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Art and Images in Psychiatry
May 2010

Oedipus at Colonus

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(5):438-439. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.50

[Oedipus’] fate moves us only because it might have been our own. . . . It may be that we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers; and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers; our dreams convince us that we were. . . . 

—Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams1(p276)

Sophocles' tragic story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, was deemed by Aristotle to be the perfect tragedy. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) emphasized it in his book The Birth of Tragedy. Sophocles' plays were rediscovered in the 16th century and revived again in the 19th. When Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who first read Oedipus the King in Greek at age 17 years, later attended performances of the play, he was intrigued by the modern audience's intense response to the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. It was a psychological dynamic he found within himself in his self-analysis after his father's death and recognized in his patients.

Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1778-1805), French. Oedipus at Colonus, 1798. Oil on canvas, 157 × 134 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Mr and Mrs William H. Marlatt Fund, 2002.3.

Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1778-1805), French. Oedipus at Colonus, 1798. Oil on canvas, 157 × 134 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Mr and Mrs William H. Marlatt Fund, 2002.3.

So identified was Freud with the Oedipal theme that on May 6, 1906, for his 50th birthday, his followers in Vienna gave him a medallion showing his profile on one side and Oedipus answering the Sphinx on the other. The Sphinx side was inscribed with a quote from Sophocles' play: He “who divined the famed riddle and was a man most mighty.”2(p59) Freud turned pale, for he had long dreamed that his bust would be placed in the university court in Vienna along with its illustrious professors' and inscribed with exactly this line from Sophocles.3 Five decades later, Ernest Jones donated Freud's bust to the university with this inscription2(p59); it was unveiled and placed in the University Arcade on February 4, 1955.

The riddle of the Sphinx posed was, “There walks on land a creature of two feet and 4 feet, which has a single voice, and it also has three feet; alone of the animals on earth it changes its nature. . . . When it walks propped on the most feet, Then is the speed of its limbs least.”4(p19)

She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering, “man, who crawls on all fours as a child, walks on two feet most of his life, and with a cane in old age.”4(p19) Stunned by his correct answer, the Sphinx, emblematic of the terrible feminine, with the face and head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird of prey (Figure 1), committed suicide. But what riddle did Freud solve to deserve this attribution? Was it his formulation of infantile sexuality and of the Oedipus complex (epigraph) as a universal theme in human development or more broadly his psychoanalytic theory? But did he consider the full legend portrayed in Sophocles' successive plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus? Viewing the legend as a whole, did Oedipus4 have an Oedipal complex as Freud defined it?

Figure 1 
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), French. Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx., 1808. Oil on canvas, 1.89 × 1.44 m. R.F. 218. Countess Duchâtel bequest, 1878. Louvre, Paris, France/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), French. Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx., 1808. Oil on canvas, 1.89 × 1.44 m. R.F. 218. Countess Duchâtel bequest, 1878. Louvre, Paris, France/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Freud first broached the Oedipal theme in his letters to his confidant Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928) in the late 1890s. Subsequently he introduced the Oedipal theme in his The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 (epigraph). On the last day of his 1909 Clark lectures,5 Freud presented the case of Little Hans and referred to his Oedipal wishes as evidence of sexuality in childhood. Oedipal wishes were proposed as the “nuclear complex” of every neurosis.6 The term Oedipus complex was used for the first time in 1910. As his thinking evolved, Freud considered incestuous wishes in relation to the father as well as the mother. Finally (in 1919-1926), he spoke of the complete Oedipus complex that formulated his views about Oedipal identification and inherent bisexuality.6 In his last years he gave more attention to the Oedipus complex in females.

As these psychoanalytic theories evolved, so strongly involved was Freud with the Oedipal theme that he applied his Oedipal views to ethnology in Totem and Taboo and to religion in his last book, Moses and Monotheism. Fully aware that Oedipus' faithful daughter Antigone accompanied him in his blind wanderings in Oedipus at Colonus, Freud referred to his attentive daughter, Anna, as his Antigone as his health declined.3(p442) Among Freud's large collection of antiquities, he kept a figure of the Sphinx, and above and to the right, facing his analytic couch, he placed a small framed reproduction of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s, Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (Figure 1). When Freud was evacuated to London in 1938 after the Nazi invasion of Austria, he insisted on taking his antiquities with him. He placed the Ingres painting in his London study on the wall behind his desk next to the window that looks out onto the garden, where it can be seen today. Freud's identification with the Oedipal prophecy is striking and suggests an archetypal identification with a mythological theme. Carl Jung's proposals about archetypal identification offer one explanation for understanding Freud's psychological dynamic.

Ingres's painting dramatizes the confrontation with the Sphinx. In a rocky landscape, naked and muscular, Oedipus is shown in profile as he faces the Sphinx. Standing in the shadows of a cave, she looks out fiercely at the viewer, not at Oedipus, as he answers her riddle. A discarded foot and human bones provide evidence of those who perished. A terrified companion runs away toward Thebes.

The full Oedipal legend is far more complex than this one dramatic prophecy. It begins with the curse Pelops placed on Laius, Oedipus' father and King of Thebes, for his homosexual rape and enslavement of Chrysippus, son of Pelops.4 For this crime, Pelops' curse is that if Laius has a son, his son will kill him and marry his wife, Jocasta. To avoid his fate, Laius responds with another criminal act, infanticide. Jocasta surrenders her son, whose ankles are pierced and bound (“Oedipus” means “swollen footed”). He is abandoned to die on Mount Cithaeron outside Thebes. Instead Oedipus is found by a servant of the king of Corinth who takes him to that city where the childless king, Polybus, adopts him and raises him with his wife in the royal court.

