Is Oedipus Really
So Complex?
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 5/18/15

With uncanny insight into the psyche, ancient Greek playwright Sophocles told the legendary story of Oedipus, the hapless king who unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother. Whether we view his themes of patricide and incest as symbolic of the human condition or simply as the creepy twists and turns of a soap opera, this strange, timeless story has been ripe material for psychiatrists, novelists and even rock stars.

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Oedipus the King  (Sophocles | play | c. 429 B.C.)
to  Tiresias  (Greek mythological figure)

Ironically, only a blind prophet, Tiresias, sees the truth of the terrible events that unfold in Oedipus the King. “So, you mock my blindness?” Tiresias challenges Oedipus. “Let me tell you this. You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life.” Oedipus’s doom is sealed when his father, King Laius of Thebes, rapes Chrysippus, son of King Pelops of Elis. The Delphic oracle predicts Laius will consequently “perish by the hand of his own son.” To avert this fate, the infant boy is left on a mountaintop to die. Shepherds rescue the baby and bring him to the childless King Polybus of Corinth, who names him Oedipus and raises him. But when the oracle predicts he is “fated to lie with [his] mother, and…doomed to be murderer of the father that begot [him],” Oedipus flees. Nevertheless, the prophecy unfolds: He kills Laius, whom he does not know is his father, arrives in Thebes and marries Queen Jocasta, the mother from whom he was taken as an infant. Shamed, self-blinded and exiled by the end of the play, Oedipus has not changed his fate. As Tiresias tells him, “You must bear your burden to the very end.”

Oedipus the King  (Sophocles | play | c. 429 B.C.)
to  Riddle of the Sphinx

In Oedipus the King, a fearsome Sphinx—a monster with the wings of a bird, the body of a lion and the face of a woman—guards the gates of Thebes and holds the city in her thrall. The Sphinx will devour any travelers wishing to enter, unless they can answer her riddle: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? Only Oedipus answers correctly, with “man.” (A child crawls on four legs, an adult walks on two, and the elderly walk with a cane.) The vanquished Sphinx throws herself off a cliff, and the grateful Thebans crown Oedipus their king and give him their queen, Jocasta, in marriage. The blind seer Tiresias tells Oedipus what comes next: “He will be blind, although he now can see. He will be poor, although he now is rich. He will set off for a foreign country, groping the ground before him with a stick. And he will turn out to be the brother of the children in his house—their father, too, both at once, and the husband and the son of the very woman who gave birth to them.”

Riddle of the Sphinx
to  Tiresias  (Greek mythological figure)

Being rid of the she-monster Sphinx is, sadly, no comfort to Thebes. A plague soon descends upon the city, and the oracle at Delphi says the “only cure for this infecting pestilence is to find the men who murdered [King] Laius and kill them or else expel them from this land as exiles.” Only the soothsayer Tiresias knows whodunit.

According to ancient Greek legend, Tiresias was given the gift of prophecy after stumbling upon Athena while she was bathing in the forest. The goddess of wisdom blinded Tiresias for seeing her naked but in compensation granted him understanding of “birdsong,” or augury. After Oedipus defeats the Sphinx, Tiresias mocks and insults him. Oedipus in turn challenges Tiresias, saying, “When the Sphinx, that singing bitch, was here, you said nothing to set the people free.… Yet I finished her off, using my wits rather than relying on birds.” But Tiresias delivers the understatement of the era: “You have no idea how bad things are.”

Oedipus the King  (Sophocles | play | c. 429 B.C.)
to  Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)

While developing psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote a case study in 1909 about Little Hans, a five-year-old who refused to leave his house for fear a horse would bite him. Freud theorized Hans was actually terrified that his father, who reminded Hans of a horse, would castrate him in retaliation for sexual feelings the boy harbored for his mother. According to Freud, Hans was unconsciously living the drama Sophocles stages in Oedipus the King—murder of the father and sexual possession of the mother. Freud posited that the oedipal phase occurs between the ages of three and five; it is resolved when a boy realizes Dad is stronger and Mom is sexually unattainable. Freud’s colleague Carl Jung termed a girl’s comparable psychological conflict with her mother for sexual possession of her father the Electra complex, after another Sophocles character, who plots her mother’s murder to avenge her father’s death. The Oedipus complex has been controversial since Freud introduced the theory, but he found it primal. “If psychoanalysis could boast of no other achievements than the discovery of the repressed Oedipus complex,” Freud wrote, “that alone would give it a claim to be included among the precious new acquisitions of mankind.”

Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)
to  Riddle of the Sphinx

On Sigmund Freud’s 50th birthday, his colleagues presented him with a medal inscribed with three things: his portrait, an image of Oedipus solving the Sphinx’s riddle, and a description of the doomed character taken from the play Oedipus the King. “Who knew the famous riddles,” it read, “and was a man most mighty.” It was a fitting tribute to Freud, for whom the Sphinx’s challenge addressed many of life’s mysteries. He once said all human curiosity begins with the “riddle of the Sphinx—that is the question of where babies come from.” A strict Freudian therapist might argue that the Oedipus complex, the unconsciously sexual love we feel for our opposite-sex parent and the deadly intentions we have for our same-sex parent, moves us through the stages of life the riddle describes—from infancy to adulthood, from four legs to two—and that the shame, guilt and fear arising from these feelings remain, crippling us even in old age. In Freudian terms, Oedipus is acting on universal human instincts when he kills his father and marries his mother, which may go a long way to explaining why the play still resonates more than two millennia after its first performance.

Oedipus the King  (Sophocles | play | c. 429 B.C.)
to  Kafka on the Shore  (Haruki Murakami | novel | 2002)

In Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, protagonist Kafka Tamura runs away from his home in Tokyo when he is 15, fleeing his sculptor father, who kills cats to make flutes from their souls. He alights in a small seaside town, where he finds shelter with an enigmatic woman who may or not be his mother and with whom he eventually has an affair. Kafka’s father is stabbed to death, and in a dream sequence, Kafka is his murderer.

The plot and characters of Kafka on the Shore resemble those of Oedipus the King. There’s even a mentally challenged wise man, Nakata, whose ability to talk to cats suggests Oedipus’s foil, the blind seer Tiresias, who can understand the language of animals. Oedipus might agree with the novel’s contention that “fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you.… This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.”

Kafka on the Shore  (Haruki Murakami | novel | 2002)
to  Riddle of the Sphinx

Poor Oedipus. He’s convinced he is “truly great” when he solves the Sphinx’s riddle. He’s even more ebullient about news that the king of Corinth, whom he thinks is his father, has died a natural death, thereby averting the prophecy that Oedipus is doomed to patricide. But Oedipus is already cluelessly ensnared in the trap fate has laid for him. The characters of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore are similarly locked in a state of perpetual delusion, in which, as the titular protagonist explains, “Reality and dreams are all mixed up, like seawater and river water flowing together.” Do Kafka Tamura’s various dreams imply that he has killed his father, raped his sister and had an affair with his mother? The novel itself is a riddle, raising more questions than it answers. In the lyrics to a fictional song (also called “Kafka on the Shore”), Murakami suggests some dark hope: “When your heart is closed, / The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx, / Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.” In other words, open your heart to the many changes that occur in the life cycle mentioned in the Sphinx’s riddle, from infancy to middle age to senescence.

Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)
to  “The End”  (song | Jim Morrison)

Los Angeles band the Doors reintroduced the rock-and-roll generation to the Oedipus legend in their 1967 song “The End.” Lyrics include “The killer…came to a door…and he looked inside / Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you / Mother...I want to…fuck you.” Ray Manzarek, the group’s keyboard player, once said songwriter and Doors frontman Jim Morrison “was giving voice in a rock-and-roll setting to the Oedipus complex, at the time a widely discussed tendency in Freudian psychology. He wasn’t saying he wanted to do that to his own mom and dad. He was reenacting a bit of Greek drama. It was theater!”

Morrison was not alone in his inspiration. Musical satirist Tom Lehrer was also drawn to the legend. In “Oedipus Rex” he sings, “There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex. / You may have heard about his odd complex. / His name appears in Freud’s index,” and “I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus, / Than end up like old Oedipus Rex.” The tale even surfaced in a 1950s Borscht Belt joke: A psychiatrist tells a woman her son suffers from an Oedipus complex; she replies, “Oedipus Schmoedipus, so long as he loves his mother.”