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Oedipus Rex – Religious Skepticism

The ancient Greeks have often depended upon the advice of the soothsayers and oracles, which they considered as reliable sources of information, during difficult times in their lives. In the play Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, Oedipus and Iocaste sought help from these sources in their times of need. It was their arrogance and fear that caused them to be skeptical of the oracle’s prophecy. Their efforts to escape the inevitable blinded them from the truth when it began to unravel before them, which led to their disastrous downfall.

By the end of the play, Sophocles reveals his belief in the oracles, but they do not prevent man from making his own choices; thus, making him responsible for his own actions. Throughout the play, Oedipus and Iocaste display an arrogant attitude. They both show an offensive sense of superiority to the people, the oracle and the soothsayer. At the opening of the play, Oedipus displays his arrogance to both the citizens of Thebes and the reader. He first characterizes himself as a father figure to the people, thus establishing a sense of superiority when he addresses the people as “My children . ” (Prologue 3).

In the opening dialogue, while the people of Thebes are praying, for relief of the plague, he presents himself as a god. He says, “Children, I would not have you speak through messengers, /And therefore I have come myself to hear you -/ I, Oedipus, who bear the famous name” (i, 4). At a devastating moment while the people are asking for help he says, “I have come myself to hear you” implying that he is the answer to their prayers.

He goes on to refer to himself as “I, Oedipus, Who bear the famous name,” drawing upon his past success with the Sphinx and reinforcing the fact that he saved the city when it was once in despair and that he can do it again. It could be argued that he is just a king trying to calm his worried subjects but this is not an isolated incident. He reveals his arrogance again in his conversation with the soothsayer, Teiresias. In the meeting with Oedipus, Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus’s question in fear of exposing him. Oedipus threatens Teiresias to get the truth out of him.

Teiresias finally responds by telling Oedipus, “You yourself are the pollution of this country . . . I say that you are the murderer whom you seek” (i ,19). Oedipus’s arrogant behavior resulted in his disbelief of Teiresias’s words. Oedipus then continues to boast of himself; he brings up his own intelligence and brags about the fact that he was able to solve the Sphinx’s riddle, which saved Thebes from complete destruction and made him king. He sarcastically asked Teiresias, “When the hellcat the Sphinx was performing here, / What help were you to these people? . But I came by, /Oedipus, the simple man, who knows nothing – /I thought it out for myself, no birds helped me! ” (i ,20-21).

This swaggering attitude held him back from seeing the actual truth. If he was not so egocentric, he could have possibly recognized the fact that he might have been wrong. He also mocked Teiresias’s blindness but as Teiresias says, “But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind: /You cannot see the wretchedness of your life, /Nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom” (i ,21). Teiresias is right.

It is true that he is physically blind (figuratively speaking) but Oedipus is really the blind and ignorant one. He just refuses to accept the truth because of his belief that he is superior and that the “savior” of the city could not be the one who is ultimately causing its destruction. This egotistical behavior resulted in his disbelief of the words of the soothsayer, Teiresias, whom Oedipus himself sent for. Oedipus threatened Teiresias and the shepherd to get the truth out of them. This unrelenting quest for the truth ultimately contributed to his destruction.

Even when they tell him what they know, he refuses to believe it because he is so arrogant. Instead of considering what Teiresias is suggesting, he accuses him and Creon for trying to overthrow him as king. He tells Teiresias, “Now twice you have spat out infamy. You’ll pay for it! ” (i ,19). If Oedipus did not have that attitude and had he not been so domineering, he would have saved himself from discovering who he really is. Iocaste, Oedipus’s wife/mother is just as ignorant and arrogant as Oedipus. She actually thought that she rose above the gods and changed the fate that the oracle had given her.

Similarly, when Oedipus heard what the oracle told him at Corinth, he ran away from his home in hopes of outsmarting the gods’ divine will. She explains to Oedipus that she has proof that the oracle is not accurate because she and her husband, Laios, were able to defy the oracle. It said that their son was to kill his father and marry his mother but the “child had not been three days in this world /Before the King had pierced the baby’s ankles /And left him to die on a lonely mountainside. /Thus Apollo never caused that child /To kill his father, and it was not Laio’s fate /To die at the hands of his son, as he feared” (ii, 37).

She is also the first one to assure Oedipus that Teiresias’s prophesy is not accurate and tells him, “Set your mind at rest. /If it is a question of soothsayers, I tell you/That you will find no man whose craft gives knowledge / Of the unknowable” (ii, 36). Here the reader can see how over-confident she is because everything she is saying is wrong and the reality of the situation will hit her hard by the end of the play. Their efforts to avoid fate appears successful for a while, but it has blinded them to the truth even when the events were being unveiled right before their eyes.

Between Iocasta and Oedipus, there was a link of coincidental events they refused to accept. First, Iocasta speaks of her son being pierced in the ankles at three days old and Oedipus should know of any scars on his ankles, and the prophecy that was given to Iocasta and Laios was the same one given to Oedipus, and the details Iocasta gave of Laios’s death concurred with those of Oedipus’s incident. At this point, Oedipus’s arrogance has now turned to fear and Iocasta makes an offering to the god Apollo saying, “Receive these offerings, and grant us deliverance / From defilement.

Our hearts are heavy with fear /When we see our leader distracted, as helpless sailors /Are terrified by the confusion of their helmsman” (iii, 47). This is another display of Iocasta’s arrogance in that she prays for Oedipus because he is going mad and she still does not accept the fact that she will soon meet her fate, all because she believes she has altered it. During the time that Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, religious skepticism was becoming widespread in ancient Greece. Sophocles portrayed his views of religion through the characters in his play.

Evidently, Sophocles believed in the oracles and their power because by the end of the play, everything that the oracles predicted came out to be true. Although he believed that the will of the gods would be done, man must still take responsibility for his own choices and actions. When the Choragos asks Oedipus what god did this to him, he exclaimed that it was Apollo: “He brought my sick, sick fate upon me. /But the blinding hand was my own! /How could I bear to see /When all my sight was horror everywhere? ” (Exodos, 70).

Oedipus, although he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, still took full responsibility for his actions. Oedipus says that it was his own hand that did it so there are no excuses; therefore, he punished himself by taking his sight away. Also, when Creon speaks at the end of the play, it is as if Sophocles was speaking for him: “Think no longer / That you are in command here, but rather think/ How, when you were, you served your own destruction” (Exodos, 77). Here Sophocles is saying that Oedipus should think about what he has done and take full responsibility for those actions.

As a result, Oedipus was a victim of fate but he was not controlled by it. The gods will always have their way no matter what. They allow some freedom for man to make their own choices around a series of events and whatever choice he makes and whatever he does, whether it be because he knows what he is doing or not is what determines the outcome. Oedipus and Iocaste, however, let their arrogance and confidence override the fact that the gods had planned their lives. They chose to somehow escape the inevitable truth, yet it came back to them and they suffered the consequences in the end.

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