Most people are familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex, the ill-fated king who murdered his own father and married and bore children with his own mother.
Freud famously interpreted this as a tale which shows man’s secret, repressed desires to kill his father and take his place as lover to his mother. This fits into his narrative about our discontents as members of civilization. He would have us believe that men have a savage primal instinct, an id that lusts for power and sexual dominance so much that it is only society’s control by way of the superego that stops them all from committing fratricide and incest.
It’s an interesting take on this myth, if only for what it tells us about the state of the psyche of Freud and modern man.
When the Oedipus Rex begins, we find that a plague has fallen on Thebes. Sickness and death are everywhere, and after receiving word from the oracle that the plague is the result of a curse, or “religious pollution,” due to the murder of the previous King Laius, whose murderer was never found.
Oedipus rants and rages, demanding that the murderer be found. He vents his anger on anyone who will hear it. When he hears news that he does not like from Tiresias, then Creon, then his wife, Jocasta, he accuses each of deliberately undermining his authority, of plotting to destroy him, and wants them to be killed or banished for treason.
But soon, events start to unfold that reveal the truth of his past, and the nature of the curse upon the city.
Before Oedipus was born, his father, Laius, received a message from an oracle which said that his newborn son would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother.
Laius knew this, and upon the born of his son handed the infant back to his wife, Jocasta, ordering him to be killed. Unable to do so, she hands the boy over to a servant with the same orders that her husband had given her.
The servant takes Oedipus to the countryside, and leaves him exposed on a mountaintop. A shepherd, Polybus, takes him and adopts him as his own son. Once grown, Oedipus begins to suspect he has been adopted, and goes to the oracle to ask about his parentage.
The oracle repeats the same terrible prophecy: that Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his own mother.
Horrified, Oedipus flees the town where he has grown up and heads towards Thebes. On the way, he encounters Laius on the road to the city, and when Laius refuses to let him pass first, Oedipus strikes and kills his own father.
Outside the city of Thebes he meets the feared Sphinx, guardian of the city, who demands he answer her famous riddle or suffer death. She asks him, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
Oedipus answers: “Man.”
He crawls as a child, walks as an adult, and uses a cane into old age.
When the Sphinx hears his answer, she devours herself, and Oedipus enters the city, victorious.
Most scholars have unquestioningly assumed that the Sphinx committed suicide because Oedipus was correct. He gave the “right” answer.
But many others have started to question this interpretation, myself included.
We can start by asking ourselves more about the Sphinx, and what she represented.
According to Apollodorus, the Sphinx was a creature having the face of a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and a tail bearing a serpent’s head at the end.
The name Sphinx is said from the Greek word meaning “to squeeze”, “to tighten up.” This could refer to the fact that, in a pride of lions, the females are the hunters, and they kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die.
Another interpretation, from the historian Susan Wise Bauer, suggests that the word “sphinx” was instead a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name “shesepankh”, which meant “living image.”
It’s possible that this could mean “the living image of God.” The Sphinx may well be a representation of the divine. She is connected to the old mystery cults that existed before the incursion of the male-dominated Olympian gods.
The Sphinx is a manifestation of the divine in her forms, according the ancient feminine religions.
The lion represents the animal consciousness, or the libido or life force within the physical body.
The next step in this evolution is represented by the face of the woman. When we are able to able to consciously work with and harness our life force (which is intimately connected with our sexual energy), we are at the stage represented by woman. The capacity to use reason and our minds to direct our desires is truly what makes us human.
The final stage in this development involves the snake and the eagle. We can look to ancient Egypt for more insights regarding the meaning of the snake. Uraeus was a coiled or rising serpent representing the force of Kundalini in the body. This was the divine energy, which, when properly awakened and utilized, would allow one to transcend our human condition and soar (as if on the wings of an Eagle) and reach the heights of heaven.
We can see here that the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx could well be the Sphinx herself. She walks with four feet (of the Lion) in the morning, two feet (of a woman) in the afternoon, and three in the evening (the eagle & the snake).
It is interesting to note that this play, Oedipus the King, was written at a time when the ancient Earth Goddesses were losing prominence and being replaced by the male-dominated Olympian gods. These feminine, chthonic goddesses of Life-Death-Rebirth were overthrown, sometimes violently (through the destruction of temples and killings of priestesses & adherents), to be replaced by male-dominated gods led by Zeus and other violent & often predatory gods.
So we must ask the question: what happens when Man becomes the center of all things?
What happens when we do not honor or respect the interconnected roles which we must play in our families, our communities, our world? When the Ego takes over and crowns himself king, ignoring his Nature and his higher Self?
Laius sealed his own fate by sending his infant son to be killed. He bequeathed his cursed self-centeredness and violent disregard for innocent others to his son Oedipus. And we, us modern men and women, have inherited this curse.
Lest we be too quick to pity Oedipus, we must remember his role in fulfilling the prophecy: he kills his father not in self-defense, but in an incident of road rage, when his father does not let him pass first.
As king, he looks to everyone but himself for the evil which has been done. He rants and he rages at the plague, at his people, at the Gods for what has befallen him. But we must not forget that it is his own blindness to the evil done by his very hand that creates his destiny.
What happens when we crown our ego King, and stay committed to ruling and dominating others, ethics and consequences be damned?
We end up here: blindly imposing our violence on the world around us.
We end up here: denying our own shadow, projecting it out onto whatever we happen to encounter outside of us.
When we crown our Ego self King, limited our sense of self to the conscious rational mind only, we become blind to the evil that is done by our own hands. And here, the left hand knows not what the right is doing. In demanding that our Ego’s sovereignty is the only thing which matters, has value or exists, we violently repress all of us (and all of the others) which we do not identify with the False Self.
This inevitably leads to violence, against self and others. It is a violence that starts from within, with the disconnection from our shadow and our true selves, and this violence and destruction seeps outward to contaminate all it touches.
This points to the part of work that we must do. We need to recognize that evil is not just a thing “out there” to be violently controlled, eliminated, or crushed in others.
Evil is a poisonous weed whose seed first sprouts from within. Left to grow unchecked, its tendrils snake outwards, wrapping themselves around whatever and whomever it comes into contact with.
But I have hope that we can do this work of transformation. There was a second riddle of the Sphinx which was left behind for us.
According to Theodectes, the riddle goes like this: “There are two sisters. One gives birth to the other, then that one gives birth to the first. The answer is Night and Day.”
According to some scholars, this points to an even more ancient riddle from the Basque region of Europe. It states: “The brother is white, the sister is black. Every morning, the brother kills the sister. Every evening, the sister kills the brother. Nevertheless, the brother and the sister never die.”
I see the sunset coming. The time has come for this long day to journey into night.
The moon is rising, and she will shine on this long-delayed night, and we will rest.
Harmony can return to the earth. Day and night, night and day, they will live and die endlessly, again in balance with the law of nature & the will of life.