Study Guide

The Story of Oedipus Summary

How It (Supposedly) Went Down

Brief Summary

The Oracle of Delphi tells King Laius of Thebes that he'll have a child who's destined to kill him and sleep with Laius's wife, Jocasta, the boy's own mother. When a baby comes along, the king pierces his ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. A shepherd finds the baby, though, and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.

One day, Oedipus goes to the Oracle of Delphi to find out who his real parents are. The Oracle doesn't see fit to tell him this, but she does tell him that he's destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he's his real dad. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx.

Several years (and several children) later Oedipus and Jocasta figure out the truth of everything with the unwilling help of Tiresias, the seer. Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The blind king then goes into exile with only his daughter, Antigone, to guide him, and eventually dies in the town of Colonus.

Detailed Summary 

  • Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, are having no luck conceiving a child.
  • So, the king goes to the Oracle of Delphi to figure out what the deal is.
  • The Oracle is all like, "I've got good news and bad news."
  • "Lay it on me," says Laius.
  • "Well... " says the Oracle, "You will have a child."
  • "Awesome," says Laius.
  • "But... " the Oracle tells him, "The child will kill you and sleep with his mother."
  • "Not so awesome," Laius groans.
  • For some ridiculous reason, Laius decides to keep sleeping with his wife despite this prophecy.
  • Eventually, Jocasta gets pregnant and gives birth to a bouncing baby boy.
  • To try and avoid the prophecy, Lauis pierces the baby's ankles, binding them together with a pin, and abandons his son on the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron.
  • (Father of the year, right?)
  • Later, a kindly shepherd comes by and finds the baby boy.
  • He takes the child to Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, who don't have any children.
  • The royal couple is all about the cute kid, and they decide to raise him as their own.
  • They name him Oedipus, which means "swollen ankles," because of the way the pins in his ankles have swollen them.
  • In some alternate versions, Laius puts Oedipus in a chest and throws him into the sea. Polybus finds him and names him Oedipias, which means "child of the swollen sea."
  • (Man, Child of the Swollen Sea is a way better name than Swollen Ankles, right? Just sayin'.)
  • Oedipus grows up thinking that Polybus and Merope are his legit parents.
  • One day, though, some random drunk dude at a feast calls out that the royal couple aren't his real parents.
  • "Say it ain't so!" Oedipus cries to people he thought were his parents.
  • "It ain't so," they lie, totally denying it.
  • Oedipus doesn't quite buy it, though, so he trucks it over to the Oracle of Delphi to get the truth of the whole thing.
  • As usual, the Oracle's prophecy is a little bit of a downer... okay, actually it's a HUGE downer.
  • The priestess totally dodges the question of who Oedipus's real parents are, but does let him know that he's destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother.
  • Oedipus is totally freaked out by the prophecy.
  • (Understandable, right?)
  • The prince decides to never return home to Corinth, fearing that he'll kill Polybus and sleep with Merope, whom he assumes must be his real parents.
  • The Oracle didn't bother to tell him otherwise, so they must be, right?
  • (Wrong. So. So. Wrong.)
  • Oedipus goes out a-wanderin' and comes upon a place where three roads meet.
  • A few dudes roll up to the crossroads and tell Oedipus to get out of the way.
  • Oedipus is all like, "No way, you get out the way."
  • "Whatever, jerk," the guys say, and a fight breaks out.
  • Our hero pulls out some major ninja moves and manages to kill the guys with only one survivor running away.
  • (Man, it looks like the ancient Greeks had major road rage.)
  • Oedipus walks off thinking he's a totally awesome warrior, but what he doesn't know is that one of the guys he's just killed is his real father, Laius, the king of Thebes.
  • (Bummer.)
  • Eventually, Oedipus makes his way to Thebes, which is having some serious trouble.
  • Their king is nowhere to be found and a Sphinx has taken up residence outside of the city.
  • The Sphinx is a crazy monster with the head and breasts of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of a bird, and (some say) a snake for a tail.
  • Her favorite activity is sitting on a big rock outside of Thebes and asking everybody a riddle.
  • When people get it wrong (and they always do) she strangles them, or eats them, or some other such awful thing.
  • In Laius's absence Queen Jocasta's brother, Creon, has taken over ruling Thebes.
  • Creon has offered the hand of the queen and the throne of Thebes to any man who can get rid of the Sphinx.
  • When Oedipus hears this, he's like, "Awesome. I am totally going to rock this out."
  • So, he strolls up to the Sphinx's rock, stepping over the bones of those of failed before him.
  • The monster swoops down on him and asks her riddle.
  • In a mysterious voice, she purrs, "Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?"
  • Oedipus scratches his head for a second and then declares confidently, "Man."
  • Get it? It's because we humans crawl on all fours when we're babies, walk upright in our prime, and some walk with a cane when we're old.
  • The Sphinx is so upset that somebody figured out her riddle that she throw herself of a cliff and dies.
  • (Dude, she took her riddle mad seriously.)
  • When Oedipus shows up in Thebes and announces his deed, everybody thinks he's awesome.
  • Creon makes good on his word, giving him the throne and the hand of Jocasta.
  • Wow, everything is working out great for Oedipus.
  • Oh, wait, except for the fact that he just unknowingly married his mother.
  • Oedipus and Jocasta get along swell and have a bunch of kids: Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices, and Eteocles.
  • Eventually, though, a terrible plague comes to Thebes.
  • Everybody is dying and everything sucks. Even the livestock are suffering.
  • King Oedipus sends Creon to the Oracle of Delphi to find out what's going on.
  • The Oracle, in her typically cryptic fashion, declares that the killer of Laius is living in Thebes and must be expelled.
  • When Creon tells Oedipus this, the King swears that he'll figure out who the killer is and exile the jerk like nobody's business.
  • Creon suggests that Oedipus call in the help of Tiresias, the famous seer, who knows pretty much everything about everything.
  • "Cool beans," says Oedipus, and they call the old, blind man to the palace.
  • At first, Tiresias really doesn't want to tell Oedipus what's up, and the seer advises the king to stop seeking the truth.
  • Oedipus flips out and threatens him, though, and Tiresias finally tells the King that he's actually the murderer that he's looking for.
  • Oedipus doesn't want to believe it, and he accuses Creon and Tiresias of being allied against him.
  • Jocasta tries to comfort Oedipus, telling him that he couldn't be the killer because Laius was killed by robbers at a place where three roads meet.
  • "Uh oh," says Oedipus. "Seems like I remember killing some dudes in a place just like that."
  • The king sends for the one guy who is said to have survived the attack to find out he truth.
  • Meanwhile, a messenger shows up from Corinth to let Oedipus know that Polybus has died.
  • At first, Oedipus is relieved because he thinks this means he'll never fulfill the prophecy that he'll kill his father.
  • The messenger totally bursts the King's bubble, though.
  • It turns out that this guy is actually the shepherd who found Oedipus on the mountain and brought him to Corinth.
  • So, now, Oedipus knows for sure that Polybus wasn't his real dad.
  • Jocasta, remembering the prophecy that made her abandon her son, puts it all together at this point.
  • She begs Oedipus not to pursue the truth any further, but he insists.
  • Next thing you know, the survivor of the attack shows up and confirms that Oedipus is the killer.
  • In some versions, the survivor guy is also the dude who took baby Oedipus up on the mountain.
  • The whole truth comes crashing down on Oedipus like a ton of bricks.
  • As if things weren't bad enough, Oedipus finds that Jocasta has hung herself.
  • This makes him really go off the deep end, and he yanks a pin from her robe and stabs out his eyes.
  • After this, Creon exiles Oedipus and the blind man wanders the wilderness with only his dedicated daughter, Antigone, to guide him.
  • Eventually, Oedipus and Antigone end up in a town called Colonus, which is just outside of Athens.
  • Oedipus is broken and old, and he's been told by a prophecy that he's meant to die here in a grove dedicated to the Erinyes (aka the Furies).
  • Just then, Ismene shows up and gives them some bad news from Thebes.
  • It turns out that in Oedipus's absence, Polyneices and Eteocles have been sharing the rule of Athens.
  • They'd agreed to switch off ruling Thebes every year.
  • When the time came for Eteocles to step down, though, he refused and exiled his brother.
  • So, Polyneices went off and married a princess whose dad had a big army, and now he's at the gates determined to take back the throne.
  • Creon shows up, representing Eteocles, and tries to convince the dying Oedipus to come back to Thebes to be buried, because a prophecy has said that wherever Oedipus is buried will be blessed.
  • Polyneices shows up too and also tries to get Oedipus's blessing.
  • Oedipus tells them both to buzz off.
  • In some versions, he curses his sons to kill each other in battle, because he feels like they neglected him all these years, unlike his devoted Antigone.
  • Creon takes Antigone and Ismene hostage to try and force Oedipus to do what he wants.
  • Just in the nick of time, though, King Theseus of Athens steps in and saves the girls.
  • Theseus grants asylum to Oedipus, allowing the old blind man to die in peace.
  • His body is buried in secret somewhere near Athens, and the city receives his blessing.
  • Antigone and Ismene weep over the death of their father/brother and beg Theseus to tell them where he's buried, so they can mourn over his grave.
  • Theseus refuses, though, saying that nobody can ever know where Oedipus is buried.
  • Antigone is super worried about the civil war between her brothers in Thebes, though, so she heads back home and...
  • To be continued!
  • Click here for the story of Antigone.

Alternate endings

  • Euripides
  • The above version of the story is the most well known and is based on the plays of Sophocles.
  • In a version of the tale by Euripides, however, Jocasta doesn't kill herself and Oedipus is locked away by Eteocles and Polyneices so that his shame won't be seen by the world.
  • Oedipus curses his sons for locking him up.
  • Eteocles and Polyneices share the rule of Thebes for a while, but eventually get power-hungry and kill each other over it.
  • At this point, Jocasta kills herself, and Creon exiles Oedipus who goes off with Antigone.
  • Homer
  • In an even older version by Homer, though, Oedipus doesn't stop ruling Thebes after he finds out the truth.
  • When the truth comes out, Jocasta kill herself and Oedipus is tortured by the Furies for a while, but stays in charge of the city.
  • Eventually, though, he dies in battle and is given an honorable burial in Thebes.

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