We don’t know whether there was a historical Oedipus. “Oedipus” means “swollen feet”. The Greeks pronounced it “oy-DEEP-us”. Oed- is the same root as “oedema / edema” (tissue swelling; the British preserve the initial “o”), while “-pus” is feet (hence “octopus”, the eight-footed animal.)
Laius and Jocasta were king and queen of Thebes, a town in Greece. One day, they had a baby boy. An oracle prophesied that the boy would grow up and kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart the prophecy, Laius and Jocasta decided to kill their baby. In those days, it was usual to leave an unwanted or defective baby in the wilderness. Laius and Jocasta did this. To be extra-sure, they pierced his little feet and tied them together. (Don’t worry about this detail, which makes no sense. It must have been introduced to explain the hero’s name.)
A kindly shepherd found the baby. He gave the baby to a friend, who took it to Corinth, another town. (Corinth reappears in the New Testament.) The king and queen of Corinth couldn’t have a baby of their own. So they adopted the foundling.
Nobody ever told little Oedipus that his mother was never pregnant. One day, after he had grown up, a drunk mentioned him being adopted. Oedipus questioned his parents, but they denied it. Oedipus visited various oracles to find out whether he was really adopted. All the oracles told him instead that he would kill his father and marry his mother. (None of this makes much sense. Again, don’t worry about it. This is a folk tale.)
To thwart the oracles, Oedipus left Corinth permanently. (Again, don’t worry. Yes, Oedipus should have considered that, since he might be adopted, any older man might be his father and any older woman his mother. But this is a folk tale.)
Traveling the roads, Oedipus got into a traffic squabble and killed a stranger who (unknown to him) was King Laius. In one version, there was a dispute over right-of-way on a bridge. In those days, high rank got to go first, Oedipus identified himself as heir to the throne of Corinth, and for some reason (again, don’t worry about it) Laius’s people simply attacked instead of explaining that he was king of Thebes. Some versions say that the rude Laius drove over Oedipus’s sore foot, making him lose his temper.
Soon Oedipus’s smarts saved the town of Thebes, and he was made king. (In a folk-tale within a folk-tale, Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. “What animal has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?” Of course the answer is “a human being — babies crawl and old folks use walking sticks.”) Oedipus married Laius’s widow, Queen Jocasta. He ruled well, and they had four children.
Eventually, Oedipus and Jocasta found out what had really happened. (You must assume that accidentally killing your father and marrying your mother is a disaster.) Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus blinded himself and became a wandering beggar.
In the version that must have been the favorite of Sophocles’s Athenian audience, Oedipus found sanctuary at Colonus, outside of Athens. The kindness he was shown at the end made the city itself blessed.
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