rejection — but he trusted his son still, in spite of it all, and was a pious man to boot. So, when Oedipus explained vaguely through his messenger that his self-imposed exile had nothing to do with his personal feelings, but was demanded by a divine prophecy which he declined to describe, Polybus accepted it. The two cities coexisted in peace, and few noticed that their leaders never seemed to find an occasion to actually meet one another.
But then a time came when everything went wrong once again in Thebes. Instead of a distinct, concrete threat like the sphinx, the city was afflicted this time by a more generalized malaise against which there was no obvious defense. Harvests were suddenly terrible; livestock died in the fields for no apparent reason; women ceased to become pregnant or, when they did so, miscarried. Worst of all, disease ran rampant among the people, decimating their numbers. The corpses piled up in such quantities that there was no time to bury them adequately, and so they bred still more death there where they lay decaying. Every corner of the city and the surrounding countryside was haunted by the groans of the dying and the laments of the mourning.
Despite much urging from Creon and others, Oedipus remained stubbornly unwilling to consult with Tiresias, whom he disliked and distrusted more than ever. Instead he looked once again to the place where all Greeks tended to look in times of doubt and uncertainty: Delphi. Ignoring for once Jocasta’s scoffing at all forms of prophecy, he sent Creon on a mission to ask the oracle at Delphi what to do.
And so it was that Creon came to Delphi, accompanied by only a pair of servants, all that could be spared from the crisis in Thebes. Word of the city’s plight had spread far and wide in Greece, so the Thebans’ arrival came as no surprise to the people of Delphi. The town council ushered Creon in to see the oracle with all the urgency due his mission. He hardly needed to explain to her what he wished to ask of Apollo, but he did so anyway: “What is the source of Thebes’s affliction, and how can it be remedied?”
The oracle returned with an answer that sounded hopeful on the face of it, but was also infuriatingly difficult to put into practice. “The god says that you nurture a pollution in your land,” parroted the oracle. “You must not continue to do so until it is past all cure. The problem is that you have never brought the killer of your former king to justice — nor, indeed, even identified him.”
Here Creon burst in. “How could we do so? We heard only one or two vague reports that he had been killed by bandits on the road to Delphi. And we had other troubles at hand — a sphinx tormenting our city! By the time we were delivered from that threat, the trail had gone hopelessly cold.”
“Nevertheless,” said the oracle, “the god Apollo’s message is simple. You in Thebes must find the killer of Laius, then punish him. Only by doing this can you lift the curse from your land. The thing pursued is catchable; the thing ignored escapes.”
When Creon returned to Thebes, Oedipus bade him deliver his tidings on the steps of the city’s palace, in front of all the people. Here in this public setting, the current king of Thebes took the message of Apollo to heart, finding relief in such a plain-spoken statement of what needed to be done. “Apollo is right to show concern for the man that was killed,” he declared to Creon in front of everyone. “And now you’ll see me also take his side, as I should, supporting land and god together. It’s not merely for the sake of a stranger that I’ll dispel this pollution, but for my own. For the man who killed him may well someday turn on me with the same violence. By taking up the former king’s cause, I help myself.”
Then he turned to speak directly to the populace. “Whoever knows by whose hand King Laius was killed, I order him to tell me everything. Whether some other Theban or a foreigner was the killer, let the witness speak. I’ll show my thanks and make it worth his while. But if he spurns this command, hear from me now what I’ll do. I’ll forbid anyone in this land — the land whose power and throne I possess — either to welcome or talk to him, whoever he is, or share with him in sacrifice, or in the lustral water. All must drive him from their houses. This, then, is the role I take upon myself — ally of the god and the man who died. Since I enjoy the power that was his, and have his bed and the woman he embraced in it — for all these reasons, I will fight for him as if he was my own father, go to every length in my determination to catch the killer of Laius, great-grandson of the founder Cadmus. For those who do not do as I command, I pray the gods send them no harvest from the earth, no children from their wives. Let them be destroyed by the very affliction upon us now and by one worse still. But all you other Thebans, to whom my commands are welcome: may justice fight for you, and the gods favor you forever!”
But in spite of his speechifying, none of the people assembled before him came forward. All insisted that they knew nothing of the murder or the murderer. Days passed, and Thebes’s affliction only worsened. Finally, bowing to the quiet but insistent prodding of Creon, Oedipus ordered the prophet Tiresias brought before him and his advisors inside the palace.
