Freud spoke of the Ego, the Super Ego and the Id. These formed a triangle, the ego struggling between the Super Ego and the Id.

  • The Primary processes being fantasy and wish fulfilment driven by the Id (the pleasure principle, impractical hedonism, desires with no regard for the consequences) in contention with the introjection of societal norms and taboos making up the Super Ego.
  • Secondary processes being dominated by the arena of reality that the Ego needs to deal with, the rational component.
  • The Super Ego is the moral component of the psyche then, containing all the taboos and norms of society that are formulated as we grow up. The Ego living in reality is torn between the Id and the Super Ego as it tries to conduct itself in the world.

Freud postulated that we develop a sexual relationship with our mother as the first intimate contact with woman. As such then we are in contention with the father and fear the father and wish his death. Hence the castration fear towards the father, the masculine. It is the desire to be with our mother and replace the father. This is suppressed obviously within societal norms and taboos as we develop and thus, if not dealt with, we desire a woman like our mother when we marry according to Freuds ideas, specifically the Oedipal complex.

“I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father. I now consider this to be a universal event in childhood,” Freud said.

From this article: Why Oedipus Killed Laius - A Note on the Complementary Oedipus Complex in Greek Drama

Thus, in a very genuine sense, we must credit the Greek poets and dramatists with more psychological acumen than we have so far done. What they called 'Fate' was merely the personification of man's character-structure, and of his need to act out those of his intra-psychic conflicts which determine the course of his life.

The stance of tragedy is important. Also, it is important that Oedipus follows the description of the 'tragic hero' as defined by Aristotle, and what it meant to be 'tragic' = the reversal of fortune by fate or a mistake. This is not a mistake as in a flaw like “pride” or “lust” (like Macbeth) but rather in perception, or error in recognition.

In Oedipus in Colonus

When Ismene comes to tell Oedipus of her brothers desire to have Oedipus return as their sovereignty depends on it, he says, “So, when I cease to be, my worth begins.”

“Know then I suffered ills most vile, but none
(So help me Heaven!) from acts in malice done.”

“Too true.
Their father's very sister's too.”

“ I sinned not.”

On the killing of his father…

“I slew who else would me have slain;
I slew without intent,
A wretch, but innocent
In the law's eye, I stand, without a stain.”
I met my sire, not knowing whom I met
or what I did, and slew him, how canst thou
With justice blame the all-unconscious hand?

Nay neither in this marriage or this deed
Which thou art ever casting in my teeth—
A murdered sire—shall I be held to blame.

This is curious…

Give me thy hand, O Prince, that I may touch it,
And if thou wilt permit me, kiss thy cheek.
What say I? Can I wish that thou should'st touch
One fallen like me to utter wretchedness,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand ills?
Oh no, I would not let thee if thou would'st.
They only who have known calamity
Can share it. Let me greet thee where thou art,
And still befriend me as thou hast till now.

I like this

CHORUS “Who craves excess of days,
Scorning the common span
Of life, I judge that man
A giddy wight who walks in folly's ways.
For the long years heap up a grievous load,
Scant pleasures, heavier pains,
Till not one joy remains
For him who lingers on life's weary road
And come it slow or fast,
One doom of fate
Doth all await,
For dance and marriage bell,
The dirge and funeral knell.
Death the deliverer freeth all at last.

Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain for ever pain;
And none escapes life's coils.
Envy, sedition, strife,
Carnage and war, make up the tale of life.
Last comes the worst and most abhorred stage
Of unregarded age,
Joyless, companionless and slow,
Of woes the crowning woe.”

Age is the worst of all woes.


I find the story of Oedipus to be simultaneously strangely engaging, grotesque and appealing, fascinating and simple. There is for some reason a personal connection to the story that I think not only myself must feel as it has become some popular and discussed over time, as highlighted by Freud's attachment and study of the complexes depicted in Oedipus related to the human psyche.

Its my own personal feelings that I'm so curious about though.

The tale touches on:

  • Predestination or fate and the fight against fate. Is fate unavoidable?…was it the fact that it was so foretold that brought about the oracles prediction - it seems so, or would the oracles (Teiresias) prediction have come true no matter what Oedipus did.
  • Guilt and sin. Was Oedipus guilty?…he committed sin, but was he guilty?…what was it that drove him to blind himself?…shame, moral guilt, ethical guilt?

