Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

In this analysis, I plan to say little about the Oedipus complex, because–apart from what a cliché that has turned into–I’ve already written so much about it that doing so here again would be irritatingly redundant. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on other aspects, themes, and symbolism of the myth.

These themes and symbolism centre around the dialectical relationships between knowing and not wanting to know (what Wilfred Bion called the K and -K links, respectively), which in turn are symbolized by seeing and blindness. Also, there’s the dialectical unity of resisting fate vs. succumbing to it. There’s the dialectic of family love and family hate, too, leading to the next theme.

That theme is male-on-male violence: Laius raping Chrysippus, Oedipus killing Laius, his accusatory threats against Tiresias and Creon, his blinding of himself, and his cursing of his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who in turn kill each other. Finally, could Oedipus’ killing of his father and marriage to his mother represent an attempted shift from matrilineal to patrilineal succession?

II: Sin and Punishment

The story all begins with King Laius having committed a terrible sin to offend the gods. Some scholars think that his homosexual passion for the beautiful youth Chrysippus, leading to his abduction and rape of the boy, was a later addition to the overall story, so I imagine earlier versions must have had Laius angering the gods in some other way.

In any case, Laius’ punishment will involve not only shaming him, but his entire family, too. Belief in such extensive divine punishment seems to have been common in the ancient world, given how close-knit the family was back then, as if all members shared the same identity, thus making the entire family as guilty of the sin as the original sinner was. Recall what Yahweh said to Moses: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (Exodus 20:5)

Laius does everything he can to prevent the terrible prophecy that any son he has by Iocaste will one day rise up and kill him; hence George Devereux‘s invention of the term, ‘Laius complex.’ The king refuses to sleep with his queen, Iocaste, but the constant attempts at defying his fate ultimately lead to its fulfillment, for the gods will have their way, no matter how hard we try to thwart their will.

Iocaste, annoyed at never being fulfilled in the bedroom (see Graves, 105, page 371, paragraph a.), gets Laius drunk one night, and he lies with her, getting her pregnant. As I’ve discussed many times before, I use the ouroboros to symbolize a circular continuum where opposites meet and phase into each other dialectically, where the serpent’s head bites its tail.

Laius’ attempts to prevent the prophecy from coming true, at the serpent’s bitten tail, are his movement along the coiled length of its body, away from its tail and toward its head, where perfect safety from the prophecy’s fulfillment would be. But the further he goes away from the tail and toward the head, the more sexually frustrated Iocaste becomes, since she’s being made to suffer a longer and longer period without any fulfillment of her desires. So instead of just reaching the serpent’s biting head and stopping there, she makes him go past it and over to the bitten tail, getting her with child.

III: Oedipus Is Born

To Laius’ even greater horror, the child born is a son. Since the prophecy also involves the boy marrying her and sharing her bed, Iocaste agrees to have the baby exposed.

In an attempt to accelerate the baby’s death, by keeping it from crawling away from danger, Laius puts a pin into its feet. The resulting injury to the baby inspires its name, “Oedipus” (“swollen foot”). Iocaste can’t bear to kill her own child, so she has a servant, a shepherd, take the baby away to be exposed. He, too, can’t bear to let the baby die, so he gives it to another shepherd, one in Corinth. This shepherd, in turn, gives Oedipus to childless King Polybus.

Polybus’ shame at not being able to have a child of his own leads him to pretend that Oedipus is his biological son. Oedipus thus believes this king of Corinth, and his queen, Merope (or Periboea, depending on the source), are his true parents. When doubts are raised of his true parentage, Oedipus consults the Delphic oracle, who tells him the prophecy instead of confirming or denying whether the king and queen of Corinth are his parents. So thinking still that Polybus and Merope are his biological parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth and heads in the direction of…Thebes!

Here we see how oversolicitude of the prophecy coming true pushes Oedipus past the ouroboros’ biting head, where a safe prevention of its coming true lies, to the bitten tail of its surely coming true.

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

What we note about Oedipus is his constant travels…on those ‘swollen feet.’ This use of injured feet can be seen to symbolize how his movement from here to there always involves pain of some sort. He’s had to leave Thebes and any hope of getting love from his real parents. He’s had to leave Corinth and the love of his assumed parents. And his trip back to Thebes will involve his unwitting fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy…he kills Laius.

At a place where three roads meet, Oedipus encounters a chariot carrying a wealthy older man and his servants. Neither Oedipus nor the old man has the patience or humility to make way and let the other pass, so a fight begins. Oedipus kills everyone except one servant, who manages to run away and tell the tale later. The killed rich old man is, of course, Laius.

Oedipus continues on his journey in the direction of Thebes, and just before the entrance to the city he encounters the Sphinx, a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, a lion’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a serpent’s tail (the description varies, of course, depending on the source). Whoever cannot answer her riddle will be strangled and eaten by her…everyone who has tried, so far, which is odd, given how easy to answer the riddle actually is.

V: The Riddle

There are variations on how the riddle is asked, but perhaps the best-known version is, “What animal goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Another version is, “What creature of one voice has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?”

This second version relates well with Oedipus’ experience, since he as a baby had the pin swelling his little feet, and he as a blind old man, shamed and in despair after learning of his unwitting fulfillment of the prophecy, has not only a walking stick, but also his daughter/sister, Antigone, to help him go everywhere. As I said above, everywhere he walks, he is in pain.

The idea that the Sphinx’s riddle is difficult to answer shouldn’t be taken literally, since as I said above, it’s actually ridiculously easy to answer: man is the animal, crawling as a baby on all fours ‘in the morning’ of his life; walking on two legs as a young man during the ‘noon’ of his life; and needing a walking stick as an old man during the ‘evening’ of his life. The point of the ‘difficulty’ of the riddle–as I see it–is that it was fated for Oedipus…and Oedipus alone…to answer it, for it is about him knowing himself, something few people really do.

