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The Oedipus Plays of SophoclesPhilosophical Perspectives$

Paul Woodruff

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190669447

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190669447.001.0001

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The Killing Feet

The Killing Feet

Evidence and Evidence Sensitivity in Oedipus Tyrannus

(p.41) Chapter 2 The Killing Feet
The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles

C. D. C. Reeve

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Did Oedipus kill his father and marry his mother? Are the various oracles dealing with the matter fulfilled? The evidence the play Oedipus Tyrannus presents is inconsistent, but audiences and interpreters are almost unanimous in treating it as if it yielded decisive positive answers to these questions. In treating inadequate evidence as decisive they follow in Oedipus’s footsteps, since he does the very same thing. That, indeed, is his tragedy, but also ours—which is precisely the point of the play. True reverence requires a degree of sensitivity to evidence, which—often with disastrous consequences—we are prone not to exhibit.

Keywords:   Oedipus, Frederick Ahl, Homer, Bernard Knox, Thucydides, evidence, oracles, reverence

You are, as you think, the Prince of Corinth, heir apparent to the throne. You are rich, powerful, well-connected, “held in the highest esteem, / A prominent man” (775–76).1 And you are these things because you are, as you think, the only son—the only child (1024)—of Polybus and Merope, the reigning king and queen. Were you to leave Corinth, it would be to leave behind all that—a kingdom and a king’s ransom. That would require a powerful reason, a compelling motive. Here is what you tell your wife, Jocasta, about what your reason was:

  • A drunken dinner guest filled with wine
  • Blurted out that I was not my father’s son [πλαστὸς ὡς εἴην πατρί‎]. (779–80)

(p.42) Most of us, I think, would simply have laughed that off. But you didn’t. “I was distressed,” you say,

  • It was all I could do that day to control my rage.
  • But on the next day, I went to my mother and father
  • Seeking some explanation, and they were furious
  • That anyone would speak such spurious slander. (781–84)

Despite their reaction, you still remained eaten up by doubts:

  • I was consoled, but a rumor creeps in stealth,
  • And soon enough it started to grate on my mind. (785–86)

Hardly surprising, then, that you should look for more evidence. To find it you turn to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. This might not have been our first choice, but in your world it was a pretty natural thing to do. We think of Socrates’s friend Chaerephon and the long list of Delphi consulters that we find in Herodotus and Thucydides.

To understand your reaction to what you hear there, though, we need to say a few things about evidence. We may partition it, without prejudice, as the lawyers say, into the religious and the secular, and these, in turn, into the direct and the indirect. Thus if a god tells you something, that is direct religious evidence that the something is true, whereas if a prophet tells it to you, that is indirect religious evidence. Jocasta herself draws this distinction when, as you and she are trading life histories, she says:

  • An oracle came to Laius once—I won’t say
  • “From Apollo”; it came from priests—
  • That “Laius would die at the hands of a son
  • That would be born to him and me.” (711–14)

(p.43) Similarly, if you see an old man in a wagon when you are out for a walk and kill him, that is direct secular evidence that you killed him, whereas if a shepherd reports to you what he saw happen, that is indirect secular evidence. Jocasta’s question to you—“Was he a witness? / Or is he acting on hearsay?” (704)—draws this very distinction.

In the case of indirect evidence even of the religious variety there is always room for doubt. In fact, Jocasta draws the distinction precisely in order to cast such doubt. “Listen,” she says to you, “I’ll tell you why you can’t rely / On any merely human soothsayers” (708–9). And the chorus of Theban citizens seem to be on her side:

  • Zeus and Apollo are wise;
  • They know what mortals do.
  • But a human prophet?
  • There’s no true way to tell that he knows
  • more than I.
  • Tiresias is clever. Well, clever men compete; they put each
  • other down. (498–500)

In doing so, they stand, moreover, on ground that Homer had already hallowed. For when Priam is ordered by the goddess Iris to go to Achilles himself and ransom back the body of his son Hector, he says to Hecuba, his wife:

  • If it had been some other who ordered me, one of the mortals,
  • one of those who are prophets, or priests, or diviners,
  • I might have called it a lie and we might rather have rejected it. (Il. XIV.220–22)2

(p.44) And this, in turn, invites us to ask why people—why Laius, for example—do not in such cases do what Priam suggests it is open to them to do. Why didn’t Laius call the prophecy a lie and explore other options? Why didn’t he send to Delphi for advice? The life of his only son—his only child—was at stake, after all.

