Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis

Oedipus and the Sphinx, François-Émile Ehrmann, 1903, $\ccpd$

Before You Read

Research the answers to these questions before you read the story. Discuss your findings with a partner.

  1. The title of this chapter is “hubris and nemesis”. What does hubris mean?
  2. Who is nemesis in Greek mythology?
  3. What is a nemesis according to the dictionary?
  4. Combined what does “hubris and nemesis” mean?
  5. What is the purpose of reading and studying stories with “hubris and nemesis”?
  6. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

Oedipus and the sphinx

Adapted from Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody, $\ccpd$

Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one knew where these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decide whether the thread of a life should be strong or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the design of a person’s fabric of life. Atropos herself must sometimes have shed a tear to cut a life short with her scissors and let it fall unfinished. But they were the spinners of life, of fate, thus it must be. The power they wielded neither gods nor men could withstand.

Shepherd getting baby Oedipus out of a tree: photo by Sailko, Exhibition at Buonconsiglio Castle, 1663, $\ccby$

There was once a king named Laius (a grandson of Cadmus himself), who ruled over Thebes with Jocasta, his wife. To them an Oracle had foretold that if a son of theirs lived to grow up, he would one day kill his father and marry his own mother. The king and queen decided to escape such a doom, even at a terrible cost. Thus, Laius gave his son, who was only a baby, to a certain shepherd, with instructions to put him to death.

This was not to be. The herdsman carried the child to a lonely mountain-side, but once there, his heart failed him. Hardly daring to disobey the king’s command, yet shrinking from murder, he hung the little creature by his feet to the branches of a tree and left him there to die.

But there happened to come that way with his sheep, a man who served King Polybus of Corinth. He found the baby dying in the tree, and, touched with pity, took him home to his master. The king and queen of Corinth were childless, and some power moved them to take this mysterious child as a gift. They called him Oedipus (Swollen-Foot) because of the wounds they had found on him, and, knowing nothing of his origins, they raised him as their own son. So the years went by.

Now, when Oedipus had come to manhood, he went to consult the Oracle at Delphi, as all great people did, to learn what fortune had in store for him. But for him the Oracle had only a sentence of doom. According to the Fates, he would live to kill his own father and wed his mother.

Filled with shock and horror, and determined to conquer fate, Oedipus fled from Corinth, for he had never dreamed that his parents were other than Polybus and Merope the queen. Thinking to escape crime, he took the road towards Thebes, so running into the very arms of his evil destiny.

It happened that an old man with one servant was on his way to Delphi from the city Thebes. In a narrow road, he met this strange young man, also driving in a chariot, and ordered him to step aside. Oedipus, who had been raised as royalty, refused to obey; and the old man’s driver, in great anger, killed one of the young man’s horses. At this insult Oedipus, crazed with rage, killed them both, and went on his way, not knowing the half of what he had done.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, by the Achilleus painter, 450-440 BC, photo by Carole Raddato, $\ccbysa$

But the prince was to have his day of triumph before the doom. There was a certain wonderful creature called the Sphinx, which had been a terror to Thebes for many days. In form half woman and half lion, she laid on a cliff near the highway and asked the same mysterious question to everyone who tried to pass by. None had ever been able to answer, and none had ever lived to warn men of the riddle, for the Sphinx grabbed every one as he failed, and threw him down the abyss, to be crushed to pieces.

This way came Oedipus towards the city Thebes, and the Sphinx came face to face with him, and asked the riddle that none had been able to guess. “What walks on four feet in the morning, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?”

Oedipus, hiding his fear of the terrible creature, thought deeply and answered, “Man. As an infant he crawls on hands and knees, in manhood he walks standing up, but in old age he requires a cane.”

At this reply the Sphinx roared, jumped head first from the rock into the valley below, and died. Oedipus had guessed the correct answer. When he came to the city and told the Thebans that their terror was gone, they welcomed him as a liberator and made him king.