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

Having a special knowledge of the arcane matters of life is a province of the unusual people of our world, the perverse and unnatural ones, even. Such monstrosities as the part-human, part-animal Sphinx (suggesting a conception by bestiality), and incestuous patricides like Oedipus alone will know life’s darkest secrets. Nietzsche commented on this special insight-from-the-unnatural in The Birth of Tragedy (Section 9, pages 68-69), and we should see Oedipus’ ability to answer the riddle in terms of his drive toward self-knowledge, as we’ll see when examining Sophocles‘ play.

The Sphinx kills herself in shame and despair over someone knowing the answer to her ‘enigmatic’ riddle, and Thebes is saved from her. Since the Theban people have lost their king to, as the story goes, a gang of robbers rather than a sole man, and since Oedipus–a stranger in town [!]–is the city’s hero, he is made their new king. His marriage to Iocaste thus fulfills the second part of the prophecy.

Their marriage, of course, is by no means Platonic. He gets his mother pregnant and has two sons/brothers (Eteocles and Polyneices) and two daughters/sisters (Antigone and Ismene) by her. If Freud was right, one can imagine the nights that Oedipus shares in bed with Iocaste to be by far the most enjoyable times of his whole wretched life. Not only is he enjoying his mother with neither guilt nor a paternal rival, but he is the honoured hero of his city.

His pride, accordingly, is puffed up. Then the plague descends on Thebes, and our discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus begins.

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

Oedipus’ hubris first demonstrates itself in his outward show of concern for his people. He speaks of how his pain is greater than that of his people, feeling each individual’s suffering as well as his own, and his not being able to sleep at night.

Oh, really, Oedipus? You, a king in all your finery, have it worse than the poor multitude? You feel each person’s individual pain, plus your own, but they don’t feel each other’s, the pain of their families, of their neighbours? Only you are gifted with such a magnanimous compassion?

He has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the Delphic oracle to find out what must be done to rid Thebes of the plague. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that they must find the murderer of Laius, who is still in the city [!].

Oedipus also has the blind seer Tiresias reveal who the killer is. The king praises Tiresias for his gift of prophecy, but the blind old man considers his special abilities to be a curse, since knowing the truth can be painful, and can cause others great pain.

Tiresias, like Oedipus and the Sphinx, has gained access to esoteric forms of knowledge through unnatural means. When Tiresias was younger, he was made a woman for seven years as punishment for having beaten a pair of copulating snakes. With this experience, he knew which sex derived greater pleasure from lovemaking; and in telling Zeus and Hera that it is women who enjoy sex far more than men, the goddess was indignant and made him blind…but Zeus compensated for this by giving him the gift of foresight.

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

Tiresias is averse in the extreme to telling the Theban king what he knows, since the pain for Oedipus will be overwhelming. This refusal to promote knowledge is what Bion called -K, and this psychoanalytic angle on the Oedipus myth was detailed in Bion‘s book, Elements of Psychoanalysis (in chapters 10, 11, and 14 especially).

Oedipus, however, is driven to know the truth (K) at all costs, so he angrily provokes Tiresias to give it up by accusing him of complicity in Laius’ murder. What’s interesting about this exchange between the king and the prophet is how it can be paralleled with the interlocution between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The monster has asked Oedipus a riddle to which only he knows the answer; Oedipus (a monster of another sort) asks Tiresias something only he can answer. The Sphinx kills herself on hearing Oedipus’ correct answer; Oedipus’ self-destruction begins on hearing Tiresias’ correct answer.

We’ll note the dialectical relation between knowing and wishing not to know (K vs. -K) when Oedipus, having pushed for an answer from Tiresias, now rejects the truth upon hearing it. This is the biting head of the ouroboros (K) phasing over to its bitten tail (-K). Instead of accepting the painful truth that Oedipus killed Laius, the shaken king fantasizes that Creon, supposedly coveting the crown, has suborned Tiresias to lie about Oedipus being Laius’ murderer.

What reinforces this dialectical K vs. -K relationship is how Oedipus should already know, or at least suspect, his own guilt. He knows of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; he hasn’t been certain that Polybus and Merope are his true parents; he’s killed a wealthy old man on a road near Thebes; and he’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. Denial and projection are his only defences against Tiresias’ increasingly probable revelation.

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

Bion conceived of our growing in knowledge (K) as originating in the baby’s interactions with its mother. Since the baby doesn’t yet have a thinking apparatus for processing the external stimuli that agitate him, his mother must do this processing for him, in the form of soothing the baby and pacifying him. Then those agitating feelings can become tolerable thoughts for the baby once they’ve been processed and detoxified by his mother; they are then returned to him.

She is a container of his anxieties and frustrations, feelings that Bion called the contained. Her containment of her baby’s agitations–reassuring him that everything is OK, and returning his feelings to him in a tolerable form–helps him to develop his own ability later to do the containing for himself and thus grow in K, a link between himself and other people involving an exchange of emotional experiences through projective identification (read here for more information on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts).

To relate all this to the play, since Oedipus was given to a shepherd to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron, he was never given that needed containment from Iocaste. In fact, he experienced negative containment from Laius, through the pin that pierced his feet, a traumatic experience causing a nameless dread that has adversely affected Oedipus’ development into adulthood.

Bion used a masculine symbol to represent the contained (implying phallic symbolism), and a feminine symbol to represent the container (implicitly yonic). This suggests the erotic symbolism of copulation in his theory of containment. Such associations are significant considering Oedipus’ relationship with Iocaste. His lack of soothing, pacifying containment as a baby has led to its dialectical opposite: excessive, erotic containment with her when he has become an adult; this is a shift from the serpent’s bitten tail of negative containment to the biting head of ‘erotic containment.’