Well, there you are at Delphi seeking to find out whether Polybus and Merope are really your parents, and this, you say, is what happened:

  • I went to Delphi. But there, Apollo shunned me,
  • Denied my questions and sent me away,
  • But not before he revealed what was to come.
  • Such tormenting horrors! He said I would
  • Mate with my mother and reveal a race
  • Too vile to stand in the sight of man.
  • He said I would kill my father. (787–93)

Terrible news, no doubt about that. No wonder you were shocked. Notably, though, you did not call it a lie, or ask for clarification, as Delphi itself evidently allowed—at any rate, if what we hear about how it responded to Croesus is true:

The prophecy given by Loxias ran: if Croesus made war on Persia, he would destroy a mighty empire. Now, in the face of that, if he was going to be well advised, he should have sent and inquired again, whether it was his own empire or that of Cyrus that was spoken of. (Herodotus, I.91)3

(p.45) So, bearing in mind that a king’s ransom, your own princely life and livelihood, was at stake, we must ask why you, like your father before you, did not do what it was open to you to do.

Did you perhaps think that your evidence was direct religious evidence, and so no more to be doubted than Iris’s command to Priam? One way you describe what happened suggests that you did. “Apollo,” you say, denied your questions. What we know of the operations of Delphi, however, suggests that in doing so—if indeed you did do so—you probably went beyond the evidence. For what you got at Delphi, and for a handsome fee, might just have been some difficult to interpret, and perhaps even ambiguous verses—in other words, indirect religious evidence. And that is what you later suggest you got yourself when you speak of your “revolting prophecies [κακῶν χρησμῶν‎]” (796–97). But whether you take what you heard as direct or indirect religious evidence, in any case you take it at face value and treat it as veridical.

How did you respond to it? Here is what you say:

  • I heard Apollo’s word, and I ran,
  • Tried to flee a universe from Corinth,
  • To reach some place that would never see
  • The fulfillment of those revolting prophecies. (794–97)

So let’s be clear. You went to Delphi to find out whether Polybus and Merope are really your parents. But you were denied what you went there for, because Delphi told you nothing about your parentage. Instead, it told you that you will have children with your mother and kill your father. You do not question the meaning of this prophecy, as we saw you might have. Instead, you think that you can both take it at face value and escape it.

What you do to escape it, moreover, is run away from Corinth—which might be at any rate an intelligible thing to do, if indeed you (p.46) knew that your parents were Polybus and Merope. But that is precisely what you do not know—what you went to Delphi to find out, but failed to find out. And that makes what you did doubly or even triply irrational. For, first, you are running as if you know who your parents are, when you don’t. Second, you are running away from a king’s ransom toward an uncertain future, both of which are irrational on the basis of the secular evidence. Third, you are attempting to escape an oracle that you at the same time take as veridical, and this is irrational on the basis of the religious evidence.

One of your apparent defects as a rational inquirer and agent, in fact, is that you are neither resolutely secular nor resolutely religious, but instead have an uncertain foot in both camps. For what you do when a plague strikes Thebes, whose king you have become, is send your brother-in-law to Delphi to find out what to do (religious), oblivious to the fact that Delphi may remember how you responded to its last oracle (irreligious). In this, again, you are like your father, who, having tried to escape one oracle of Phoebus’s, was on his way to Delphi, presumably to get another, when he was killed (114). And when Creon reports that the plague is a pollution caused by the presence in Thebes of the murderer or murderers of Laius, who must be found and cast out for the plague to cease, you consult Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo, to help you find him (religious again). And when, after some provocation, he accuses you yourself of being the murderer, what you do, among other things, is say this:

  • Tell me, when have your prophecies been proved?
  • When the Sphinx sounded her deadly song
  • Did you speak to save our people then?
  • The riddle could not be solved by just any man.
  • It needed the skills of a seer, but where were you?
  • You saw no omens, you made no revelations, (p.47)
  • There was no divine inspiration, you knew nothing.
  • Then I came, ignorant Oedipus. I silenced her
  • By using my mind, not signs from the sky! (390–98)

But if you, with your own mind, can outdo Apollo’s prophet, why not use it exclusively? Why turn to Delphi at all?

