Laius & the Oracle

With Amphion and Zethus dead, Laius returned to Thebes and claimed his rightful throne. He was not a pleasant man. According to late sources, while an exile in Elis he kidnapped King Pelops’ son, Chrysippus, and raped him – the first instance of (human) homosexual rape in Greek mythology. In punishment the gods inflicted suffering on not just him but his descendants also.

Laius and his wife, Jocasta, were childless, so the king went to nearby Delphi to ask what they should do. The oracle’s response was chilling. Better by far, she said, that Laius had no children, for his son was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Returning home, Laius wisely shunned Jocasta, but in frustration she made him drunk and forced herself upon him Only when she was clearly pregnant did Laius reveal the oracle’s response. To try to cheat Fate, when the child was born they drove a nail through its feet and gave it to a servant to take on to Mount Cithaeron and leave it there to die.

But the baby survived. Moved by compassion, the servant gave him to a kindly Corinthian shepherd, who took him in and tended his wound. As winter approached, the shepherd drove his flocks back down to Corinth, where he gave the infant to King Polybus and Queen Merope (in some accounts called Periboea). Childless, they adopted him and named him from his deformity: Oedipus (‘Swollen Foot’).

Laius & the Oracle Photo Gallery

Oedipus grew up believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents, but when he approached manhood, a drunken party-goer jeered at him, calling him a bastard and not Polybus’ son. Despite reassurances, Oedipus, by nature inquisitive, set out to discover the truth from that fount of all knowledge, the Delphic oracle. Rather than deliver a straight answer, the priestess gave devastating news: he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother.

Determined never to return to his beloved Corinth, Oedipus struck out east across the mountains, until he came to a fork in the road. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus narrates how, as he hesitated, a mule-cart drawn by colts and accompanied by outriders swept towards him on the road from Thebes. In the cart sat a troubled old man. As they approached:

The man out front and the old man both tried to force me off the road. In fury I punch the driver as he shoves at me. The old man sees me, looks out for his moment as he passes by, and from the carriage lashes my face with his two-pronged goad. I gave as good as I got – no! Better! I did not hesitate. I smashed my stave hard in the middle of his back and sent him spinning. And then I killed them all.

The old man was Laius. The first part of the prophecy had been fulfilled. But crucially Oedipus was wrong: there was one survivor.