Strange but true! Natalie Haynes, ‘Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths’ is a collection of tales of ten women in Greek myths whose stories have been told and retold. But unfortunately through the eyes of the male counterpart pushing the Greek women into the background. Natalie Haynes brings these women to the foreground. My review of the first story of Pandora is here. In this post I review the story of little known Jocasta, mother and wife of Oedipus.
Oedipus was made famous by Sigmund Freud, neurologist and father of psychoanalysis. Freud immortalized Oedipus through his infamous theory of ‘Oedipus Complex’, commonly interpreted as a son’s unconscious sexual desire for his mother! “All boys go through a phase of wanting to kill their fathers and have sex with their mother”.
In Greek Myths the earliest tale of Oedipus was told by the Greek tragedian Sophocles, in a play ‘Oedipus Tyrannos (Oedipus Rex)’. Action takes place at a single location, at the gates of the royal House of Thebes, city in central Greece. Oedipus is the King of Thebes and husband of Jocasta. In the first scene Oedipus promises to save the citizens from the plague. Oedipus is considered clever as he had earlier solved the puzzle of the Sphinx and freed the city. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, claims that Thebes is suffering as it is harbouring the murderer of their previous King Laius, husband of Jocasta. A blind seer warns Oedipus to not pursue this accusation implying that he may discover that he himself is the killer.
In Sophocles’s version Jocasta is introduced only half way through the play. Oedipus tells her that Creon, her brother, is accusing him of being the killer of her first husband, Liaus. Jocasta says that a seer had told Liaus that he would be killed by his own son and so he had abandoned their only born son to die in the mountains, pinning his feet together when he was just three days old. And Liaus was killed by bandits, so not likely to be Oedipus. But Oedipus hears that there was a survivor of the bandit attack on Liaus and sends for him.
Oedipus was unaware that he was the adopted son of the King of Corinth. The abandoned baby Oedipus had been found by a shepherd and given to the childless couple, King and Queen of Corinth. Oedipus remembered that he had met a rude man at the cross roads outside Delphi, the same place where Liaus was killed, and had killed him and his three men. He had also been told by an Oracle that he would kill his own father and so he is afraid that it might be true. Jocasta assures him that the Oracle’s prophesy was nothing.
A messenger arrives with the news that Oedipus’s father died and both are happy that Oedipus had not killed his father and ‘would not marry his mother’. But then the messenger reveals that Oedipus was an adopted son. The shepard arrives and confirms that he had handed over Oedipus as a child with his pinned feet to the Queen on Corinth, who adopted him. Jocasta realizes what has happened, rushes inside and hangs herself. Oedipus goes inside and sees the fate of his wife. He understands the course of events. As punishment to himself he takes the broach off Jocasta’s dress and pierces his eyes. In the last scene in Sophocles’s play Oedipus rushes out with large black sockets for eyes.
Natalie Haynes poses the question: Why is it so easy for audiences to overlook the terrible fate of Jocasta? In a play of 1530 lines, Oedipus has 5 times more lines, Creon comes next and Jocasta has only 120 lines. Oedipus is tragically alive with blackened sockets for eyes at the end of the play for audiences to see. While Jocasta’s hanging takes place off scene, receiving less attention and sympathy. In one short day Oedipus goes from being King, husband, father, son to widower, murderer, ruin and exile. Equally deavastating fall from grace happens to Jocasta. She suffrered the abandonment of her son. The play celebrates Oedipus’s cleverness in solving the riddle of the Sphinx and capable of solving the riddle of the murder. But it is Jocasta who realizes the truth first of being wife and mother of Oedipus and rushes to kill herself.
The author then describes a version of the play written twenty years later, 409 BCE., by Euripides, The Phoenician Women. In this play Jocasta has a more central role and she does not kill herself when she realizes the truth. She continues to live in the palace with a prominent role in the royal household. Her sons lock away their blinded father as a prisoner in the palace. In Euripides version Jocasta has a larger political role. When her sons go to war with each other she tries to negotiate between them, but fails. They kill each other and Jocasta in her despair takes the sword and drives it through her throat.
Jocasta is hardly seen in paintings or featured on the large pots and vases of those times. Oedipus is etched in everyones memory for his tragic role. And today’s world recognizes him from the Freudian concept of the ‘Oedipus complex’. In the earlier Greek myth in the book, Pandora became a much maligned woman, Jocasta suffered a worse fate of being almost invisible.