Given how urgent the crisis was, Oedipus strained to accord the blind old man a degree of respect which he had never shown him before. “Tiresias,” he began solemnly, “many of my advisors believe that you know, even though you can’t see, what sort of disease feeds on our city. We have no champion against it, no savior. Do not begrudge us whatever you know by augury or other mantic means. Who killed King Laius?”
But Tiresias was contemptuously dismissive. “Send me home. You’ll bear your part more easily, and I will mine, if you take my advice.”
This was too much for Oedipus to bear. “Have you no regard for the city that reared you?” he raged. “You cannot deny us a response!” But then he mastered himself again, and moderated his tone once more to one of respectful beseeching. “Please, wise one. We beg you, all of us, as suppliants. Tell us what you know.”
“You beg because you don’t know!” replied Tiresias. “I will say no more.”
Now Oedipus’s rage was beyond mastery. “You know yet will not speak? Will you betray us and destroy the city?”
“You won’t find out from me,” said Tiresias obstinately.
“You… traitor! You will let Thebes perish out of petulance?”
“You fault my temper, but refuse to see the temper in yourself.”
“Who wouldn’t be enraged when he hears words like yours that show this city no respect?”
Tiresias sighed sadly — the sigh of one who had seen several lifetimes worth of tragedy despite his eyes’ lack of vision, and now was being forced to witness it yet again. “Things will out, whether I speak or not.”
“Shouldn’t you tell me, then, just what will out?”
“I’ll say no more. Rage at that, if you want to, with all the anger, all the savagery you can.”
And Oedipus obliged him. All of his suspicions about the old prophet’s veracity and motives came home to roost. “Anger, you say? Yes, I’ll let fly, I’ll lay out all I see going on here. It’s plain to me you hatched the scheme and did the deed, just short of killing him yourself with your own hands. And if you weren’t blind I’d say you did that, too, unaided!”
These words pierced the armor of jaded philosophy with which Tiresias had cloaked himself — for he had loved King Laius, as he had all of the house of Cadmus. Flashing Oedipus a poisonous look from his sightless eyes, he said, “I insist that you abide by your own proclamation, and from this day speak neither to me nor to anyone else here in Thebes. For you are the unholy polluter of our land!”
“So shameless, to stir up a tale like that!” Oedipus bellowed. “You believe your blindness will allow you to escape the consequences of such an accusation?”
“I have already escaped. The truth of my words sets me free. You are the killer you are looking for.”
“You’ll live to regret saying that — twice now.”
“Shall I say more, to make you even madder?”
Oedipus’s anger was such that he couldn’t speak. He merely waved his hand.
“You don’t know that you live in deepest shame with those most near you,” said Tiresias. “You’re sunk in evils you don’t see.”
“You really think you can go on like this, here in my palace, and get away?”
“Yes, if there’s any power in truth.”
“You’re blind,” Oedipus jeered. “In ears and mind as well as eyes.”
“What a sad case you are,” Tiresias scoffed in return, “taunting me as all these here will soon be taunting you!”
Even through his anger, Oedipus felt the power of Tiresias’s words, felt the astonishment — suspicion? — of the men around him. The old prophet still commanded awe in Thebes; his declamations were not to be taken lightly. Oedipus felt his claim to righteous rulership slipping away, he knew not why. It must be a conspiracy against him! “Who put you up to this?” he demanded of Tiresias. “Creon?”
“Creon’s not your problem. It’s you yourself!”
It must be Creon; he must have resented Oedipus’s usurpation of his power after all. “What kind of prophet are you anyway?” Oedipus said savagely. “Why, when the sphinx was here, did you say nothing to save these people? Her riddle seems to have been beyond you — beyond these ‘gods’ with whom you allegedly consult. And then I came along. I stopped her using nothing but my own wits. You think that by saying these slanders you’ll one day stand by Creon’s throne, as you did that of Thebes’s earlier rulers — who, unlike me, couldn’t see what a fraud you really are! You and he will rue the day you plotted against me!”
