EDIPUS AND HIS HUMAN DESTINY
Eva Maria Migliavacca
Myth. Greek mythology. Psychoanalysis.
of the most commonly seen traits among the characters that make up the
Greek mythology is the violence which permeates their relationship. Few,
though, have experienced such radical changes as Oedipus. He is one of
the most touching figures of Greek mythology: no character seems to be
displayed with such clarity and emphasis on his weaknesses and noble
human traits like him. He was worked in a very special way by Sophocles
in two tragedies, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus in Colono. The genius of
Sophocles gives him a universal dimension, applicable to all epochs and
to all men. Oedipus fights against himself, in a battle which he cannot
win. He represents the tragedy of a man’s encounter with his own
is the God behind the nebulous conspiration involving Oedipus. Oracular
god, hides what he reveals through his oracles. The soothsayer of Delphi
confirms the old curse that hung over a confused Oedipus, tormented
about his origin. Yes, he will kill his father and marry his mother, but
she does not answer the question: ‘Who
am I son of?’ and Oedipus does not realize, or is unable to
realize that he is heading straight to meet the destiny he thought he
was swindling. This journey, of intense loneliness, in which Oedipus has
to confront the horror of his recent discovery, does not assuage his
violent temperament, does not impede that in a road fork which was long
waiting for him, he kills an unknown man, his father Laius. It also does
not prevent him, further along, to use his sharp intelligence to solve
an enigma that has already caused horrible death to many, enigma sang by
a blood-thirsty hybrid monster. What better reward to the person who
saved a whole city from terror than marry him to a recently widowed
queen - Jocasta, his mother, whom he does not know - then turn him into
the beloved king of Thebes, his hometown, and then make it prosper? But
not for a long time... Apollo was eavesdropping! A crime was committed
and someone had to be punished. The first threat, a few years later, was
the killer plague. The Apollinean oracle, consulted, answered that in
order for them to get rid of the plague a price would have to be paid:
to discover who killed Laius. Oedipus starts to investigate... while
path chosen by Oedipus to satisfy Apollo’s wish was described by
Sophocles; it is impossible to grasp all the reflexive passages that
this extraordinary drama offers. Each dialogue, each passage, each
little change in the dramatic development, all are full with
ambiguities, ironies, contrasts, with the discovery of ephemeral truths,
with perplexity at meeting hideous feelings, showing how fragile man is
before the power of God, the superior power of the gods who entertain
themselves, of ambiguous Apollo. Ambiguity is the tonic: it happens in
many parts throughout the play. Vernant (1988, pp. 108), points them
out: with their double faces, reveal truths about Oedipus, some of which
he is blind to. Without clear understanding of the importance of his
action, Oedipus confronts the most ambiguous of the gods, Apollo master
of the revealing and deceiving enigmas. Apollo is god, but Oedipus
thought he could free himself from the oracle and remain above his own
destiny. Amidst the battle with himself, Oedipus confronts the face of
deceit, in the character of Febo. Colli (1988, pp. 32), discusses with
mastery the dual nature of Febo Apollo, master of the lire and the arch,
both instruments made of the same material - horns of goat - and with
similar curves, instruments symbolizing the attributes of the same god,
one indicating his destructive actions and the other his benign actions.
Through the oracles, Apollo is master of the enigmas, challenging man to
escape from what is destined to him. In that sense, Colli (1988, pp.
41), comments that ‘for the
Greeks, the creation of an enigma carries in itself tremendous hostility’.
In fact, the words are not clear, sincere, like the words of people of
the same kind. The enigma aims at man, its target, and seeks his doom.
This was what the Sphinx did, until she found the one who would lead her
to jump into the abyss.
the embattle of Oedipus, fighting for his own life, the god is present
as an old prediction, inescapable for sure, but acting as background for
the development of facts, or better, for the discovery of what had
already happened. The god here does not directly induce all the hero’s
actions, as is frequently found in Homeric poetry. The tragedy of the
fifth century brought this evolution in the way of analyzing the
relationship between the Greek gods and man, giving the latter more
freedom of action. However, the presence of the divinity did not lose
its vigor; it is equally powerful and despite the fact that Oedipus and
Jocasta get to the point of mocking Apollo, (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, vv.