We go from the lack of shared, exchanged emotional experiences between baby Oedipus and Iocaste (the ouroboros’ bitten tail) to excessively shared, exchanged emotional experiences between adult Oedipus and Iocaste, in the form of their incest (the serpent’s biting head). From -K to forbidden K.

Similarly, we go from the symbolically phallic pin (Laius’ contained) making the symbolically yonic wound in baby Oedipus’ feet (the container), to Oedipus’ literal phallus (his contained) put in Iocaste’s literal yoni (her container). From negative to taboo container/contained, from -K to carnal K.

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

Aristotle, in his Poetics, said that tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the audience, as well as the catharsis of those emotions (Aristotle 6, p. 348). Pity and fear are better “aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play” than through spectacle (Aristotle 14, page 358). For Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus is an ideal example of such a play.

What must be remembered is that we all know the Oedipus story; the ancient Greek audiences knew that Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry and commit incest with his mother. The magic of watching the play, or even just reading it, as Aristotle observed, is in sympathizing with poor Oedipus as he learns, little by agonizingly little, that he has fulfilled the prophecy. As he continues his compulsive investigation, he peels away every hope of his innocence, peels away every doubt that he is guilty. Each peeling away, one by one, is torture for him, and for us as we feel the pain with him.

We are shaken with Oedipus when we hear Tiresias say that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but we feel temporary relief in how we empathize with the king’s illusory belief that Polybus and Merope are his parents. When Iocaste mentions Laius having been killed where three roads meet (about line 716), then that Laius looked much like Oedipus (about line 744), we feel his surges of agitation, even though she has been trying to relieve his fears by demonstrating the supposed falsity of prophecy.

When Oedipus takes heart in the account that Laius was killed by a group of robbers rather than by one (about lines 890-894), we enjoy feeling his relief even though we know the report to be wrong. Again, the report from a shepherd/messenger from Corinth that Polybus is dead (about line 985) gives Oedipus hope, for he can’t kill a father already dead. Though we know his father isn’t the Corinthian, but the former Theban, king doesn’t matter: we empathize with Oedipus, so we feel his relief, and enjoy it. We wish with him that it could be true.

This relief is ephemeral, though, for we’re soon to feel Oedipus’ dashed hopes when the shepherd explains that he gave baby Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, having received the baby himself from a Theban shepherd! Oedipus is inching closer and closer to the terrible truth, and we as an empathizing audience feel his growing fears as if we were discovering it all with him.

This mounting fear is like the suspense felt in a horror movie, the secret to such a film’s success. Oedipus sends to have the Theban shepherd brought before him to tell him the truth. He clings to the feeble hope that he isn’t Laius’ abandoned son, but rather that of a Theban slave (about lines 1092-1093), which is nowhere near as shameful. We share his agitation in clinging to that tiny hope, knowing he’ll soon lose even that.

XI: Hamartia

One way to think about the tragic flaw of the hero of an ancient Greek drama is to see it as a comment on the faults of a society’s political leaders, to exhort them to improve on their governance.

As we’ve noticed in Oedipus, his flaw is his hubris. He is puffed up with pride over having saved Thebes from the Sphinx by correctly answering her riddle. But as I pointed out above, the riddle isn’t particularly difficult to solve; his being the only one able to answer it seems more to do with it being about his own life than about it being difficult to solve.

What’s more, he’s no real hero of Thebes: he killed their king over a petty squabble, because he was too proud to give way to Laius’ chariot. He is the opposite of a saviour, and only his willful ignorance (-K) delays his acceptance of the truth.

Vanity has been a serious fault in leaders throughout history and legend, from Caligula and King Lear up to many (if not almost all) of our heads of state today. They want to be flattered rather than hear needed criticisms. In other words, they’re narcissists.

What is the origin of pathological levels of narcissism? Heinz Kohut discovered it in a lack of parental empathy. He conceived of two poles on which a child builds a healthy sense of self and restrained, moderate levels of narcissism: the grandiose self, and the idealized parental imago. In being abandoned by Laius and Iocaste, given over to a shepherd to be exposed, baby Oedipus was deprived of both poles of healthy, psychological structure: small wonder he grew up proud at the first moment of his life that he was ever meaningfully appreciated.

To cut the wound even deeper, though he was raised and cared for by King Polybus, who never even let on that he was adopted, Oedipus was forced to give up his parental idealizations to avoid shaming them through fulfilling the prophecy. Committing incest (as he imagined he would be) with Queen Merope would destroy his grandiose self, still something he fears the possibility of even after hearing of Polybus’ death (about line 976); and killing the Corinthian king would have meant the killing of his idealized parental imago. With both poles gone, he’d be destroying himself.

Lacking parents to idealize, Oedipus would need to overcompensate with the grandiose self in order to salvage whatever psychological structure he could muster. Small wonder he felt narcissistic rage when that rich man on the chariot demanded he give way on the road, and small wonder he’s been basking in the adulation of the Thebans since his delivering of them from the Sphinx.

It’s fitting, then, that the universal narcissistic trauma children suffer is called the Oedipus complex (to make my one reference to it in this article). Oedipus never had his true mother’s love, that maternal love that a little boy selfishly wants to hog all to himself and never share with his father. Hence, Oedipus’ incest with Iocaste as a long overdue overcompensation for that infantile deprivation. On the universality of this childhood trauma, recall Freud’s quote from Sophocles’ play:

“For many a man hath seen himself in dreams
His mother’s mate, but he who gives no heed
To suchlike matters bears the easier life.” (Freud, page 162)

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

Oedipus’ discovery (anagnorisis) that he has, in fact, fulfilled the prophecy leads to his reversal of fortune (peripeteia), the climax of Sophocles’ tragedy. The peripeteia, as Aristotle explained it in the Poetics, involves a complete switch from one state of fortune to its opposite: in Oedipus’ case, from overweening pride to overwhelming shame, from being an honoured king to being a pitied exile; and Aristotle deemed Sophocles’ Oedipus to be the exemplary tragedy.

