Ancient Athenian Drama
Sophocles: King Oedipus
5th century BC, Ancient Greek.
A shepherd finds an abandoned child, takes him to the king of Corinth, and young Oedipus is brought up as the king's own son.
The king of Thebes (Thebes north of Athens, in Greece) is warned by soothsayers that a son born to him by his wife will grow up to become his murderer. A son is born; the king snatches him away, drives a nail through his feet and leaves him for wild animals to devour. But a shepherd finds him, takes him to the king of Corinth and young Oedipus is brought up as the king’s own son.
Oedipus grows to manhood and is warned by a Delphic oracle that he will kill his own father and marry his own mother. Without any reason to imagine anything other than that the king and queen of Corinth are meant, Oedipus resolves to live away from home. But while on the road he meets with an irritable stranger who provokes him to anger; Oedipus knocks the man from his carriage with a stick and kills him, killing the man's several retainers as well. The identity of the dead stranger may come as no surprise.
Oedipus passes the city of Thebes where a monster, the Sphinx (a lion with the head of a woman and the wings of an eagle) is asking a riddle upon whose answer rests the answerer's life. Oedipus is the first to answer correctly and the Sphinx is destroyed. In gratitude, the people of Thebes make Oedipus their king, since their old king (as we know) has just been killed; and they marry Oedipus to the old king’s wife. And we all know who she is!
The tale ends badly. It is a tragedy after all. But it is also a bit of fun. A Delphic oracle may seem capable of failure through human intervention but there is more to the world than meets the eye and an oracle may have the last laugh. More than just a warning against incest, it may also be a warning against taking it for granted that everything is always as it seems.