Mythology Summary and Analysis
King Laius of Thebes hears from the Oracle at Delphi that he will die at the hands of his own son. To prevent this from happening, he leaves his baby boy on a mountain for dead, but another man saves the baby. Years later, Laius is murdered by robbers on the road.
At the same time, a huge Sphinx has been terrorizing the land. One man, Oedipus, comes upon it on the road. Oedipus has been running away from home because an oracle has predicted he will kill his father. The Sphinx gives him an unsolved riddle: what creature walks on four legs, then two, then three? Oedipus answers: mankind, who crawls, then walks, then uses a cane. This answer is correct, and the Sphinx kills itself. Oedipus becomes a famous liberator and marries the late king's wife, Jocasta.
After years of happy rule, a terrible plague hits the land. An oracle decrees that the only way for the plague to end would be to punish King Laius's killer. Oedipus seeks the truth, but a prophet tells Oedipus that he himself is the killer. A man from the robbery of Laius says the same thing. Upon realizing this truth, it becomes clear to Oedipus that he has killed his father and then married his own mother. Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus pokes out his eyes, both people feeling immense shame and guilt.
Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta have several daughters and sons. After the horrific truth came out that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus exiled himself to an island where his daughter Antigone takes care of him until he dies.
Back in Thebes, Jocasta's brother, Creon, becomes king, but Oedipus's son Polyneices wages war against him. Oedipus’s other son Eteocles defends Thebes, and in the fighting, the two brothers kill each other. With his power unchallenged, Creon declares that no one should bury Polyneices, but in Greek culture, the process of burying the dead is very sacred in order to give the soul happiness in the afterlife. In secret, Antigone buries her brother, so Creon kills her for her noble crime.
The famous tales of Oedipus compel us most of all in how Oedipus comes to realize the awful fulfillment of the prophecies and the true circumstances of his fate. Though he is wise enough to beat the Sphinx, his unrelenting search for the truth (in order to help his city recover from the plague) leads to his ruin. Both King Laius and Oedipus attempted to subvert the prophecies, but they both acted out their common fate after all. Free will remains circumscribed by fate, suggesting that humans are bound to a destiny regardless of their choices. Knowledge of the truth proves to be an awful condition for those who have committed great sins.
A recurring theme in Greek mythology is that of guilt and innocence. We have seen how tragic mistakes do not render characters innocent of the crimes they commit. Similarly, Oedipus is guilty for his actions, even though he did not know that he was killing his father and marrying his mother. This story, like the others, raises the question: how can humans be blamed for actions they do not fully understand? As the characters try to purify themselves, will they ever find justice?
This myth has taken a special spin since the time of Sigmund Freud, who famously suggested that the simultaneous attractive and revolting power of the myth is not so much about the dangers of truth and knowledge but about the prospect of understanding that boys are fundamentally and unconsciously in love with their mothers and therefore in deathly competition with their fathers.
Antigone is a model of honor and sacrifice for the sake of familial loyalty. She cares for her bereft and guilt-ridden father, and then she insists on burying her slain brother in the face of an unjust law and likely death. The tragedy does not depict a reward for her valor, but readers appreciate (or at least debate) her honorable actions. The gods and magical items are not significant players in this political and social drama; the focus is on Antigone and her moral choices.
The theme of family loyalty arises throughout the Greek myths, but in this story, we see how far a character will go to defend it. Other times someone has died or risked death for a family member or a lover; Antigone acts in a way similar to Theseus, Perseus, and Bellerophon. Her actions do not take her on wild adventures, like these other heroes, but she does achieve a heroic, sacrificial status nonetheless. The Greek myths clearly support family loyalty, and this tale stands as a prime example of how the stories were used to convey moral messages.
This myth also brings the myths rather far from the tales of gods into the world of human culture and politics. Antigone is caught up in the middle of political and ethical battles fought on human terms and in light of competing human values.
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