Yet this switch from one state of affairs to its opposite should be seen as a dialectical unity of opposites, for the anagnorisis is so causally linked with the peripeteia, the one so immediately following the other, that they seem almost to coincide, to be at one with each other. And Oedipus’ ‘discovery’ is really just something he’s always known, deep down, to have been true. The truth has just been buried in his unconscious, and now it’s returned to consciousness.

He knew the prophecy back when he was in Corinth, and he surely knows that the will of the gods is not something easily thwarted. He learned of the prophecy after already having the parentage of Polybus and Merope put in doubt. Oedipus killed a rich man old enough to be his father where three roads meet. He’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. And Tiresias, a famed, honoured prophet, explicitly tells him he has fulfilled the prophecy. What is there to discover later on?

It’s not that Oedipus has discovered the shameful truth; it’s that he now knows he can no longer deny that truth. He has been using denial, projection, and repression to shield himself from the truth, even as he’s been investigating it unflinchingly. Here we see the dialectical relationship between K and -K. And since his discovery of the truth is a foregone conclusion, so is his reversal of fortune.

It’s ironic that a blind old man tells seeing Oedipus the harsh truth, he who has been wilfully blind to the truth. Then, when he can no longer deny, project, or repress the truth into a conveniently faulty memory, he removes pins from the clothes of Iocaste–whom he’s just seen having hanged herself–and stabs them into his eyes.

Tiresias is thus a kind of double of Oedipus, his judgemental ego ideal, yet also his mirrored ideal-I facing him and articulating the truth he dare not say about himself. Though blind, Tiresias is more complete, more whole, than is the metaphorically blind Theban king. Accordingly, Oedipus would rather deny and project his guilt onto his personified mirror, Tiresias, claiming the blind old prophet is conspiring with Creon to dethrone him, than acknowledge that he himself has already dethroned his own father…and should already know it, or at least suspect it.

Just as the contrast between not knowing and anagnorisis is dialectically unified, so is the contrast between his fortunes as a king and his ill fortune as an exile. His loss of a kingly throne at the end of the play is not his first time to be thrown out. He was an exile of Thebes from birth, after Laius’ thwarted attempt to expose him. Then he exiled himself from Corinth upon hearing the prophecy. Being regal has been more the exception than the rule in his life of wandering; and even his rule as king has been insecure the whole time, with that prophecy looming like a shadow over his head.

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

His feet have been swollen his whole life, from doing far more homeless travelling than resting.

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

A common element in ancient myth has been the killing of an old sacred king, to be replaced by a new king. The queen, in being the wife of both kings, is keeping the royal bloodline intact through matrilineal succession. This pattern has been noted by such writers as Frazer in The Golden Bough and the other ritualist theorists of myth from a century ago.

As Northrop Frye noted in The Great Code, meaning in ancient times was predominantly conveyed through the metaphorical and allegorical phases of language, as opposed to the modern-day, prosaic descriptive phase. Phenomena weren’t usually expressed in words describing what they literally were, as they typically would be today; they were far more often compared to, analogized with, and “put for,” other things (Frye, page 7). So a retelling of the killing of the old king through human sacrifice was given metaphorically and allegorically through a mythic narrative, as we see in the Oedipus story. (I discuss such mythic distortions of ancient ritual in this post.)

In this particular myth, however, a prince kills his father-king and succeeds him, resulting in a patrilineal succession, which largely replaced the matrilineal kind in the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean world. Does this story, through metaphor and allegory, express a conflict-laden transition from mother-kin to father-kin? Such a speculation was made by Robert Graves in his two-volume Greek Myths (Graves, 105, note 7, page 377). AeschylusOresteia also seem to represent such a conflict in the trial over Orestes‘ murder of his mother (I cover this issue in more detail here).

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

Oedipus’ hubris, his self-conception as a great king and saviour of Thebes, is his narcissistic False Self, a manifestation of his grandiose self. The other of the two poles of his sense of self, personified in Iocaste, is his idealized parental imago; since he doesn’t yet know (or consciously admit to himself) that she’s his mother, this other pole would seem to be a transference of that parental idealization. The shame he feels, from the realization of his incest and patricide, has destroyed his grandiose self; her suicide has destroyed his (now-understood-to-be) idealized parental imago. Both poles are destroyed: his narcissistic defences against fragmentation are destroyed; his mutilating of his eyes is thus symbolic of this fragmentation.

The play ends with the Chorus proclaiming that no man is happy until he dies. This observation seems an echo of the story of Cleobis and Biton, who showed great filial devotion to their mother. She in turn wished Hera would grant her sons the greatest of gifts; the brothers immediately died (they fell asleep in Hera’s temple and never woke), since only in death is there true happiness.

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

The disgraced king wasn’t immediately exiled as of the end of Oedipus Rex, but as of the beginning of this play (actually the third chronologically written of Sophocles’ Theban plays, written just before he died and produced posthumously…and therefore inconsistent with the other two Theban plays), he has been a wandering exile for some time, guided by his faithful daughter/sister, Antigone.

An interesting theme of Oedipus at Colonus is his relationship with the land: at some times, he’s a curse to it; at other times, he’s a blessing. Naturally, there’s a dialectical relationship between this blessed and cursed state, too.

His incest and patricide caused a plague on Thebes, making him a curse on that land. This is interesting when seen in the light of his having been the temporary lord of that land. As E.F. Watling says in the introduction to his translation of the Theban plays, “king” doesn’t exactly convey Oedipus’ status over Thebes, though the word seems close enough. Oedipus “was probably something more like a wealthy landowner. All that is necessary for the play is that he should be recognised as a ‘great one’ in virtue of his own power of command and, it may be, of the election of his townsmen.” (Watling, page 18)

The ruling classes throughout history have been not only rich, but also owners of land, be they ancient slave-masters, feudal landlords, or today’s bourgeois owners of private property. In exploring the hamartia not only of Oedipus, but also of Laius, Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, and of how their flaws make us question their worthiness as lords over the people, we begin to wonder about the very validity of the 1% having ‘property rights,’ as against the 99% not having such rights. Given the enormity of our lords’ faults, what makes them any better than we are?