Reader’s Theatre of Sophocles’ Play, “Oedipus the King”

Abridged and adapted by Em Turner Chitty from the University of Tennessee, $\ccbync$


Oedipus, King of Thebes


Jocasta, his wife

Creon, his brother-in-law

Teiresias, a blind old prophet


Old Man (Shepherd)

Chorus of the People of Thebes

Prologue (spoken by the Chorus):

Chorus 1: Before our King, Oedipus, came to our city of Thebes, we were suffering because a monster was attacking us. The Sphinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a woman, was bringing death on us. Our own king had gone away to find a solution, but he never came back.

Chorus 4: The Sphinx told Oedipus he would die unless he could answer this riddle correctly:

Chorus 2: “What has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?”

Chorus 3: Oedipus answered, “Man, because…

Chorus 1: He has four legs when he crawls, two when he stands up as an adult, and three when he walks with a stick in old age.”

Chorus 2: The Sphinx cried in disappointment and ….

Chorus 3: …fell down a cliff and was destroyed.

Chorus 4: Oedipus walked into our city and became our beloved king, marrying our queen.

Chorus 1: We were happy for a long time, but now things have changed.

Scene: In front of Oedipus’ palace in Thebes.

Oedipus emerges from the palace door. The Chorus is on the left.

Oedipus: Children, why do you sit here so sad, crying out to the gods? The town is filled with the sounds of prayers. I come out to learn what is happening. Priest, come and speak for them. What do they fear? I will give them all that they need.

Chorus 1: Lord Oedipus, our city is tossing like a ship in a storm.

Chorus 2: Diseases are upon the plants of the earth and the cattle in the fields.

Chorus 3: Our women cannot give birth to their children.

Chorus 4: Black Death reaps the harvest of our tears.

Chorus (all): We have come to speak to you because in the past you have saved us. Noblest of men, keep our city from sinking. Help us again!

Oedipus: I pity you, my children. I know you are all sick, but no one suffers as much as I do. I have shed many tears over this. I have sent Creon, my brother-in-law, to ask the god Apollo at his temple to tell me how I can save the city. When Creon returns, I will do everything that the god commands.

Chorus (all): Thank you for your kind words. Look! Creon is coming.

Creon enters.

Oedipus: His face is bright. Let us hope that his news will also bring us comfort. Creon! What word do you bring us from the god?

Creon: A good word. Apollo commands us to drive out the pollution from our land. If we drive it out, we are saved. There is a murderer here among us, the murderer of our old king, Laius. We must expel the murderer or kill him if we can find him.

Oedipus: How can we find him?

Creon: The god said that the clue is in this land.

Oedipus: Where did this murder take place?

Creon: Laius was traveling when he was killed. He never came back.

Oedipus: Did no one witness the murder?

Creon: One did. All the others were killed. This man said that there were many robbers, but he could not say anything more clearly.

Oedipus: I swear by Apollo that I will discover the truth. Children, go now. God will decide whether we prosper or remain in grief.

Chorus 1: We are tortured with doubt and fear for what may pass through the years.

Chorus 2: We have no spear to drive away the plague;

Chorus 3: Our sorrows are numberless;

Chorus 4: Our babies are born dead and lie on the naked earth.

Oedipus: Hear my words, citizens of Thebes! I command you: whoever among you knows the murderer of Laius, let him tell us everything. If you know the murderer, speak the truth, for I will pay and be grateful. A good man is dead. I now have his throne and his wife, Jocasta. I will defend him as I would defend my own father.

Chorus 1 and 2: We neither killed the king, nor do we know who killed him.

Chorus 3 and 4: But call for old Teiresias, who is blind but can see what Apollo sees. He may be able to tell you.

Oedipus: I have sent for him.

Chorus (all): Look! Here he comes!

Teiresias enters, guided by one of the chorus.

Oedipus: Teiresias, you know much–things that can be taught and things that cannot be spoken. You have no eyes, but in your mind, you know. You alone can rescue us. Tell us what you know!

Teiresias: Wisdom is terrible when it is turned against you. Let me go home. It will be easier for us both if you let me go home.

Oedipus: For God’s sake, if you know anything, tell us!

Teiresias: All of you here know nothing. I will not speak. I will not bring this pain upon us both.

Oedipus: Tell us, you villain!

Teiresias: I will say nothing further. You can rage as long as you want.

Oedipus: Indeed, I am angry! You must have murdered him yourself!