1125) in the end it is the god who wins. In the end, when faced with the
horrendous truth before his eyes, like seeing through a distorted though
completely real mirror, Oedipus is reduced to the most dignified pitiful
creature one can imagine.
to a certain point in the drama, Oedipus is completely incapable of
realizing what is happening around him, blinded by what he believes to
be legitimate: the splendor of his condition as king, liberator of the
city, the one who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, above the condition
of participating in any crime, and most certainly not the crime he
intended to solve. From the point of this notion of himself, Oedipus
leads an investigation which, in reality, is like a quagmire, in which
he slowly sinks, until he realizes that he is the victim of the plot he
was trying to uncover. The first evidence, quick and stunning, that he
could be involved in the crime, happens right after Jocasta relates the
killing of Laius: ‘What
perturbation and perplexity take hold upon me, woman, hearing you!’.
(Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, vv. 871-872). But he does not stop; moved by an
insatiable impulse to know the truth, the same one that left him so
disturbed in Corynth to the point of seeking the oracle who told him
about his destiny, Oedipus wants to know who he is , where he comes
from, who his parents are. In his own words: ‘...how
could I ever in the issue prove other - that I should leave my birth
unknown?’ (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, vv. 1279-1280). What he does
not know is how gruesome the truth will be. Still Vernant (1988, pp.
107), about this tragic passage:
the drama in which he is the victim, it is Oedipus and only Oedipus who
runs the game. Nothing but his obstinate wish to unmask the guilty , the
high regard he has of the task, of his capacity, his judgment, his
passionate desire to know the truth at all cost - nothing obliges him to
take the investigation to the end. (...) He is not a man to be satisfied
with half measures, of taking a task for granted. Oedipus goes to the
end. And at the end of his journey, against everything and everyone,
Oedipus realizes that, playing the game from beginning to end, he was
the marionette, from beginning to end.
arrogance, constantly present during the investigation, which blinds him
when he erroneously interprets the oracle of his origin, which leads him
to the extreme action of killing the unknown traveler, his arrogance is
his doom. Oedipus did not know who he was, though believed he did. The
oracle, through his words, is a great threat to the knowledge Oedipus
has of himself.
is blind to what cannot be perceived by the senses, but feels that
something needs to be clarified. When he discovers the truth about
himself, he punctures both his eyes, but only then he can see. His
blindness is illuminated by the light of truth. The darkness to which he
sentences himself to live in is strongly bright. Oedipus is unable to
withstand the clear vision of the reality of his existence. His
prepotent attitude, based in the knowledge of a value which was
essentially illusory, ironically illusory - solver of enigmas , killer
of the Sphinx, king of the city - his attitude worked, after all, like a
protection against the vision of a light too bright.
was unable to solve the most pressing enigma: he did not understand that
he himself was the answer to the enigma
which surrounded and chased him even before he was born. Commenting
about it, Vernant (1988, pp. 116), points out how even Oedipus’ own
encloses the dramatic ambiguity within himself:
is the man with swollen feet (oidos), illness which resembles the
accursed child, rejected by his parents, left to die in the cruel
nature. But Oedipus is also the man who knows (oida) the enigma of the
foot (pous), who can decipher without difficulty the oracle of the
sinister prophecy, the Sphinx of the obscure chant.
has to make contact with something monstrous. With his shield that
everything distorted, Oedipus needed to make the discovery this way.
Only that way could he take possession of what is the basis of his
destiny and of which he seeks, in his search for the truth. Oedipus
underwent several changes to get to this point: bastard son, undesirable
outcome of careless intercourse, condemned to premature death, he became
prince, beloved by Merope and Polybus and by all the people of Corinth;
from this point became frightened puppet-son and self-exiled pariah,
lonely wanderer haunted by the oracular phantasm. Killer of the Sphinx,
became king, the queen’s husband, adored like a god by the people of
Thebes, his homeland, and afterwards realized he was incestuous,
abominable macula, anathema, despised monster, pariah whom all avoided
and who hid from everyone. By the intensity of his suffering, during his
last days, master of himself, holding his destiny in his own hands, with
deep knowledge of who he is, becomes the hero protector of Athens,
well-liked name whose death is a source of blessing (Sophocles, Edipo en
Colono, vv. 1760-1765). To come to this point though, Oedipus lived the
intense pain that the process of total transformation of himself
Oedipus, though, shines the promethic spark. He puts into action all the
divine within himself, all the
taste for knowledge that the fire of the Titan allowed. It is also true
that it is in him that the character of all human beings manifests
itself, the arrogance, the prepotence, the challenge to a superior god.
Striving to find his own space, pressured by the curse inflicted upon
him even before his birth, Oedipus does not surrender. He crumbles to
pieces when confronted with his dark and monstrous side, but eventually
reaches the core of the enigma of his life.
can reflect, then, what was, after all, Oedipus’ ultimate destiny.
There was an oracular destiny, inescapable, the one which did not depend
on his will, because the divinity had determined it. Oedipus fulfills
it, realizing it imperceptibly. It was beyond him to escape from it,
despite the fact that in certain imprudent moments he arrogantly tried
to. In his hands, though, is his character, which establishes and
reveals itself through the action he inflicts upon his destiny. There is
something that extravasates and goes beyond the divine - the promethic
fire and its ample possibilities are within his reach - something that
the gods do not integrate in his behavior: Oedipus is able to evolve,
change himself. As he uncovers his destiny, Oedipus experiences terrible
pain and disgrace, but it is through this test that his own greatness
reveals itself and is incorporated by him. He conquers his own
suffering, becoming a hero, a being admirable because of his strength
and veracity. He does not succumb, lives with his pain in its pure state
- does not exalt it nor denies it. He cannot change what is done but can
change the way in which he relates to his deeds and to himself. This is
the true metamorphosis of Oedipus, his radical change. If we take him as
a paragon, as a paradigm of the human condition, there would be the
transformation necessary to the growth of man, without which one lives a
limited life, prisoner of false beliefs, of illusory visions of oneself.
The myth teaches us that this metamorphosis is possible.
there is another fate for Oedipus, not the oracular, but the human one.
Oedipus’ actions were in the realm of Apollo, the oblique, and of
everything he accomplished. However, it was his character which allowed
him to take possession of what is in fact his destiny as a man: living
with his own and limited real condition of mortal being, living with his
acts and corresponding consequences and, foremost, living with the angst
that the truth uncovers, a type of experience that a god can never have
or create for himself. In other words, Oedipus’ human destiny was the
knowledge, only chance of facing the horror. To reach it, he had to
experience intense pain, felt in the relationship with the people around
him, bearable when he accepted to pay the price of his wrongdoings,
redemptious at the end of his difficult life.
In Oedipus one finds the answer which is neither promised nor aborted,
but active and efficacious. In his complexity, Oedipus brings knowledge
as answer, inserted in the core of his myth, result of a dive in the
subterraneous of his mind. The gods live well with this fact, so it
seems. Suffering purifies, turns man into a respectable being and the
gods dignify him to beyond of what is expected. In the myth, knowledge
is not threatening; on the contrary, clarifies things to the one who
experiences it, showing exactly which are one’s limits, what is the
sphere of one’s action and how can one expand oneself in the known
space, resulting from this a living more integrated with oneself and
transforming the tenebrous depths of the mind in assimilable aspects,
useful for one’s development.
However, if the answer of the myth is that just measure brings harmony,
a contradictory situation is created, because the just measure can only
be defined through the human acts and its consequences and these, they
are characterized by excess. This is the paradox: to achieve the exact
measure it is necessary to become excessive, to go beyond the limits, to
challenge; to delineate one’s own space and to liberate oneself from
subservience, the answer of the myth is the challenge, the daring in the
attitudes. This was inheritance from Prometheus, the Titan who gave
humanity a divine trait, not predominant, though not less powerful and
was lived to the core of terror, of monstruosity, by Oedipus, but he had
the chance to redesign the universe of his existence, was able to
transform the utmost pain into blessing, without denying it or making
concessions to himself at any time. When obstinately searching the truth
about himself, Oedipus is lead to the disgrace that the gods reserve for
him, but asserts this way his individuality. Not so for the ones who
surround him, but to himself, and this is what frees him from the
oracular destiny, this is what makes him transcend the misery, giving
new meaning and new sense of direction to his life. Finally able to
clarify who he is, Oedipus equals himself to each human being, gets
close to us and with him we can easily identify ourselves.
