What can the ancient Greek myth tell us about our own understanding of fate?
Greek myths are some of the most enduring tales of the ancient world. Whether inspiring your favourite book series, giving us idioms and phrases, or delighting us all in their horrifying glory, chances are, you’ve felt the impacts of quite a few. The most well known of these include cunning Odysseus, Fearless Achilles, or—to borrow a phrase from Rick Riordan—the “Starbucks of Ancient Greece”: Hercules.
There is a quieter hero, though. One whose name no psychology student can hear without shuddering (hey, we all need a legacy).
I am talking, of course, of the tragedy of Oedipus.
The tale of Oedipus, like any respectable Greek tragedy, begins with a king, a queen, and a prophecy. Dramatis personae: King Laios and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, and their baby son Oedipus. Fate is a tricky thing; Laios and Jocasta’s trickier than most. It all begins with an oracle’s prophecy: the baby in Queen Jocasta’s arms, he proclaims, will one day grow up to kill King Laios.
Horrified, the King orders the baby to be killed, but Jocasta, unable to bear killing the helpless child herself, tearfully orders a maid to leave the baby in the forest. The maid obeys, but the baby is saved by a well-intentioned, if misguided, shepherd (why does no one ever tell the shepherd that the tiny baby is in the big scary forest for a reason?).
And so the stage is set. The baby is still alive, but in an unknown location: fate has not quite been thwarted.
There are two kinds of prophecies: those that are bound to happen, no matter what, and those that can be avoided if only people will do something about it.
One can’t think of the latter kind without thinking of Cassandra: a Trojan priestess gifted with the power to see future disasters, but cursed so that she would never be believed. Of course, if it was already decided that nobody would believe her, were the prophecies really avoidable? Perhaps they were the first kind after all.
Cassandra is also the name of a database software; one designed for quickly analysing masses of data. This is part of the new trend of “Big Data”, where computers analyse thousands or millions of records to draw conclusions about the past—and the future. Be it natural disasters or the number of people who will click the next clickbait headline, the modern world is surrounded by prophets.
One does not need special technology, though, to make predictions. Palaeontologist Koji Minoura was studying an ancient Japanese poem, which spoke sadly of “the famed waves of Sue-No-Matsuyama”. Intrigued, Minoura decided to see if this referred to an actual event—and, upon visiting the area and inspecting the geological records, he realised it did. What’s more, this was a recurring tsunami that occurred about once in a thousand years.
The area happened to be the site of the Fukushima nuclear power station. And, the next tsunami was already overdue.
Minoura tried alerting the authorities, and published numerous papers on the topic, but to no avail. On the 11th of March, 2011, a violent earthquake triggered an enormous tsunami that caused a unit of the Fukushima power plant to go critical, releasing radioactive substances that people are still working to contain today. Despite Minoura’s best efforts, the waves of Sue-No-Matsuyama had struck again.
All this serves to make one wonder: even if you foresee your future, does it really make a difference?
Let us return to the little child, abandoned in the forest and picked up by a kindly shepherd. This shepherd presents the baby to childless rulers of neighbouring Corinth who raise the baby as their own, naming him Oedipus.
But one day, Oedipus, now a young man, hears a rumour that the Corinthian rulers are not his biological parents. Confused and angry, he travels to the oracle at Delphi and learns the prophecy from when he was born: he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus thinks this refers to his foster-parents, and, horrified, he flees Corinth. On the way, he comes across an old man in a carriage: his biological father, King Laios, in disguise. Laios shouts at him to get out of the way, but, angered by “the old man’s” audacity, Oedipus kills him with the stick in his hand.
Can fate really be averted? Numerous stories suggest not. In Orissa, India, there is a tale of the Garuda, the divine eagle-headed guardian, attempting to save a beautiful bird. Garuda had just spotted Yama, the god of death, eyeing the little creature.
A gaze by Yama is said to be a harbinger of death, but Garuda, determined to save the bird, picked it up and flew with his powerful wings to a faraway forest. There, he left the bird on a rock by a brook and went on his way.
Later, when Garuda met Yama, he asked about his glancing at the bird. The latter replied, “Well, when my eyes fell on the bird, I saw it was scheduled to die in a few minutes, swallowed by a python near a faraway rock beside a forest brook. I was a bit puzzled as to how it would travel to that spot thousands of miles away in such a short span of time, but I later forgot about it. Surely it must have happened somehow.”
Oedipus too falls into the same trap. By fleeing Corinth to avoid his fate, he ends up walking right into it.