But Tiresias would not be cowed. “Though you are king here, others still have the right to answer you at equal length,” he said. “This right I claim. And since you mock my blindness, I say that you see your physical surroundings well enough, but not the evil you’re in, or where you really live, or whom you really live with. Do you know your origins? You are loathsome to your kin, both those beneath and those upon the earth. You will loathe yourself when you see reality for what it is — that wedding here in the palace into which you sailed so smoothly, so proudly, so complacently, congratulating yourself all the while on your great deed of destroying the sphinx. Crush me, and Creon too if you wish — but no mortal man will ever be crushed more thoroughly than you!”
Oedipus suddenly felt once again like an outsider in Thebes. He didn’t even know whether his guards would obey him if he asked them to raise their hands against this old man who had been such a constant throughout the lifetime of the city, who constituted the last living link to Thebes’s founding father, Cadmus. “To hell with you,” he said at last, feeling his impotence keenly even as he said the words. “Show us your back. Hurry! Leave this house! Be gone!”
But Tiresias seemed determined to have the last word. “I wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t called me.”
“Had I any idea you’d utter such drivel, I’d never have summoned you to my house.” The other men in the room glanced at one another uneasily. There was little dignity left in this exchange, on the part of either interlocutor. But still it continued.
“A driveler I seem to you,” said Tiresias wickedly, “but your parents, the ones who gave you life, thought I made sense.”
This brought Oedipus up short in the middle of his next rejoinder. “Wait! What parents? Who brought me forth?”
“The days to come will bring you forth before all the world, and will destroy you,” mocked Tiresias.
“More of the same sort of nonsense which Thebes has been hearing from you for generations ,” Oedipus muttered. “More obscure words to puzzle over, yet more sophistry.”
“Aren’t you our champion riddle solver?”
“That’s right! Revile me where you fear my greatness!”
“And yet your great success will lead to your ruin…”
“I care not for my own fate. I care about saving my city.”
“Is that really true?” asked Tiresias. “I think we shall soon find out. But I am finished here.” And with that he called the boy who served as his guide to his side. Together they made their way toward the door.
“Yes, go, get out!” shouted Oedipus at his retreating back. “You’re nothing but trouble. Leave, and cease to cause me pain.” One could almost hear the room around him sigh with relief. At last, the tense, uncomfortable, demeaning interview seemed to be over.
But Tiresias stopped and turned just as he reached the doorway. “I’m going. But first I will tell you this: this man, the one you’ve been looking for with all your threats and proclamations — he’s here. A guest from abroad, so they say, but soon to emerge a native Theban, though he’ll take no pleasure in that discovery! He will soon be blind like me. He’ll make his way to a foreign land as a beggar, feeling the ground with his stick. For he’ll be found to be both brother and father to his children, son and husband to his mother — breeding where his father bred, having spilled his father’s blood! Think that over, my lord.” And then he was gone, leaving the sarcastic royal epithet hanging in the air behind him.
His final words struck Oedipus to the quick, evoking as they did the shameful prophecy which had brought him to Thebes all those years ago — a prophecy which he had believed was known only to himself. Whence had Tiresias conjured his maliciousness? Oedipus defied the premonition crawling up his back by lashing out vengefully, as men so often tend to do in such situations, and this man more than most. He signaled out Creon, who had witnessed his exchange with Tiresias with the same shocked silence as the others in the room. “You! Where do you get the nerve to sit there in my house? You killer plain as day, you thief with designs on my throne. Speak up, by the gods. Did you see such weakness and cowardice in me that you thought you could get away with this scheme? Did you think I would not defend myself? What sort of fool attempts a coup with no money, no friends, and no popular support?”
But Creon refused to be baited. With more sorrow than anger, he said, “Please, stop talking. Listen to me first, and judge me afterward, if you will.”
“You speak well, but I know you for what you are!”
“Just stop for a moment and listen! There is no virtue in stubbornness without knowledge.”
“Words cannot protect you from paying a just price for your crimes!”
“I agree,” said Creon. “Or would, if I had committed any. What evidence have you that I have?”
“Did you not persuade me to send for that pompous so-called seer?”
“I did. And I would advise the same again.”
“When Laius disappeared and everyone was wondering about his fate — did the seer say anything about me then?”
“No, he did not.”
“And what kept our wise man from speaking up then?”
“I don’t know,” sighed Creon. “And when I don’t know, I don’t speak.”
“Then I’ll ask you something you do know,” snorted Oedipus. “You suborned the seer to say that I killed King Laius, did you not?”