reflections send us to very real situations, like the ones we find in
our work of psychoanalytic approach, which allows us to observe, with
all its nuances, the arduous effort of people in touch with their own
emotional life. It is observed that, the deeper the individual dives
into his own psyche, without losing sense of himself, the broader will
be the perception he will have of himself and, therefore, the more
complete his sense of identity. Of the conflict then established,
between expanding or restricting oneself, may result a vigorous spurt of
mental growth. This path to the interior of one’s own mind, to the
difficult encounter with oneself, is a very lonely process. However, it
is facilitated by the relationship with someone else and then the
company and the interested care of the analyst have a fundamental role.
makes this journey. His loneliness is awesome and exemplar. From the
moment he consults the oracle about his own destiny, he begins an
absolutely solitary journey. What can the analyst do, if not follow or
maybe facilitate, in a benign fashion, the exploration of a thorny path
which, at the very end, is entirely individual, unique and
non-transferable? The greater knowledge is that changes are necessary to
allow new ways of exploring the mental reality. The contact with these
moments of great significance of the living ones is always quite an
experience, and the clinical practice greatly favors its realization.
ways in which the patient communicates is always an enigma, coming from
an unknown world, but which constantly manifests itself, the world we
call unconscious. To the old Greek, wrote Colli (1988, pp. 43):
‘the enigma becomes object of a human fight for wisdom’. Here,
though, not like an intellectual conquest, but in the domain of the
spiritual life. This includes the always painful experience of looking
at oneself, like Oedipus did. Thus, one can say that, through the
analytical world, the individual follows the path of Oedipus, in his own
way, solving the enigmas of his unique and precious life; facing his own
human destiny. Oedipus only became a sage when he recognized that which
made him vulnerable and destructive, redesigning his life. He became
friends with truth, his own particular truth. One of the main lessons of
this myth is that self-acceptance is fundamental; the problem is not how
to avoid egoistical aspects, not feeling envy or jealousy, or becoming
aggressive... The problem is the non-acceptance of these aspects, of
what in psychoanalysis is called ‘death
instinct’ (Freud, 1920, pp. 53), source of the anxieties which
dominate the individual when faced with threats to his integrity.
Oedipus joins the extremes, the new and the old, making another type of
mixture, another figure, integrated, cohesive, with an unrecognizable
characteristic. In the process of discovery and acceptance of what is
destructive in oneself, lies the chance of growth and of the conquest of
a new relationship of each individual with himself and with the world
that surrounds him. Only then the reconciliation among the contradictory
aspects of human mind can take place or, like the Greeks preferred to
say, the total reconciliation between the god and the criminal dwelling
within the human being can take place.
J. S. (1987), Mitologia grega, 3 vols. Petrópolis: Vozes, vol 1.
G. (1988), O nascimento da filosofia; Campinas:Unicamp.
S. The Standard Edition of the
Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud, 24 vols.
London: Hogarth, 1966-74.
FREUD, S (1920), Beyond the pleasure principle, S. E., 18.
(1959), ‘Edipo en Colono’, in Tragedias: Edipo
Rey - Edipo en
Colono, Barcelona: Alma
(s.d.), ‘Édipo Rei’ in Teatro grego; São Paulo: Cultrix.
Oedipus Rex, New York: Dover.
VERNANT, J-P. & VIDAL-NAQUET, P. (1988), Mito e tragédia na Grécia antiga; São Paulo: Brasiliense.
Maria Migliavacca. I am a psychologist and work as a psychoanalytic
psychotherapist for children and adults, with a private consultancy.
Presently a candidate for membership of the Institute of Psychoanalysis
of the Sociedade Brasileira de Psicanálise de São Paulo, I am also a
Doctor of Science at the Instituto de Psicologia da Universidade de São
Paulo, Brasil, where I teach to post-graduate level. I have also
published papers in several Brazilian journals.
The riddle of the Sphinx in its most simple form: ‘Which animal who, able to speak, walks in four limbs in the morning,
with two at noon and with three in the afternoon?’ In its
more complex form: ‘There
exists a two-legged creature upon the earth, and four legged, with
only one voice, and a three-legged, and of the many living things who
wander across the earth, in the air and in the sea, is the only one
who defies nature; when, however, rests in larger number of feet, the
quickness weakens itself in its extremities’ The correct
answer is ‘Man’.
Vf. J.S. BRANDÃO, 1987, pp. 261, vol. 1.
in Greek, is Oidipous.
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM