The Oracle at Delphi in Oedipus Rex

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most important figures in ancient Greece, and discover the important and unique role she played in the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex.


For as long as humans have been able to think and plan, we have worried about the future. Some worry so much about what the future holds for them and their loved ones that they are willing to trust a soothsayer, fortune teller, or mystic. For a few dollars, these mysterious men and women will read tea leaves, the lines on your hand, or some other object or feature and tell you a little something about what life has in store for you.

Ancient Greeks worried about the future too, but they did not resort to just any dime store fortune teller. In Greece, there was one fortune teller who was purportedly so accurate that they gained fame across the ancient Mediterranean, the Oracle at Delphi. So famous was the Oracle that she often played an important role in Greek literature and plays. In this lesson, we'll discover the oracle's role in that most famous of Greek plays, Oedipus Rex.


Before we get into the Oracle's significance in Oedipus Rex, it's instructive to know just who the Oracle was in ancient Greece and how important they were. The Oracle at Delphi was a prophet, a priestess to the Greek god Apollo, and her answers to questions purportedly foretold the future, though her answers were sometimes less than clear. The Oracle was likely established sometime around 1400 B.C. According to one Greek historian, the first Oracle was a shepherd who began seeing visions near the edge of the cliff at Delphi.

Over that site, temples were built to Apollo where the Oracle, Pythia (who was always a woman), resided and entertained questions from visitors. The prophetic powers of the Oracle at Delphi were revered throughout the ancient Mediterranean. For example, when the Persian Emperor Xerxes invaded Greece in the 5th century B.C., he reportedly stopped at Delphi in the hopes of receiving a favorable prophecy from the Oracle.

Scholars have hypothesized what caused the visions of the Oracle, and the leading theory today is that hydrocarbon vapors escaped from the earth underneath the temples to Apollo may have caused hallucinations, hence leading the Oracle to truly believe they were seeing visions of the future. These vapors no longer exist due to seismic activity in late Antiquity which may have sealed the vents about the same time that the Oracle declared an end to the Oracle's direct line to the gods in the 4th century B.C.

Regardless of how or why the Oracle at Delphi made their prophecies, the ancient world's reverence for the Oracle caused the Oracle to make several appearances in ancient literature. Oedipus Rex is no different.

Oracle in Oedipus

In Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, the Oracle and her prophecy serve as the primary motivation for many of the actions of the tragedy. For example, when King Laius of Thebes goes to the Oracle to consult on why he and his wife are unable to conceive a child, the Oracle tells Laius that any son he has will kill him and marry his wife. After this startling revelation, Laius resolves to have the son his wife eventually does conceive, Oedipus, to be killed by being exposed to the elements in the mountains.

However, the infant Oedipus is saved by a passing shepherd, and he is eventually adopted by the King of a neighboring city, Corinth. Later, when Oedipus learns of his possible adoption and his adoptive parents decline to give him a straight answer, Oedipus goes to the Oracle to seek answers. There, he is told the same prophecy Laius was told: that Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account