“No, I did not,” insisted Creon sadly. “I ask you again to stop and think. While you can know a bad man in a day, time alone reveals a good one. Yet I believe you have had sufficient time to know me. I have never sought titles or honors for their own sake. I gave the throne of Thebes to you freely all those years ago, and until today I have lived in friendship with you, in luxury, with a full measure of respect and power of my own but without the crushing burden of kingship on my shoulders. Why would I suddenly choose to risk my comfortable life by betraying you now? Go back to Delphi and ask the oracle there whether my denial is true, and also whether I told Tiresias what to say just now. If you find any evidence there for the conspiracy you claim, execute us both. But don’t levy such accusations on a whim — on a guess! Judge on evidence, for Apollo’s sake.”
But Oedipus was unmoved. “When someone plots in secret against me, I must move fast in order to counter him. I cannot bide my time with all these tortured deliberations!”
“What is it you want to do then?” muttered Creon resignedly.
“I want you dead,” came the reply. “To show Thebans what becomes of a traitor.”
“But what if you’re wrong? What if I’m innocent?”
“I still have a city to rule.”
“And you believe this fact can justify such an injustice? If you rule it as badly as this, there soon will be no city. And that saddens me more than the prospect of my own death, for this city is mine too, not yours alone.”
As Creon said these words, Oedipus advanced toward him with violence in his eyes. But then Queen Jocasta suddenly stepped between the two of them, having been summoned by a panicked servant. “Why this senseless storm of words?” she demanded. “Is this the time to stir up private ills, when our country’s sick? Aren’t you ashamed?” She spoke to Oedipus like a child: “You, sit down!” And likewise to Creon: “Go home! Both of you, forget this!”
“Sister,” said her brother, “I cannot simply go home. Your husband has already passed a dire sentence against me. He will execute me for treason.”
“Just so,” shouted Oedipus. “I have caught him plotting against me!”
“I have done nothing!”
“Oedipus, my husband,” said Jocasta levelly, “listen to him! My brother has sworn an oath of loyalty, one I know he would never break.”
“So, then, you choose your brother over your husband?” demanded Oedipus.
“I don’t choose anyone over anyone. What on earth do you mean?”
“If Creon is not a traitor, I am condemned to death or exile in his stead.” And as the full ramifications of his own statement rushed upon him — could the horrible things Tiresias had said be true? — Oedipus’s bluster collapsed into a bitter petulance. “All right, then, let him go.”
Creon started to speak, but Jocasta stopped him with a gesture. “Later, my brother. For now, it is best if you just go.” And so he went.
She sent the rest of the men away as well, no doubt to gossip at length over what they had seen, while she led her husband to a favorite set of chairs in a quiet corner of the palace, a place where the two of them had passed many hours over the years in amiable companionship. “Now, by the gods, what caused this anger to come over you?”
“Creon, of course! The plots he made against me. He says that I am the one who murdered King Laius.”
“And how does he claim to know this?”
“He had the old prophet do the dirty work, to keep his own lips clean.”
Jocasta actually laughed at this — the first pure laughter that had been heard in the palace on that day. “In that case, you can call yourself acquitted — although this does not mean that Creon is convicted. As you know, my brother is more fond of prophets and prophecy than I am.” Her fit of laughter passed; she composed herself to speak. “I’ll tell you the story that caused me to lose faith in prophecy in general, and this one prophet in particular. Shortly after my first husband and I were married, Tiresias told Laius that he was destined to be killed by his and my own child. And yet, as you well know, we never even had any children together — and King Laius is now dead, presumably by someone else’s hand.”
This did indeed seem like good news. Still, another doubt had been gnawing away at the back of Oedipus’s psyche ever since he had argued with Tiresias. “Laius…” he said hoarsely. “How did he travel?”
“He was traveling light, for his mission was urgent. It was just him in a simple wagon with a single driver.”
“And what do you know of the circumstances of Laius’s death?”
“Well, nothing that seems likely to help solve the mystery,” Jocasta said with a shrug. “The bodies of the king and his servant were found where the road splits to take one to either Daulis or Delphi. No living witnesses to the killings were ever found.” Yet Oedipus’s reaction to this innocuous statement evinced such despair that she grabbed his hand. “What is it, my husband? What concerns you?”