Similarly, when you hear from the messenger from Corinth that Polybus is not your father, you say to Jocasta:

  • Why? Why, dear wife, should we observe the oracle
  • At Delphi, or strain to see signs from birds screeching
  • In the sky? They led me to believe that I would kill
  • My father, yet he’s dead and buried deep in the earth.
  • And here am I, who never raised a hand against him,
  • Unless my absence made him die brokenhearted.
  • Then, I suppose, I could be called his killer,
  • But not the kind contained within these worthless oracles.
  • Polybus has taken those with him to Hades. (964–72)

Now you seem to be allowing the secular evidence to entirely trump the religious (irreligious). And yet what you say next reveals a lingering and somewhat inconsistent doubt (religious): “But I should still shun my mother . . . her bed.” (976). For if the oracles are “worthless,” worthless is surely what they are. Why worry, then, about the possibility of incest?

When evidence is indirect, there is, as we noticed, room for doubt. In the case of the messenger for Corinth, evidence is put in that room by the man himself:

  • And that’s the very reason I came—
  • I’ll receive my reward when you come home. (1005–6)

(p.48) But this seems to have little effect on you. Yet the drunk man who started you on your investigations called you a πλαστός‎ child, which carries the suggestion that you were a child foisted by Merope on Polybus as his own. You should perhaps at least have raised an eyebrow, then, when the messenger tells you that it was not to Merope, but rather to Polybus himself, that he gave the child: “You were a gift, you see, taken from my own hands” (1022). But perhaps your follow-up question—“From another’s hands? But he loved me like a son” (1033)—is in fact your eyebrow going up the little we require. It is hard, though, for we readers of Oedipus Tyrannus not to hear in this mild tension between the drunk man’s word and the messenger’s alleged action an echo of another, more significant one.

When Jocasta is telling you about the oracle to Laius, she says:

  • An oracle [χρησμὸς‎] came to Laius once—I won’t say
  • “From Apollo”; it came from priests—
  • That “Laius would die at the hands of a son
  • That would be born to him and me.”
  • But Laius was killed by strangers
  • At a place where three roads meet.
  • That’s the story.
  • And our son? He did not last three days.
  • Laius yoked his feet and had him thrown away—
  • By other people [ἄλλων χερσὶν‎]—into a wilderness of mountains. (712–19)

Later, however, when the shepherd, who, as part of Laius’s entourage on his fatal journey, was the one eyewitness of what actually happened to him, finally appears, ostensibly to tell what he saw, we notice at once a problem with Jocasta’s account. She says that Laius had his son cast out by “other people” (plural), whereas the shepherd says unequivocally, in response to your direct question, that it was (p.49) Jocasta herself (singular) who cast out the child by giving it to him to dispose of (1171–73). We note, too, not only the important conflict of singular and plural in the case of those who cast out Laius’s son, but also in the case of precisely what came to Laius himself from Phoebus or his servants: Jocasta mentions a singular oracle, threatening the murder of a single parent; the shepherd mentions “evil oracles [θεσφάτων κακῶν‎]” (plural), threatening the death of “parents [τοὺς τεκόντας‎]” (plural) (1176).

Conflict of evidence is, of course, a perennial epistemic problem, and one we will want to come back to, but for the moment let’s stay with the problem posed to indirect evidence by the motives and interests of witnesses themselves, since these are not a one-edged but a two-edged sword. The messenger tells you his motives. And since they are openly self-interested, you reasonably enough accept them more or less at face value. But sometimes, by imputing ill-founded motives, we undermine good evidence. That is the sword’s other edge.

When Tiresias tells you that you are the murderer of Laius (392), it is shocking news, right up there with what you heard at Delphi. But your reaction is to accuse Tiresias of plotting with Creon to overthrow your rule (378). Yet you trusted Creon enough to send him to Delphi on your behalf, and you have acquired no new evidence, direct or indirect, secular or religious, sufficient to justify you now in wholly withdrawing that trust. Creon himself points this out to you, challenging you to search for some:

  • Test me [ἔλεγχον‎]. Go to the oracle at Delphi
  • And ask if my report was accurate.
  • And then, if you prove I conspired
  • With that seer, take my life.
  • I’ll add my vote to yours for death.
  • But don’t you presume me guilty without proof. (603–8)

(p.50) Yet even though you do not take up this challenge, and even though the citizen chorus and finally Jocasta herself (646–48) weigh in on Creon’s side, you do not change your mind as to his guilt. “I feel for you, not him,” you say to the chorus, “your voice has moved me. / Wherever he goes he’ll always have my hate” (671–72). We evidence-sensitive ones—or want-to-be evidence-sensitive ones—must rack this up as another epistemic failing on your part. For as individuals we are epistemically crippled if we have not learned when to trust and when to withhold or withdraw our trust in reasonable ways.

One clear ground on which to withhold trust is when there is the sort of conflict we mentioned in our evidence. In the matter of oracles, their precise content is therefore an important one, especially when it comes to assessing their veracity, since so much of religious importance hangs on it. Here is the chorus registering this:

  • No longer will I go in reverence
  • To the sacred navel of the world—
  • Not to Delphi, not to Abai,
  • Or the temple at Olympia,
  • If the oracles do not come true
  • For all humanity to see.
  • Ruler of all, O Zeus our lord,
  • If that be your name, do not let this escape
  • Your notice or your undying power:
  • Apollo’s word to Laius long ago
  • Is fading, it is already lost.
  • Now Apollo’s fame and honor die away,
  • And everything divine departs. (897–910)

Perhaps in the heat of the moment they have forgotten the crucial distinction they made earlier between direct and indirect religious (p.51) evidence, which may be important in itself, but what they make as clear as clear can be is that, like Jocasta—like you—they accept that if the indirect religious evidence conflicts with the direct secular evidence, it is the latter that tends to win the day.

Consider, then, the secular evidence concerning the death of Laius and the identity of his murderer—the very thing that you set out to investigate as the play begins. Creon reports what he heard at Delphi as follows:

  • Lord Apollo has made his will clear [ἐμφανῶς‎]:
  • Drive out defilement [μίασμα‎] nurtured in your land. (96–97)

A few lines later he says, “The command is clear [σαφῶς‎]: / Punish the killers [τοὺς αὐτοέντας‎] by force” (106–7). In speaking of killers (plural), and of what the god now “clearly” tells us, Creon suggests, if he does not actually state, that Delphi itself offered partial corroboration of the indirect secular evidence provided by the one eyewitness to the murder. For what that witness reported is that Laius and all of his retinue—numbering five in all, according to Jocasta (753)—were killed “except one who fled in fear. But he said he saw only one thing for certain” (118–19). This is something to bear in mind.

Like us, you are eager to know what this one thing is. “He said,” Creon responds,

  • A pack of thieves [λῃστὰς‎] killed him in ambush;
  • Not one man alone, but many [πλήθει‎]. (122–23)

Yet you are immediately careless in registering what you have been told, replacing Creon’s robbers (plural) with “a thief [ὁ λῃστής‎]” (124) (singular), and immediately looking for a motive beyond the obvious one:


  • How would a thief dare to do such a thing
  • Unless he had been paid off by someone here? (124–25)

Though you turn out not to have been alone in that suggestion—“There were suspicions,” Creon replies (126)—it is one that fits one thief much better than a group, since one against five (or six, if Jocasta is not including Laius in her total) certainly requires a pitch of daring that “many” against five or six does not. Oddly, too, you seem to be forgetting that you yourself, without there being any money at all involved, single-handedly took on just such a group and “killed every last one of them [κτείνω δὲ τοὺς ξύμπαντας‎]” (813).

Careless about numbers and motives—careless about recalling pertinent knowledge that you do have—when you first hear about Laius’s murder, when you next hear about it you are, if not quite all ears, at least more attuned to the arithmetic of the report. For by this time you have yourself been identified as Laius’s killer by Tiresias, at—as you suppose—Creon’s instigation. Your interlocutor now is Jocasta, who has asked you to explain to her the basis of your quarrel with Creon:


  • He says I am guilty of murdering Laius.

  • Was he a witness? Or is he acting on hearsay?

  • He sent his malevolent soothsayer. (703–5)
  • Taking advantage of the all-important tendency of direct secular evidence to trump indirect evidence, Jocasta now relates the story of Laius’s death in much the same terms as Creon, to show that oracles (indirect religious evidence) are not to be trusted. “He,” she says, “as the story goes at any rate [ὥσπερ γ‎’ ἡ φάτις‎], was murdered one day by foreign robbers [ξένοι λῃσταὶ‎] at the place where three roads meet” (715–16). It is on the “foreign robbers” that you now pounce:


    • You said he [the alleged eyewitness] explained how Laius was killed
    • By several thieves. If he still says thieves,
    • Then I could not have killed him.
    • How can one be the same as many?
    • But if he should speak of just one lone man,
    • Then the guilt will clearly fall on me. (842–47)

    Yet in noticing this apparent inconsistency, you overlook another equally important one, which is that if your report of what you did where three roads meet is correct, then there should be no eyewitness to report anything at all, since you, as we noticed, killed everyone that you met there (813). Indeed, you also overlook the difference in motive. For robbery was clearly the motive in the eyewitness’s account of the murder of Laius, whereas you did your killing “furiously”—out of anger (δι‎’ ὀργῆς‎) (807).

