Oedipus, Eros & Psyche

It has often been said that the child is father to the man, meaning that within the mind of the child, that is; in its most formative experiences such as its relationships with its parents, siblings, friends and relatives actually formulate and determine much of its’ happiness and satisfaction in later life. However, to understand what can go wrong or right for the developing child we must examine two important Greek myths; that of Oedipus/Electra and that of Adonis & Psyche. The thrice-born hero Hermes Trismegistus (“The Emerald Tablets”), of whom much has been discussed among the metaphysical elite, was said to have been resurrected or born out of his own foetal, oral, anal, and genital fixations and preoccupations. His struggle to attain wisdom features in many other mythic, fairy tale and epic scenarios. His death and resurrection, not unlike that of Christ, was not physical but metaphorical alluding to the transformations within the psyche required for self-knowledge and self-mastery. The power of real knowledge is that it has the ability to destroy mercilessly all of our preconceptions about life and many of our own acquired of contrived personal delusions. Knowledge of the world and oneself was perceived as a means to pierce through the veil of illusion and lift us beyond the transitory to a sublime view of eternity. The power of personal experience however has the ability to destroy any remnant of hidden fears and repulsions that inhibit our soul growth through repeated wrong thinking, wrong feeling and wrong action. However, often painful experiences allow us to integrate that knowledge and attain towards a higher wisdom, and that wisdom is the path to the meaning of true love, hope and faith. The hatred, ignorance and fears relating to motherhood, fatherhood and childhood, and our instinctive reactions when we encounter the brutal and violent, the unknown or terrifying and the numerous injustices in life are usually reconciled through reason. The fears of motherhood for example may concern inherent selfishness, poverty, starvation and excess oral gratification, those of fatherhood of being dishonoured, unworthy, discredited or lacking control or discipline, those of childhood hatred, anger, abandonment, confusion or disappointment. The path of any personal vice leads to pain or death (Chaos) while the path of virtue leads to justice or pleasure (Immortality). Fairy tales are also magical mirrors that reflect paradoxically onto the psyche of the child some deeper aspect of their inner workings and their intrinsic relationship to the family, the community and the world at large.

The Oedipal Myth & the Karmic Family:

In the myth of Oedipus we may detect a basic template of interconnected family relationships and how they work themselves out in a negative or positive manner. Essentially, problems arise where either parent has failed to integrate their own childish wish to possess or become inextricably dependent on their children, or where paradoxically the child harbours a wish to own solely or be dependent on their mother or their father, and in some instances with the added complications of the sibling’s rivalry for their parent’s affections. In many instances the parent or the child will be fearful or anxious at some future stage over the amount of time that they spend in each other’s company to the exclusion of everyone or everything else. The tale of Snow White aptly illustrates for the child and allows it to understand that not only are they jealous of their coveted parent but that the parent may also have parallel feelings towards their child. In a reassuring way the theme of the tale enables the child to understand that, should this occur, they need not be afraid of the consequences of parental jealousy whenever it occurs because, given the right attitude and circumstances, they can overcome its negative consequences. Nevertheless, various complications are created within the family network whenever the green-eyed monster raises its’ ugly head. Although Sigmund Freud employed the Oedipal myth as an essential tool for understanding the obsessive love of a child for the mother or father (the Oedipus/Electra complex), the whole story throws additional light on how complex family relationships can become and how they affect various subsequent generations. At some stage in their lives a person suffering from any one of these psychological complexes will need to address certain issues that have spanned several generations, like the links in the chain of psychological projections, their sense of dependence on the opinions or values of their parents towards them have to be literally severed in order for them to move on. This may be more difficult than one might suppose, since the conditioned responses that govern self-worth lie deeply hidden and only surface, albeit subconsciously, whenever a person later attempts to establish new relationships.

These new and often challenging relationships, from the teenage years and into maturity are in effect quantum leaps into unknown territory, necessitating change and new perspectives in what relating in a social context actually entails. Although the ideal in many people’s lives is to have fulfilling relationships, both intimate and impersonal with their parents, their lovers, friends and associates, in reality many either do not have such an ideal or they may need to transcend any conditioning in order to progress and get on with their own lives. In actual fact many people do not realise that the biological family, although a necessary foundation stone, is but one aspect of human relationships. There is also the sibling family, the social family, the political family, the humanitarian family, the philosophical family and finally the spiritual family. As a person ages their opinions, needs and values usually alter allowing them greater access to a much broader definition of what it is to be human and how they fit into a much greater whole. If their relationships are denied change or are starved of evolution then they are effectively “stuck in a rut”.

Synopsis of the Oedipal Myth:

The tragic stories of several generations of Royal families in ancient Greece that involve Oedipus and Orestes just after the Trojan Wars, is chronicled in Homer‘s Illiad & Odyssey and then later became the central theme of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus‘s plays (525-456 BC) which includes the Oresteia trilogy, “Agamemnon”, the resolution appearing in “Eumenides” and a continuation of the karmic saga in “Seven Against Thebes” (Epigoni) written in Sicily. A superior version was also written by Sophocles (496-406 BC “King Oedipus” & “Oedipus at Colonus”) at the age of 28 for which he actually won an award. It is worth bearing in mind that Aeschylus, an Athenian dramatist says; “we are all eating crumbs from the table of Homer”. These tragic dramas focus on the dilemmas of human passions, personal responsibility and the expression of divine will. It is worth noting that Oedipus unknowingly kills his father, while Orestes, spurred on by his sister Electra kills his mother in full knowledge of the act and in vengeance for the death of his father.