And then Oedipus told her the whole story: his birth in Corinth, the rumors about his parentage, the men he had met and killed at the crossroads of Daulis and Delphi, the ugly prophecy of the oracle in Delphi, the decision to renounce his homeland and legacy that had brought him to Thebes — and then, most importantly of all, he told in detail of Tiresias’s recent accusations. “I fear,” he said, “that Tiresias speaks truly when he calls me the killer of Laius and the source of the land’s pollution.”
Jocasta was shaken, but refused to break. “We don’t know all the facts of the case,” she insisted. “We know that the oracle in Delphi and Tiresias alike are mistaken at least in calling you your father’s killer and your wife’s son — for the only children I have had are those conceived with you. If these things are mere slander, what else may not be as well?”
But Oedipus only nodded listlessly at her words. He had a haunted look in his eyes. He refused to speak with her anymore that day, or during the days that followed.
In that time, he refused to leave his rooms or see anyone at all, even as the plague continued unabated outside the palace. He slept apart from his wife, whom he regarded with something that struck her as close to disgust. Jocasta and Creon did their best to manage the stricken city in his absence, whilst praying and sacrificing desperately to the gods for some relief — all in vain.
Then a visitor arrived in the city: a royal messenger from Corinth, a dignified old gentleman, obviously one with many years of loyal service under his belt. When Oedipus refused to see him, Jocasta received him in her husband’s stead. “What brings you here?” she asked. “No other outsiders have dared to enter our poor city in many long weeks.”
The messenger acknowledged her words with a curt nod. “Indeed. But my task is an important one. Polybus, king of Corinth, is dead. It has long been known inside the palace there, although unknown to the rest of Greece, that your own King Oedipus is also the rightful heir to the throne of Corinth. Saying that he spoke on the authority of the gods, Oedipus demanded that this fact be kept secret as long as his father was alive. But now, with Polybus dead, he may claim his second throne, and so bring our two lands together. Perhaps Corinth can find a way to aid Thebes in its present distress.” And the messenger bowed expansively to accompany these generous words, as was appropriate for him to do before the woman who would soon become his queen.
Jocasta’s own reaction bordered on the unseemly. She all but danced with joy. Asking the messenger to wait for a moment, she dashed away. When she emerged again, she was dragging a disheveled-looking Oedipus behind her. “This messenger is from Corinth,” she was in the midst of saying as they entered the room, “and he says your father Polybus is dead!”
Ignoring the confused messenger’s bow to his new king, Oedipus asked him, “Is this so, stranger?”
“Yes, my lord. He is dead and gone.”
“How did he go? Was he murdered?”
The messenger was more taken aback than ever at this. “Why, no, my lord. He was, as you know, an aged man. He died in his bed.”
And then Oedipus too all but capered before the messenger at this news. “There it is, my wife!” he said, addressing Jocasta directly for the first time in days. “Delphi’s oracle said I would one day kill my father! But he’s dead now and lies beneath the earth, and I am here and have never raised a weapon against him, unless he died from missing me. Polybus packed up these prophecies and took them with him into his grave. They mean nothing!”
“Did I not say so all along?” said his equally relieved wife.
“You did, but I was led astray by fear.”
“Well, take none of it to heart any longer now.”
“None of it?” Oedipus hesitated. “Not even the other part of the oracle’s prophecy… about my mother?”
“Why should a human being live in fear?” She smiled mischievously. “After all, I’d venture to guess that others have lain with their mothers, if only in their dreams. Perhaps this is what the prophecy refers to? Have you had any… fantasies in that direction?”
But Oedipus was not yet able to banter about such things. “As long as my mother lives, I will still be afraid.”
“Yet you must admit that your father’s death is a bright light.”
“Bright, yes, but while she lives, the fear is still there.”
The messenger, who had been standing forgotten, listening to this strange conversation in complete befuddlement, finally burst in in spite of himself. “What woman is the cause of all this dread?”
Oedipus was so distracted that he didn’t even register the impertinence. “Merope, the wife of Polybus.”
“What is there about her that makes you afraid?”
“A fearful prophecy, sent by Apollo’s oracle.”
“Can it be spoken? May others hear it?”
Oedipus paused for a moment, then came to a decision. “Why not? It is a silly thing, as I can see now. The oracle said it was my fate to lie with my mother and kill my father with my own hands. That’s why I’ve lived so far from Corinth all these years, although the eyes of parents are the sweetest sight.”
“That’s what kept you away from Corinth all these years?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to kill my father — much less lie with my mother.”
