“Such was the burden of my song, when on a sudden Apollo appeared to me and touched with his fingers the chords of a golden lyre; in his hand he bore a branch of laurel; a laurel wreath encircled his brow. Prophetic was his mien and prophetic the voice with which he bade me lead my disciples into his temple“
“There,” said he, “you will find this inscription famous throughout the whole world, ‘Man, know thyself.’”[i]
And so enters into the world of literature the maximum supposedly carved on the walls at the temple in Delphi: Know Thyself. This bit of advice did not seem to work out too well for Oedipus. As we shall see.
Polybus, King of Corinth, found the infant and brought it to his wife Periboea. She adopted him and passed him off as her own and after she had healed his ankles she called him Oedipus, giving him that name on account of his swollen feet.[ii]
Eventually Oedipus following the Delphic Maximum approaches this parents on the matter of his heritage. When the boy grew up and excelled his fellows in strength , they spitefully twitted him with being suppositious. He inquired of Periboea, but could learn nothing.[iii] (This was his first hint to not question the sweet destiny that was his.) Rather than revel in the love of his parents and countrymen, rather than sitting happily and appreciatively preparing for the crown of Corinth he would someday wear, he goes to Delphi, which sets the whole tragedy in motion.
After Oedipus, had come to manhood, he was courageous beyond the rest and through envy his companions taunted him with not being Polybus’ son since Polybus was so mild and he so assertive. Oedipus felt that the taunt was true. And so he set out for Delphi in inquire about his parents.[iv]
Perfidious Apollo[v] does not answer Oedipus’ question about his parentage. (Hint #2) Instead;
To Delphi and Apollo sent me back
Baulked of the knowledge that I came to seek
But other grievous things he prophesied
Woes, lamentations, mourning, portents dire;
To wit, I should defile my mother’s bed
and raise up seed too loathsome to behold
And slay the father from whose loins I sprang [vi]
To avoid murdering Polybus and bedding Periboea, Oedipus heads for Thebes. He defeats the Sphinx, marries Queen Jocasta, raises children, fights wars and another plague, less obvious than the four-footed Sphinx settles on the land. In response to this new danger to Thebes Oedipus unknowingly ask Teiresais about himself.
To which the blind seer replies; Let me go home; prevent me not; ‘twere best, that thou should’st bear thy burden and I mine[vii] (This is hint number three to drop his obsession with self-knowledge.) Teiresais resists. Oedipus insists. Tragedy follows.
His wife, his mother, the queen, Jocasta can foresee the tragic end to his quest. Yet humor me I pray thee: do not this[viii] But, he ignores hint number four.
The herdsmen, long ago directed to expose Jocasta’s first-born upon the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron, is brought forward to testify. He begs Oedipus; “Forebear of God’s sake, master, ask no more”[ix] Hint number five goes unrecognized by Oedipus’ obsessive drive to doom.
His quest for self knowledge brought him to “stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed, a parricide, incestuously, triply cursed[x].
[i] Ovid, the Art of Love, Book II
[ii] Book 3 of the Library of Apollodorus 5.7
[iii] Book 3 of the Library of Apollodorus 5.7
[iv] Hyginus, Fabulae 66-67
[vi] Oedipus Tyrannus Euripides
[vii] Oedipus Tyrannus Euripides
[viii] Oedipus Tyrannus Euripides
[ix] Oedipus Tyrannus Euripides
[x] Oedipus Tyrannus Euripides