March 24, 2008


Antigone Leads Oedipus out of Thebes by Charles Francois Jalabert. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Mythology is a perennially fascinating subject. There have been any number of modern interpretations of the meaning of myths. Classical scholar Elizabeth Vandiver divides these into "what" and "why" theories.

"What" theories, which were discussed here last week, try to explain myth in terms of other things, such as expressions of rituals, social solidarity, explanations of natural and historical events, etc. "Why" theories of myths are broader in scope and tend to focus on the universal function of myths for the human mind.

The person who did the most to open that can of worms was none other than Sigmund Freud, who turned to myths in developing his theory of psychoanalysis, specifically the myth of Oedipus as recounted in the Greek tragedian Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus.

To recap that myth, an oracle foretells that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius, the father, orders the infant exposed, but unbeknownst to him, a shepherd takes pity and spares the infant, who is raised by another couple elsewhere he believes to be his parents. When he learns of the oracle, he flees his home and kills a belligerent person on the way. Reckon wonder who that guy was?

He becomes tyrant (nonhereditary ruler) of Thebes when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster terrifying the town. He also gets to marry the Jocasta, widow of the king. When a plague breaks out, Oedipus swears to get to the bottom of it. The blind seer Tiresias says the plague is due to a hidden crime, which turns out to be... When the truth is revealed, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. (There's a bunch of stuff going on with seeing/not seeing.)

For Freud, the only possible reason why this myth is compelling to modern as well as ancient readers is that it reveals a universal conflict in the human psyche that begins in childhood and has ramifications throughout life. He believed the Oedipus complex was a universal human trait.

Most people today wouldn't go that far, although it seems to fit for some people. Scholars of mythology in particular point out that this kind of mythic theme is far from universal across cultures and the Oedipus myth itself occupied only a minor place in the Greek mythic cycle. For that matter, other myths are at least as compelling as that of Oedipus.

When El Cabrero first discovered Greek tragedy, I was much more impressed by Aeschylus' tragedies of Orestes, who killed his mother to avenge his father's death and had to deal with the wrath of the Furies in the wake of that primal transgression. He didn't even rate a complex. No fair!

Official Goat Rope verdict: myths, like any other kind of story, can convey deep psychological insights, but they are best understood as much as possible in their own terms and as part of the symbolic universe of which they are a part. And not every compelling story reflects a universal truth of human nature.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and even when it isn't it isn't always what Old Sig thought.

SAD MILESTONE. The AP reports that US military deaths in Iraq have reached 4000.

THIS IS NO SHOCK, but good jobs are getting harder for workers at lower education levels to find.

LONGEVITY GAP. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so does the gap in life expectancies across socio-economic lines.

YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THIS LINK if only to see the freaky mantis shrimp.


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