“But your fear was groundless, my lord,” said the messenger.
“How so?” asked Oedipus, taken aback.
“Because Polybus was not your real father. Nor was Queen Merope your real mother.”
“Why, then, did he call me his son?” Oedipus asked, as the rumors which had caused him to travel to Delphi in the first place all those years ago — the same rumors which he had banished to the back of his mind long ago — jumped to the forefront once again.
“You were a gift,” said the messenger. “From me. They had no children, so when you were found on Mount Cithaeron…”
All color drained from the face of Jocasta at that last word, such that the messenger broke off in surprise at her reaction. Yet Oedipus, fixated on the man he was interrogating, noticed it not. “But what were you doing in such a desolate place, so far from Corinth?” he demanded.
“I was a shepherd at that time, my lord. We were in the midst of a drought, and the foraging was poor everywhere. Even the sad grasses which cling to mountainsides were better than nothing for my flock.”
“And how did you find me?”
“I did not find you, my lord. I met another shepherd near Mount Cithaeron — in fact, one from Thebes who had ventured far southward in search of grazing, just as I had ventured far northward.”
“Well, then, we must find this Theban shepherd, if he still lives,” said Oedipus.
But as he prepared to call for men to do just that, Jocasta pulled him aside. “By the gods, if you care for your own life, or mine, stop!”
“I must know the truth of my birth!” he replied with a puzzled expression. “Why are you so worried? Even if I’m found to come from a family of slaves, you’ll not be low-born.”
“I beg you! Don’t do this! I’m saying what’s best for you. I’m on your side.”
“I think I can best judge what is best for me, my dear,” Oedipus said, his voice hardening. He wasn’t used to being second-guessed. Jocasta’s face contorted through a string of emotions he couldn’t identify. Then, with a tortured sob, she ran out of the room.
He couldn’t understand her reaction. Surely all which he had achieved in life would make up for any possible low birth that might come to light. He was still, after all, the man who had saved Thebes from the sphinx. There had been no conditions of bloodline placed upon Creon’s offer of the city’s throne to the man who did so. He was a great man, regardless of his origin. And who knew? Perhaps he was a child of a god. He knew well enough the tales of Cadmus, Perseus, and Ion. Why not him too?
When Oedipus inquired with his court, he learned that the shepherd in question was still alive, still herding his flocks outside of Thebes. He promptly sent a delegation to fetch the fellow. Jocasta showed no pleasure at this news; it was she who now hid herself away. She hid even — or perhaps most of all — from her husband. The latter, on the other hand, had regained his old vigor, and was once again active in managing the city’s ongoing crisis. Creon worked by his side as diligently as ever, although the two men’s relationship had lost the warmth of friendship following Oedipus’s ludicrous accusations, for which he never apologized.
And so there came the day when the delegation brought the old shepherd before the king. The Corinthian messenger, who had remained in Thebes at Oedipus’s request, identified the shepherd as the one who had given him the baby boy. The two greeted one another heartily. “Here he is, my old friend,” said the messenger to the Theban shepherd, gesturing toward the king with a flourish. “The man who was that baby is now returned to Thebes as your king!”
The transformation the amiable shepherd underwent upon hearing those words was perplexing to witness. A look of profound horror spread over his kindly, sun-baked features. “A curse on you!” he hissed to the man he had just embraced. “Hold your tongue!” The entire room was stunned by his sudden change in mood.
But Oedipus, eager to get to the truth about his birthright, was not in a tolerant mood himself. “Tell me everything you remember of this child,” he said matter-of-factly.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” insisted the shepherd, gesturing toward the messenger.
“If you won’t talk voluntarily, you’ll talk under duress!” And Oedipus waved to two of his guards, who prepared to seize the shepherd by the arms.
“No, by the gods!” he cried. “Don’t torture an old man!” His shoulders slumped even further. “What do you want to know?” he sighed.
“Did you give this man the child in question?”
He considered, but obviously saw no point in further denials. “I did. And now I wish I had perished rather than doing so.”
“That can be arranged yet if you don’t tell the truth.”
“But I’ll also perish if I tell the truth.”
Oedipus motioned again to the guards. “This man, it seems, is bent on wasting my time.”
“No!” the shepherd howled. “I’ve just told you I gave the child away!”
“Whose child? Was it your own or someone else’s?”
“By the gods, no…”
“You’re a dead man if I have to ask you one more time.”
