(09d) Greek stories: Oedipus' life and the Oedipus complex.

Here I will re-tell the famous story of Oedipus and the Oedipus complex as explained by Sigmund Freud and how I interpret it. It also shows that these stories can be interpreted in as many ways as there are humans as even in my explanation I allow different explanations.

Oedipus: the story

The story of Oedipus speaks of a man who was born in Thebes as the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. He was cursed with a prophesy: one day he would kill his father and marry his mother. The parents were terrified and tried to prevent this so they left the baby behind in nature in the hope the boy would die. I think this shows the father and mother would go to any length to save their own lives, even when that meant killing their own son before he could proof he would be a danger to his parents.

But the baby was found and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the city of Corinth. They didn't tell him he was found and thus he thought they were his biological father and mother. However, one day Oedipus heard about the prophesy and as he loved his parents, he decided to take his destiny in his own hands. Therefore, he left Corinth in the hope this decision would prevent him from killing his father and marrying his mother, according to the story still not knowing that the people who raised him were not his biological parents.

As you may guess, later Oedipus met an arrogant older man near Thebes on a narrow street, and because Oedipus too was arrogant and didn't want to go out of the way, they started to fight during which the older man was killed. Oedipus continued his way to Thebes where he heard the king was killed while he was also informed that the city was under the spell of the Sphinx (= a mythical figure with the body of a lion, often with wings, and the head of a human or a cat). The Sphinx of Thebes had the head of a woman and it asked a riddle (see below); those who couldn't answer correctly were eaten by the monster. Oedipus was able to solve the riddle and the evil monster was so upset it killed itself by jumping from a cliff. As Oedipus saved the city from the monster and as the king was death, he was allowed to marry the widowed queen and they had two sons (Eteocles and Polynices) and two daughters (Antigone and Ismene).
Also other civilisations had sphinx-like creatures such as this Babylonian Sphinx (in British Museum). Another world-famous sphinx guards the three Egyptian pyramids of Giza.
After this, the city was punished by the Gods who sent a plague. Oedipus wanted to know why the city was punished so he could act to stop the plague. It was then that he discovered the city was punished because he was the person who killed the king who was his father and then married the queen who was his mother with whom he fathered four children. Thus, the prophesy was fulfilled as predicted. After the mother discovered whom she married and what he had done to her first husband, she committed suicide while Oedipus punished himself by stabbing out his own eyes and he left the city where he had become king after marrying his mother; his two daughters joined him. (However, it seems in other versions of the story Oedipus continued to rule the city as a man who could see).

Oedipus: the complex

Sigmund Freud interpreted the story as the desire that a 3 to 6 year old child has to sexually possess his/her mother, and kill his/her father (he called it the phallic stage and it is the third of five stages). This is known as the Oedipus complex for boys and Electra complex for girls. It seems to be true that many young children don't want to share the attention they receive from their mother with their father although other times many children prefer the attention from their father and don't want to share with their mother. Nevertheless, many people want two children so the children can play with each other while the parents can share some moments together.

Sigmund Freud also mentioned adolescence as the fifth stage which he called the genital stage. During this stage, he claimed that adolescents direct their sexual urges onto opposite sex peers, with the primary focus of pleasure of the genitals while he thought that when there were troubles during previous stages, especially during stage three, the child's development will be troubled. Indeed, because young children are often not allowed to be who they are during their early years, troubles often hunt them throughout their further life. E.g. often children are forced against their nature to act as their own sex dictates and reject their homosexuality (or their own gender identity) while this can damage them for the rest of their life so they feel guilty whenever they love a person from their own sex while hate the person of the opposite sex they married.

During adolescence, the battle between children and their parents becomes more obvious. Indeed, during adolescence many children struggle to free themselves from the expectations of their parents and they hope to be able to become who they want to be, with the partner and job of their choice. Therefore, often they fight against their parents' prejudices (e.g. parents don't accept their child's friends who e.g. have another skin colour or religion). However, many fail and become the dream of their parents both in work and in prejudices, even when they hate what they became. A main reason why many fail is because they fear not to receive (financial) help from their parents and/or fear they will loose their heritage or even life in certain cultures if they don't obey, or because they don't want to hurt their parents (parents can make their children feel guilty). As a result, although the parents are happy the children became what they hoped they would become, often these children will blame their parents until their death for not having allowed them to become the person they wanted to be or for the loss of good friends, and thus often the relationship parent-child will never fully recover. Today however, many children move away to live in another city the life they want to live while many parents now accept their children's choice when they notice the life they live makes them happy.

Thus, I think Sigmund Freud interpreted the story of Oedipus wrongly (see his explanation in the first paragraph of this chapter) because for me, in this story Oedipus was morally a superior human:
  1. After knowing the prophecy, Oedipus sacrificed a kingdom because he ran away in the hope to save the life of his father who was king and thus prevent himself from marrying his mother, not knowing they were not his biological parents; this is contrary to Mr Freud's explanation that the boy wants his father death to have the mother and more in agreement with what people see in reality as few children want to lose a parent;
  2. After the fulfilment of the prophesy when Oedipus is an adult and not between 3 to 6 years old, Oedipus punished himself severely, even when he didn't know at the time what he was doing, by blinding himself and by going into exile and thus he lost for the second time a kingdom but it illustrates that most children suffer when they hurt their parents.
  3. (But Mr Freud may be right although not concerning Oedipus' age when we assume Oedipus discovered who were his real parents and thus he punished his father by killed him to marry his mother and have his father's possessions.)
I think the story wanted to demonstrate young people that they should have respect for older people (in the story the older person of high ranking wanted to pass, therefore Oedipus (about 20 years younger) could have let him pass first, although maybe the old man should have waited (e.g. an older person can't not stop for red traffic lights because he is older)). Indeed, if Oedipus had let the old man pass, he would not have killed him.