The play was written by Sophocles 5th century BC. No doubt he was a smart man, he was from a wealthy family and won accolades with these plays at the Dionysian festivals but he was still just a man in as much as this play comes from him. I can't say for sure it wasn't a collaboration amongst many but in the same way Shakespeare wrote poignantly about human psyche then so did this one man Sophocles. So we have a play that from a psychological point of view has some how tapped the human psyche and started a revolution - certainly with Freudian psychology, although its fair to say Freud may/will have found sources elsewhere. Nonetheless it is remarkable how this simple play has impacted the modern world.

Oedipus starts by solving the riddle of the Sphinx which one may think points to what the whole play is about - the life of man and his inevitable journey dictated by time; from four, to two, to three legs. There's a good part in the play Oedipus in Colonus where Oedipus talks of time, and that only the gods know what will happen. Time is a big theme I think in these plays:

Dear son of Aegeus, to the gods alone
Is given immunity from eld and death;
But nothing else escapes all-ruinous time.
Earth's might decays, the might of men decays,
Honor grows cold, dishonor flourishes,
There is no constancy 'twixt friend and friend,
Or city and city; be it soon or late,
Sweet turns to bitter, hate once more to love.
If now 'tis sunshine betwixt Thebes and thee
And not a cloud, Time in his endless course
Gives birth to endless days and nights, wherein
The merest nothing shall suffice to cut
With serried spears your bonds of amity.
Then shall my slumbering and buried corpse
In its cold grave drink their warm life-blood up,
If Zeus be Zeus and Phoebus still speak true.
No more: 'tis ill to tear aside the veil
Of mysteries; let me cease as I began:
Enough if thou wilt keep thy plighted troth,
Then shall thou ne'er complain that Oedipus
Proved an unprofitable and thankless guest,
Except the gods themselves shall play me false.

There were four important messages from the Oracle in Oedipus:

  1. Told to his parents by Teiresias. Laius and Jocasta that their son would kill his father (note, the prophecy did not say anything about sleeping with his mother).
  2. Told to Oedipus. That he would slay his father and sleep with his mother. And so he ran from them and it was then that he encountered Laius at the crossroads.
  3. Told to Oedipus through Creon. That the plague of infertility, the pollution in the land must be removed. (it doesn't say Oedipus is the pollution)
  4. Told to Oedipus, doesn't say by whom but we assume either Apollo (Pheobus). That the place of Oedipus' death will be a boon to the land, a blessing.

So, it was written way before Jesus Christ was on earth. Oedipus is in some ways just like a Christ figure. Christ endured 40 days and nights in the desert, Oedipus went in to the desert following his self adjudged exile. Oedipus was blind, Christ was confronted with the temptations of Satan. Mary Magdalene and Antigone seem to hold similar office as daughter. Antigone also being Oedipus' sister.

Where Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and God, three in one, is both God the father, God the son and the Holy Ghost, then Jesus Christ is both his son and his father. In this view then God lay with his mother as Oedipus does.

It was foretold that Christ would suffer and be sacrificed to atone for sins.

Sin and Judgement
Oedipus lays down the law by which he will convict himself. On hearing the Oracle that the pollution of the land need be exiled or killed Oedipus as the law maker proclaims his own doom. As with Christ, it was Gods law that accused and convicted Christ - even though Christ was sinless, blameless, he was to pay the price and take on Gods judgement/wrath for mans sins. This raises the question again of Oedipus' guilt, sin - did he sin? By the letter of the law he did: incest and patricide, but he was pure of heart in intention when committing these acts.

Oedipus' death and burial place was to be blessed by the gods. Sophocles leaves us wondering as to the location of his tomb not least of all on account of the servants/messengers message in Oedipus at Colonus where he tells of Theseus shielding his eyes to a bright light and Oedipus gone. Very similar to Christ's ascension to heaven after he rose from the dead.

So then how should we look at the Oedipus myth?…as a Self figure like Christ, as an Individuation journey, as a part of individuation?

Where Christ accepted his fate, Oedipus ran from his in the hope to avoid it. It's a little weird to consider that we need look at this perhaps by saying the Christ myth is like Oedipus and not the other way around given the chronology.

Looking at it as an individuation story it is difficult not to get caught up in the incestuous aspect of the plot given the historical impact and amplification this theme has received through Freud etc, which is in itself a bit ironic given the prophetic aspects of the play. Is the development and/or evolution of mans psyche since that time a self fulfilling prophecy?…what with Freud and all.

I would like to look at this from two angels:

  1. moral, i.e sin and wrong doing in the light of law
  2. archetypal, i.e. taking stock of the characters in the myth as complexes in an individual, the more typical approach I think.

