The American College Encyclopedic Dictionary defines the adjective “blind” as: 1. lacking the sense of sight; 2. unwilling, or unable to try or understand; 3. not controlled by reason: (blind tenacity); 4. not possessing or proceeding from intelligence; 5. lacking all awareness: ( a blind stupor); 6. drunk – hard to see or understand (blind reasoning); 7. made without knowledge in advance: ( a blind bargain).” (The American College Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1952:54).
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What the reader gleans from stories about Oedipus was not that he became blind only in middle age after he had gotten married and had four children. After close reading, many readers tend to believe otherwise. True, Oedipus became physically blind when he gouged out his own eyes upon learning that he had committed the crime of incest; but it is hinted in many versions of the story of Oedipus, that he had only himself to blame for the unfortunate circumstances in his youth because he acted of his own free will. It can be said, therefore, that Oedipus was blind without his knowledge even before he was, physically. This would especially conform to the last definition of the ACD – made without knowledge in advance. This paper will endevour to prove the truth of its title – that Oedipus was blind in more ways than one and that the unfortunate circumstances in which he found himself later in his life could have been avoided had he been more careful and less stubborn and impulsive.
This is the story of Oedipus in a nutshell: It is a Greek legend about the son of Laius and Jocasta. Reared by the King of Corinth, he killed his father involuntarily and solved the riddle of the Sphinx, thereby becoming the King of Thebes and unwittingly winning the hand of his mother in marriage. When the nature of his deeds became apparent, Jocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus tore his eyes out.
The story of Oedipus at length is presented here for purposes of analysis, and to give credence to the statement that Oedipus could have been master of his own fate, had he chosen to be so. King Laius of thebes was third in line from Cadmus. He married a distant cousin, Jocasta. When their reign began, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi began to play an important part in the family’s fortunes.
Apollo was the God of Truth. Whatever the priestess at Delphi predicted would surely come to pass. Any attempt to act in such a way as to prevent the prophecy from taking place would prove to be fruitless. Laius persisted to go on even against fate despite the oracle’s warning that he would die at the hands of his son. When the son was born, he tied his feet together and had it exposed on a lonely mountaintop where it would surely die. His heart now felt no fear. He was confident that he could foretell the future better than Apollo. He never realized his folly. Indeed, he was killed by a man he thought to be a stranger. He never realized that Apollo’s prediction would come true, for he was slain by his own son, Oedipus.
He was away from home when he died and a long time had passed when his baby son had been left on the mountain. What was reported was that a band of robbers had attacked, killing him and his attendants, except one who escaped and reported the matter home. The matter was not carefully investigated because Thebes was in a state of emergency. The city was in the clutches of a monster, The Sphinx. By this time, Oedipus had already become a man. Another report was that Laius was killed in a drunken brawl. Oedipus must have been intoxicated when he killed his father. In this regard, he was blind. According to the ACD, drunkenness is a kind of blindness. Since he did not recognize his father at the time of slaying, he would also have been undergoing a different kind of blindness. This situation could have been avoided if Oedipus grew up away from drinking sprees and getting into brawls.
Going back to the Sphinx, she was a creature who was with a body of a lion, but with the breast and face of a woman. She waited for wayfarers going to the city and whomever she caught, she put a riddle to him. If he answered correctly, she let him go; if not, she would devour him. This went on until the city was in a state of siege. The terrible monster devoured man after man until the seven gates of Thebes remained closed and famine threatened to lay waste the citizens.
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It so happened that a young man, with great courage and intelligence came upon her. It was no other than Oedipus himself. He had left home in Corinth where he was the son of its king – Polybus. The reason for his self-exile was purportedly another Delphian oracle – that he was fated to kill his father. Like Laius before him, Oedipus wanted to go against fate and make the prediction fail. Hence, he resolved to leave, never to see Polybus again. He really thought that Polybus was his father.
Surely, Oedipus as he was growing up, had heard whispers going around about his being an adopted son, but he chose not to pay any attention “gossip”, so he became “blind” to the possibility that he was not a bona fide son of Polybus. Had he not blinded himself, he would not have left home at all and most importantly, Oedipus would not have committed the crime of killing his father.
Oedipus heard what was happening in Thebes there. A man, homeless and friendless and to whom life meant so little. He decided to find the Sphinx and attempt to solve the riddle. This instance can be another one where Oedipus showed his blindness. He should not have valued his life more since life is too wonderful as to lose sight of its worth. Had he not left home, the hideous crime would not have happened since it was committed far from Corinth.
The Sphinx asked Oedipus, “What creature goes on four feet in the morning; on two in the noon; on three in the evening?” Oedipus answered, “Man. In childhood, he walks on all fours; in manhood, he walks erect; in old age, he helps himself with a cane.” His answer was correct and the Sphinx killed himself, thus saving the Thebans (Sophocles: n.p.).
Oedipus gained a great deal by using his intelligence. The grateful citizens crowned him King. He sought the hand in marriage of Jocasta and married her. Perhaps he was so affected by his success as a hero that he never bothered to look into the past of Jocasta. He was blinded by his victory, otherwise he would have not married her and spared himself the catastrophe that was waiting to happen.
For many years, the royal family lived happily and it seemed that Apollo’s words amounted to nothing. But when their two sons attained maturity, Thebes was visited by a terrible plague. Those spared from disease faced death by famine. He sent Jocasta’s brother Creon to Delphi to implore Apollo’s help. Creon arrived home with the news that Apollo declared his intention to stop the plague on one condition – that the murderer of King Lairus must be punished. At first, Oedipus was relieved. Surely, the guilty ones could still be found even after all these years.
Oedipus sent for Teirisias, the old, blind prophet and asked him who the guilty ones were. At first the seer refused to answer. But when Oedipus went so far as to accuse him of keeping silence because he himself had taken part in the murder, the prophet was angered and the words fell heavily from his lips – “You are yourself the murderer you seek.” (Sophocles: n.p)
Jocasta, too, treated this assertion with scorn. “Neither prophets nor oracles have any sure knowledge”, she said. She told Oedipus how the priestess at Delphi had prophesied that Lairus should die at the hands of his son and how she and Laius had seen to it that this should not happen by having the child killed. She concluded that Laius was killed by robbers. Where three roads meet on the way to Delphi. When Oedipus asked her when it happened, she replied, “Just before you came to Thebes.” (Sophocles; n.p.)
He told Jocasta the following,
“I went to Delphi just before I came here because a man had flung it in my face that I was not the son of Polybus. I went to ask the god Apollo. He did not answer me but told me horrible things – that I should kill my father and marry my mother… I never went back to Corinth. On my way from Delphi, at a place where three roads met, I came upon a man with four attendants. He tried to force me from the path; he struck me with his stick. Angered, I fell upon them and killed them. Could it be the leader was Laius? The one man left alive brought back a tale of robbers. Jocasta said, “Laius was killed by robbers, not by his son 0 the poor innocent who died upon the mountain.” (Hamilton, 1942:259-260)
As they talked further, a messenger came from Corinth to announce to Oedipus the death of Polybus. Jocasta cried,
“O oracle of the god, where are you now?.. The man died but not by his son’s hand. The messenger smiled, “Did the fear of killing your father drive you from Corinth? Ah, King, you were in error. You never had reason to fear – for you were not the son of Polybus. He raised you as his own son but he took you from my hands.” :Where did you get me?” Oedipus asked. “A wandering shepherd gave you to me.” was the answer (Sophocles in Kennedy & Gioia, 2007: n.p.).
A look of horror was on Jocasta’s face. She broke away and rushed into the palace. At that moment, an old man entered.
“The very man, O King, the shepherd who gave you to me. The messenger told the old man, “You must remember. You gave me once a little child you had found – and the king here is that child. The shepherd muttered, “Curse you. Hold your tongue.” The king said, “There are ways to make you speak!” The old man wailed, “Oh do not hurt me. I did give him the child, but ask me no further.” “If I have to ask him a second time where you got him, you are lost”, the king said, “Ask your lady”, the old man said. “She can tell you best.” “She gave him to you?” asked Oedipus. “Oh yes. I was to kill the child.” (Sophocles in Kennedy & Gioia, 2007:1313)
“Within the palace Oedipus wildly sought for his wife that was his mother. He found her in her chamber. She was dead. When the truth broke upon her, she had killed herself. Standing beside her, he too turned his hand against himself, but not to end his life. He changed his light to darkness. He put out his eyes. The black world of blindness was a refuge; better to be there than to see with strange shamed eyes the old world that had been so bright.” (Sophocles in Kennedy & Gioia, 2007:1316)
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In 468 B.C., Sophocles, not yet thirty, submitted a tragedy that triumphed over the play submitted by Aeschylus, an older playwright favored to win. Sophocles’ victory was attributed in part to his willingness to take risks and to break old conventions.
“The story of Oedipus is handled in two great plays by Sophocles, Oedipus, the King deals with Oedipus’ discovery, after he has become King of the fact that he has killed his father and married his mother. Aristotle considered it the masterpiece of Greek tragedy. Oedipus at Colonus deals with the later years of his life after he has found refuge on Attic soil, accompanied by his faithful daughter, Antigone.
“Most unhappy much of his life, he was happy at the end. The oracle which once had spoken horrible words to him comforted him when he was dying. Apollo promised that he, the disgraced, the homeless wanderer; would bring to the place where his grave should be, a mysterious blessing from the gods. Theseus, the King of Athens, received him with all honor, and the old man died rejoicing that he was no longer hateful to men, but welcomed as a benefactor to the land that harbored him.” (Grolier Society of Canada, 1961:115)
Grolier Society of Canada, Ltd., Vol. 15. New York: Grolier Inc.,1961, p.115.
Hamilton, E., Mythology. 1942.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the king.” Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing.” Tenth Edition. ed. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.
New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007: 1285-1322.
The American College Encyclopedic Dictionary, Vol. I Spencer Press, Inc., 1952.