    Motive becomes important again when we consider Jocasta’s reaction to what you said about the messenger’s report. She says:

    • Don’t worry, I told you exactly what he said.
    • It’s too well known for him to take it back.
    • The whole city heard it, not just me. (848–50)

    But in doing so she, like you, overlooks something. For while it is no doubt true that the shepherd cannot credibly deny that he said what he did, he might have been lying. Of course, he would need a motive to lie. But a motive for lying might, through cross-examination, be brought to light; perhaps he was ashamed to say that he had run off in terror from a single assailant. Conjecture as we will, we cannot bring any pigeons home to roost until we get our hands on the shepherd—and perhaps not even then. Evidence sensitivity needs evidence to be sensitive to. And none may be forthcoming.

    (p.54) You too see, of course, that the shepherd is crucial if you are ever to find Laius’s killer. That is why you have him sent for (859–60). Yet by the time he arrives, your inquiry has shifted. Influenced by the messenger from Corinth, you are now investigating the apparently different question of whether you are the baby that he gave to Polybus, having acquired it himself from a man who “belonged to Laius” (1042)—a man who turns out to be none other than the shepherd eyewitness to Laius’s murder (1051–53). It is as if what you learned from the messenger lingers in your mind as proof that because you did not kill Polybus, you did not kill your father, leaving you only with incest to worry about. But regardless of that, it is always epistemically risky not to see an important inquiry through to the end.

    Even before the shepherd finally arrives and you get to question him, albeit on that other topic, Jocasta, we learn, has already jumped fatally to the conclusion of your double guilt:

    • She was in a terrible state.
    • She went inside and ran straight to the bedroom,
    • To her marriage bed. She was tearing at her hair
    • With both hands, and she slammed the doors
    • As soon as she was inside, then called a dead man’s name—
    • “Laius! Do you remember making love, making the child
    • That later killed you, that left me to give birth
    • To the children of your child, children of the curse?”
    • And she was wailing at the bed where she had conceived,
    • A double misery: a husband from her husband,
    • And children from her child. Then she died. (1241–50)

    You will soon follow her in that leap, blinding yourself, when you see what she has done.

    (p.55) The question we ask, we want-to-be evidence-sensitive ones, though not unmoved, to be sure, by what has happened, is whether either of you—you or Jocasta—was justified by your evidence in doing what you did. Let us look first at your oracle from Delphi, predicting parricide plus incest. And let us restrict our attention, first, to the parricide element, which it shares with the oracle Laius received from Delphi, as reported by Jocasta, and the oracle reported by the shepherd. Is this oracle validated by the secular evidence, as we have it, and as you and Jocasta have it? No, it is not. Why? Because the direct secular evidence provided by you about the killing you did is multiply inconsistent as to number of killers, motive, and number of survivors with the indirect secular evidence provided by the shepherd about the death of Laius, which may itself be partly corroborated by the religious evidence—direct or indirect—stemming from what Creon learned at Delphi. The things the two killings have in common, it seems, are location, the age of the most important victim, his mode of conveyance, and the fact of his retinue—numbered in the case of Laius’s killing but not in your case. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but not enough, given the other inconsistencies, to settle anything with any confidence.

    Turn now to the element in your oracle, and in yours alone apparently, predicting incest. Here the issue is one of the transmission of evidence—in this case a baby or babies. A baby was born to Jocasta and Laius. Three days later, Laius “yoked its feet [ἐνζεύξας ποδοῖν‎]” (718) and had it cast out “by other people [ἄλλων‎]” (plural) on the mountain. A shepherd—our shepherd—received a baby from Jocasta (1173) (singular). Another shepherd (1029)—our messenger—received a baby with “pierced [διατόρους‎]” feet (1034) from a shepherd, who he thinks “belonged to Laius” (1042), and whom your household servants think to be our shepherd (1051–52), a fact reluctantly corroborated by our shepherd himself (1157). This, then, is the baby our messenger finally gave to Polybus (1022). That he is (p.56) you is evidenced first by your damaged feet (1032), indirectly by the reaction of our shepherd when our messenger points it out to him (1144), and, of course, by all that we know about subsequent events, beginning with the drunk man’s fatal insult, which set you on your course of inquiry. We can imagine a clever defense attorney, if you had one, raising some problems about minor inconsistencies in the story, as we have it, as to who gave Jocasta and Laius’s baby to whom and whether its feet were yoked (tied together) or pierced. But on balance, I think, the evidence does make it reasonable to believe that you are Jocasta’s son and that you did commit incest with her. And that makes it reasonable, of course—though maybe not quite so reasonable (Jocasta might have cheated on Laius and become pregnant with you by her lover)—to believe that Laius is your father.

