Sophocles' Oedipus: Trapped by Taboo
by Ari Kandel

"But surely I must fear my mother's bed?"

--Oedipus Tyrannus, line 576

When Oedipus asks this question of his wife Iocasta, he is unaware of the depth of  his words. The Messenger has just told him about the death of King Polybos of Corinth, Oedipus’ supposed father. Now free in his mind from the threat of Apollo’s prophesy that he would kill his father, Oedipus here wishes to confirm with his wife that, as his supposed mother (the queen of Corinth) is still alive, he must still take care lest he sleep with her, as the oracle also foretold. But his words ask a more basic question as well: Why is the prediction that he will sleep with his mother so horribly ominous and repugnant? Among all the permissiveness of ancient Greek culture, including homosexual relationships between old men and young boys (see Plato’s Symposium) and the open taking of numerous courtesans by married men (see Homer’s Iliad), incest remains a fatally reprehensible offense. Throughout Greek literature, patricide/matricide also seems to be an equally odious crime (see Aeschylus’ Oresteia). Oedipus is actually relieved and happy about the natural death of his supposed father Polybos, as in his mind this frees him from the worry that he will someday kill his father. It is these taboos, against incest and against parent murder, that are the main motivations behind the story of Oedipus Tyrannus. Ironically, in the play, these taboos do not prevent moral disintegration as they are intended to do, but directly bring it about.

        The theories presented in Freud’s Totem and Taboo help to explain the motivations behind the attitudes in Oedipus Tyrannus. Freud holds that all human males innately harbor not a natural aversion to incest, but the opposite: an instinctive sexual attraction to the mother. He says, “[The experiences of psychoanalysis] have taught . . . that the first sexual impulses of the young are regularly of an incestuous nature” (Totem and Taboo, p. 160). He also asserts that each male harbors ambivalent feelings towards his father. On one hand, he loves, looks up to, and respects his father. On the other, with the awakening of sexual feelings which initially naturally fix themselves towards the mother, he comes to hate his father as a rival and oppressor. Combining these results of his pioneering psychoanalysis and the theory of the “primal horde,” based observations of the social structure of the higher apes, Freud suggests an explanation of the source of the taboos against incest and parent murder. At the dawn of humanity, people lived in groups dominated by the most powerful male, the father, who held a sexual monopoly over the group. When each of his sons grew to an age where he would challenge the father's authority in order to get a piece of the action, so to speak, the father drove him away from the group. After several sons had been so treated, they decided to cooperate in order to overthrow the father and get the females, their mothers, for themselves. With their combined strength, they killed the father. However, the hatred they felt towards their father now gave way to their other feelings towards him, and they felt guilt for their actions. They were also faced with the probability of subsequent conflict between each other as each tried to take the murdered father’s place. So, as Freud writes,

                            "What the fathers’ [sic?] presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited
                            in the psychic situation of “subsequent obedience” which we know so well from psychoanalysis.
                            They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father . . . was not allowed, and
                            renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated [mothers]. . . .Whoever
                            disobeyed became guilty of the two only crimes which troubled primitive society” (T&T, p. 185).

Given this origin, as the original two moral laws of humanity, it is no wonder that the taboos against incest and parent murder are felt so deeply by members of subsequent civilizations such as the ancient Greek. By the time of Oedipus, these laws are likely so internalized and natural in human society that a man raised in this society probably experiences them as what feels like an innate aversion to incest and parent murder that usually far overpowers the two desires of Freud’s “Oedipal complex.”

