Oedipus and the Plague: The Will to Endure

April 30, 2020 Updated: May 1, 2020

Oedipus is one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology—immortalized in what is generally considered the greatest of all Greek dramas, “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that he is a hero unlike most of the other heroes of ancient Greece: He did not possess the strength and power of a Herakles or Theseus, or the wily warrior skills of Odysseus, or even the poetry and singing skills of Orpheus who descended more deeply into Hades even than Herakles. In what way, then, was he a hero?

Well, he was a hero in that he overcame a monster, the Sphinx, but this was not through strength or wiles: It was through insight and intelligence. By Oedipus answering the Sphinx’s riddle correctly, the Sphinx despairs and kills herself. And this is worth noticing, for here is the first clue as to why Oedipus is a hero: Escaping is the very thing that he refuses to do. As we will see, Oedipus when faced with his crimes does not give up. He relentlessly seeks, and unflinchingly faces, the truth, and then he takes the consequences.

Oedipus on Kylix
Oedipus answering the Sphinx’s question. Painted red figure ceramic, circa 470 B.C. Gregorian Etruscan Museum of Vatican Museums. (Public Domain)

He is a hero of the human will’s ability to endure, to move forward, and to persevere to the end. In this way, he is a real hero for our times, for was there ever a time when we needed such qualities more?

Today’s Ills

Suicide rates are at their highest-ever levels; and numbing out—not facing reality—is evident in all the escapism, that is, addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and home entertainment systems by which we are encased. And if we have not subjected ourselves to suicide or escapism, we also have those extraordinary high levels of depression and despair with which so many in our society are now afflicted.

What, then, is the story of Oedipus and why is this so relevant to us? Jungian psychology takes the view, I think correctly, that what we deny inwardly eventually manifests itself outwardly. In other words, what is going on within us, internally, will eventually appear in the real world. This becomes a fate from which we cannot escape.

In the case of Oedipus, the road that leads to his fate seems terrible to contemplate. We must start with Oedipus’s father, Laius, and his crime. Laius raped the king’s son, a crime known in antiquity as “the crime of Laius” (hybris, or “violent outrage”). As punishment, the goddess Hera sent the monster Sphinx to the Thebans. Furthermore, Apollo warns Laius that if he fathers a son, as punishment for his crime, his own son would kill him.

Faced with this oracle, Laius ordered that his son be destroyed at birth. A servant was ordered to abandon and expose the baby on Mount Cithaeron, with the child’s feet being transfixed by a spike. Hence, the name Oedipus, which means “swollen feet.” However, the servant couldn’t go along with such an evil act, so he passes the child to a shepherd to look after, and so fate is set in motion.

The infant Oedipus revived by the shepherd Phorbas, 1810s, by Antoine-Denis Chaudet. Louvre, from the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. (Public Domain)

Fast-forward: The oracle at Delphi tells Oedipus that he will kill his father and marry his mother; Oedipus, not knowing his true heritage, assumes he will harm his step-parents at Corinth. Thus, to avoid the prophecy, he flees Corinth and during his flight inadvertently meets his real father at a crossroad. Neither recognizes the other, and following an altercation, Oedipus kills his father.

“The Murder of Laius by Oedipus,
“The Murder of Laius by Oedipus,” 1867, by Joseph Blanc. (VladoubidoOo/CC BY-SA 3.0)

From there, Oedipus goes on to Thebes, and on the way answers the Sphinx’s riddle. Through this act of superior intelligence, he destroys the Sphinx and is made king of Corinth; in the process, he marries Queen Jocasta who, unbeknownst to them both, is also his real mother. The prophecy of Apollo is fulfilled.

There are many points of deep interest in this story, but here I want to focus on the fact it all seems to our modern minds wholly unfair!

It’s Unfair!

It seems as if Oedipus is some innocent being led to willful destruction for no good reason. After all, his father’s actions—or to use a biblical term, sin—provoked the first curse. Then, having survived birth and exposure, his killing of Laius was in anger, but also in self-defense, as he was being forced off the road by Laius, and Laius struck him. He also had tried desperately to avoid the prophecy by not going near his home city. Finally, he could not know that Jocasta was his mother.

But here we remember James Hollis’s comment: “How different was Jung’s puzzling but challenging religious affirmation that especially in the traumatic, the work of the gods may be seen. He wrote, ‘[God] is the name by which I designate all things which cross my wilful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.’” Something, clearly, crosses Oedipus’s path in its violent and reckless way.

And so we come to the middle part of the story. For Oedipus could have lived a happy-ever-after life with Queen Jocasta. He was a successful king for 20 years; they had four children between them. And they didn’t know they were committing incest. But at this point in the narrative, the god Apollo forces the issue. A dreadful plague descends on Thebes, and on consulting the Delphic Oracle, Oedipus learns that the plague will only end when the murderer of King Laius has been killed or banished. Oedipus (ironically, since he curses himself) puts a curse on the murderer and then sets out to find him and end the plague.

King Oedipus, the cause of the plague, is shunned by his people. “The Plague of Thebes,” 1842, by Charles Francois Jalabert. Marseille Museum of Fine Arts. (Public Domain)

Today, we consider it heartless and wrong to suggest that COVID-19 is a plague sent by God or the gods to punish mankind for some sin that we are unaware of. But it is not just the Greeks who held that plagues are manifestations of the gods’ anger. Most famously, the Bible records the Egyptians, the Israelites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, and more besides, experiencing plagues as a direct result of some transgressions. Often these are ascribed to the whole nation or tribe, but sometimes, as in the case of Oedipus, they derive from one sole person’s wrongdoing. For example, in 2 Samuel 24:10 we learn of King David’s sin—a sin that causes 70,000 people to die in a plague.

The point about the sin, however, is that it is not obvious: It is something beneath the surface that has to be revealed through the suffering. Nobody wants it, and in one sense, nobody deserves it. How are we, as humans, to say that somebody deserves to die of COVID-19?

In his book “The Wisdom of the Myths,” Luc Ferry addresses this fundamental question: Irrespective of whether we see ourselves of deserving a certain fate, we must face it. So here is where the Oedipus story reveals the significance of these crises: The ancients did not go into denial to avoid the truth or to evade responsibility. They faced reality; in Eastern philosophical terms, the Tao is right and to go against it is the greater crime.

Plagues cannot be ignored; lives are at stake. But what they force human beings to do is ask “why?” Why this plague, and why now? And so, the rest of the story of Oedipus is his relentless pursuit to find the answer to this question. In one sense, plagues force us to confront mortality and suffering in a very direct and agonizing manner, and this leads us to question the meaning of life itself. Oedipus, then, is a model for our times.

Facing or Dodging Responsibility?

If we consider COVID-19, the modern world wants to find who is responsible for it. Is it the Chinese Communist Party? Is it some aspect of biological evolution whereby viruses naturally mutate, or have they unnaturally mutated? Is it the leader or government of this or that country who failed to put in place the right measures at the right time? Is it scientists more generally who have failed to give good advice? The list goes on. But this way of thinking is not how the Greeks or the Israelites or the ancients thought.

Once Zeus triumphed over the forces of chaos and darkness, and established order and justice (the goddess Diké)—the equivalent to God creating the cosmos and it being “good”—all violations of this order have consequences. It’s not that the sons of the father must be punished for their father’s sin, but rather that in sinning in the first place the cosmic order has been displaced, and so there is going to be collateral damage that may take generations to repair, and to return to its proper and harmonious stability.

In a way, we see this all the time: Parents can create unfortunate legacies for their children, which is not the children’s fault, but for which they have to endure a lifetime of problems. And if we consider the whole Oedipus family story—which extends over several generations—this is extremely apt.

Sophocles’s play “Oedipus at Colonus” ends with the king, who having atoned for his sins, becomes a blessing to the city where he is buried. “Oedipus and Antigone” by Franz Dietrich. Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, Calif. (PD-US)

Thus, while we may be looking for who is immediately responsible for COVID-19, the ancient Greeks who recorded what happened to Oedipus would be looking for something deeper: perhaps one person, one family, one tribe, or one nation that exhibited massive hubris at some point in the past, and now collectively we all have to pay the price, as Oedipus’s subjects did when the plague struck them. Alternatively, has humanity itself committed some collective act of hubris for which now a penalty is being enforced?

The herdsman in Sophocles’s play who finally confirms that it is Oedipus who killed his father, says as he is about to make the revelation: “I am on the brink of terrible words.” To which Oedipus replies, “And I of terrible hearing.” What must we in the modern world, as we contemplate the fate of Oedipus, hear that perhaps we don’t want to but, like Oedipus, we must?

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.