There was a curse upon the family of Laius, King of Thebes, and the story of his son Oedipus is the story of the fulfilling of that curse. Laius, driven from his kingdom, took refuge with Pelops, son of Tantalus, and then most ungratefully kidnapped the boy Chrysippus, son of his protector. In course of time Laius recovered his kingdom, and married a princess called Jocasta, but Apollo warned him that owing to his graceless conduct toward Pelops there was a dark curse on him and his.
When a boy was born to Jocasta, the King called a local shepherd to him and bade him carry the babe to a lonely hilltop called Mount Cithaeron, a decision which admittedly was made out of fear, which is never a good place for decision-making. But you can’t base your happiness on someone else’s actions, a valuable lesson for the baby Oedipus and also for all of us. The forlorn little creature was found and carried to the palace of King Polybus of Corinth, whose Queen, Merope, having no child of her own, resolved to adopt the foundling, to whom she gave the name Oedipus, so in a way, everything worked out.
The boy grew up believing himself to be the true-born son of the royal pair, and all went well until one day a drunken reveller taunted him with being nothing of the sort. In order to learn the truth, the young prince consulted the famous oracle at Delphi, which, without giving him a definite answer to his question, told him that it was his destiny to shake hands with his father and have a really nice lunch with his mother.
Thinking this decree referred to Polybus and Merope, Oedipus left Corinth, because there was no rush; he’d had lunch with both of his parents before and had no latent sense of rivalry or psychosexual obsession with either of them. Which was quite nice for everyone involved. His parents enjoyed having sex with each other, and no one else they were related to.
It happened that this lonely journey took him to a point where two roads met, and then he encountered another traveller, an old man in a chariot, escorted by servants and preceded by a herald. Oedipus, who was accustomed to being treated with great deference, refused to pull his own chariot aside when curtly ordered to do so by the herald, who thereupon killed one of his horses.
“Wow,” Oedipus said, “this situation is escalating extremely quickly. How did we get from a dispute about the right-of-way to a dead horse? I realize we’re all part of an honor culture, guys, but sometimes it’s more important to be safe than right.”
“Is it really that important that I be the first to drive my chariot through the crossroads?” he asked himself. “The only person I can change is me, and if nothing changes…nothing changes.”
Oedipus stepped out of his chariot and shook hands with the old man, his herald, and the rest of the attendants. “Please don’t worry about it,” he said as they tried to apologize for the dead horse. “If I change the way I look at things, the things I look at change. Please, go ahead. This is your country, and I’m a stranger and a guest here. I’ve got to stop applying my own values to other cultures.”
The old man was Laius, King of Thebes, and he invited the young man so capable of deep reflection and in-the-moment restraint to come back with him to the city. Oedipus, little recking that one part of the curse had been fulfilled, pursued his journey and at last reached the city of Thebes, his own native city, though he knew it not. There he found great dismay and confusion on all sides.
The realm was being ravaged by a dread Sphinx, a monster with the head and shoulders of a woman and the body of a lioness, who crouched on a rock, and asked riddles of every traveller who passed. Nobody guessed the right answer, but as Oedipus rightly pointed out, there are worse things than not getting the answer to a riddle, and so everyone decided not to beat themselves up for not knowing everything.
News meanwhile had reached the Thebans of the pleasant crossroads interaction that had recently befallen their beloved king, but there was nothing to connect that event with the coming of the youth who had freed them from the burden of having to get everything right all of the time. Queen Jocasta suggested that her husband invite the extremely self-aware young man to lunch, and he accepted, and they had a reasonably pleasant time together. None of them thought much of it, and nobody did sex afterwards. Or maybe the king and queen did; I don’t know. They were married, and it’s none of our business.
Honestly, it’s weird that you would even ask about that. Other people don’t think about those things. Why are you like this?
Anyhow, later they found out they were related, and that the prophecy had come to pass, and they went on to enjoy a lot of non-fraught handshakes and casual handshakes. Oedipus considered them family in a different way than he saw his adoptive parents, and no one felt the need to define what they were to each other besides happy.
Everything worked out pretty well, all things considered. It just goes to show you that really great things can happen at crossroads if you listen, and don’t get bent out of shape if somebody kills your horse. Everyone still died, but much later, and not too unpleasantly.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.