The reason I think the moral aspect is relevant is that it touches me personally, but also the relation to the Christ myth. The moral or guilt/sin aspect is addressed more directly in Oedipus in Colonus and less so in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus claims he is innocent, not of the deeds but of still that he cannot be blamed because he killed his father in self defence and married his mother as was presented to him by the people of Thebes. One could argue that he still killed, irrespective of it being his father, he still murdered someone and this could be visited but I think would detract from the discussion as in those times when written - kind of like the old testament, “an eye for an eye …etc”, it would have been accepted for him, as he claimed, to have killed Laius in self defence. It becomes significant in the moral sense - not that he committed murder - but that it was his father, in that had he known firstly that Laius was a king, and his father, then self defence would not have been accepted as he would have - I guess - bowed to his superiors and given way to his senior = his father in respect. These things that he did not do then were the sin, not so much the killing itself per se. Therefore, he sinned on two accounts - not giving way to his father and sovereign, resulting in patricide (transgression 1) and then incest = marrying his mother (transgression 2). Both of these having been revealed to him by the Oracle. The first only revealed to Laius and Jocasta. So now to the matter of moral guilt, not rational guilt. He is morally innocent, or is it ethically innocent in his actions until he finds out…but he is rationally guilty from the moment he kills his father. This is so important because it also raises the question about our sin before Christ, we are no doubt rationally sinful too, but are we morally sinful?…I would say no, until we discover the rational transgression….and our eye's are opened. Ironically it is then that Oedipus blinds himself. This is so valuable as it speaks to much of human nature. Like the garden of Eden, we are blissfully innocent (in our nakedness) until our eyes are opened. This makes the play so powerful I think and it is this that touches us deeply - well me certainly - I think. It reminds me of William Blake's 'All Religions are One', principle III where he says:

No man can think write or speak from his heart but he must intend truth. Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual

[italics mine]

Oedipus can only intend truth until he knows the truth, he cannot speak from his heart truly. Here I am considering Blake's use of the word 'heart' as mans unconscious or soul which does know the truth I think. We could spend some time here discussing the hubris of Oedipus that perhaps blinded him to the truth. The hubris that perhaps gilded his path to sovereignty, the heroic tunnel vision of youth perhaps?…it was this that gave him the courage and benevolence to leave his adopted (him thinking his paternal and maternal) parents to defy the Oracle, in those times, to defy the Gods!…which, lets be honest was pretty bold. But it was the same double edged sword that allowed him to confront and defeat the Sphinx…all in all, he was young I think. He was blameless right up until he discovers that he has sinned. As to the question of sin, is it based on intent or is it based on morals, ethics? I think the latter as shown by Oedipus where he knows he has done wrong when he discovers he is the pollution, the one who has brought the plague to the land. So sin, wrong doing, transgression is there irrespective of knowledge of its existence…the Gods have 'foreseen it', so to speak. This is a bit like the Christ myth again. Has a child sinned in the eye's of God if a 2 year old kid dies?…I'm getting a little puritanical here, sure, but it highlights the attitude that all are sinful, or have transgressed, whether they know it or not…that is not the point. I think this must have been very powerful at the time and a reason to defer judgement to the gods and the oracles 'cause they would know what we do not. Its like that story of Moses walking with Khidr where Moses reckons Khidr is committing transgressions but does not see the whole picture. It is not exactly the same, but in a similar vein. This moral question is so very powerful. It circles back around to the 2nd approach to the tale in that I think man cannot assume to know the Gods and the fates (as Oedipus says in his wisdom now in the quote above when speaking to Theseus), we can only intend truth but cannot know what is really going on. It is important that when we do know we acknowledge and react accordingly, righteously and correctly…as Oedipus does. We do not know if we are truthful we can only intend to be truthful and the tragedy is as Aristotle depicted tragedy in its true sense (see notes above) where the real tragedy of events is the mis-perception, the misguided perception of things. This is so much like the awakening of enlightenment, the eating of the apple, the coming to knowledge of the unconscious and ones true nature in all its ugliness and beauty. You lose everything, your wife = anima, your kingdom (= stability of Self). It is then that we must turn in to now see what the unconscious has to offer = Oedipus blinding himself. Here now we move in to the archetypal view of things.

To pick up briefly from where I left off, the right thing to do when confronted with the truth of the unconscious (which I'll get in to in a min) the right thing to do is confront it, a looking inward. I think this is what Oedipus does, he blinds himself and goes into exile - leaving behind his ego, his current life, his sister/daughter (haha…that makes me laugh) as his guide, suppliant. Then his death, and thus his life, becomes a blessing to those who would have it. So back to the beginning though now…

From an archetypal, analytical psychology point of view this tale is so very rich and full of ideas and meaning I think that it is difficult to navigate a succinct path, or indeed extract one central theme. Even as it is now used to reference the Oedipal complex, there is so much more I think. It is mentioned and referenced so often by different writers on a number of aspects. From a high level I think it represents a journey of awakening that reflects the individuation processes, not unlike the story of Adam and Eve and their awakening of consciousness when eating the apple. Oedipus as the young hero rises in the first half of his life to full potential - ascension of life, the first half as Jung says, the parabolic curve of mans time here on earth. It is then that he starts to reflect on what he has done with his life. This point in life is not unique to the apex of this curve for everyone but rather a good rule of thumb. This point of enlightenment may occur at any time but in reality it occurs when ego strength is ready to accept it, or receive it…or rather it should. If it happens sooner, the ego may not be able to handle it and break down - Oedipus would kill himself, or all his people, or kill his wife and children for e.g. If it happens later in life the ego is so rigid and hard that no effect takes place - Oedipus would be in denial and reject his own proclaimed judgement and rule the land with an iron hand in denial of the plague/curse being his fault. Oedipus is confronted with the reality of the unconscious, a Self that knows more about him, governed by the Gods, the fates, powers beyond his control - powers that till now he has been actively working against by running away and trying to avoid the oracle prophecies.

So on one level it is a depiction of the journey of growth, of enlightenment of the psyche. A realisation that we must all go through. There are aspects of Jungs shadow complex and confrontation with the shadow, the ugliness and dark aspects that we did not think were a part of us. When this happens we need go deeper and get to know our shadow, our chthonic depths. In symbol he does this, he blinds himself to this world, his eyes a symbol of consciousness, a symbol of ego governance, of ego control. Being blind to the outside world he must now look inside, as he does in exile on his journeys into no mans land - exile = not belonging, not knowing who he is and where he belongs.

On another level there are the acts that bring him to this place of awakening/realisation of his wrong doing, or true nature/Self. The act of killing his father and sleeping with his mother. To this part I'm still not sure how concrete these ideas were or are within us a priori or whether or psychological fulfilment of these things are because they were said so, so to speak. However, that the psyche does resonate with these so much in the development of western psyche as the idea of monogamous union = marriage, the idea of hetro sexual marriage, the idea of family…as these aspects have dominated western civilisation they have I think in some way hatched these complexes as depicted in Sophocles play. I need to read more of Jung on this, and others. For e.g. would these complexes have arisen in a culture of polygamy?…would these ideas have taken route where the mother perhaps did not play so great a role but children were raised more in a community, in a tribe for e.g. I don't know, just throwing these ideas out there. What does resonate though with this play and the development of the modern psyche is the aspects of father and mother, that a developing man will 'marry his mother' and necessarily needs in some ways to kill his father to grow up and become a man. More importantly, he needs to realise these things which will be a rude and tragic awakening of forces - the gods - beyond his control. Then he'll need - with his ego strength - to confront and accept the judgement he himself would impart on such transgressions. He needs face them, look inwardly then die and his place of death will be a blessing, a place from which new growth and knowledge and safety and wisdom may arise. The place where a new hero may take over = Theseus. His journey into the unconscious will be with his sister/daughter (that still makes me laugh :), a suppliant to help him on his journey, an anima figure that will help and guide him. His equal = sister, and his offspring = daughter, as a result of his transgression. These things do not of course need happen in real life, they need to be realised. Is this a common journey of the western male psyche? Yes, I think so. I think for relationships to form between a man and woman as a man grows he necessarily needs to see these aspects, these complexes within himself - that he needs to kill his sovereign father to take the role of king, of father. He needs to realise that he will seek his mother and want to assume the place of his father. This may work but he needs to know this aspect of his unconscious. With this in mind he need accept his transgressions, perform them, and enter a chthonic journey into the unconscious to emerge reborn. These aspects are written by the gods, beyond our own understanding. Is this true for everyone or just for some?…I think for most people. What of the female aspect, does Oedipus have anything to say to the feminine psyche? Her anima will seek to kill the father, and she will seek to take the mothers place? Not sure.

It is these aspect that are the genius of this tale I think, the moral and archetypal elements.

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