Teiresias: Yes? Then I am warning you to keep your word. You! It is you who pollute the land. You are the murderer of the king!

Oedipus: You lie! I will punish you! Is this your work or is it Creon’s? He is jealous of me.

Teiresias: Your ruin comes from yourself and not from Creon. Listen to me. You have called me blind, but even though you have your eyes, you cannot see. Do you know who your parents are?

Oedipus: Get out of my house, damn you!

Teiresias: This day will show you your birth, and it will destroy you! (to the Chorus) Soon, he will be shown to be a native of Thebes. He will exchange blindness for sight and poverty for wealth. He will be shown to be father and brother both to his children, and son and husband to his wife.

Teiresias and Oedipus both exit.

Chorus 4: Now is the time for him to run away.

Chorus 3: Teiresias has confused us.

Chorus 2: We will not blame the king until we see proof.

Creon: Citizens, I have come because I heard scandal spread about me by the king. I am no traitor!

Chorus 1: Maybe it was just a burst of anger. Here comes the king now!

Oedipus enters.

Oedipus: You dare come here, Creon? What made you plot against me?

Creon: What offense do you accuse me of?

Oedipus: Did you send Teiresias to me?

Creon: I did.

Oedipus: How long ago did Laius…die?

Creon: A long, long time ago.

Oedipus: Did Teiresias say anything about me then?

Creon: I don’t know.

Oedipus: As my brother-in-law, you have proven yourself a false friend. I should kill you for spreading this rumor!

Creon: Consider this. I have no desire to have the responsibilities of a king. Now I am free of cares. You give me everything I want. Why should I let all this go? Go to the oracle and ask if I have been honest with you. If not, sentence me to death.

Chorus 3: His words are wise, king.

Chorus 4: Those who are hot-tempered are not safe.

Chorus 2: But look, here is Jocasta, the queen!

Jocasta enters.

Jocasta: My husband, my brother! Are you not ashamed to start a private argument when so many are suffering in the country?

Creon: Your brother thinks he has the right to do me wrong, to kill or expel me!

Jocasta: I beg you, Oedipus, forgive him, for my sake!

Chorus 1: Be gracious, be sympathetic, we beg of you!

Chorus 2: He has been your friend for years!

Oedipus: All right, let him go.

Creon: I’ll go, then. They know I am innocent. Your temper is your worst enemy.

Creon exits.

Jocasta: What is the matter here? What has provoked your anger, Oedipus?

Oedipus: It was Creon and the plot he laid against me. Creon says that I am the murderer of Laius.

Jocasta: Does he speak from knowledge or gossip?

Oedipus: He spoke out of the mouth of the prophet Teiresias.

Jocasta: Then you have no need to worry. Listen and learn from me. There was an oracle that came once to Laius and said that he would die a victim at the hands of his own son, our son. But you know the king was killed by foreign highway robbers at a place where three roads meet. As for the baby, three days after his birth, Laius pierced his ankles and tied them together, and put him out on a hillside to die so that he could never kill the king. And in the end, Laius was killed by the robbers, not by his son.

Oedipus: O dear Jocasta, as I hear this from you, I am going insane.

Jocasta: What makes you say this?

Oedipus: Did you say that Laius was killed at a crossroads?

Jocasta: That’s what we heard.

Oedipus: Where?

Jocasta: In the country, where the road splits to Delphi and Daulia.

Oedipus: How long ago?

Jocasta: Just before you came to our city to rule us.

Oedipus: Tell me, how did Laius look? How old or young was he?

Jocasta: He was a tall man, and his hair was gray, nearly white. He looked like you.

Oedipus: One more thing: Did he travel with many servants, or few?

Jocasta: There were five. Laius rode in a chariot with a driver.

Oedipus: The picture is clear. Who told you what happened?

Jocasta: Just one servant, who came home. After all this happened, he begged me to send him out to the fields to be a shepherd, so I sent him away.

Oedipus: I wish we could talk to him.

Jocasta: We can. Why are you so determined to see him?

Oedipus: Oh dear Jocasta, I’m afraid I’ve said too much.

Jocasta: Oedipus, tell me what’s bothering you.

Oedipus: You know that I come from Corinth. My father was the king and my mother was the queen. One day someone at a dinner called me “a bastard,” and I was furious. The next day I went to an oracle to find out more, and the priest of Apollo told me that I had a terrible fate: I was destined to sleep with my own mother and kill my own father! When I heard this, I fled away from Corinth. I did not want these prophecies to come true! As I traveled, I met a servant and a carriage with a man in it, just as you described. The servant, and then the man inside, tried to push me off the road by force. I became angry. I struck the servant. Then the old man struck me with a stick, and I struck him back and he fell down. He was dead. I killed them all. Now I must ask, is it I who have killed my father and married my mother? Oh no, no, Holy God on high let it not be so!

Chorus (all): Sir, we too fear these things.

Chorus 1: Until you see the shepherd, you can not know the truth.

Chorus 2: The tyrant is born out of pride.

In the painting, a figure that looks like a angel hovers above a man who is running away and appears to have stabbed a man. The angel looks down at the man, and is holding an hourglass in one hand and a sword in the other.
Nemesis, by Alfred Rethel, 1837, $\ccpd$

Chorus 3: The man who is arrogant and does not fear the gods must suffer an evil fate.

Jocasta enters, carrying flowers.

Jocasta: I bring flowers to pray to the gods.

Messenger enters.

Messenger: God bless you, lady. I bring news from Corinth, your king’s old city.

Jocasta: God bless you, sir. What do you have to tell us?

Messenger: My king, Oedipus’ father, has died of old age. The people want Oedipus to return and rule them.

Jocasta: This is wonderful news! The king is dead, but not by Oedipus’ hand!

Oedipus: But surely I must fear my mother’s bed? The oracle said I would kill my father and marry my mother.

Messenger: Is this the fear that made you leave Corinth?

Oedipus: Yes. I did not want to kill my father. Messenger: Your fears were empty. Polybus was not your father!

Oedipus: Then why did he call me son?

Messenger: I know, because I gave you to him myself, as a baby. I was a shepherd then, and I had found you on the mountainside outside of town. I saved your life!

Oedipus: What was wrong with me?

Messenger: Your ankles were pierced and tied with leather strips. I untied you. But the man who gave you to me would know more than I do.

Oedipus: You yourself did not find me? Who was it?

Messenger: He was another shepherd, Laius’ man, from Thebes here.

Oedipus: Jocasta, do you know about this man whom we have sent for?

Jocasta: Don’t pay any attention, Oedipus. I beg you, do not ask any more questions!

Oedipus: Have someone go and get that shepherd for me.

Jocasta: Oh Oedipus, poor Oedipus. That is the last thing I will ever call you!

Jocasta exits dramatically.

Chorus 1: Why has the queen run out of the room in wild grief, Oedipus?

Chorus 2: She rushed away in tears. Chorus 1 exits.

Chorus 3: I fear that from her silence now there will come a storm.

Old man enters, led by one of the chorus.

Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex performed in Madrid, Spain, in 2011. Photo credits: Edipo Rei, $\ccby$

Oedipus: Are you the man who was a servant of King Laius?

Old man: I was. I was his shepherd. I took care of his sheep.

Oedipus: Do you recognize this man? (Points to messenger)

Old man: No, I don’t.

Messenger: Old man, don’t you recognize me? You gave me a child to bring up as my child. This man here (points to Oedipus) is that child, grown up!

Old man: Damn you! Hold your tongue!

Messenger is silent.

Oedipus: If you won’t talk, pain will loosen your tongue. Servants!

Chorus is ready to hurt the old man.

Old man: What do you want to know?

Oedipus: You gave him a child?

Old man: I did. I wish I had died that day!

Oedipus: You’ll die now if you don’t tell the truth!

Old man: It was a child from the house of Laius, the king.

Oedipus: What child? A slave’s child?

Old man: Your wife can tell you best.

Oedipus: She gave it to you?

Old man: Yes, my lord.

Oedipus: The child’s mother was so hard-hearted?

Old man: Yes, my lord. An oracle said that he would kill his parents.

Oedipus: Why did you give it to this man?

Old man: I pitied the baby. I thought I could send it to another country and it would live. But if you are the man he says you are, you were born to misery.

