Who was Oedipus' Mother?

Instructor: Becky Kowalczyk

Becky has taught Literature, Writing, and Film Studies and has degrees in both English and Education.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the character and characterization of Jocasta, a figure in Greek mythology who was both mother and wife of Oedipus, King of Thebes, and is mostly remembered for that fact.

The Oedipus Complex

If you consume Western pop culture in any quantity, you've probably heard the term 'Oedipus Complex' at some point. You might know it's a Freudian concept; that is, one developed by famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. And if you've ever taken a psych class, then you also know it describes a theoretical stage of child development when a boy has an unconscious wish for his mother's exclusive love, and resents his father for sharing it.

But were you aware that Freud named his concept after the Greek myth of Oedipus? It's an understandable source of inspiration, given that Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Discussions of Freud's complex, as well as of the tragic myth for which it's named, usually center on the son, Oedipus. But what about the mom in this story? Who is Jocasta?

The Devoted Wife

Illustration of Jocasta by Giovanni Boccaccio
Jocasta painting

If we overlook a couple icky details, we can see Jocasta as a loving and devoted wife to each of her two husbands. In her first marriage, to King Laius, the Queen clearly puts her man before all else. Just take a look at her reaction to the prophecy she and Laius receive early in their marriage: An oracle tells them they're destined to have a son who will grow up and murder Laius. How do you choose between your husband and your child? For Jocasta, it's a no-brainer. When her son is born, she orders a servant to leave the poor baby up on a mountain to die. If this weren't a tragic Greek myth, I'd recommend a romantic dinner to get the point across, but I guess it shows how important her hubby is to her.

Years later, the widowed Queen marries Oedipus, the new king of Thebes. Again she shows her wifely devotion, this time by reassuring Oedipus when he worries over a prophet's disturbing claims that he killed the former King Laius (which he did... but they don't know that yet). In Sophocles' dramatization of the story, Jocasta tells Oedipus he has nothing to fear because there are no such things as prophets and prophecies. She takes him inside the palace to comfort him, saying sweetly, 'All my care is you, and all my pleasure yours.' (Icky detail alert: he's also her son, who didn't die up on that mountain after all. Oops! But they don't know that yet, either).

The Progressive Woman

In ancient Greece, though, even the most wonderful wives had no authority and virtually no rights. Women were not considered citizens; the men in their lives were in charge of them. Even a Queen would probably have had little involvement in the affairs of men, yet Jocasta shows signs of challenging these gender norms.

Arriving in the middle of a heated argument between her husband Oedipus and her brother Creon, she breaks up the fight with some pointed advice for the men to turn their attention to more important matters. To criticize and advise any man would be unusual and even unwise for a woman in this ancient society...and these men are royalty! Jocasta is pretty gutsy to show her progressive streak in such an oppressive time.

The Skeptic

Speaking of gutsy, gender roles aren't the only societal norms she challenges. She also resists the prevailing religious beliefs of the time.

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