Oedipus arrives at the gates of Thebes to find a city in chaos. The King has died, and the city’s entrance is being guarded by a terrible monster called the Sphinx. So desperate is the situation that whoever gets rid of the Sphinx is being offered the throne to the kingdom itself.
The Sphinx sits on the road asking riddles to passers-by, and tearing up those who cannot solve it. “Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” the creature challenges Oedipus. Thinking a little, Oedipus replies, “He is human: as a child he tries to walk with both hands and feet; when he grows up he walks on both feet; he also walks on a stick in his old age”.
On hearing the right answer, the monster goes mad with his greed and kills himself, and thus Oedipus ascends to the throne of Thebes…and marries the Queen, who, unfortunately, is also his mother.
They eventually get two daughters and two sons, and live happily—though not ever after.
The tale of Oedipus was narrated by the great philosopher Sophocles, but had an impact not only on the world of literature and philosophy, but also on the field of psychology.
According to Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex is something that happens to all children at some point in their development. During that time, the child has unconscious feelings and thoughts about possessing the opposite-sex parent and getting rid of the parent of the same sex.
Freud thought the Oedipal sentiment was inherited from the time we were apes; Sophocles, he believed, was merely expressing a deep and universal human feeling. He interpreted all Oedipus’s experiences, throughout the plot and leading to the murderer of king Laios, as a process of searching for his personality. According to Freud, while solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus was also solving the riddle of his own existence—as all children do when they pass through the Oedipus complex phase.
Freud’s ideas were so popularised that people continue to talk of them today—but historian Jean-Pierre Vernant didn’t agree. As an expert on antiquity, he aimed to examine the subject separately from Freud’s theory.
Was killing Laios and marrying Jocasta really a product of the unconscious? Jean-Pierre Vernant argued not. Laios and Jocasta were not parental figures for Oedipus, so Freud’s theory didn’t quite apply. How could Oedipus have an instinctive motive for killing them if he didn’t even know who they were?
Vernant’s approach is embodied in the contrast between the two sciences, because another important point was that Sophocles lived in the 5th century B.C. Although this period and culture difference didn’t pose a problem for Freud, Vernant thought it was very, very, important. We can’t examine an ancient legend through the cultural lens of modern-day Europe, now, can we?
In the 5th century B.C., when Oedipus was written, tragedy was not only an art form but also a social phenomenon. In the democratic ancient city of Athens, tragedies were often the basis for political discussions. Religious and political officials of the city would attend these plays along with the public; they were events where people would examine problems that could shake the very values and ideology of the city.
Being a tragedy, the tale of Oedipus presents a final twist. After a while, the nation of Thebes was stricken with plague and famine. At his wit’s end, King Oedipus consulted the oracle to find out the cause of the disasters. “The person who killed Laios lives in Thebes”, the oracle told him, “and the disasters will not end unless that murderer is found and expelled from the city.”
Oedipus immediately ordered a search and, well, found himself. Overcome with shame and pain, he blinds himself with his own hands and leaves the city forever. After refuging in the town of Kolonos, near Athens, for a while, he mysteriously disappears.
Analysing literature can tell us a lot about the time it was written in—even if that time is now. In fact, a recent collaboration between the German Army and the university town of Tübingen attempted to predict future wars by analysing novels.
Their idea was that, whenever there is unrest in society, it shows in literature before progressing to more visible forms. A literary scandal in 1983, expulsion of non-Serbian writers from the Serbian Writers’ Association in 1986, and a marked absence of tales about Albanian-Serbian friendship in the years that followed: all these signs were there before the bloodshed of the Kosovo War in 1998.
And so it goes for any society in any age: what people write reflects what they think, which reflects who they are.
In the tragedy of Oedipus, Sophocles told part of a legend about the times when Thebes struggled with plague and famine, soon after which Oedipus became king. It should come as no surprise that the life of this ill-fated man has drawn the attention of the literary world. Thinkers and writers such as the philosopher Seneca, Voltaire, and Andre Gide examined the terrible fate of Oedipus and produced works in line with their own views.
Through his work, Sophocles offered a critique of tyranny. Oedipus is an authoritarian character: ambitious and even full of anger. Even if he didn’t do it on purpose, these traits of his caused the death of his parents. At this point, he’d violated the inviolable values of ancient Greek culture. Crimes such as incest and murder undermine the power of democracy and civilization in society; as philosopher Plato put it they turn people away from their civilized existence and turned them into savages. For this, Oedipus paid his heavy price.
I strongly recommend to you this must-read book, Oedipus the King, which is one of the most powerful works of Greek tragedy. Numerous people have based their own thoughts, ideas, and interpretations around it.
And now, as a representative of your time, place, and culture, I invite you to join in.