What Makes a Hero? Oedipus the Hero in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
article and lesson by Jacob Feeley
At the heart of Oedipus Rex is a paradox: a leader must figure out what is destroying his city, but will destroy himself by doing so. The very traits that made him an effective ruler will ruin him. For the ancient Greeks, this paradox encapsulates the predicament of the tragic hero: he is undone by the same qualities that enable him to do great things. These qualities include courage, humanity, shrewdness, determination, and also something which the Greeks called hubris (hyoo-bris). Hubris refers to an outsized sense of self-confidence or self-importance.
Oedipus is a classic example of the tragic hero. As a young man in the city of Corinth, he learns from the Delphic oracle that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Confident that he can outrun his fate, he flees his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope, and heads for Thebes––a classic example of hubris is the hero’s belief that he can outmaneuver the gods. Once there, he heroically saves the city from the scourge of the Sphinx.
The Sphinx presented all visitors to Thebes with a riddle: What goes on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? It devoured those who failed to answer correctly. Oedipus, a stranger to Thebes, answers: a human, because it crawls as a child, walks on two legs in adulthood, and relies on a cane in old age. (To the Sphinx, being immortal, a human lifetime seems only a day.) Oedipus is made king for this feat, since it had been announced that whoever solved the riddle would become king of Thebes. When disaster strikes the city again, this time in the form of a plague, Oedipus displays the same heroic qualities he demonstrated when he saved Thebes from the Sphinx. This time, however, the results are drastically different.
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In his opening speech, Oedipus addresses his subjects as his “children” (liberi), and vows: “I will free you,” “I will deliver you,” and “I will save you.” Oedipus sounds like a compassionate father who is determined to move mountains to save his beloved offspring. Yet he also comes off as overconfident in his abilities. He refers to himself as “I, distinguished Oedipus,” (ego clarissimus) and clearly thinks he is a great leader deserving of his fame for defeating the Sphinx.
Oedipus wastes no time. Unlike the politician who is all words and no action, Oedipus matches his words with deeds.¹ He tells his desperate people that he has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi to ask the god Apollo how to end the terrible plague. Upon his return, Creon reports that Apollo demands that the Thebans find and expel the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, Laius. Oedipus does not waver in his commitment to his subjects and vows swift action, but further reveals his hubris. He replies to Creon, “You cannot solve this ancient crime./ I will turn Thebes upside down,/ To drive that man from Thebes.” As proof, he cites his past feat: “I solved the riddle of the Sphinx,” and so “I will solve this once again (iterum).” Here Oedipus’ self-confidence spills over into arrogance. Creon does not propose that he or anyone else can solve the crime, yet Oedipus announces that no one but he can save Thebes.
Oedipus’ hubris peaks in his encounter with the blind prophet, Tiresias. At first, Tiresias refuses to say what Apollo has declared must be done to end the plague. Enraged by the prophet’s refusal to disclose the will of the god, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of the murder. In response, Tiresias asserts that the “murderer is among you,” that the “king’s murderer is a king,” and that this “wicked king pollutes the city.” Oedipus is so confident in himself that he does not even refute the accusation, since to do so would require him to admit the possibility that he could have murdered Laius. Rather, Oedipus lashes out at Tiresias and in a fit of paranoia accuses Creon and Tiresias of framing him as the murderer so that Creon can become the new king. He claims that Tiresias is jealous of Oedipus because Oedipus, and not Tiresius, solved the riddle of the Sphinx. “Envy abhors fortune,” he tells the prophet contemptuously.
As the story reaches its climax, Oedipus is undone by his heroic qualities. Jocasta, the queen, overhears Oedipus, Tiresias, and Creon arguing and chastises them for fighting in public. She dismisses the words of the oracle and Tiresias and says that a king in Thebes could not have killed Laius because “Laius died at the crossroads,” at some distance from the city. This detail, however, troubles Oedipus. He tells Jocasta that he once killed a man at the crossroads, before he came to Thebes and solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Jocasta now catches on to the terrible truth, and aware that the truth will destroy their household, attempts to dismiss Oedipus’ fears. She repeats that oracles are false and urges him to return with her “swiftly” to their palace. But it is too late. Oedipus is not the type to let things go and avoid a challenge. Like a dogged detective, he urges Jocasta to let him cross-examine the shepherd who witnessed the crime.
At Oedipus’ demand, a messenger and shepherd appear at the palace, prepared to answer Oedipus’ questions. The messenger describes how he found Oedipus in the mountains with his ankles pierced and delivered him to the shepherd. The shepherd then narrates how he brought the wounded baby to King Polybus of Corinth, who adopted him. Thus, the man whom Oedipus thought was his biological father is actually his adoptive father. This news spurs Oedipus to dig deeper into his past. The shepherd, sensing that the truth will destroy Oedipus, regrets his words: “I should never have spoken,” he says. Oedipus, however, is resolute in his desire to learn the truth. Still brimming with self-confidence (i.e. hubris), he exclaims, “I shall discover the heritage of Oedipus, the origin of my exile/ I, an exile, exult.”
Together, the messenger and shepherd announce the crushing news: Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, and so the murderer of his father, and both the son and husband of his mother. The news devastates Jocasta. When she learns that Oedipus has grasped the truth about his origins, she rushes to her chamber and hangs herself. Oedipus finds her dead body and gouges out his eyes with the pin she used to fasten her hair. As he was metaphorically blind to the truth about himself, Oedipus is now literally blind. The drama closes on this stark and tragic scene.
To conclude, Oedipus embodies the classic characteristics of the tragic hero, and his downfall follows accordingly. Out of a genuine concern for the suffering of his people, he attempts to discover the cause of the plague in order to end it. But in the process, he behaves so arrogantly that he is blind to his own role in the plague, repeatedly referring to himself as “distinguished” (clarrisimus) and boasting about saving the city once already. Still, Oedipus displays a remarkable drive and determination to uncover the truth. He is not content to follow others’ advice and take refuge within the palace walls. When he finally realizes that the Delphic oracle may have been right, he insists on cross-examining the messenger and shepherd about his origins. In doing so, he destroys himself, his wife, and his household, but at the same time saves Thebes once again.
Herein lies the paradox of the Greek tragic hero: the hero achieves greatness for himself in benefitting his community, but is undone by the same qualities that made him great. In fact, Oedipus’ very name ironically alludes to this paradox. In the Greek, the first part of his name comes from the word oida (oy-dah), which can mean “swollen,” but is also a pun on the word “to know.” The second part, pous (poos), means “foot.” In the myth on which this opera is based, Oedipus’ biological father, King Laius, hears from an oracle that his son is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. In order to escape this fate, Laius pierces the baby’s ankles and fastens them together, and then leaves him on a mountain to die. Oedipus has terrible scars from this, but when the story opens, does not know the origin of the damage to his feet, and thus his own origins. He is the man who “knows” about “feet” when solving the Sphinx’s riddle about them, but cannot fathom the mystery of his own. This perfectly encapsulates Oedipus’ hubris: he understands the frailty of the human condition as described in the Sphinx’s riddle, but is unable to apply that understanding to himself. The power in the story of Oedipus lies in the fact that humankind as a whole shares this sort of hubris: we are able to comprehend human frailty and vulnerability in the abstract, but much less able to see it in ourselves.
About Jacob Feeley
Jacob Feeley teaches Latin at Central High School in Philadelphia. He majored in Latin at Oberlin College, and received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in ancient history, where he wrote his dissertation on the political thought of Flavius Josephus.
¹Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles and Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox (1982) 138.
Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb