Nov 18, 2013

The Real Story of Oedipus Rex

Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau

If you ask the layman what he knows about the Oedipus story, he'll likely mention something about wanting to sleep with your mother and killing your father. Fair enough, that does happen in the story. I find, however, that the classic approach to the story is severely lacking. While Oedipus' story certainly contains a metaphor which is useful for psychoanalytic theory, it is only one part of the story. The myth does not begin and end with the desire for the mother and the fear of castration. In fact, it begins and ends with the same image: a blind seer. In order to understand Oedipus, even and especially the psychic process, we need to take the story as a whole.

The myth begins, as many do, with a prophecy. Oedipus was the newborn son of a king and queen, and, being good despots, wanted to make sure this new son wouldn't screw everything up for them. However, first we need to take a look at the prophet himself, given that the blind seer is an image that appears in both beginning and end. Oedipus' parents sought out the oracle of Delphi, although I believe it would be appropriate to consider the Theban prophet Tiresias, who is also famous for having been a woman for seven years. From Wiki:

On Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese, as Tiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, he hit the pair a smart blow with his stick. Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married and had children, including Manto, who also possessed the gift of prophecy. According to some versions of the tale, Lady Tiresias was a prostitute of great renown. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes; depending on the myth, either she made sure to leave the snakes alone this time, or, according to Hyginus, trampled on them. As a result, Tiresias was released from his sentence and permitted to regain his masculinity. This ancient story is recorded in lost lines of Hesiod.

So Tiresias, having been both of sexes, was summoned when Zeus and Hera were having an argument as to whether men or women enjoyed doing it more. Tiresias declared in no uncertain terms that it was the woman. As he soon found out, though, women do not want men to know this: Hera struck him blind. Zeus, however, to make up for his lost sight, gave him the gift of prophecy. This fact will be important when we reach the end of Oedipus' story.

The king and queen went, then, to see a prophet about the new heir. This prophet told them that Oedipus would eventually murder his father and marry his mother. Evidently, the king, Laius, hadn't paid attention when his tutor told him about Chronos and Zeus, and decided that the best course of action was to simply get rid of Oedipus. Prophecies, though, are self-fulfilling: it is exactly this abandonment that will eventually lead to Oedipus murdering his father and marrying his mother. So obviously the infant survived the attempted murder, and eventually came to be adopted by the royals of a different city.

Saturno devorando a su hijo,  Francisco de Goya

This point is particularly important: I mentioned the Chronos and Zeus story because it is exactly because it was prophecied that a son of Chronos would replace him as ruler that Chronos tried to eat his children. Needless to say, that's exactly what caused Zeus' (Gaia's, really) ire. The same is true for Narcissus - check here for an in-depth look at the Narcissus myth. To me, this alludes to the idea that we are the creators of our own realities. If we interpret a myth as we interpret a dream, then all the characters in the myth are the different facets of a single psyche. It can be reasoned, then, that Tiresias is an aspect of Oedipus, meaning that it was Oedipus himself who determined his fate. The circumstances around which his early development took place are the determiners of his destiny.

Oedipus, naturally, is not an actual person, but a stand-in for man. That this story continues to be relevant thousands of years after it was first told evinces its universal character. It doesn't matter if you were born in Qing-dynasty China or in 1960s San Francisco, we humans all go through the same psychological development, but it is the very deviation from the standard development that makes us all individuals. Our parents, our communities and our cultures screw us, yes, but it was our choice to be born into those given circumstances, so the important question to ask is: why? It's a cliché that talented artists generally had rough childhoods, but it's true nonetheless. Without those misfortunes, they would have been mere cogs in the machine.

Which brings me to another important point: Oedipus is a king. At first glance, the king's job seems to be to essentially run the kingdom, and that much is true, but it goes deeper than that. The psychodynamic function of the king is to serve as example and inspiration. The king is the city-/state's source of vital energy, it is his decisions that determine the fate of the country. That is to say, the king in this sense is able to exert his free will. His subjects cannot do so, not because they have no free will, but because they haven't developed to the point that they can be responsible for thousands of others. I don't need to tell you what happens when a king doesn't serve as the moral compass of his nation: examples abound in human history.

