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The story of Oidipous (also spelled Oedipus) is the subject of Sophokles’ tragedy Oedipus the King, which was followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. Together, these plays make up Sophokles’ three Theban plays.
The central character of this play is the tragic hero Oidipous, the son of King Laios and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. The King was told by an oracle that his son was destined to kill him and marry his wife, Jocasta, and in an attempt to prevent this prophecy’s fulfillment, when Jocasta indeed bore a son, Laios had his ankles pierced and tethered together so that he could not crawl; Jocasta then gave the boy to a servant to abandon on the nearby mountain. However, rather than leave the child to die of exposure, as Laios intended, the sympathetic servant passed the baby onto a shepherd from Corinth and then to another shepherd.
The infant eventually came to the home of the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope in the city of Corinth, and they raised him as their own.
As a young man in Corinth, Oidipous heard a rumor that he was not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. When Oidipous questioned the King and Queen, they denied it, and then he visited the Delphic Oracle. The oracle, instead of answering his question, told him that he was destined to “Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire”. Desperate to avoid fulfilling the prophecy, Oidipous left Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope were indeed his true parents and that, once away from them, he would never harm them.
On the road to Thebes, he met King Laios of Thebes, his true father. Unaware of each other’s identities, they quarreled over whose chariot had right-of-way. King Laios moved to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oidipous threw him down from the chariot and killed him.
Shortly after, Oidipous solved the riddle of the Sphinx: “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" To this Oidipous replied "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a cane in old age), and the distraught Sphinx threw herself off the cliffside. Oidipous’ reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from the Sphinx was the kingship and the hand of Queen Jocasta, his biological mother. Like that the prophecy was fulfilled, though none of the main characters were aware.
Oidipous and Jocasta had four children: two sons, Eteokles and Polyneikes, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
Many years after the marriage of Oidipous and Jocasta, infertility struck the city of Thebes; crops no longer grew on the fields and women did not bear children. The plague also struck the livestock of Thebes.
Oidipous asserted that he would put an end to the infertility. He sent Kreon, Jocasta’s brother and his uncle/brother-in-law, to the Oracle at Delphi, seeking guidance. When Kreon returned, Oidipous heard that the murderer of the former King Laios must be brought to justice, and Oidipous himself cursed his wife’s late husband’s murderer, saying that he would be exiled. Kreon also suggested that they try to find the blind prophet, Tiresias who was widely respected for his accurate tellings.
Tiresias warned Oidipous not to seek Laios’ killer, and in a heated exchange, Tiresias was provoked into exposing Oidipous himself as the killer, and the fact that Oidipous was living in shame because he did not know who his true parents were.
Oidipous angrily blamed Kreon for the false accusations, and the two proceeded to argue fervently. Jocasta entered and tried to calm Oidipous by telling him the story of her first-born son and his supposed death. Oidipous realized that he may have murdered Laios and so brought about the plague. Suddenly, a messenger arrived from Corinth with the news that King Polybus had died. Oidipous was relieved concerning the prophecy for it could no longer be fulfilled if Polybus, whom he considered his birth father, was now dead.
Still, he knew that his mother was still alive and refused to attend the funeral at Corinth. To ease the tension, the messenger then said that Oidipous was, in fact, adopted. Jocasta, finally realizing that he was her son, begged him to stop his search for Laios’ murderer. Oidipous misunderstood the motivation of her pleas, thinking that she was ashamed of him because he might have been born of low birth.
Jocasta in great distress and disgust then went into the palace where she hanged herself.
When Oidipous sought verification of the messenger’s story, he learned that the infant raised as the adopted son of Polybus and Merope was the son of Laios and Jocasta. Thus, Oidipous finally realized that so many years ago, he had killed his own father, King Laios, and subsequently married his mother, Jocasta.
Events after the revelation depend on the source. In Sophokles’ plays, Oidipous went in search of Jocasta and found she had killed herself. Using the pin from a brooch he took off Jocasta’s gown, Oidipous stabbed his own eyes out, and was then exiled. His daughter Antigone acted as his guide as he wandered blindly through the country, finally perishing at Colonus after being placed under the protection of Athens by King Theseus.
However, in Euripides’ plays on the subject, Jocasta did not kill herself upon learning of Oidipous’ birth, and Oidipous was blinded by a servant of Laios. Some older sources of the myth, including Homer, state that Oidipous continued to rule Thebes after the revelations and after Jocasta’s death.