Antigone has led blind old Oedipus to Colonus, a village near Athens. She’s led him to rest on a stone in an area sacred to the Erinyes; a villager there says his presence has profaned the land, and he must leave. That Oedipus now knows that this place is sacred to the Erinyes is actually good news. (It’s also dialectically ironic that he, an incestuous patricide, would be a blessing here, since the Erinyes are personifications of guilt and vengeance.)

He tells the locals that a prophecy from Apollo says that he will die in a place sacred to the Erinyes, and being buried there, he will be a blessing to the people of the area. In fact, the Thebans have learned of such a prophecy since his exile, and Creon wants to bring Oedipus back home, so that his burial in Colonus won’t benefit another city at Thebes’ expense.

Oedipus, in his rage against disloyal Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, refuses to go back. He will, however, respect the wishes of the Chorus of villagers of Colonus, and be led by Antigone off the Erinyes’ sacred land. He will also have newly-arrived Ismene do the expiatory rites to eliminate any curse he may have unwittingly brought by sitting on the stone on the Erinyes’ sacred ground.

So, he’s both a blessing and a curse to the land. Such relationships to the land determine our perceived worthiness as people; such a reality is as true today, if only in a secular sense, as it was then. Consider our cruel treatment of the homeless today (‘anti-homeless’ architecture on the ground and on park benches; laws against feeding the homeless). Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Trump, Zuckerberg, et al are the god-kings of our time; one representative of them, French president Emmanuel Macron, is practically an Oedipus himself!

The moment of Oedipus’ death is an interesting one: the blind old man can, without his daughter’s guidance, find the place where the gods would have him buried…he walks there unaided (about lines 1543-1551)! His close connection with the gods, knowing his burial will be a blessing to Athens, combined with his age and blindness, makes him all the more of a double of Tiresias. He is as much of a blind old prophet as the one who so reluctantly told him he’d killed his father and married his mother. Though this play, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex aren’t consistent in plot-line, they are so in terms of theme.

XV: Antigone

Oedipus’ curse on his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, for not coming to his aid in his exile, has led the brothers to kill each other over who would rule over Thebes. Creon, the current king of Thebes, is angry over the wickedness of Polyneices, and refuses to bury his body.

In dialectical contrast to the hatred and rancour felt among all these other members of this cursed family, Antigone wants to show love for and duty to her dead, unburied brother. She’d disobey Creon’s order never to bury Polyneices, and risk the king’s wrath. The ouroboros’ bitten tail of fraternal hate has phased over to the serpent’s biting head of sisterly love.

Hegel was touched by Antigone’s self-sacrificing love. As Walter Kaufmann noted in Hegel: a Reinterpretation, “in the Phenomenology, Hegel celebrates the brother-sister relationship as the highest possible ethical relationship. He twice mentions and quotes Antigone in this context, and no attentive reader can fail to notice that the whole discussion revolves around Sophocles’ play.” (Kaufmann, 6, pages 17-18; see also 30, pages 125-127) The passages in the Phenomenology that Kaufmann refers to are in Part VI: Spirit, section A, a. and b. (Hegel, pages 267-289) Hegel considered Antigone’s love to be an example of Sittlichkeit. She would die out of love for her brother.

XVI: Conclusion

So, in the Theban plays, we see dialectical relationships not only between seeking the truth (K) and resisting it (-K), but also in one’s relationship with the land. One is at the ouroboros’ biting head as the lord of the land, then one passes over to the bitten tail when one’s presumptuous arrogance, one’s tragic flaw, results in one being a landless, swollen-footed exile).

We also see such dialectics in the love/hate relationship between family members. We go from attempted filicide, as well as successful patricide and fratricide, at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; then to sisterly love and Sittlichkeit at the serpent’s head, and then to forbidden love, mother/son incest, where the head bites the tail, leading from extreme virtue back to extreme vice.

These are universal themes, far beyond Freud’s mommy issues. The dialectical presentation of these themes makes them all the more universal, for everything is made up of dialectical contradictions, in the material world as well as that of ideas. This is what makes the Oedipus myth great, and worthy of examining over and over again. It affects all of us, from ancient times to today.

Further Reading

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), The Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1947

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

W.R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, London, 1963

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann, translator), The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Vintage Books, New York, 1967

Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: a Reinterpretation, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1965

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

Aristotle (W.D. Ross, translator), The Pocket Aristotle, Washington Square Press, New York, 1958

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1983

Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

As is typical of Greek myth in general, there are conflicting versions of the stories of the primordial deities and the roles they play in the creation. I’ll be basing most of this analysis on Hesiod‘s Theogony, with some references from sources like Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes as well.

I am less interested in presenting an ‘accurate’ account of the creation (What is an ‘accurate account’ of it? It’s myth, not science; and as I said above, there are contradictory versions of it.) than I am in exploring possible symbolic and allegorical meanings in it. This is my interpretation of such meanings, for what that’s worth. I’m no expert in mythography or anthropology, so take what I’m writing with a generous grain of salt.

The narration may unfold with the passing of time, that is, from generation to generation in the family tree of the gods; but this allegory here is not about presenting events in a temporal sense. It’s more about understanding the relationships and contrasts between different states of being. Also, I’m not bringing up every single god and goddess, Titan and Titaness; there are simply too many names to enumerate here, and I’m more interested in the direction the narrative takes, and the symbolism and themes I see in it, than I’d be in going over every single detail found in Hesiod, etc.