John Downam’s narrative painting, the Ghost of Clytemnestra

The play begins with King Laius of Thebes, who was married to Queen Jocasta, who laments their childless marriage and decides to consult the oracle at Delphi. The oracle informs him that their marriage is cursed and that if a child was begot between them that it would probably murder him in cold blood. Horrified and pondering on his miserable fate, the King therefore gradually ostracises Jocasta, but one night while he is drunk she seduces him and nine months later, much against his wishes, he has a beautiful son. As soon as it is born however, the King snatches him from Jocasta‘s care, drives a nail into his feet, binds them and casts him out on Mt. Cithaeron where he is discovered by a shepherd. Subsequently, and as a prelude to this strange and convoluted tale, the bisexual King Laius had ravished Pelop‘s illegitimate young son, Chryssipus while he was in his custody and being sheltered under his roof, even though he was in turn given kindness and hospitality. The Mycenaean King Pelops won his bride Hippodaemia with the help of Myrtilus in a chariot race and when his servant asked for his reward Pelops refused to pay and then drowned him. As he was dying Myrtilus uttered a curse upon Pelops that was passed on to his true son Atreus and his descendants. Atreus and his descendants were not exorcised of this curse until the madness and purification of Orestes, the son of the legendary King Agamemnon. Subsequently, Orestes was pursued by the Erinyes (Furies) and was not free of the consequences of his deed until he faced trial in Athens and was acquitted by the single vote of the goddess Athena.

Agamemnon, was the commander of the Greek army, who notoriously argued with Achilles and returned from the siege of Troy with a consort as a trophy called Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam. This only served to anger his jealous wife Clytemnestra who plotted to kill Agamemnon. In a state of distraught madness and encouraged by his sister, Electra, Orestes avenged the murder of his father by killing his own mother, Clytemnaestra and her secret lover Aegisthus. Pelops had inherited the Paphlagonian throne living near the shores of the Black Sea from his father Tantalus, but also ruled over the Lydians and Phrygians. He was married to Hippodameia, the daughter of King Oenomaus from Arcadia. Unfortunately, he was subsequently exiled by invading barbarians as well as Ilus the King of Troy and, having nowhere else to go sought refuge with King Laius. Angered by this horrendous sexual act, the Goddess Hera sends the diabolical Sphinx from Ethiopia, a creature with a woman’s head, lion’s body, a serpent’s tail and the wings of an eagle to harass all pilgrims and travellers to Thebes. As punishment for acting out his own childish jealousies and perversions, the oracle at Delphi predicted that karmically he would be killed by his own son just as Tantalus, the husband of Clytaemnestra had jealously tried to destroy his own son Pelops. Fortunately, the latter had miraculously survived the ordeal and went on to avenge the murder of his father-in-law, King Oenomaus. In full knowledge of the karmic consequences and in order to prevent Oedipus taking his place, King Laius, arranged to have the infant’s ankles pierced and his feet tied together then orders a local shepherd to cast him out into the wilderness to die.

However, the shepherd, like the huntsman in Snow White, takes pity on the abandoned Oedipus and places him in the care of another shepherd who brings him up as his own child. Oedipus is then later introduced to Polybus, the King of Corinth as a young boy and he raises him as his own natural son. It is at this stage that Oedipus consults the oracle at Delphi, just as Laius had done previously, and is told that he would inevitably slay his own father and have sexual relations with his mother. Not realising that his current custodians are not his real parents, and in order to prevent such perverse repercussions occurring to his kind guardian King Polybus, Oedipus does not return home but travels far away to live in exile. Nevertheless, or by a quirk of fate he still encounters Laius, his real father, at a crossroads one day, he ends up arguing with him over some issue and then murders him. He then proceeds on to Thebes, solves the riddle of the Sphinx and acclaimed by the citizens of Thebes as an hero his reward being to marry the Queen, Jocasta, who happens to be the unhappy widow of the man he has recently slain. Much later when the truth of this bizarre story was revealed by the sage Teiresias, the Queen in horror committed suicide and Oedipus blinded himself in punishment for not having seen what he had done. Nevertheless, the tale does not end at this tragic juncture but goes on further to illustrate that the failures to integrate or resolve the Oedipal complex means that the karma will fall onto the next of kin. In Greece it is traditionally said that the sins of the father fall on the daughter and the sins of the mother fall onto the son and this idea is nicely illustrated with the following sequel. Oedipus‘s own twin sons Eteokles and Polynices did not support him in his misery but his daughter stayed by him. As time passed during the war on Thebes his sons eventually killed each other in combat. Going against King Creon‘s orders, Antigone buried Polynices and was herself killed for it. Both Tantalus and Laius are then destroyed by their selfish attachment, while Oenomaus dies because he wants his daughter all for himself, and Jocasta dies because she is still stubbornly attached to her own son. Similarly, Oedipus suffers by trying to save his parents as he unwittingly kills his father and as his sons suffer from unchecked sibling rivalry they too destroy each other through envy. The myth also explains that Tantalus, the son of Pelops, attempts to trick or fool the gods out of his own selfish possessiveness or vain protection of his son. As a result he suffers eternally in Hades. However, Pelops is restored by the gods in the same manner that Snow White regains consciousness after a long period of lying quiescent in a catatonic “sleep” (latency stage).

