Oedipus is the King of Thebes who is remembered for solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing that they were his parents.
Oedipus is best known from the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Shortly after his birth, his parents received an oracle that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother. In a panic, Laius bound the infant’s feet and ordered a servant to kill the child. Unable to kill the baby, the servant instead left Oedipus on a hillside to die. He was found by a shepherd who took him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who raised him as their own. After hearing the same frightening prophecy and believing Polybus and Merope to be his real parents, Oedipus fled Corinth to protect them.
On the road, he ran into an old man who got in his way at a crossroads; in a fit of rage, Oedipus killed the old man. He continued his journey until he reached the city of Thebes, which was under siege by a giant monster called the Sphinx. The Sphinx would only lift her curse if someone could solve her riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus correctly solved the riddle: man (as a crawling toddler, a healthy youth, and an elderly person with a cane). The Sphinx lifted the curse on the city, and Oedipus was given the recently-widowed Queen of Thebes as his prize. They went on to have four children together: Antigone, Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles.
Many years later, a plague befell the city and Oedipus learned that the murderer of the late king was never brought to justice. He sought out an oracle to help find the murderer, but soon discovered that the man he killed on the road was actually his father Laius, and that Queen Jocasta is his mother. Upon learning the news, Jocasta killed herself, and Oedipus blinded himself with two large pins from Jocasta’s dressing gown.
Oedipus and his daughters Antigone and Ismene left the city, while his sons Polynices and Eteocles began a battle for the throne.
King Laius and Queen Jocasta
Be sure to check out the teacher guide on Oedipus the King!
Check out the rest of our Teacher Guides and Lesson Plans!