This painting, by an unknown artist from the 19th century, was inspired by the myths of Oedipus, perhaps the unluckiest figure from ancient Greek myth. Oedipus is depicted in the artwork as the man dressed in red, carrying a walking stick. Standing beside him is his dutiful daughter, Antigone. The scene they reenact in the painting above is set late in the complicated life of Oedipus, but for context and clarity we should go back to the beginning.
Oedipus was the son of King (or Tyrant) Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. When Oedipus was still a baby, King Laius learned from an oracle that he would be killed by his son. Due to this prophesy, baby Oedipus was abandoned by his family, but the agents tasked with disposing of the child decided to give the baby another chance and arranged for him to be brought to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who adopted Oedipus and raised him as their son. Although Oedipus loved his adoptive family, he still had questions about his true lineage. His search for the truth led Oedipus to another prophesy—that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Hearing this, Oedipus decided to never return to Corinth (to spare his adopted parents from possible harm), and he instead turned to a life of wandering and adventure. Unfortunately, Oedipus chose to travel in the direction of Thebes.
On the road, he ended up killing a man who turned out to be his real father, King Laius. Continuing on, Oedipus encountered and defeated a sphinx near Thebes, which led him to marry the widowed Queen Jocasta and become king of Thebes. Oedipus and Jocasta (who were not aware of their mother-son connection at the time) had four children: two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, as well as two sons, Polynices and Eteocles. Although the family lived in happy ignorance for a time, the truth eventually came out, which had devastating consequences for Oedipus’ family. After discovering the truth, Jocasta ended her own life; Oedipus, in turn, blinded himself and abdicated his power to go into exile; this caused Polynices and Eteocles to erupt into a civil war over their father’s vacated throne. Oedipus’ daughters, unlike his sons, stood by their father and continued to actively care for him. Ismene tracked down further oracles and prophecies in hopes of improving Oedipus’ fate. Antigone, meanwhile, stayed with her father to act as his constant guide and aide. This father-daughter partnership was featured in the play, Oedipus at Colonus, written by the Athenian playwright, Sophocles (c. 496-406/405 BCE):
“Antigone, from the time she left her childhood behind
and came into full strength, has volunteered for grief,
wandering with me [Oedipus], leading the old misery, hungry,
feet cut through the bristling woods…
an eternity—worn down by the drenching rains,
the scorching suns at noon. Hard labor,
but you endured it all, never a second thought
for home, a decent life, so long as your father
had some care and comfort.”
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, around line 340-350)
It is this dynamic between Oedipus and Antigone that inspired the painting featured above. After Oedipus’ death, Antigone brought her steadfast sense of family duty back to Thebes, where she and Ismene tried (unsuccessfully) to end the civil war between their brothers. In the end, Polynices and Eteocles killed each other in battle, resulting in Thebes coming under the rule of their uncle, Creon, who soon after imprisoned Antigone and Ismene.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Sophocles, Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982, 1984, 2018.