1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oedipus

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OEDIPUS (Οἰδίπους, Οἰδιπόδης, Οἰδίπος, from Gr. ὀδεῖν swell, and πούς foot, i.e. “the swollen-footed”)[1] in Greek legend, son of Laïus, king of Thebes, and Jocasta (Iocastē). Laïus, having been warned by an oracle that he would be killed by his son, ordered him to be exposed, with his feet pierced, immediately after his birth. Thus Oedipus grew up ignorant of his parentage, and, meeting Laïus in a narrow way, quarrelled with him and slew him. The country was ravaged by a monster, the Sphinx; Oedipus solved the riddle which it proposed to its victims, freed the country, and married his own mother. In the Odyssey it is said that the gods disclosed the impiety. Epicastē (as Jocasta is called in Homer) hanged herself, and Oedipus lived as king in Thebes tormented by the Erinyes of his mother. In the tragic poets the tale takes a different form. Oedipus fulfils an ancient prophecy in killing his father; he is the blind instrument in the hands of fate. The further treatment of the tale by Aeschylus is unknown. Sophocles describes in his Oedipus Tyrannus how Oedipus was resolved to pursue to the end the mystery of the death of Laïus, and thus unravelled the dark tale, and in horror put out his own eyes. The sequel of the tale is told in the Oedipus Coloneus. Banished by his sons, he is tended by the loving care of his daughters. He comes to Attica and dies in the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, in his death welcomed and pardoned by the fate which had pursued him throughout his life. In addition to the two tragedies of Sophocles, the legend formed the subject of a trilogy by Aeschylus, of which only the Seven against Thebes is extant; of the Phoenissae of Euripides; and of the Oedipus and Phoenissae of Seneca.

See A. Höfer's exhaustive article in Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie; F. W. Schneidewin, Die Sage von Oedipus (1852); D. Comparetti, Edipo e la mitologia comparata (1867); M. Bréal, “Le Mythe d'Œdipe,” in Mélanges de mythologie (1878), who explains Oedipus as a personification of light, and his blinding as the disappearance of the sun at the end of the day; J. Paulson in Eranos. Acta philologica Suecana, i. (Upsala, 1896) places the original home of the legend in Egyptian Thebes, and identifies Oedipus with the Egyptian god Seth, represented as the hippopotamus "with swollen foot," which was said to kill its father in order to take its place with the mother. O. Crusius (Beiträge zur griechischen Mythologie, 1886, p. 21) sees in the marriage of Oedipus with his mother an agrarian myth (with special reference to Oed. Tyr. 1497), while Höfer (in Roscher's Lexikon) suggests that the episodes of the murder of his father and of his marriage are reminiscences of the overthrow of Cronus by Zeus and of the union of Zeus with his own sister.

Medieval Legends.—In the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (13th century) and the Mystère de la Passion of Jean Michel (15th century) and Arnoul Gréban (15th century), the story of Oedipus is associated with the name of Judas. The main idea is the same as in the classical account. The Judas legend, however, never really became popular, whereas that of Oedipus was handed down both orally and in written national tales (Albanian, Finnish, Cypriote). One incident (the incest unwittingly committed) frequently recurs in connexion with the life of Gregory the Great. The Theban legend, which reached its fullest development in the Thebaïs of Statius and in Seneca, reappeared in the Roman de Thèbes (the work of an unknown imitator of Benoît de Sainte-More). Oedipus is also the subject of an anonymous medieval romance (15th century), Le Roman d'Œdipus, fils de Layus, in which the sphinx is depicted as a cunning and ferocious giant. The Oedipus legend was handed down to the period of the Renaissance by the Roman and its imitations, which then fell into oblivion. Even to the present day the legend has survived amongst the modern Greeks, without any traces of the influence of Christianity (B. Schmidt, Griechische Märchen, 1877). The works of the ancient tragedians (especially Seneca, in preference to the Greek) came into vogue, and were slavishly followed by French and Italian imitators down to the 17th century.

See L. Constans, La Légende d'Œdipe dans l'antiquité, au moyen âge, et dans les temps modernes (1881); D. Comparetti's Edipo and Jebb's introduction for the Oedipus of Dryden, Corneille and Voltaire; A. Heintze, Gregorius auf dem Steine, der mittelalterliche Oedipus (progr., Stolp, 1877); V. Diederichs, "Russische Verwandte der Legende von Gregor auf dem Stein und der Sage von Judas Ischariot," in Russische Revue (1880); S. Novakovitch, "Die Oedipussage in der südslavischen Volksdichtung," in Archiv für slavische Philologie xi. (1888).


  1. It is probable that the story of the piercing of his feet is a subsequent invention to explain the name, or is due to a false etymology (from οἰδέω), οἰδίπους in reality meaning the “wise” (from οἶδα), chiefly in reference to his having solved the riddle, the syllable -πους having no significance.