Who was Oedipus' Father?

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

In ''Oedipus Rex,'' Oedipus' father, Laius, never appears, having been killed before the play begins. But his murder hangs over the play and leads to Oedipus' downfall.

Fathers and Sons

The story of Oedipus is one of fathers and sons, and this is something people tend to know even if they have never read Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex or any other version of the Greek myth. Oedipus is the man who killed his father and married his mother. His story has been alluded to countless times in popular culture and even led to the name of Sigmund Freud's famous Oedipal complex theory.

However, Oedipus' actual father, Laius, often gets left out of the story. He doesn't appear in Sophocles' play, having been killed before the action of the play begins. But Laius is an important character in Greek mythology in his own right.

Mythical Beginnings

Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex is the most famous rendition of the Oedipus story but far from the only one. Like Hercules, Odysseus, and Achilles, Oedipus was a popular character in Greek myth, or the body of stories about heroes and gods which formed the basis of Greek religion and identity. Oedipus' story was frequently told and re-told in written and oral forms long before Sophocles' play. And his father, Laius, is also an important figure in Greek myth.

Though the story varies a bit depending on the teller, everyone agrees on the basic outline of Oedipus' story. Laius was the king of the Greek city of Thebes who was trying to conceive a son with his wife, Jocasta. Not having any luck, he consulted the famous Oracle at Delphi, whose mystic priestesses of Apollo could tell the future.

The Oracle predicted a horrible fate for Laius: if he did have a son, that son would one day kill Laius. Not long after that, Jocasta did get pregnant and, lo and behold, it was a son. So Laius and Jocasta pierced the boy's ankles so he couldn't crawl and told a servant to leave him on a mountain to die. The servant couldn't go through with it, though, and gave the child to a shepherd.

Oedipus eventually ended up as the adopted son of Polybus, the king of Corinth. On reaching adulthood, Oedipus consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. Thinking Polybus was his natural father, he decided not to go back to Corinth and instead to travel to Thebes.

On his way to Thebes, Oedipus encountered a chariot driven by (guess who!) Laius. After a fight over who had the right of way, Oedipus murdered Laius, not knowing that Laius was 1) king of Thebes and 2) his father. And after a tangle with a sphinx that's too convoluted to go into here, he also ended up the new king of Thebes, married to Jocasta.

Laius in Oedipus Rex

None of that long and complicated story we just went through actually appears in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. The play is set many years later, when a plague is decimating Thebes. Oedipus has been king of Thebes for many years and has had children with Jocasta (gross, I know).

Though Laius doesn't appear in the play, he casts a big shadow over it. The action gets underway when Jocasta's brother Creon consults the Oracle (of course), and the Oracle says that the plague will not end until the murderer of King Laius is brought to justice. Remember, at this point, everyone thinks Laius was killed by an unknown assassin, and Oedipus just thinks he killed some jerk in a road rage dispute.

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