II: The Nirvana-Void

Hesiod begins, after the customary invocation of the Muses, with Chaos, which in modern English would be better rendered as the Chasm, a void of formless nothingness, the ground from which everything comes. Note the dialectical relationship between nothing and everything (or being), which Hegel sublated as becoming in his Science of Logic (Hegel, Chapter One, ‘Being,’ pages 82-83).

A comparison with other religious and mystical traditions is useful. The void of nothing/everything in Hinduism is Brahman, a union with which is salvation, or liberation from worldly suffering, to the Hindu. It’s interesting in this context to compare the ancient Greek concept of Chaos with the Hindu creation myth, from the Rig Veda, 10.129; both consider everything to have paradoxically arisen from a void (“nothingness was not, nor existence”), resulting in darkness, “unillumined cosmic water,” then “desire descended on [the One].”

For Buddhists, this nothing/everything is the Dharmakāya (“the body of reality”), the Buddha-nature existing in everything; and the void of liberation from samsāra is nirvana. For Taoists, the dialectical interrelation of yin and yang is the Tao.

To return to ancient Greek traditions, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that “everything flows“; so the basic unifying principle behind everything, those particles of which everything is composed and which can also be regarded as waves–Chaos, Brahman, the Tao, Bion‘s O (the thing-in-itself), or in a sense, even Lacan‘s Real Order, can be symbolized as the waves of an infinite ocean.

Small wonder Homer, in Book XIV of The Iliad, had Hera say that all the gods descended from Oceanus: “I go now to the ends of the generous earth, on a visit/to Okeanos, when the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother/who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me/and took me from Rheia, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows/drove Kronos underneath the earth and the barren water.” (Homer, page 299, lines 200-204) Recall also that the gods are personifications of everything, including abstract concepts, hence polytheism‘s tendency towards pantheism.

Now, this oneness behind everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is no sentimentality to be found here. Bion’s O, and especially Lacan’s Real, have traumatizing aspects, too. The visionary ego death that Aldous Huxley wrote about in the use of drugs in Heaven and Hell has, as his essay’s title suggests, both blissful and terrifying aspects, depending on one’s physical, or especially mental, health (Huxley, pages 88-91). The ocean in Moby-Dick has both good and bad aspects, too, and Melville warns the pantheists not to ignore the dark side of the infinite seas (‘The Mast-Head,’ 35).

So, pantheism is best qualified with dialectical monism in order to avoid a sentimental oversimplification of the truth. The All should not be so naïvely seen as it is in Wordsworth‘s “Tintern Abbey“; Kubrick‘s vision of Chaos (as I interpret it in my analysis) at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more accurate. This is the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2, the “waste and void” state of the world when God creates heaven and earth.

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

In keeping with the darker side of Chaos, it gives birth to Erebus (“darkness”), Tartarus (“hell”), and the goddess Nyx (“night”). This begetting of negativity is comparable to Otto Rank‘s notion of birth trauma, after which the frustrated baby experiences psychological splitting as a defence mechanism against a scary world of suffering it cannot understand.

This splitting will in turn result in the antitheses of those dark deities, namely Aether (“light,” “upper sky”) and Hemera (“day”). According to a passage in Aristophanes‘ comedy, The Birds, Nyx laid an egg in Erebus, giving birth to Eros (“love,” but more accurately rendered “desire”):

“First, Void, and the Night. No glimmer of light pierced Tartarus’ boundless dominions;
Nor Earth nor Air nor Firmament there. Then Night of the ebony pinions
Brought forth in her nest within Erebus’ breast an Egg, by the Whirlwind sired;
From whence was born, as the months rolled on, great Eros, the ever desired,
With wings on his shoulders of scintillant gold, as swift as the storm in his flying,
Who mated with Space in a darkling embrace, in the bosom of Tartarus lying.
‘Twas thus that our breed was engendered, the seed hatched out by this epochal union,
No gods were above us till turbulent Love had effected a cosmic communion.
From mystic espousals, atomic carousals–a vast, cataclysmic commotion–
Arose the Divinities, Heaven’s infinities, Earth, and the billows of Ocean.
So, nothing can be as primeval as we. Our sonship to Eros, moreover,
Is proved by our flight and our constant delight in befriending a passionate lover.”
(Aristophanes, The Birds, starting from about line 690, pages 255-256)

Soon comes Gaea, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to Ouranos (“heaven”). Mother and son become wife and husband. This incestuous union, seen in light of my analogy of the above-mentioned gods of darkness and light with a baby’s use of psychological splitting, can thus also be seen as analogous with the fulfillment of the infantile Oedipal fantasy.

The point of all my allegorizing is to show how this creation myth can be seen to represent changing psychological states. We go from the peace of mind of the Chasm, that restful embryonic state in the dark womb, what Romain Rolland called–in his correspondence with Freud–the “oceanic feeling” of bliss, to the trauma of entering the physical world–birth.

The dark deities can also be seen to represent the unconscious, with Chaos representing the collective unconscious. The mythographers’ and poets’ narrations can thus be seen as dramatizations of unconscious urges and strivings, feelings that can be traced back to primal, archaic, infantile emotional states.

The splitting into dark vs. light, night vs. day, etc., all these separations indicate a lack, in one half in a realm, of the other, opposite half (as opposed to the original unity in Chaos), a lack (manque à être) that gives rise to desire, as Lacan observed, a desire personified by Eros.

Note how the descendants of Nyx tend to be of dark, gloomy, negative things–not all of them, of course, but most of them, in varying degrees: Moros (“doom”), Thanatos (“death”), Momus (“blame,” “reproach,” “disgrace,” “satire,” and “mockery”), Oizys (“pain,” “misery,” “anxiety,” “grief,” and “depression”), Nemesis (“retribution”), Apate (“deceit,” “fraud”), Geras (“old age”), and Eris (“strife,” “discord”). The rest of Nyx’s offspring are mostly neutral, at best; only Philotes “(“love,” “affection,” “friendship”) is positive.

Eris’ offspring in turn are also generally negative: Ponos (“hardship,” “toil”), Lethe (“forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” “concealment,” “unmindfulness”), Limos (“starvation”), the Algea (“physical and mental pains”), the Hysminai (“battles,” “conflicts,” “combats”), the Machai (“wars”), the Phonoi (“murders”), the Androktasiai (“manslaughters”), the Neikea (“quarrels,” “arguments”), the Pseudea (“lies”), the Amphillogiai (“disputes”), Dysnomia (“lawlessness”), and Atë (“ruin,” “mischief,” “delusion,” “folly”).

IV: Lack and Desire

As we can see, things go from a blissful (or at least relatively blissful) state to a hellish one rather quickly. It’s like the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros: where the serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and the coiled middle of its body is every intermediate point on a circular continuum. We thus could see the biting head as blissful Chaos, the bitten tail as the hellish existence of most of Nyx’s and Eris’ children, and the coiled middle, going in the direction towards the head, as the other gods’ and Titans’ striving, through desire, to replace the lack and attain happiness once again.

Now, the nature of the desire felt between Gaea and Ouranos in their sexual union is a transgressive desire (i.e., mother/son incest). Such transgressive indulgence in pleasure is what Lacan called jouissance. It’s transgressive in its excess, a kind of ‘surplus-value‘ of pleasure (to borrow a Marxian term), enjoyment for its own sake.

To use my ouroboros symbolism again, this excessive pleasure is the serpent’s head biting its tail, leading to enjoyment’s extreme opposite, the pain of the bitten tail. The offspring of Gaea’s and Ouranos’ thrilling sexual union are the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus), Cyclopes (who will give Zeus his thunderbolt), and Hecatoncheires (“the hundred-handed ones”)…these latter two trios being an ugly bunch, so Ouranos hates all his children and imprisons them in a secret place in Gaea’s body, angering her.

The earth-mother goddess gives her Titan son, Cronus, a flint-sickle knife with which to attack Ouranos, since Cronus is the only Titan willing to get revenge on his wicked father. Cronus uses the knife to castrate his father: he throws the severed genitals into the sea; a foam grows around them in the water, and Aphrodite emerges nude from the foam.

Is there a more vivid representation of Lacanian lack, through the image of castration, giving rise to desire (as symbolized by the birth of Aphrodite), anywhere in myth, art, or literature? In an interesting reversal, instead of the father threatening the Oedipally-minded son with castration, the son does so to the father.

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

My allegorizing of the mythic narrative here, though, isn’t concerned with time sequence. In fact, I see the process of creation here as happening in reverse order to its allegorical meaning–that is, if that meaning is to be understood as a progression from sinful desire to spiritual liberation. We go from the perfect blessedness (as I interpret it) of Brahman-like Chaos to the world of suffering because, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

In the Greek narrative, we’re moving away from nirvanic bliss and deeper into the suffering of physical life–in ‘reverse order,’ as it were–so it would seem appropriate to have sons castrating fathers instead of vice versa (an Oedipal wish-fulfillment, with castration anxiety projected onto fathers; and Ouranos, lacking a father as a rival, shares a bed with his mother, Gaea, so we have even more Oedipal wish-fulfillment). Thus, we have the Laius complex instead of the Oedipal one. (I explored these ideas in my analysis of Eraserhead.)

With the beauty and desirability of nude Aphrodite emerging from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals, we must juxtapose a dialectical opposite: the vengeful Erinyes, or Furies, which have come from the blood of those genitals, as have the Giants and the Meliae. Desire comes from lack, pleasure comes with pain, and desire causes suffering.

VI: Family Feuding

With Cronus’ ascent to the throne as the new king of heaven comes the same hostility to his children as Ouranos has had. The intergenerational conflict returns in cycles, so we’ll see a wickedness in Cronus similar to that of his father…much worse, actually; for instead of merely imprisoning those who are a threat to his power, or who are a source of loathing and disgust to him, Cronus decides to eat all of his newborn children! Recall the shocking paintings that have depicted this atrocity.

His wife and older sister, Rhea (note the incest parallel with Gaea and Ouranos, and later with Zeus and his older sister, Hera…more transgressive jouissance), is as upset with his devouring of their children as Gaea has been with Ouranos’ imprisoning of their children; so Rhea, too, plots with her youngest son, Zeus, to get revenge on Cronus and free the eaten children (by feeding Cronus an emetic and making him throw them all up). Another parallel with the revenge on the first-generation father, noted by Freud (page 469) and John Tzetzes (as Robert Graves noted), is Zeus’ castration of Cronus, often censored from Greek creation mythologies.

So, what we’ve had since the creation of Eros is a whole lot of procreation (since the ancients believed that all things are created through intermingling in the form of sex), leading to a whole lot of family strife, power struggles, and ultimately, war. For in order to depose Cronus and establish Zeus as the new king of heaven, there must be a ten-year war (the Titanomachy) between the Olympian gods (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, those just regurgitated by Cronus, and Zeus) on the one side, and Cronus and the Titans (including Atlas) on the other side. (Themis and Prometheus are the only Titans who fight on Zeus’ side.)

Zeus gets help from the Cyclopes through their giving him lightning as a weapon, and from the three Hecatoncheires, whose three hundred arms hurl huge rocks at the Titans, ultimately burying them. They’ll all be imprisoned in Tartarus forever (though some accounts say Zeus eventually frees them).

Next comes the Gigantomachy, Zeus’ and the Olympians’ battle with the Giants. Typhon, a huge whirlwind, a serpentine giant, and–according to Hesiod–the son of Gaea and Tartarus (from whom we get the Romanization of the Chinese taifeng>>>typhoon), is the next to challenge, and to be defeated by, Zeus.

