Myth, Catharsis, and The Riddle of The Sphinx

A macroscopic view of myth (Gr: Μύθος) as logos (usually translated as “word”) reveals important associations, insights, and interpretations, all which deserve our attention and can assist us in our exploration of the human soul and its journey towards freedom. During the 9th – 8th century BC, Homer (in his poems the Iliad and the Odyssey) equates myth with speech and conversation, but also with advice, opinion, and promise. During classical times (5th and 4th century BC), myth continues to be treated as a story, as evident by the dramatic works of Sophocles and Euripides.

In the context of philosophy, myth becomes a powerful pedagogical and initiatory device, especially as it appears in the dialogues of Plato. In works such as Phaedo and Phaedrus, the philosopher employs myths to structure his arguments in order to equate knowledge with memory – not simply as remembrance, but also as a recollection from a previous incarnation.

Below, I employ the well-known story of Oedipus in order to demonstrate the cathartic properties inherent to mythology. Oedipus’ thematic content is part of the natural continuity with the eons old oral tradition of Greece. It is also a myth that has kept its relevance through the transition from the age of myth to that of reason with the ascendancy of philosophy. It is mostly due to that link and its close association with the mystery traditions of Greece that I have chosen Oedipus. I also consider it an invaluable source of dramatic motifs and ideas, which accumulated over millennia of cultivation and have the potential to inspire serious philosophical thought.

Oedipus

Before I proceed, it is important to make two key observations which will help penetrate the veil that surrounds Greek mythology, while providing a strong starting point towards a deeper understanding of any chosen myth and its hidden meanings (or potential interpretations). Firstly, the majority of Greek myths are self-contained and secondly, the etymology and meaning of central character’s names reveal hidden elements that lie at the core of the story, and in many ways dictate its interpretation. Within the many layers of Oedipus, the triptych of Mnemosyne (Gr: Μνυμοσύνη), the present state of man, and his destiny unfolds not only on the human level, but also on the divine. This duality becomes more evident as we progress further into the exegesis and in many ways will justify myth as a medium par excellence for the catharsis and progress of the soul.

On the human level, the story begins and evolves with the tragedy of Oedipus’ ignorance from the beginning of his life, to the painful fate that awaits him. This destiny is the result not only of ignorance, but also a direct reaction to the emotions of fear and terror and the subsequent acts of impiety committed by his father and King of Thebes, Laius. It is due to an oracle by God Apollo that King Laius decides to abandon his son to die in the elements of Mount Cithaeron after piercing both of his feet with a golden needle.

It is through this prophecy that the God revealed to Laius not only the end of his reign as the king of Thebes, but also his life. The message of the myth’s creators at this point in the story is quite clear: divine influence on the human level of reality operates as a catalyst and it is absolute. It is because of the paralyzing emotions of fear and terror, and as a hasty reaction to the prophecy that King Laius commits an act of impiety by abandoning his own son, sealing not only his fate, but also Oedipus’. Here, an underlying theme can be detected: The attainment of truth, especially with the assistance of a God, becomes an event so monumental that even “kings” become mere mortals in the hands of the Fates.

Thematically speaking, the reference to Apollo’s oracle is a motif that can be traced back to early antiquity and, more specifically, to the mythology of Ouranos and Kronos, as well as the story of his succession by Zeus. In the context of the mystery traditions, this can be understood through the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus and the Eleusinian mysteries. Due to the implied connections with the archetypal story of the Titans and their misconduct towards Zeus’ son Dionysus, it can be interpreted as the unavoidable price that the soul must pay. With ignorance of its true nature, the soul is doomed to wander the Earth blindly, trapped in a body until the soul pays the dues owed, receives the wages deserved, and eventually achieves freedom through numerous trials and over successive generations.

In this long process of purification of the soul, in the context of the myth, the Oedipus/Man also wanders through Greece and like the wandering soul, is subject to a series of trials. The murder of King Laius by Oedipus at the crossroads, the riddle of the Sphinx, the plaque that devastated the city of Thebes, and his eventual blinding and later death are the ancient mystery archetypal steps of the soul’s stages of purification, progress, perfection, and eventual freedom.

Oedipus’ ignorance of his true past, seen symbolically in the context of the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery traditions and theology, represents the soul’s lack of memory of its previous state (lethe, Gr: λήθη). This is mirrored only by the lack of awareness of Oedipus’s present state. In parallel, this can be viewed as a real-life warning for those of our ancient ancestors who did not receive purification through the sacred mystery initiations and rituals.

Participation in the mysteries ensured catharsis and progress of the soul, and a better, more pious life. It also delivered the promise that the soul will maintain the memory of its identity through palingenesis (cycle of rebirth). At this point, it is important to mention the etymology of Oedipus’ name, since it will guide us safely towards the essence of the myth, leaving little doubt about its exegesis. Oedipus (Gr: Οιδίπους) translates as: he with the swollen feet (Anc. Gr: ὁ οἰδέω, πούς), a description that announces from the very beginning of the myth the difficult journey (the human level) that lies ahead for the Oedipus/Man due to a predetermined fate (the divine level).

The golden needle that was used by Laius to pierce Oedipus’ feet can be understood in the context of the duality mentioned earlier. Even though his fate is a consequence of human actions, simultaneously it has been sealed by God Apollo himself and it cannot be changed. This is a message for us to consider how difficult it is to escape fate, if at all possible, and that this fate is the outcome of actions committed not only on the human level of existence (the needle used by Laius), but also on the divine (the gold color of the needle denotes the divine).

A few things also need to be said about the all-important symbol of the Sphinx, which stands between Oedipus/Man and the knowledge of his true identity, which he so passionately desires to know. The Sphinx has traditionally been viewed as a guardian of the mysteries, and was usually located outside temples and sanctuaries protecting what is sacred. In this particular myth, it can be understood as the final threshold before the soul’s progress towards freedom.

As a chthonian deity, the Sphinx attempts to trick the soul of Oedipus/Man with a riddle and bind it at the lowest level of its existence. This is of course an attempt to stop his evolutionary course towards knowing his true identity, which in the myth represents a higher knowledge. In many ways, we can say that Oedipus comes face to face with his very own human nature, evident by the Sphinx’s answer to the known riddle, which is ‘Man’. Here, the dual nature of the creature is revealed. On one hand, the Sphinx investigates the progress of Oedipus’s soul, and on the other hand, she protects the higher mysteries from the impious. Even a brief examination of her name, Sphinx (anc. Greek: Σφιγξ), which in Greek means she who chokes, reveals the true purpose of her existence. Eventually, as we know from the myth, Oedipus solves the riddle, becomes the king of Thebes, marries his own mother, and finally discovers the truth about his identity. Later, he continues his search towards more light through a new cycle of trials and redemption.

I hope that by reestablishing a connection with the ages old (Greek) tradition of myth and its primordial beginnings, I have inspired a deeper and fresher view of myth as cathartic logos for the soul’s purification and evolution towards freedom in the form of self-initiation. In order to achieve this type of catharsis, we need to delve into the center of our spinning souls, understand our own nature and limits, and like Oedipus, embark on our own journey of self-discovery. A careful examination of mythology can greatly assist our soul’s progress if we view myth not as mere storytelling, but as a sacred depository of archetypal symbols, and as a cultural legacy deeply rooted in ancestral wisdom. Contemplating the many characters and motifs with a dialectic approach, the pious will be capable of extracting the highest form of knowledge from myth, which is to know the self.

Tony Crisos is a guitarist, educator, philosopher, and esoteric arts practitioner, born in Greece and now living in the USA.

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