“Why was I to see, when eyesight showed me nothing sweet?"
Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannos
The play opens with the priest announcing to King Oedipus that something has descended on the buds of the fruit trees, upon on the herds of cattle grazing in the pastures and upon the pregnant women, producing lifelessness. The god of Delphi, Apollo has swooped down. He is the hateful plague-god afflicting the city.
According to Nagy’s translation, the citizens say to their beloved king of the last twenty years or so, “Come, best among mortals, resurrect our city. Come! And do be careful, since now this land here calls you a savior.” Doesn’t this line just set-up Oedipus for failure? Calling a person the “best among mortals” and “savior” will doom any subsequence effort on their part as substandard. This is particularly true in the Ancient world where the gods were petty, jealous and intolerant of excessive pride (hubris) in mortals.
Oedipus sent his brother-in-law to Delphi to ask of the god what the problem was. Ends up Oedipus’ predecessor on the throne was murdered and the city is accidently sheltering the murder or murders. They either have to kill or exile them. Oedipus asks, “Where on earth are they? Where will this thing be found, this dim trail of an ancient guilt?”
As you probably know or can guess by now the murderer is Oedipus himself. The play reveals that the god at Delphi (him again?) predicted that baby Oedipus would grow up to kill his father Laius. So, King Laius and his wife maimed the baby and left him for the wolves. Oedipus survives and grows into a strong, lame, young man. The two men, unknown to one another, meet and have words. Laius dies. Oedipus continues on his way, destroys as lion-bodied siren devouring the youth of Thebes. Consequently they happy citizens give the hero the crown and the hand of the queen. Unknown to everyone the queen is his mother! Ugh! She hangs herself when she realizes she’d bedded her own son and produced four more from that polluted bed. Our studies raced to the end of the story as rapidly as Oedipus rushed to his doom.
There is no way to describe this better than Sophocles did and Nagy translated;
"Oedipus tore from her clothing, those gold-worked brooches of hers, with which she had ornamented herself, and, holding them high with raised hand, he struck his own eyeballs."
Sophocles adds some pretty gory details after the above line and if that isn’t enough, Professor Nagy adds in lecture “I should tell you that, in Euripides' version of this primal scene, the brooch that she's wearing in her hair had also being used to pierce the feet of (Baby) Oedipus.”
Naturally the good citizens freak out at the site of their king’s gouged out eyeballs and beg to know what daemon1 convinced him to do it.
Oedipus responds, “It was Apollo, dear ones Apollo who brought to fulfillment these evil, experiences of mine. But no one with his own hand did the striking. I myself did that, wretch that I am! Why was I to see, when eyesight showed me nothing sweet?"
That is pretty much the end of the sad story. Professor Nagy adds in lecture that, “…people have thought that Oedipus, in the sense that he will eventually be expelled from his native city of Thebes…in the sense that he becomes the scapegoat, who, in this case, isn't killed, but expelled from the community.”
1 “daemon” according to Webster’s New World Dic, 2nd College edition is “any of the secondary divinities ranking between the gods and men”