Eros & Psyche:

Of further interest to the mind and sexuality of the developing child, at least as it progresses through puberty and begins to take an interest in the opposite sex is the myth of “Eros & Psyche”. The word psyche, from which the word psychology was coined, actually derives from the Greek word meaning “soul”, but which the English Oxford dictionary defines as “the spiritual or immaterial aspect of human beings, the moral manifestation and emotional portion of the conscious mind, the vital principle of life and mental emanations, or the embodiment of all intellectual and emotional striving towards some ideal goal”. The story of Cupid & Psyche was taken up and revised by many other Medieval writers namely Edmund Spenser“The Fairy Queen”. The Greek and Roman myth, as well as the moral or sexual implications that are paralleled in the well known fairy story of Beauty & the Beast. The Greek myth was retold in Roman times by Apuleius“The Golden Ass” and “Cupid & Psyche”, although it was derived largely from an account in Ovid‘s “Metamorphoses”, a work that inspired Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Sonnets (“Venus & Adonis”). In Greek mythology and cosmology, Eros (Pleasure Principle) is contrasted with Thanatos (Death Principle) between which extends Chaos (Irrational Principle) which itself is in opposition to Nous (Mind or Reason). The “blind” and invisible Eros, a god of love and blind infatuation, randomly wounds mortals on Earth with his arrows of desire that have either gold (joy) or leaden points (sorrow). We are reminded here of the symbolic elements or metals referred to in Alchemy (“The Sacred Marriage of Sol & Luna”) a theme to which the psychoanalyst Carl Jung was especially attracted.

In Medieval Alchemy the base metal lead is transformed into gold by the initiate’s experiments and research into formulating the philosopher’s stone. In Apuleius‘ tale Psyche is led astray by her two evil older sisters when she is told that sexual pleasure with her lover, in the form of Typhon, a snake with many coils, is disgusting and abhorrent. Psyche, a most beautiful girl and one of three daughters to a King arouses the jealousy of the goddess Aphrodite, Eros‘s mother. In a cunning plan she actually seduces her own son Eros, the mischievous god of desire, and thereby forces him to punish Psyche by making her persistently fall in love with ugly men, ie: “kissing frogs”. Psyche‘s parents, being worried that she has not as yet found a suitable husband, consult the oracle at Delphi and they are told that Psyche must be set up on a high cliff to become the prey of a huge snake-like monster. She agrees to this and is led to the cliff’s edge in solemn procession since this is tantamount to accepting a symbolic “death” (end of maidenhood). Taking pity on Psyche, Eros contrives to save her from death and humiliation. As the spectators gaze mournfully away, a gentle breeze carries her unharmed down the side of the cliff and into a cave where Eros, going against his mother’s orders, rescues her and falls hopelessly in love with her. In the cave which he has prepared he secretly fulfils all her wishes by making her his beloved. During the night Eros, although an immortal, assumes a most pleasant human male form and joins her in the nuptial bedchamber, but during the day disappears leaving her all alone. Her boredom and loneliness during his absence in the daytime makes her exceedingly sad. Therefore to allay her loneliness during the day, Eros agrees to have her evil sisters to visit her. However, largely out of envy, her sisters tell her that at night she is consorting with the most vile and abominable serpent and is probably pregnant by him so that she must plan to cut off his head the next time he calls upon her. So the next time Eros calls in disguise to consort with Psyche, she waits until he has fallen into a deep slumber, then taking an oil lamp and a knife, she surreptitiously looks around for the serpent’s head but to no avail. As the dawn lightened the darkness of the cave she discovers to her delight that her mysterious consort is a most beautiful youth. Accidentally, while in a state of trembling excitement, a drop of hot oil drops onto Eros‘s naked body, he departs and Psyche is left heartbroken. She then attempts suicide but is saved although Aphrodite is still livid about her son’s treachery, she pursues Psyche who escapes into the underworld to undergo various trials and tribulations. Meanwhile the evil sisters attempt to replace Psyche by sleeping alternate nights in the cave in the vain hope that Eros will return and mistakenly make love to them. However, they fall off the cliff with no wind to carry them safely and are destroyed. Meanwhile, touched by Psyche‘s repentance, Eros‘s wound heals and he persuades Zeus to confer immortality upon her.

The second in my series on the meaning of myths and legends, here are the tragic tales of Oedipus, Eros and Psyche and how they reflect the narrative plots and characters found in Fairy Tales.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,