This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world.
Awhile back we looked at a confession curse found in Sophocles’ play Antigone. Such a curse likely drew off a common cursing culture which existed back when the play was written in the 5th century BCE.
Antigone was not the only play in which Sophocles included curses, we also find one at the beginning of his play Oedipus Tyrannos (aka Oedipus Rex).
Many of you are likely familiar with the story of Oedipus, but for those who aren’t, here’s what you need to know: Oedipus’ father Laius, the king of Thebes, received a prophecy that he would be killed by his son and that this son would marry his wife Jocasta (aka his mother). That’s a pretty messed up prophecy, so Laius tries to avert it by ordering Jocasta to kill Oedipus.
So far, so good, right? Totally not.
Jocasta leaves Oedipus to die in the wild, but he is rescued and reared by the royal family in Corinth. FYI: Corinth is about 100 kilometers away from Thebes. Also FYI: 100 kilometers is not enough to prevent a prophecy from coming true.
Back in Corinth, Oedipus receives a similar oracle to the one his father Laius received. To protect his adopted family, he leaves Corinth. Oh, and then he unwittingly kills Laius.
Guess what happens next.
Let’s take a closer look at this curse, since it’s a bit different than one we saw in Antigone. The curse comes pretty early in the play, when Thebes is plagued with divine sickness because of Laius’ murder. As the new king, Oedipus vows to hunt down and kill the person who murdered Laius and thus restore the city to health in the eyes of the gods.
κατεύχομαι δὲ τὸν δεδρακότ᾽, εἴτε τις
εἷς ὢν λέληθεν εἴτε πλειόνων μέτα,
κακὸν κακῶς νιν ἄμορον ἐκτρῖψαι βίον:
ἐπεύχομαι δ᾽, οἴκοισιν εἰ ξυνέστιος
ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς γένοιτ᾽ ἐμοῦ συνειδότος,
παθεῖν ἅπερ τοῖσδ᾽ ἀρτίως ἠρασάμην.
ὑμῖν δὲ ταῦτα πάντ᾽ ἐπισκήπτω τελεῖν,
ὑπέρ τ᾽ ἐμαυτοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τε τῆσδέ τε
γῆς ὧδ᾽ ἀκάρπως κἀθέως ἐφθαρμένης.
– Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 246-254
I curse the person who has done this [murdered Laius],
whether the person who escaped notice was being one man
or someone acting with many others,
badly extinguish this person’s wicked and unlucky life!
And I pray this: If this man has shared my hearth and dwelt among my household with my knowledge,
Then let me suffer the things which I justly labour for.
I entreat you to accomplish all these things
on behalf of myself, on behalf of the God, and on behalf of this very barren and godless land which has been destroyed.
– Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 246-254 (Translation mine)
Whew! Oedipus is bringing some serious game to this manhunt!
Like our curse in Antigone, Oedipus’ curse calls upon the gods to enact divine justice. Such a curse would have been seen as especially effective, as it places the matter at the discretion of the gods. And, of course, the gods are always right. The difference here, however, is that Oedipus’ curse moves beyond the strictly personal. Whereas Antigone cursed on her own behalf to clear her name, Oedipus curses on behalf of the city he rules. Once the killer is found (and punished) the city of Thebes will presumably be well again. (Spoiler alert: Not so much.)
Sophocles, a master of Greek tragedy, knows a good plot device when he sees one. Here the protagonist of the story, Oedipus, also functions as the antagonist. By promising to find the murderer of Laius and by solidifying the murder’s punishment with a curse, he is unwittingly cursing himself and setting in motion a series of events that leads to, well, tragedy.
Like Antigone, Sophocles draws off common conventions about the gods, their efficacy, and their ability to answer prayers and respond to curses. In Oedipus Rex, cursing is a pivotal element of the plot and functions to fulfill the prophecies received by Oedipus and Laius.
Photo by Son of Groucho.