“Since it was Jocasta,
according to the herdsman in the next scene, who actually gave
the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the
mountainside, does Jocasta kill herself because she can't face
Oedipus or because she can't face the public shame of their
Poor Jocasta’s shame begins the day she must marry Laius, the
abductor and molester of Crysippus according to John Porter in
Sophocles' Oedipus. Catherine Avery, editor of the New
Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend, maintains
that “Laius fell in love with Crysippus, the son of King Pelops,
and carried him off to Thebes” where Crysippus mysteriously met
his death. Avery goes on to say that Pelops forgave Laius and
restored him to the throne of Thebes. Laius then marries
Jocasta, the daughter of Menoecceus (New 318)
sorrowful wedding night it must have been for Jocasta, a young
Greek adolescent, perhaps no older than fourteen, aware of her
husband’s moral crimes towards Crysippus. Married to a man who
was probably twice her age, a grim stage was set. (Cartledge
Jocasta gave birth to a boy; an important addition to the Greek
family (Cartledge 144). An oracle foretold that this boy would
kill his father and marry his mother. Laius made a decision to
dispose of the child, which was not unusual in Greek culture.
Newborn babies were presented to their father when they were
nine days old so that he could accept the infant into Greek
family life or reject it. Unwanted children were left to die of
exposure or were abandoned in a specific location somewhere in
the city where they might be adopted and reared as a slave
Sophocles twists and turns legend and custom as he forces
Jocasta into a decisive roll. Jocasta presented Oedipus to a
shepherd to be abandoned on Mount Cithaeron, his feet speared
with a skewer and bound (New 387). Infanticide was an accepted
practice, but she would one day face the child that she so
cruelly gave over to torture and death, attempting to save the
worthless life of Laius. She sacrificed her child to save the
very man that had brought the curse of the Sphinx down upon
Thebes because of his “crimes” (New 495).
Later, Laius is murdered on a journey to seek deliverance from
the curse of the Sphinx. Jocasta, barely a widow, imprudently
marries a man half her age, whose name means “swollen feet”.
Jocasta, no longer an adolescent, but a mature woman, was well
able to understand the consequences of her actions, yet she
ignored prophesy of the gods; she superceded what was foretold
would come true; incest, an act so heinous even Greek society
recoiled from it in Sophocles tale. The gods gave no anecdote
for her dilemma, no panacea was offered to Jocasta that the
murderous, incestuous prophesy could be stopped. Jocasta played
a dangerous game, feigning outward devotion to the gods, praying
for wisdom and help. Inwardly she denied their sovereignty and
believed that she could somehow change the future.
Sophocles could have been using Jocasta to illustrate certain
social evils and their consequences. Jocasta morns her lost
infant. She realizes the horror of her imprudent, hasty
decision when Oedipus was only three days old (Sophocles 435).
Oedipus is outraged to learn of her behavior towards him, yet
infanticide was a commonly accepted practice in ancient Greece
(Sophocles 444). Jocasta could have taken her baby and fled
from Thebes to save his life. She possessed a dubious belief in
her religion which tossed her around like an ocean wave. Either
she believed that the baby would really do as the gods predicted
or perhaps she remembered Laius past crimes and didn’t want his
child, using religious and social practices to get rid of
Jocasta’s behavior exhibits a strange sort of double mindedness.
She wove a tangled web which ensnared her hopelessly. She
became the victim of her own self serving and manipulative
nature. The pagan gods of ancient Greece were eccentric, Greek
mythology reveals this to us. Their idiosyncrasies appeared to
control, unwillingly the lives of their subjects, yet through
obedience, faithfulness and verity, Jocasta could have finished
her life’s journey with honor.
can see the moment of truth coming for Jocasta as she asks about
the conflict between Creon and Oedipus (Sophocles 429). The
light of truth is flickering for her and comes to its full,
revealing brightness as she begs Oedipus to cease his desperate
inquiries. Feigning religious devotion, Jocasta strives to
prove that Oedipus’ fears are unfounded but as he persists, she
knows what the awful truth is; she is the one who quickly sent
Laius’ servant far away years ago when he returned to Thebes and
saw Oedipus on the old kings throne (Sophocles 433). What she
thought she could control through murder and deception, she now
knows has come to pass (Sophocles 441). She marries Oedipus to
conceal what she did to him as an infant.
Jocasta’s life became a reflection of Laius’ life. She married
a man half her age and her crimes against her household, and
forgotten babe, thrust a curse upon Thebes. “The foolish woman
tears her house down with her own hands” (Prov. 14:1 NASV),
Jocasta proved this, having outwardly pretended to revere the
gods. Inwardly she tried to thwart them and unwittingly
destroyed all that was precious to her.
longer able to face Oedipus, the children, her people and her
lead role in the terrible prophesy, Jocasta committed suicide,
calling out to Laius in agony and dismay as if to say “what have
we done?” If only she could go back to yesterday. If only she
had listened and done things differently. We can only imagine
her horror as her own life’s actions revealed that she
precipitated unspeakable scandal and the fulfillment of
Cartledge, Paul. The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.
New York: Atlantic Productions, 2000.
Peach, Susan, Anne Millard. The Greeks. Ed. Janer
Chisholm. Tulsa: EDC Publishing, 1990.
The New Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend.
Ed. Catherine B. Avery. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1972.
Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex”. In Judith A. Stanford’s,
Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays and Essays.
4th Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003
The Ryrie Study Bible. New
American Standard Version. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Th.d., Ph.d.
Chicago: The Moody Press, 1978. Proverb 14:1.
Porter, John. “Sophocles’
Oedipus”. University of Saskatchewan. 2004. 4 March 2005.