        In Oedipus Tyrannus, these taboos manipulate the characters in strange ways into a plot that temporarily turns Thebes into the seat of a new primal horde. At Oedipus’ birth his parents, terrified by the Delphic oracle’s prophesy that their son will violate the prehistoric taboos on their heads, send him away to die, just as the primal father sent away his sons when he felt threatened by them. The royal family of Corinth then raises Oedipus and inculcates him with all the proper values of Greek society, including of course the internalized taboo against incest and parent slaughter. This aversion eventually forces Oedipus to leave Corinth when he finds out about the prophesy. Unbeknownst to him, his fear of violating the taboo actually drives him to break it! Had he not fled Corinth due to his great fear of killing his supposed father and sleeping with his supposed mother, he would likely (the absolute power of the Fates aside) never have met his unknown father King Laius at the crossroads and killed him, nor saved Thebes from the Sphinx and received his mother’s hand in marriage as his reward. Indeed, had King Laius and Queen Iocasta not been so afraid of the implications of the prophecy as to attempt to banish and kill their son, they likely (again, Fate aside!) could have raised him in Thebes as any other prince, imbued him like any other son early on with the taboos against incest and patricide, and lived happily ever after. Oedipus would have known them as his parents, and thus would probably never have dreamed of committing such crimes against them. The whole tragedy as it is occurs as a result of Oedipus’ not knowing who his real parents are, not because of any moral shortcoming on Oedipus’ part However, in the end his actions appear to himself and his fellow citizens more loathsome even than those of any primal brother, as he unwittingly carries the primal brothers’ plan to complete fulfillment, displacing the father and winning the mother. The deep-rootedness of the taboos force him into supreme guilt and make him loathe and torture himself to a greater degree than probably any other character in literature.

        Sophocles seems to have written Oedipus Tyrannus to present the most horrifying tragedies imaginable for any human being. Although he could not possibly have had knowledge of Freud’s psychoanalysis or Darwin’s theories of human evolution, his own insight into the nature of humanity allowed him to figure out mankind’s deepest universal fears an sensibilities. Indeed, his unscientific, artistic insight seems closer to the truth than several of the scientific theories rejected by Freud in Totem and Taboo (see the theories of MacLennan, Westermarck, etc., T&T p. 155-164) which suggest alternate, often biological, causes of the incest taboo. Sophocles’ characters show no innate biological abhorrence of incest and parent slaughter. Only the societal taboos figure in their tragedies. Indeed, Iocasta seems content to live with her and Oedipus' breaking of the taboos when she realizes the truth before Oedipus does. She says, when Oedipus is near to finding out the truth about his background,

                            “Why ask of whom he spoke? Don’t give it heed;
                            nor try to keep in mind what has been said.
                            It will be wasted labour. . . .
                            I beg you--do not hunt this out--I beg you,
                            if you have any care for your own life.
                            What I am suffering is enough” (Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 1056-62).

Iocasta would prefer that no one ever find out about the crimes that have been committed by Oedipus and her. Although she admits to “suffering” moral pangs, these pangs do not strike deeply enough to unbalance her entire being. What she most fears is the public unveiling of their crimes. This is the same guilt that any normal criminal feels when he/she breaks any societal law: some remorse depending on the criminal’s moral fiber, and fear of getting caught! It is not the human creature’s allergi reaction to the violation of an inborn reflex. It seems that Sophocles knew, as Freud did, that the taboo against incest does not stem from any innate human instinct, as many have suggested, but from primal laws of human society. Oedipus’ rage and guilt for his actions comes about as a result of both the personal and public realization of his crimes. We may speculate about whether he would have reacted like Iocasta had he been more perceptive and, like her, found out the truth before anyone else.

        The way that Sophocles treats the primal taboos in Oedipus Tyrannus questions their exact nature and validity. Far from preventing discord and strife as they were theoretically intended to do among the primal brothers, their power actually brings about the tragedy in the play. People in today’s world have created taboos, equal in gravity to the incest and parent murder taboos in Oedipus Tyrannus, about such things as homosexuality, something that was far from taboo in ancient Greece. At the
same time, other elements of this same society attempt to rid people’s minds of this and other deep-seated taboos. Societal standards, including taboos, change alongside culture. Will the taboos that formed the origin of all morality and religion someday outlive their usefulness???  (Or is this WAY too liberal a concept for Columbia?!!)

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Brill, A.A., trans. New York: Random House, 1918.