As a young man, Oedipus consults the oracle and learns of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother and also about the circumstances of his own death. Loving his adoptive parents, he abandons Corinth. Later at a place where 3 crossroads meet near Mount Cithaeron, he argues with Laius, not knowing who he is. When Laius refuses to give way and attacks him, a fight ensues and Oedipus kills him. Coming to the city of Thebes, Oedipus learns that there is a plague that cannot be lifted until the riddle of the Sphinx is answered. By some accounts the plague is punishment too for Laius' sexual crime. He answers the riddle, the city is saved, and he agrees to marry Jocasta, the wife of the dead king, not knowing she is his mother. Freud suggested that the marriage is the fulfillment of an infantile wish, but the legend suggests Oedipus is the means to carry out Pelops' curse against Laius. They marry and have 4 children, 2 sons and 2 daughters. Then the solver of riddles is faced with another plague. To end it, he must find the man who killed Laius. Methodically he questions others and finally confronts the blind seer Tiresias, who at first declines to respond. But Oedipus persists and learns that he is the killer and that the prophecy is fulfilled. Jocasta commits suicide; Oedipus blinds himself in shame with the brooches from her dress and wishes only to die.

Instead Oedipus is banished by his sons, who inherit and share the kingdom of Thebes. Oedipus is moved by the sorrow and support of his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Antigone joins him in his wandering in Greece. This is the subject of Sophocles' second play about him, Oedipus at Colonus.7 Eventually they come to the sacred Grove of the Eumenides, deities of vengeance at Colonus near Athens. Fulchran-Jean Harriet's (1776-1805) Oedipus at Colonus (cover) dramatizes the plight of Oedipus, who is depicted with Antigone. Ominous birds circle behind them. Oedipus presents his case to the Chorus at Colonus and to Theseus, king of Athens, claiming that he is a victim, that he sought to avoid the prophecy by leaving Corinth, and that he had no desire to kill his father or marry Jocasta. He has been an unwitting victim and the instrument to carry out Laius' fate. The prophecy of how Oedipus will die is now revealed. The gods will protect the city nearest Oedipus' burial site. Thus an attempt is made by the Thebans to forcefully return Oedipus to their city, but it is repelled by Theseus. While in the Grove, his son Polynices also asks him to return to Thebes for his final days and to take sides against his brother, who has usurped the kingdom from him. For banishing him, Oedipus curses him, saying that he and his brother will kill one another in battle, and sends him away (Figure 2).

Figure 2 
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Swiss. Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices. 1786. Oil on canvas, 149.8 × 165.4 cm (59 × 65⅛ in). Framed: 177.2 × 191.8 × 12.3 cm (69¾ × 75½ × 413/16 in). Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.41. National Gallery of Art. Image Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Swiss. Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices. 1786. Oil on canvas, 149.8 × 165.4 cm (59 × 65⅛ in). Framed: 177.2 × 191.8 × 12.3 cm (69¾ × 75½ × 413/16 in). Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.41. National Gallery of Art. Image Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Henry Fuseli's (1741-1825) dramatic painting (Figure 2) illustrates that tense encounter in Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices. Oedipus, remorseful and blind, is shown with blood-red eyes as Polynices kneels before him. Outraged at his unfaithful sons, Oedipus condemns Polynices and utters his fateful curse. Polynices recoils while Antigone seeks their reconciliation and her weeping sister, Ismene, is shown profoundly sorrowful.

The king of Athens provides protection for Oedipus, Ismene, and Antigone. The Chorus accepts Oedipus' plea of innocence; his burial in a secret site in the sacred grove is allowed. Viewed in its entirety, with the final judgment being that Oedipus was unjustly treated, having no wish to kill his father or marry his mother, and his receiving a sanctified burial, there is little support for the claim that Oedipus himself had an Oedipal complex.

In classical psychoanalytic theory, the resolution of the Oedipal complex with the establishment of the superego is the essential basis for moral development in males. Yet studies of moral development in children raised in single-parent households and by homosexual couples do not support this psychological mechanism for their moral development. Thus the universal role of the Oedipal complex in moral development of typical children lacks support. For more than a century, Freud's “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy (Little Hans)” has been referenced as providing evidence for the central importance of an Oedipal conflict in normal child development. Yet evidence from the Freud Archives8 demonstrates that Hans' mother, Olga Graf, was Freud's patient and that there was marital discord, evidence of maternal depression, family history of affective disorder (2 of her brothers committed suicide), possible personality disorder, and the likelihood of maternal overstimulation. Hans' parents later divorced. Children who are raised in such homes where they experience overstimulation by one parent and are rejected and feel threatened by the other may constellate the symptoms that Freud envisioned and recognized in himself as an Oedipal complex. Moreover, there may be genetic vulnerability for such sensitization during the developmental period (eg, harm avoidance). If the term complex is used, it would seem best to refer to a mother or father complex. Bowlby's attachment model9 suggests that separation anxiety preceded Hans' phobia. Psychoanalysts today would place greater emphasis, as does Bowlby, on Hans' early development, the pre-oedipal phase. Moreover, life span developmental psychologists and life span developmental theorists like Erik Erikson (1902-1994) emphasize that there are developmental tasks that must be mastered sequentially by both parents and children at each phase of the life cycle.

Returning to the question posed in Sophocles' play, if one considers the Oedipal legend in its entirety, Oedipus himself did not have an Oedipus complex. He was an agent, a haughty victim, who carried out the curse on his father for child sexual abuse. Oedipus sought to find meaning in his life, not simply to gratify his instincts. The Chorus in Oedipus at Colonus concludes that “his sufferings were great, unmerited, and untold.”7(p163) They asked that some just god relieve him of his distress. And indeed it was when Oedipus was buried in the sacred grove.

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