Oedipus at the Cleft Way

“Delphi in a Map of Greek sanctuaries” by Marsyas – Own work using Adobe Illustrator (data based on M. Kaplan et alii, Le Monde grec, Bréal, Paris, 1995).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidences serve the narrative thrust of many stories.

The ancient Oedipus myth is sprinkled with dramatic coincidences. It was popularized by Sophocles in 429 BCE and reignited in modern times by Sigmund Freud and his Oedipus Complex.  The plot caught Oedipus and his father, Laius, in a fateful, chance encounter in a narrow passage at Daulia, Greece on the road to the Oracle at Delphi.

Oedipus was quite aware that the fates were calling for him to kill his father, Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta.  Laius had also been told that he was to be killed by his son, who was then to marry his wife.  Both men tried desperately to avoid fulfilling the prophecy.  Because it is a myth and because it has been told many times, the details vary.  One central coincidence remains.  In a narrow passage, Oedipus meets Laius by chance or fate, each one not knowing the identity of the other. Oedipus kills Laius and 3 of his 4 companions.

The story:

After Laius, King of Thebes, married Jocasta, he was warned by the Oracle at Delphi not to have a child with her because that child would kill him and marry her. One evening Laius became drunk and fathered Oedipus with her. Fearing the oracle’s prediction, Laius ordered a servant to take the baby to a mountain and to mutilate his feet (from which the name Oedipus came meaning:  “swollen foot”). A shepherd found him but could not financially support him so he took the baby to the king and queen of Corinth. The couple raised him as their son.

Wanting to know more about his own past and future, Oedipus consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told that he must not live with his parents. If he did, he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing that his parents were in Corinth, he decided to go to Thebes instead.  Midway between Delphi and Thebes is the small town of Daulia. Here Oedipus met Laius at the Cleft way, narrow gap between the hills.  Laius was traveling to Delphi to consult the oracle because omens were indicating that he would soon be killed.  At the Cleft Way one party had to give way to the other. Oedipus would not yield to Laius and his men. The trigger was insults or robbery, depending upon who was telling the story. Laius struck first and Oedipus counter-attacked killing Laius and three of his four companions.

Oedipus continued on to Thebes which was being oppressed by the Sphinx, a monster with the body of a lion and the torso and head of a woman. Any traveler to Thebes had to answer a riddle or be devoured.  No one could answer the riddle so Thebes had been cut off from contact with the outside world. Its people were starving. The riddle: what walks on 4 legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and 3 legs in the evening? Oedipus knew the answer: Man.  The Sphinx disappeared and the grateful people of Thebes anointed him king. And so he married Jocasta, the queen, his mother. 

We are not told how Oedipus had come to know the answer to the riddle—another coincidence necessary to the plot. It echoes many real life coincidences in which someone just happens to know the right information to turn a problematic situation into a favorable one.

Thebes was then beset by a plague that was ruining crops and further starving its people. The reason for these problems, they are told, is that the slayer of Laius had yet not been brought to justice. Oedipus swears to find and punish the murderer. In one version of the story, the servant of Laius who left Oedipus on the mountain is the only one still alive of the men Oedipus killed at the Cleft Way. So he lived to tell the truth—another well-designed coincidence to further the thread of the story. Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus blinds and exiles himself.

In summary, the coincidences in the Oedipus myth include:

  1. Oedipus meets Laius at the Cleft Way where only one of them can pass.
  2. Somehow Oedipus came to know the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx.
  3. Only the servant who knew how Oedipus survived was not killed by Oedipus at the Cleft Way.  So this servant lived to tell the story of the Cleft Way.

No coincidences, no plot.

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