The king represents the man with the divine conscience, with the knowledge that he is all that he is because of his own will. This man is aware of the inescapable nature of his roots, but he is also brave enough to make choices that go against his programming. Thus, the story of Oedipus is that of a man's journey to a higher counsciousness. To take it literally is making the exact mistake that Oedipus himself avoided making. We'll return to this when we get to the Sphinx.

No, that's not an empirical depiction

So Oedipus is raised in another family, but he eventually learns about the prophecy made for him. Since he thought the prophecy referred to his adoptive parents, he left the city so that no harm would come to them. For a man's life to be truly his own, he must decide to leave his parents' house, that is, to make choices that go against the desire of the family-cum-society. Whether he stays in the city or moves away is, in this context, irrelevant - what matters is the person made a choice of their own.

Naturally, however, our past comes to confront us. As we grow, we come to realise that though we have left our parents' house, our parents have never left us. After all, the way we do things was learned exactly by repeating what our parents themselves did, on many levels. As a matter of fact, leaving your parents' house, metaphorically speaking (but remember the whole point here is that everything is a metaphor), is a way of protecting them, because just as we need to develop from youth to adulthood, so do they need to develop from middle age to old age, and that is much harder to do if you are still responsible for your children after they've grown.

Oedipus, then, leaves on his own, and on the road encounters a stranger, who insists that Oedipus move out of his way. However, Oedipus has made his choice, so he doesn't budge. This stranger is, of course, Laius, Oedipus' real father, and you know what happens next. This means that Oedipus is no longer a servant of his nomos, and he makes his own choices. However, he is not yet fully aware of this, as shown by the fact that it will take him years to realize that he had killed his own father. He is also unaware that, though he may have killed his parent, his parent's influence made him who he was, they defined his carnal existence.

It is the father's role to instigate the expression of individuality in his children (as opposed to the mother's role of providing the child with the raw materials it needs to develop). This takes form in one of two ways: the father as protector, as representative of the family, who assures his son that he is free to make his choices because he can always come home if things take a wrong turn; and the father as critic, as taskmaster, pointing out the mistakes he makes and the duties he must fulfill.

Our hero then learns of the ravages plaguing the nearby city of Thebes, which is where he actually comes from. This is when Oedipus begins his real journey into his own soul. Because he has left his true desires, his heiros, to the side, he must now win it back. That he was raised in Corinth shows that he had been living a life that was not his - that is to say, it is the life he chose to accomplish some purpose, but he is not "at home", as it were. Of course there are many who want to be where they were born, but then this is not a story about a man who stayed in his home village.

The source of the misfortunes in Thebes is the Sphinx, a horrible monster (?) with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. She is, of course, but an aspect of his psyche, and you don't need a doctorate in psychoanalysis to see how monsters in our head represent repressed aspects of the psyche. The Sphinx seems to me a rather crucial element of the story - it is only after facing the Sphinx that Oedipus is ready to truly face his mother.

It's important to remember once more that this is a dream. All the characters are objects in his psyche, which represent not the actual people but facets of the dreamer's mind. Thus, Oedipus did not actually murder his own father (to the extent that Oedipus was a real person), but murdered the father-object that unconsciously restrained/castrated him. Likewise, he probably heard the story of the Sphinx in Egypt one day, and that particular object came to represent a shadow aspect of his soul. And this, then, is the rest that Oedipus, and thus the listener/reader by analogy, must face when confronted with the Sphinx.

Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
In what is probably too well-known to be a true puzzle anymore, the Sphinx asks Oedipus: what animal has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? Oedipus, though, is ready, and he knows the answer: man himself. It doesn't seem like a particularly difficult puzzle, but it's not the puzzle per se which is the key but rather what the puzzle represents. In realizing that the riddle did not ask a literal question, he was able to see what was actually behind the riddle: an ability to think metaphorically.

And there's the rub. This whole story is a puzzle, nothing is literal here. In showing that he's ready to confront events not as things per se, but as representations of what's going in his mind, Oedipus demonstrates that he is ready to be accountable for his own choices. After he answers the puzzle correctly, the Sphinx throws herself from a cliff, back into the deep portions of the mind. Oedipus, meanwhile, is treated as a savior and made king, since the previous king, his father, had obviously gone missing.

The result is that Oedipus marries his own mother, Jocasta, and while at first he is not actually conscious of the fact that it's his mother, this is actually true for most men. Look at any man's wife, and from the right angle you can see how strikingly similar she is to his own mother, if not in appearance then in temperament. And there is nothing wrong with this! This is simply part of the natural development of a man's psyche, and the sooner he recognizes this the more able he is to be genuinely himself. He chose his mother, after all.

If we consider the cross of the psyche, we have the nomos/superego at the top and the heiros/id at the bottom. That the nomos is usually represented by the mother and the heiros the father in no way means that literally the mother played the mother's role and vice-versa, although this is often the case. The nomos is what we draw from the Outside, that which we consume and which was provided by our family and environment. Normally it is the mother who literally carries out this role, but many people do so throughout a person's life. The heiros, on the other hand, is that connection between our incarnate self and our discarnate self, or Higher Self, or soul.

So our mother feeds us, both materially and energically, and gives us the nourishment we need. Naturally, we realize that she is the provider of life, and we long to return to the Eden that was her womb, where everything around was one, and where we had everything we needed. Now, once born, we feel the material world castrating our desires, so we want to go back to mommy, and sometimes we do. This is why our desires are almost always associated with our mother, and why we end up marrying women like them. As long as we don't do it literally though, everything ends up OK. It's the father's job to show the boy that it's ok to be castrated sometimes, it doesn't stop you from achieving your desires.

Does that look like a man with mommy issues?

I am speaking here, of course, of the archetypical male's journey - surely women also have a superego and an id, but the polarities are different, so the story plays out differently. Further on I'll look at myths where women are the main characters, such as the stories of Elektra and Antigone (which are connected to Oedipus anyway).

Oedipus then finds himself king of Thebes and husband to his mother. Now, if you've been following, you'll understand that he is actually married to a woman who looks/behaves like his mother, you don't need to wonder about the age difference - has has children with this woman. Eventually the queen finds out she has been married to her son, and kills herself. Oedipus has accepted and integrated his mother-object to the point that it is a part of himself, of his subjectivity, and no longer needs to be projected onto a psychical object.

In the story, Oedipus finds his mother's corpse and discovers the truth (actually, he knew it all along). He takes a pin from her clothes and stabs both his eyes, becoming blind. And here the story comes full circle - remember that this all started with a blind seer. What does the blindness represent? The prophet does not need eyes to see. He understands that everything is a metaphor, and is thus able to interpret patterns and cycles. Oedipus has attained self-knowledge to the point where he no longer needs to rely on his mother-object, while at the same realizing that he is a product of his heritage.

If the king is the man who has taken charge of his life, the seer is the man who has accepted his life. Fire is the element associated with consciousness and vital energy, and its three zodiacal signs shows the three stages of the development of this consciousness: first is Aries, the warrior, who has a desire and therefore willpower, but whose desires are a product of his commander; second is Leo, the king, who has broken from the bonds of his past and is now fully responsible for his own life and his own choices; third is Sagittarius, the prophet, who has understood the mission he has carried out, and is able to see his patterns repeated before him.

So what does the Oedipus myth teach us? It teaches us that we need to accept paradoxes in life because it is in these very paradoxes that lies meaning. It teaches us that we are responsible for everything about us, not only our own bodies and lives but everything that happens around us. We have made choices, and the more we are aware of these choices, the better we can become at carrying them out. Oedipus teaches us that while it certainly is our parents' fault that we turned out screwed up the way we did, it was your choice to turn out this way in the first place - the trick is to understand why you made those choices, and accept them rather than avoid them. He teaches us that our first, primeval desire is indeed for our mothers, but that it's ok because that's the only way we can have a desire in the first place.

Now that you know where your desire comes from, it is time to refine it. Certainly there are aspects of your desire that you believe to be moral or ethical, and some that you believe to be just wrong. It is up to you, then, to give in to or to forgo those desires, and to accept responsibilities for those choices. Understand that while everything that happens to you is in some way about you, nothing that happens is exclusively about you either. So to what extent does your desire come into contradiction with others' desire? What lessons can you learn from all those interactions?

Are you ready to answer the riddle of your own Sphinx?

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