VII: Stability and Authority

So Zeus is now the king of heaven, and his brothers–Poseidon and Hades–are respectively the kings of the sea and the underworld, the lower levels of the flat, tiered cosmos as imagined by the ancients. But Zeus has the same fear of being deposed, a fear projected from his own unfilial attitude to Cronus, who in turn has been equally unfilial to Ouranos. Zeus’ solution to the problem is to carry it further than just eating his children. His wife at the time, the wise Titaness Metis, is pregnant with their child, so he eats both child and mother!

This eating of threats to one’s power, this imprisoning of them, is symbolic of repression of unwanted or unacceptable feelings into the unconscious; but as psychoanalysts know, the repressed always returns, though in an unrecognizable form. In Zeus’ case, that return of the symbolic repressed will come in the form of Athena, coming out of his aching skull fully-grown with her armour and weapons. He needn’t fear, though, for she is all for the father, representative of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal forms of societal organization. Read the Oresteia to see my point about that shift. The following passage from The Eumenides, spoken by Apollo, should clarify it:

“The mother of what is called her child is not its parent, but only the nurse of the newly implanted germ. The begetter is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, doth but preserve the sprout, except God shall blight its birth. And I will offer thee a sure proof of what I say: fatherhood there may be, when mother there is none. Here at hand is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus–and not so much as nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such a scion as no goddess could bring forth.
“But for my part, O Pallas, as in all things else, as so with this man; for I have sent him as suppliant to thy sanctuary that he might prove faithful for all time to come, and that thou, O Goddess, mightest win him as a new ally, him and his after-race, and it abide everlastingly that the posterity of this people maintain their plighted bond.” –Apollo, Eumenides, pages 335, 337)

All of the myths leading up to Zeus’ accession to the throne have reflected matrilineality: goddesses sometimes bear children through sexual union with a male, other times through parthenogenesis, reflective of the prehistoric ignorance of the male role in reproduction. Since succession is matrilineal at this point, Gaea is free to take on more lovers than just Ouranos; so she has mated with another son of hers, Pontus, a god of the sea (more transgressive, Oedipal pleasure [according to Hesiod, Pontus has no father]!), and has these children: Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Furthermore, god-kings are humiliated, castrated, and deposed, while queen goddesses–though furious with the wickedness of their male consorts–remain bodily intact.

But now that Zeus is king of the heavens, having married his older sister, Hera, he can freely do as he pleases without fear of direct retribution against himself, while he hypocritically judges the wickedness of others, especially that of mortals. This reflects the new patrilineal way, and the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. Zeus is incestuously married, he has castrated and deposed his father, and much to Hera’s annoyance, he seduces and ravishes pretty mortal maidens.

Yet, “he’s the greatest god of all,” as Claudius observed (here at 33:32).

VIII: Conclusion–The Creation as an Allegory for Our Times

We can see, through this narrative, just how far we’ve erred from the blissful, oceanic state of the beginning. From the formless, peaceful oneness of the Void, we’ve gone to the dualism of splitting into the dark and light, then to transgressive indulgence in pleasure leading to jealousy and hate, and from there to violence, war, and the imprisonment of the humiliated and defeated.

Finally, stability is established, but through authoritarian rule, and with all the double standards that allow the ruling classes–be they the masters of slaves in the ancient world, as I described in my Caligula analysis, or the feudal landlords of 500 to 1,000 years ago, or the bourgeoisie today–to indulge in all manner of sinfulness, for which we, the small people, will be punished as soon as we are caught.

How do we regain that primal bliss? I don’t have any definitive answers, of course, but for what it’s worth, I imagine that going backwards in the narrative I just analyzed is going in the right direction. I don’t mean physically or literally going in that direction, of course; I’m talking about revisiting the psychological traumas that the various points in the narrative symbolize. Efforts have been made to reverse the patrilineal double standards against women–efforts far more successful in the socialist states than in the capitalist West, though socialist progress has since been thwarted by imperialism. I would advise reviving that progress.

Added to the sociological healing must also come the needed psychological healing. Optimal frustration (as Heinz Kohut called it) of the narcissistic tendencies (those linked with Oedipal traumas) must be coupled with integration of the split parts of the personality, a shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Bliss is actually a marriage of heaven and hell, of dark with the light.

When heaven and hell are ‘divorced,’ so to speak, as in the case of psychological splitting, one tends to project the hellish part outward in order to avoid a pain we must face. We must feel our trauma if we’re to heal it.

Many would rather escape to a world of pleasure than face that pain. The resulting manic defence means indulgence in sex, drugs, etc., that is, the transgressive, excess pleasure of jouissance, which is a pleasure that spills over into pain, for no two opposites, including pleasure and pain, are permanently, decisively separated.

The Olympian gods of our ruling class may, however, separate pleasure (reserved for themselves alone) from pain (to which only the poor are subjected). The acquisition of wealth is a zero-sum game, coupled with extremes of poverty. In this connection, it’s useful that Lacan was inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value in expounding on the surplus-pleasure of jouissance, or excess pleasure for its own sake. This pleasure, spilling over into pain, is exploitative.

Zeus rapes maidens, just as the Epsteins and Weinsteins of our world, as well as some Catholic priests, sexually assault the innocent. The oligarchs of today are our gods, living up high on the Mount Olympus of their wealth and power, while we struggle at the bottom of that mountain.

Those up on Olympus must be brought down. Those traumas of ours, repressed and imprisoned in the Tartarus of our unconscious, must be freed by being acknowledged, or else they’ll sneak out, often in surprising and unwelcome forms. The lack that gives rise to desire, that symbolic castration of Ouranos and Cronus, must also be acknowledged, or else desire will fly out of control, leading to more conflicts and wars, both political and psychological.

The blissful Chasm is a world of unified dark and light, lacking and having, a communion of free-flowing people, interconnected, integrated, communicative…peaceful. Let’s go back to the beginning.