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Jocasta
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Paulette Estep

Professor Hibbison

English 112

3-05-05

Jocasta’s Secret

 

“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 incest?”

 

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)

 

A 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 114).

 

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 (Peach 52).

 

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 Oedipus. 

 

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. 

 

We 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. 

 

No 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 prophesies.

 

Works Cited

 

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. <http://duke.usask.ca/~porterj/CourseNotes/Oed.html>

 

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