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Oedipus and the Concept of Blindness


Blindness in literature is a recurring theme that holds significant symbolism and depth. Throughout various literary works, both ancient and modern, blindness is used as a powerful metaphor to explore the complexities of human existence, knowledge, and perception. In many literary classics, blindness is not only a physical condition but also represents a state of ignorance, arrogance or lack of understanding. Characters who are physically blind may possess profound insight into the human condition or possess a deeper understanding of truth and reality. On the other hand, characters with imperfect vision may remain blind to the deeper truths that surround them. In other words, blindness serves as a metaphor for the limitations of human perception and the complexities of human nature. Characters may be "blinded" by their own emotions, biases or desires, preventing them from seeing the world as it truly is. This theme often prompts readers to reflect on their own perceptions and the biases that may influence their understanding of the world.

 

Blindness in literature is not restricted to individuals but can also be applied to societies or institutions. Some authors, such as José Saramago, use the concept of collective blindness to criticize social systems that turn a blind eye to injustice, inequality, or corruption. This kind of portrayal, that could be mentioned as social blindness, serves as a call to action, urging readers to confront the issues that they might otherwise overlook.


Furthermore, blindness in literature often delves into the intricacies of self-discovery and the search for meaning and purpose. Characters may embark on a journey of introspection, trying to "see" beyond the superficialaspects of life to find a deeper sense of identity and truth. Overall, the theme of blindness in literature remains a rich and multifaceted subject that continues to captivate readers and invite introspection. Through the exploration of physical and metaphorical blindness, authors use this powerful theme to shed light on the complexities of the human experience and challenge readers to reconsider their perceptions and assumptions about the world around them.

 Generally speaking blindness in literature has a broad significance and can lead to a wide array of possible combinations, so this article will focus specifically on Oedipus Rex (Sophocles, 430-420 BC), the most famous text of Ancient Greek Literature about this theme.


Figure 1: Engraving of the Edipo Re edition (Romagnoli, 1926).

Oedipus Rex: the Plot

In the annals of ancient Greek literature, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (Cantarella, 1962) stands as a monumental tragedy that delves into the depths of human destiny, the Greek hybris (Eng. “arrogance”), and the inexorable workings of the divine will.

 

The play begins with King Oedipus sending his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the oracle at Delphi about the cause of the plague afflicting the city of Thebes. Creon returns with the news that the plague is caused by the unresolved murder of the former King, Laius. Determined to bring justice and end the suffering, Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for his crimes. Oedipus seeks the help of the blind prophet Tiresias, asking him to reveal who murdered Laius. After several hesitations, after Oedipus’ continuous begging, Tiresias confesses that Oedipus himself is the murderer he is looking for. The King cannot believe him and the argument grows until Oedipus shoos away Tiresias, who curses him predicting he will be ending blind and errant.

 

Oedipus tells everything to his wife Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes, and she tries to comfort Oedipus claiming that the prophecies are unreliable by telling him the prophecy regarding Laius, her first husband: it had been predicted that he would be killed by his own son, but —she says— Laius was murdered by bandits at a crossroads. This mention of the crossroads triggers something in Oedipus's memory, and as Jocasta describes the events leading to Laius's death, Oedipus becomes increasingly disturbed, realizing that he might be effectively the one who killed the former king. In fact, years before, Oedipus had heard a disturbing prophecy hinting that he would kill his father and marry his mother at a banquet in Corinth. In fear of fulfilling the prophecy, Oedipus had fled Corinth and had ended up at a crossroads where he had killed a man who now resembles the man in Jocasta’s description. However, Oedipus still hopes that he is not the murderer, as he heard that Laius was killed by multiple robbers.


Figure 2: "Oedipus and the Sphinx" (De Chirico, 1968).

 

Unfortunately, he comes to discover the truth: a messenger from comes with news of the death of Oedipus's supposed father, King Polybus of Corinth. Oedipus’s relief for not having killed his father is brief, as the messenger inadvertently reveals that Polybus was not Oedipus’ real father: in fact, when Oedipus was a newborn, he had been found abandoned and had been given to Polybus to be raised as the prince of Corinth. Oedipus wants to discover all the truth, then, so he forces a reply from the only living witness of this event, the shepherd who had found the abandoned baby. When he gets in front of Oedipus, he reveals he was the one who gave the infant Oedipus to the messenger, and that the child was Laius's own son. Fearing the prophecy that the boy would kill his father, Jocasta – wife to Laius and mother to Oedipus - had ordered the infant to be exposed on the mountainside.

 

Devastated by this atrocious revelations, he understands that the prophecy had become true: he had killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta. Even though his only sin had been ignorance, he blinds himself by tearing his own eyes out and begs to be exiled from Thebes, while Jocasta commits suicide. Despite the pain of his tragic fate, Oedipus has the strength to accept responsibility for his actions and their consequences. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex delves into the complexities of human nature, the limits of perception, and the unyielding force of destiny. It explores the Greek concept of hybris or arrogance and the inexorable workings of divine will. Oedipus's journey reflects a profound exploration of his soul as he grapples with the conflict between reason and ancient knowledge, secret obligations, and prohibitions.



