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by Eva Maria Migliavacca


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The author presents an analysis of the Greek myth of Oedipus, after SophoclesOedipus Rex. This analysis considers that, in addition to an oracular destiny determinated by deity, Oedipus realizes his own human destiny, which is the very conquest of the knowledge of his own identity. The author relates such a conquest to the psychoanalytic work, which enables each individual to get in touch with his deepest motivations and to develop a better self-consciousness.

Key-words: Myth. Greek mythology. Psychoanalysis.

One 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 truth.  

Apollo 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 Apollo laughs!  

The 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.  

In 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.

Up 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: ‘ 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:

In 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.  

His 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.  

Oedipus 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.  

Oedipus was unable to solve the most pressing enigma: he did not understand that he himself was the answer to the enigma [1] which surrounded and chased him even before he was born. Commenting about it, Vernant (1988, pp. 116), points out how even Oedipus’ own name [2] encloses the dramatic ambiguity within himself:

Oedipus 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.  

Oedipus 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 required.  

In 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.  

One 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.  

Therefore, 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.  

These 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.  

Oedipus 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.

The 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.  


BRANDÃO, J. S. (1987), Mitologia grega, 3 vols. Petrópolis: Vozes, vol 1.

COLLI, G. (1988), O nascimento da filosofia; Campinas:Unicamp.

FREUD, 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.

SOPHOCLES, (1959), ‘Edipo en Colono’, in Tragedias: Edipo Rey - Edipo en Colono, Barcelona: Alma Mater.

SOPHOCLES (s.d.), ‘Édipo Rei’ in Teatro grego; São Paulo: Cultrix.

SOPHOCLES (1991), Oedipus Rex, New York: Dover.

VERNANT, J-P. & VIDAL-NAQUET, P. (1988), Mito e tragédia na Grécia antiga; São Paulo: Brasiliense.  

Address for correspondence:

Eva Maria Migliavacca
Rua João Moura, 627 - cj. 42
05412-001  São Paulo


Eva 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.


[1] 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.


[2] Oedipus, in Greek, is Oidipous.

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