    That, however, does not validate any oracles—not yours and not Laius’s, whether as reported by Jocasta or as reported by the shepherd. Why? Because the only oracle to mention incest, the one to you, was a conjunction of parricide and incest, not a disjunction—though you have an unwarranted tendency to treat it as such, with your mention of “prophecies” (797) and your fear of incest, even when the parricide part has, as you think, been decisively falsified (983–86). Indeed, while we’re on the topic of conjunctions and disjunctions, we should note that the oracle reported by the shepherd was also a conjunction, since it said that you would kill your “parents [τοὺς τεκόντας‎]”—your mother and your father (1176). So that oracle seems to have been fairly clearly falsified. Or are you going to tell us that you did kill your mother because you indirectly caused her death? You worry about that in the case of Polybus, when you briefly entertain the idea that your absence might have caused his death (969–70). And Jocasta adopts a similar stratagem in relation to your fear of incest: “Many a man has slept with his own mother / In a dream” (981–82). What your responses reveal is that other epistemic weakness to which flesh is heir, especially when the evidence is, as in (p.57) oracles, testimonial, namely, misinterpretation. Thucydides is already well aware of this:

    At such a terrible time [the plague in Athens] it was natural for them to recall this verse, which the older people said had been sung long ago:

    A Dorian war will come

    and with it a plague [λοιμός‎].

    People had disagreed about the wording of the verse: some said it was not plague [λοιμὸς‎] but rather famine [λιμόν‎] that was foretold by the ancients, but on this occasion, naturally, the victory went to those who said “plague,” for people made their memory suit their current sufferings. (II.54.2–3)4

    Mishearing, misremembering, misinterpreting the text, and all of them subject in addition to distortion by feelings and present needs. Readers of plays are as liable to these as their characters. We see feelingly, indeed, and so are often blind.

    You, of course, are literally blind, once, having found Jocasta hanged, you put out your eyes. “Apollo! It was Apollo,” you say. “Agony after agony, he brought them on” (1329–30). A little later you include both parricide and incest among these agonies (1357–59), proclaiming yourself ἄθεος‎—“godless” (1360). In response to your confident repetition of this interpretation of what has happened to you—the pronouncement of the god (Apollo), you say, “But that is clear, it was ordained: / The father-killer is defiled and so must die” (1440–41)—Creon is initially diffident:

    • Yes, so we all heard. But in a time of great need
    • We should know for sure what we must do. (1442–43)

    (p.58) He will consult Delphi again, it seems, and “this time,” he tells you, “you should believe the god” (1445)—showing that he, like you, like generations of readers of the play, thinks against the evidence, that the oracle you received at Delphi was veridical.

    You are no worse then, I suppose we could say, than all of us, but certainly no better. You are not, it is surely clear after all we have uncovered, “a great man, a man of experience and swift courageous action, who yet acts only after careful deliberation, illuminated by an analytic and demanding intelligence . . . [whose] action by its consistent success generates a great self-confidence, but is always directed to the common good.”5 But if you are not that kind of man, what kind of man are you? And if the various Delphic oracles mentioned by you and others have not been proved veridical, what exactly has happened, and why has it happened? And what, so to speak, is it to us?

    The angry dispute between you and Creon sparked by your exchange with Tiresias has been laid to uneasy rest. Helpless to settle it more decisively and amicably, Jocasta turns to Apollo, whose statue we are to imagine on the stage:

    • I thought that I should go to the temple, sirs,
    • And bring these gifts to the gods—
    • Incense and ritual wreaths.
    • Oedipus is chafing his mind too much,
    • One agony after another. It makes no sense:
    • He weighs this strange news
    • Against old prophecies and lets anyone who speaks
    • Frighten him. Nothing I say can raise his hopes. (911–17)

    (p.59) The picture of you that she presents is of someone who is at the mercy of any speaker who speaks of terrors (φόβους‎) and who in response excites his mind (literally: his spirit, θυμὸν‎, the part of him responsible for anger) too much. It is, as we shall see, a perceptive picture. But it stops short of asking why you are like that.

    The speaker to whom Jocasta refers is Tiresias, the prophet—ironically enough—of the very god she is now asking for help, and the fears of yours to which he has spoken include the very ones that set you on the path to Delphi in the first place:


  • I am what I am; a fool, if that is what you think,
  • But those that bore you thought me wise enough.

  • Wait! What did you say? Who gave birth to me? (435–37)
  • And that, in turn, drives us back to the very beginning, which will turn out to be your very beginning, and to what the drunk man said to you long ago.

    You remember how you boasted to Tiresias about how you solved the riddle of the Sphinx? You said, “I silenced her / By using my mind [γνώμῃ‎]” (398). Yet we who know what the riddle said might wonder about the justification of your claim. It said: What walks on four feet at the beginning of its life, on two feet in the middle, and on three at the end? And if there is one thing we know about you it is that since you were three days old you have had foot problems: a “hideous blemish”—literally: “an ancient evil [ἀρχαῖον κακόν‎]” (1033)—you call them. Result: feet have a far greater salience for you than for most people. The other thing we know about you is that you struck the old man you killed “with a walking stick”—literally: a staff or stick (σκήπτρῳ‎) used by the lame or aged (811). You had your third leg already, in other words, though still only a young man. No wonder you were able to give the Sphinx the right answer: a man! What you (p.60) took to be native wit, then, or “analytic and demanding intelligence,” as Bernard Knox calls it, seems more like luck, more like being, in this respect, in the opportune place at the opportune time.6

    Moreover, if foot problems were salient when you faced the Sphinx, I might guess—and I speak now for myself—that they were also salient much earlier in your life. I imagine you, you see, as a young prince, in the public eye, but a bit lame, and a bit self-conscious, as a result. I imagine, too, though it isn’t crucial to my case, that if our messenger knew about your lack of the right sort of royal blood, and if the drunk man knew as well, then they were probably not the only ones. There were rumors, I suspect, in Corinth to amplify your self-consciousness. And what did all that do? It made you insecure in your status, I think, in your identity—in your very self. Ripe, in other words, to find deeply credible the drunk man’s claim that you were in fact a pretend prince—a πλαστὸς‎.

    I see you, then, limping a bit in your flight from Corinth, looking not like a prince, used to deference and royal treatment, but like someone who should make way for their elders and betters—a man riding in a wagon with a retinue of servants to take care of him. The anger (ὀργή‎) with which you respond (807) is so overwhelming, I think, so intense and blinding as to result in your killing them all with that third leg of yours, because it is amplified by your insecurity in who you are. To show yourself deserving of better, you must do much more than someone secure in his deserving would do. You bellow when raising your voice slightly would be enough.

    (p.61) Then I think of your thought in response to what Creon hears at Delphi. You think that if a king is killed away from home, treason at home must be the explanation (124–25). Then, when you hear that Polybus is dead, again that thought springs to your mind: “Was it by treason [δόλοισιν‎], or did he die of natural causes?” (960). Finally, when Tiresias tells you that you are the pollution that you must expel from Thebes, treason on his part, in collusion with Creon, is your explanation for what he says (note the use of δόλιον‎ at 388). It is as if your own insecurity as a prince is being projected into your idea of a king as insecure in power, susceptible in particular to treachery. Similarly, when Jocasta begs you not to pursue your investigation into your parentage, what do you respond? You say:

    • Be brave. Even if I find my mother was a slave,
    • Descended from slaves, you would still be noble. (1062–63)

    I see that old insecurity of yours expressing itself again. The “humble origins” (1079) you think might shame Jocasta are those your insecurity imagines for you.

    But you are a prince, in reality if not in that fearful inner world of yours that ancient grief has made, piercing your soul, as your feet were pierced. What happens to you, happens to your city. And about it, I acknowledge, you do truly care, more even than about yourself. Witness your response to Tiresias when he tells you that by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, you caused your own ruin. “Well,” you say, “if I have saved this city, I do not care [οὔ μοι μέλει‎]” (443). It is this that magnifies you and makes you as great as you are, not your epistemic virtues or your “constant success.” Your creator, Sophocles, if I may call him that, presents you to us, I think, as Plato presents Socrates and his Delphic oracle. In response to Chaerephon’s question as to whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, it responded that no one was (Plato, Apology 21a). But, as Socrates himself came to interpret (p.62) it, this turned out to be not praise positive of his wisdom, but, as it were, praise negative:

    You see, the people present on each occasion think that I’m wise about the subjects on which I examine others. But in fact, gentlemen, it’s pretty certainly the god who is really wise, and by his oracle he meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. And it seems that when he refers to the Socrates here before you and uses my name, he makes me an example, as if he were to say, “That one among you is wisest, mortals, who, like Socrates, has recognized that he’s truly worthless where wisdom’s concerned.” (Plato, Apology 23a–b)7

    Sophocles, I think, simply reverses the polarity. For while Socrates recognizes that he is worthless where wisdom is concerned, you don’t know this about yourself. And we are like you in this: we think we know when we don’t. And such ignorance, for Socrates, is of all kinds “the most blameworthy” (Plato, Apology 29b).

    In matters secular, such ignorance is bad enough, but in religious matters its potential for harm is much greater. This is in part because, as Socrates himself points out, human wisdom is worth little or nothing in comparison to divine wisdom, so that when we think the gods have spoken, we think that nothing is more certain. Yet in hearing what they say, in interpreting it, and in testing it, we tend to manifest all the epistemic weaknesses that Sophocles has you and his other characters identify for us, even as they are succumbing to them. Prominent among these, as we saw, and much emphasized, is the distinction between direct and indirect evidence both in general and in religious matters in particular. For it is noteworthy, and much (p.63) noted by its students, that in Oedipus Tyrannus no gods speak to us or to anyone directly. Yet we leave the play, as we leave its characters, confident that we have seen the word of god verified, the hand of god—fate—in operation. The play thus brings about in us the very epistemic condition that it has given us the epistemic resources to diagnose as defective. In this way it shows us just how difficult it is to be evidence-sensitive, reality-oriented. To fail in this diagnosis in secular matters is a failure in human wisdom; to fail in it in religious matters is also irreverence—it is to fail to take seriously enough just what the gods purportedly say though their supposed prophets and oracles, and just how many potential slips there are between their divine lips and the mortal cups from which we drink in the words that supposedly fall from them.

    I do not think, then, that our great play is on the side of the gods—is reverent—because it shows us oracles fulfilled, divine justice done. We have seen, if we look carefully, nothing of this. Instead Oedipus Tyrannus is reverent in the true sense by showing us the disasters we mortals bring upon ourselves when we are insufficiently sensitive to such evidence as we have, and by making us complicit in its neglect. In that way, if not in the one that Sigmund Freud made famous, we are—all of us—poor children of Oedipus, following blindly in his maimed footsteps.8

    (p.64) Bibliography

    Bibliography references:

    Ahl, Frederick. Sophocles’ Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

    Blundell, Mary Whitlock. “Three Approaches to Greek Science.” Classical Journal 87 (1992): 299–301.

    The History of Herodotus. Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

    Knox, Bernard. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

    Reeve, C. D. C., trans. and ed. The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002.

    Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. Translated by Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2000.

    Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. Translated by Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993.


    (1.) Line references are to the OCT edition of the Greek text of Oedipus Tyrannus. Translations are those of Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2000), sometimes silently modified.

    (2.) The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). Cf. I.106–08, XII. 237–43.

    (3.) The History of Herodotus, translated by David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

    (4.) Thucydides, On Justice, Power, and Human Nature, translated by Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993).

    (5.) Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 29.

    (6.) A personal story. My parents and I were in a church in the west of Ireland. A guide was showing a group of visitors a famous stained-glass window. “It has a flaw,” he said, “and no one I’ve shown it to has ever spotted it.” My father, bored in the back of the group, glanced up at the window for a moment, and said, “That figure has two left feet.” The guide was furious. It was the correct answer. How did my father come up with it? A profound knowledge of stained glass? A keen art historical eye? Native wit? None of these. As my mother blurted out, “He has a shoe factory. He always looks at people’s feet, to see whose shoes they’re wearing.”

    (7.) C. D. C. Reeve, trans. and ed., The Trials of Socrates (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002).

    (8.) As readers of Frederick Ahl will recognize, I have learned much from his provocative book, Sophocles’ Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), about the conflicts in the play, but without embracing what Mary Whitlock Blundell (now Ruby Blondell) calls in her review the “breathtaking perversity” of his interpretation (“Three Approaches to Greek Science,” Classical Journal 87 [1992]: 299–301). I acknowledge, too, a general debt to R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and to the writings of Bernard Knox, always an inspiration, not least when, as in the case of Oedipus Tyrannus, I disagreed with them most. I owe a debt, too, to the members of my freshman seminars at Reed College, with whom, over a period of twenty-five years, I discussed the play.