Figure 3: Greek vase (kylix) representing Oedipus and the Sphinx (470 BC).

Blindness in Ancient Greece

The theme of blindness permeates the entire narrative, both literally and metaphorically, serving as a complex commentary on human ignorance, arrogance, and on the paradox of knowledge. At a literal level, the play explores the motif of physical blindness, notably exemplified by the tragic fate of Oedipus himself. The once-great king, who possessed keen insight and foresight, ultimately blinds himself upon discovering the truth of his action. That is the symbol of his new awareness and acknowledgment of the darkness within himself.

 Metaphorically, blindness is seen in various characters throughout the play, as they remain unaware of the reality in front of them, despite having access to the truth. Oedipus' relentless pursuit of the truth, ironically, blinds him to the prophetic warnings and, in turn, the inevitability of his own tragic destiny. Additionally, characters such as Jocasta and Tiresias, despite possessing knowledge of Oedipus's true parentage, choose to remain figuratively blind, unwilling to face the reality. Thus, the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex serves as a powerful reminder of the limitations of human perception, the dangers of unchecked pride, and the inescapable consequences of ignorance towards an overwhelming fate (Diano, 1968).

 

However, it is important to remember that this way of describing blindness had a major impact on western culture. For example, a pivotal author of the 20th Century Italian literature, Pier Paolo Pasolini, decided to make a movie out of Oedipus Rex. In the scene when Oedipus is facing the Sphinx, Pasolini adds a variation, so the Sphinx, rather than just asking the riddle, says: “The abyss you are pushing me towards is actually inside yourself”. This is just one of the many examples in which the experience of Oedipus’ blindness can be used, as prophecies need blindness to exist, both towards the future and what it holds. When it comes to seeing the unknown, only the deprivation of specific senses can help a diviner to actually see. By leaving the seen world he can focus on details that wouldn’t be grasped the same way. It appears clear why both Destiny and Tyché, the goddess of chaos, are indeed blindfolded. So is Justice.

 

In Sophocles' tragedy, the role of diviners is significant. Tiresias, being blind, becomes the only one capable of unraveling the enigma of the plague and of Oedipus’ life, working as a mirror image of the protagonist. It seems that true inner sight requires the abandonment of physical vision. However, at the time there was a considerable skepticism towards diviners, despite the population's reliance upon them. The main settings of the tragedy remain Thebes and Delphi, the only places where truth and divination appear to meet. It is essential to note that the Greeks refer to the truth with the word alétheia, which means what is not hidden, what is revealed, in opposition to what is clear from the beginning. Paradoxically Oedipus admires Tiresias' blindness, yet only he, through his negative sight, is able to reveal the truth, while Oedipus, with his working eyes, can only uncover illusions.

This tragedy delves into the complexities of the human psyche, the inexorable power of fate, and the elusive nature of truth. It leads the audience to think about the consequences of seeking knowledge and the limitations of human perception.

 


 Figure 4: Scene from the movie "Edipo Re" (Pasolini, 1967) in which Oedipus blinds himself.


The Role of Fate and Destiny

In ancient Greek literature, the concepts of fate and destiny held profound significance, shaping people's perception of the world and influencing their beliefs, actions, and decisions (Sissa, 2011). It is essential to draw a distinction between these two terms to understand their roles in the Greek worldview.

Fate, often depicted as an unchangeable force beyond human control, was viewed as a preordained course of events that dictated the lives of individuals, regardless of their actions or desires. This belief in fate was deeply rooted in Greek religious and mythological traditions, where powerful deities were believed to determine mortals' destinies by spinning the thread of life, measuring its length and ultimately cutting it. This fatalistic outlook on life left humans subject to the whims of higher powers beyond their comprehension, and they could not alter it. The Moirai, often referred to as the Fates, were three goddesses responsible for distributing destinies to individuals. They metaphorically divided the threads of life, and each person received a specific part, symbolized by a wire intertwined with others. Once cut at a precise point, that portion of destiny was fixed and could not be altered. Thus, destiny existed in the allotted part of the wire, while fate was intertwined with the path that wire took.

 

On the other hand, the concept of Destiny was deeply linked to Fate, and depended on it. Fate, in Ancient Greek, is called “Týche” as the deity, and the translation is simple yet self-explanatory, as it just means “to happen”. This clarifies the idea below the Týche, as it is something that happens and, at the same time, is inevitable.

 In the context of Oedipus Rex, the benevolent yet blind goddess Týche played a role in shaping Oedipus's destiny. However, it should be kept in mind that the Olympus' gods saw conceived the universe as a game, a realm of absolute freedom and imagination, born out of boredom. Still, unlike other heroes who had protective deities guiding their paths, Oedipus lacked such guidance, leaving his fate uncertain. He is left with his own destiny as every human is, without any help.  So, the ancient Greeks believed that each person possessed a destiny initially governed by causality. The concept of the Moirai distributing portions of destiny illustrates this belief, as it suggests that once a part was given, it could not be altered or extended.

 

 

Figure 5: "A Golden Thread" (Strudwick, 1885). The three Moirai are here represented.

An example of this intertwined concept of fate and destiny can be found in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, upon learning of a prophetic curse foretelling that he would kill his father and marry his mother, made every effort to avoid this fate by leaving his supposed parents. However, unknowingly and inevitably, Oedipus fulfills the prophecy through a series of seemingly unrelated events driven by divine forces (Kamerbeek, 1982). This play illustrates the inexorable nature of destiny, emphasizing the concept of tragic inevitability prevalent in ancient Greek society. Despite Oedipus's determined attempts to defy the prophecy, his actions unknowingly led him to its fulfillment (Segal, 2001).

 

Thus Ancient Greek literature discerned between fate and destiny, with fate representing an unchangeable force governing events beyond human control and destiny being the allotted portion of life's path governed by causality. Oedipus Rex serves as an example, showcasing the intertwined nature of fate and destiny in tragic inevitability. The play's portrayal emphasizes the Greeks' belief that even the most powerful and willful individuals were subject to the whims of destiny, highlighting the complexity of human existence within the bounds of fate and destiny (Rutherford, 2001).


The saga of Oedipus delves profoundly into the intricacies of human vulnerability, destiny, and the journey of self-discovery. This odyssey serves as an introspective exploration into the profound depths of our very soul. Condemned from his birth by a malevolent curse and prophecy, Oedipus finds himself torn between the enigmatic riddles of antiquity and the rationality of the present age. He is an old and wise man who has to come to terms with the mysteries of divination and prophecies. Despite his triumph in solving the enigma of the Sphinx, his tragic ignorance of his own complicity in Thebes' downfall remains concealed. His inherent weaknesses become palpable, leading to a transformation from a law-abiding and revered ruler into a tyrannical figure. Jocasta, Oedipus' wife and unknowingly his mother, realizes the imminent danger ahead of him. This compels her to make a heartbreaking choice to end her life and warn him against uncovering the truth, knowing that knowing too much might lead to his downfall.


Ironically, Oedipus, in his earnest reliance on rationality, finds himself looking for answers from the blind seer Tiresias, recognizing the need for his profound insights to unveil the veracity of his reality. Thus, it is the sightless Oedipus who ultimately unravels the illusion of his existence. The tragedy artfully interweaves the eternal struggle between reason and ancient wisdom, shadowed by hidden obligations and unyielding prohibitions.


Ultimately, the narrative presents life as a game of illusions, where everything is a play. Oedipus's tumultuous journey not only captures the essence of human frailty but also serves as a reminder of the impenetrable veil shrouding the enigma of our existence.



Bibliographical References

Cantarella, R. (1962). Storia della letteratura greca. Nuova Accademia Editrice.


Diano, C. (1968). Edipo figlio della Tyche, in Saggezza e Poetiche degli antichi, Neri Pozza.


Guidorizzi, G. (2002). Letteratura greca. Da Omero al secolo VI d.C. Mondadori Università.


Kamerbeek, J. C. (1982). The Plays of Sophocles: Commentaries 1-7 (Vol. 2). Leiden: E. J. Brill.


Segal, C. (2001). Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. Oxford University Press.

Sissa, G. (2011). The Daily Life of the Greek Gods. Stanford University Press.


Sofocle, (2006), Edipo Re, Edipo a Colono, Antigone. Oscar Mondadori.


Rutherford, R. B. (2001). The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Bloomsbury Academic.



Visual Sources

Cover image: Moreau, G. (1864). Oedipus and the Sphinx. [Painting]. MoMa. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://www.socialnews.it/blog/2021/02/11/edipo-e-la-sfinge/


Figure 1: Romagnoli, E. (1926). Engraving of the “Edipo Re”. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://it.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Edipo_re_(Sofocle_-_Romagnoli)#/media/File%3ASofocle-4.png


Figure 2: De Chirico, G. (1968). Oedipus and the Sphynx. [Oil on canvas]. Today at Fondazione De Chirico, Rome. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://mythologiae.unibo.it/index.php/2017/05/29/edipo-e-la-sfinge-2/


Figure 2: Attic vase (kylix) representing Oedipus and the Sphinx. (470 BC). today at the Vatican Museums. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://m.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani-mobile/it/collezioni/musei/museo-gregoriano-etrusco/sala-xix--emiciclo-inferiore--collezione-dei-vasi--ceramica-atti/kylix-attica-del-pittore-di-edipo.html


Figure 3: Pasolini, P. P. (1967). Edipo Re [Still]. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://www.cinemaepsicologia.it/edipo-re-di-pier-paolo-pasolini/amp/

Figure 4: Strudwick, J. M. (1885). A golden thread. [Painting]. Retrieved July 30th 2023, from: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moire#/media/File%3AStrudwick_-_A_Golden_Thread.jpg



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Alessandra Cipolloni

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