I think the story also wanted to demonstrate young people that they should try to shape their own lives although without expecting it will always be as they wish it to be while they should ask advice to have more background information and thus make better decisions. Indeed, Oedipus didn't want to do what the prophesy predicted he would do (his destiny) and thus he ran away without knowing more details. He was successful for a short time but later failed because of his arrogance and thus he lost control. Still, after learning what the consequences of his arrogance were, he felt remorse and punished himself. If only he had investigated more, he may have known the people with whom he was living were not his biological parents although probably he would have started looking for them and still may have killed his father.

I think the story also wanted to demonstrate parents that they should not fear their children and their future because fear leads to bad decisions and often to an unhappy ending. If the parents hadn't feared their child, Oedipus would have grown up with his parents and might not have done what he did. On the other hand, his parents behaved badly because they had low expectations of Oedipus as they believed the oracle and maybe Oedipus might still have killed them if he grew up in their household because they might have angered him by not accepting his choices or he may have become a very ambitious person who wanted the throne. We will never know. In the end, his mother didn't ask forgiveness for abandoning Oedipus when he was a baby but committed suicide to avoid the scandal that may erupt. Oedipus on the other hand mourned what he had done to his parents and suffered.

This story also talks about Gods and their ability to look forward to shape the future. Therefore, if Gods do exist, the story shows how immoral they can be: they decreed Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, still they punished him and a whole city for doing what they wanted him to do, even when he didn't know what he did (unless he knew what he did but revenged his parents for having abandoned him as a child). On the other hand, maybe the Gods let this happen because they knew his parents were bad and would abandon him, so people would realise that it is not nice to mistrust and abandon children as it can have adverse consequences. Maybe the Gods knew that Oedipus would punish himself for his bad behaviour towards his parents, even when done unknowingly and thus the story may have demonstrated other Greeks that it is wrong to misbehave towards parents although parents who misbehave also face consequences. Maybe the story wanted to demonstrate that people should shape their own life although there will always be things that happen out of our own control, but then we have to react in the best possible way. And thus maybe the story resulted in a nicer society. But also, even today scientists prophecies that we should try to avoid climate change, still many don't want to change behaviour and thus allow that the prophesy becomes reality.

Judas Iscariot

Also the Bible describes stories about betrayal and remorse. One of them is about Judas, although it is only mentioned in Matthew. Judas, a friend of Jesus, became mad and betrayed his friend (the film about the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" shows very well why he might have betrayed Jesus). But the moment he understood the consequences of his betrayal (Jesus will be killed) he felt remorse, no longer wanted the money he received for the betrayal and he committed suicide. Indeed, he found himself morally so low because he betrayed an innocent friend that he could no longer live. This is a story many people recognise: in anger we sometimes betray a friend to save ourselves while we regret it afterwards (while someone who did something bad would never accept others are punished for what he did). But other people interpret it differently and condemn Judas to the eternal fire.

In conclusion, I think people learnt from myths even when they didn't always understand why things happened in a certain way and thus they would discuss them. Probably people described things that happened in reality and tried to interpret their meaning; therefore, I think we can learn from these stories how people lived and responded to certain things that happened in their society (e.g. the first Greeks where very peaceful while during other times they were very aggressive, fighting against each other or they united to fight against other people). Good people questioned certain behaviour and started to behave in a better way while bad people would use certain stories to justify bad behaviour and to gain power. E.g. demigods were probably important people who decided about peace and war while ordinary people spoke about them, whether for the good or the bad.

Riddle of the Sphinx:
The Sphinx asked: "Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?"
Oedipus' answer: "Man as he crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and finally walks with a cane in old age".

Own riddle:
Why do young people often wear glasses to see in the distance while older people need more often reading glasses?

Answer: A young person needs to read to gain knowledge while an older person should read less but think about what he read and draw conclusions from it. Therefore, nature decided many younger people don't need reading glasses while the reading ability of many older people becomes worse (sometimes their long-distance view improves). In the past, older people would look in the far distance while they told the stories they had read and they would improve them whenever they thought that was necessary (that is why often many different versions of the same story exist).

(Note: nowadays, I find there are people who read whatever they can but without ever interpreting what they read and thus they don't change their own behaviour accordingly. For instance, the stories of Charles Dickens are very popular, both written and as film or cartoon, still inequality as described in those books has never before been so large worldwide).


Pascal said…
Coming to think about it after re-reading these stories. The story of Oedipus may have happened (or refer to a period) around between 480 BC and 335 BC (thus a period of about 145 years) when Thebes was at its high but later felt. At the end, Alexander the Great destroyed Thebes. I think Oedipus symbolises a man who made the city prosperous and powerful before he became mad and abandonned the city. Then family feuds occured with for instance Oedipus' sons killing each other during power struggles and thus a gradual decline until it was weak enough so its enemies could conquer the place.
But I may be wrong as it seems many of these stories emerge from the 5th century, thus before this city earned its place in history for a short period.

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