Oedipus: Oh, light of the sun, let me look on you no more! My life is cursed!

Oedipus exits. Chorus 1 enters.

Chorus 1: Oh, princes, our glorious queen Jocasta is dead!

Chorus 2, 3, 4: This is terrible! How did she die?

Photo of a man screaming, his eyes gouged out and bleeding.
photo by katyandgeorge on Pixabay, $\cczero$

Chorus 1: By her own hand! She came raging into the house, went straight up to her bedroom, tearing her hair and crying. Then Oedipus came in shouting. He begged us, “Bring me a sword!” He rushed into his room and there he saw his wife hanging, the twisted rope around her neck. He cut her down, and then he took the pins from her dress and he drove the long pins into his own eyes.

Chorus 2: The blood ran down his cheeks.

Chorus 3 and 4: How is he now?

Oedipus enters.

Chorus 1 and 3: This is a terrible sight!

Chorus 2: I pity you, but I cannot look at you.

Chorus 4: What devil made you stab into your own eyes?

Oedipus: Why should I see when my eyes can show me nothing sweet? Curse the man who rescued me on the hillside. He stole me from death, but I wish I had died.

Chorus (all): You would be better off dead. Creon enters.

Creon: Oedipus, I have not come to insult you with your past. I am sorry for you.

Oedipus: Creon, I cannot stay here. Take me to a place where I cannot hear a human voice. Let me live on the mountain that should have been my grave years ago.

Creon: What else do you need?

Oedipus: Bury your sister, my wife, my mother, and perform the funeral rites for her. Creon, take care of my children and especially my two daughters. No one will want to marry them now. Do not allow them to wander like beggars, husbandless.

Creon: It is time for you to go.

Creon and Oedipus exit. Oedipus’ daughters lead him out.

Chorus 1: Behold Oedipus, he who knew the answer to the famous riddle and rose to greatness.

Chorus 2: His good fortune was the envy of all.

Chorus 3: See him now, how the waves of disaster have swallowed him.

Chorus 4: Do not think any man or woman is happy until they have come to the end of life without tragedy.

Chorus (all): The gods’ will has been done!

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions according to the story.

  1. Why do Oedipus’ parents send their baby son away to die?
  2. Where did Oedipus get his name from?
  3. How did Oedipus survive as a baby?
  4. What did Oedipus do to avoid the prophecy from coming true?
  5. What is the Sphinx? (There is a very famous statue of one near the pyramids of Egypt!)
  6. Oedipus saved the city in the past by answering the riddle of the Sphinx. What was the riddle and the answer?
  7. At the beginning of the play, what has happened to the city that Oedipus is in charge of? What has caused these things to happen to the city?
  8. What must be done to save the city?
  9. When Oedipus asks Tiresias the name of who killed King Laius, what was Tiresias’ first response?
  10. After hearing the truth from Tiresias, what is Oedipus’ reaction?
  11. Who does Oedipus get angry with and thinks betrays him?
  12. Upon hearing what information does Oedipus begin to think that it was he who killed King Laius?
  13. Why are they happy that King Polybus is dead?
  14. Why did Oedipus kill King Laius? Did he know who it was?
  15. After the herdsman tells Oedipus his story, what does Jocasta do? Why do you think she did this?
  16. After hearing what happened to Jocasta, what does Oedipus do?

Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.

1. How does this story fit the unit theme of “hubris and nemesis”? When did Oedipus show hubris, and what was the consequence?

2. What is the role of fate in this story?

3. What is funny about this meme?Meme text: When Oedipus reached Thebes, he encountered a Sphinx. The Sphinx says, "If you want to pass this point alive, you must answer my riddle: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" Oedipus pondered for a moment. and says, "Probably one of those new Pokemon. There's like 600 of them. I'd be surprised if one of them doesn't change its number of legs while evolving." "Fair enough, man," spoke the Sphinx. "I can't reasonable expect you to remember all their names. You may pass."

4. There is a brand of shoes called “NEMESIS”. They use a very Greek looking font in their logo. Why do you think they chose the word “nemesis” for this brand of shoes?A picture of soccer cleats with the word

CEFR Level: CEF Level C1



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