“A… member of the house of Cadmus.”
“Who in the house of Cadmus?”
“Your wife, master,” whimpered the shepherd. “You had best ask her.”
“My wife gave the baby to you?” Oedipus asked. A terrible truth began to dawn.
“Yes, my lord.”
“For what purpose?”
“To… do away with him.”
“Her own child?”
“Yes, in fear of evil prophecies.”
“That he would kill his parents.”
“Why, then, did you give him to this other man?”
“Out of pity, master,” said the shepherd. “I thought he’d take him away, back to where he himself was from. But instead he has saved him for the worst of fates. For if you’re who he says you are, you were born doomed.”
And Oedipus — this man who was born to those he shouldn’t have been born to, who had killed one he shouldn’t have killed, who for twenty years had lain with one he shouldn’t have lain with — stumbled out of the room, his footsteps ringing out like hammers in the shocked silence.
He ran toward the marital bedroom where Jocasta had closeted herself these recent days. As he went, he cursed the wife who was so loathsomely more than just a wife, who had attempted to kill her child — the child who had become him — out of fear of the prophecies she now claimed to deride. He was fully prepared to wreak horrible violence upon her — but when he burst into the room he found that she had already done so with her own hands. Her body hung there swaying above the bed where he had ravished her so many times. She had known already some time ago. She had known.
His whole life had been, he now realized, foreordained from the start. His free will had been an illusion. He cursed Apollo for his clever, cryptic prophecies. He cursed the shepherd whose compassion had caused him to live and face this fate worse than death. He cursed his children, whom he and Jocasta had made right there on their polluted bed. He cursed the brother-in-law who was also his uncle. He cursed the whole city of Thebes whose people had reduced him to this. But most of all, he continued to curse the body hanging there in its twisted noose, the wife who was also his mother.
With a strangled cry, he grabbed a pair of golden brooches from Jocasta’s dress, gifts he himself had given her long ago. He plunged them points first into his eyes. Then he did so again, and again, and again. First a trickle of red blood ran down his cheeks, then oozy drops of gore, then great sheets of black blood. He bellowed his disgust, horror, and pain to the heavens as he continued to stab out his sight so he would never have to look at his twisted, accursed family again. His cries, echoing up and down the corridors of the palace, were so petrifying as to drive everyone else outside. When the brooches finally fell from his hands to join the puddle of blood and gore at his feet, he ran wildly through the corridors of the palace, beating his head against the walls, gibbering about despair, disaster, death, shame.
Some hours later, when the horrible sounds from inside had died away, Creon ventured alone back into the palace and, eventually, up to the royal bedroom. There he saw the body of Jocasta still swaying above the bed. And then he espied Oedipus slumped in a corner of the same room. His rage had passed, but the possibility of crying the quiet tears that ought to follow rage was likewise passed forever. Standing there gazing upon the pathetic figure, Creon thought to himself how on that very morning the world had admired the same man from whom it would now shrink in disgust. Count no man happy, he thought, until he has crossed life’s boundary free of pain.
Creon whispered Oedipus’s name with pity in his voice. “Don’t fear,” he said when the blinded man started to shrink away. “I haven’t come to mock you, Oedipus, nor to scold you for the wrongs you’ve done.” And he clapped his arms around the other, raising him gently to his feet.
“I can hardly believe it,” whispered Oedipus. “You, the best of men, can still come to me, the worst, in kindness. I ask you to grant me one last wish — not for my sake, but for yours.”
“What is it?”
“Exile me. Send me away from Thebes — now. Send me where no one I know will ever see me again. Take me out the back door of this palace and let me slip away into the night.”
“But where will you go? How will you live, blind as you now are?”
“I will take to the road,” said Oedipus. “If the Fates have planned it for me now, then I will die there. If not… so be it. I am through with raging against them.”
“And those you leave behind?” asked Creon.
“Bury the woman” — although his rage against her had passed, he still could not bear to say her name, much less her unholy twin relations to him — “as befits a queen and your own kin. And, please, don’t tar our children with our crimes. Allow my sons the full measure of their lives. Most of all, take care of my daughters, who meant the world to me. Tell them that I loved them, and try to help them have better lives than the one their father has had.”
“I will do as you ask,” said Creon simply. And, taking Oedipus by the hand, Creon led him away, into the blessed night that hid his shame.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)