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Oedipus Complex

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I snap to attention as I approach the customs booth at the border. As I roll down the window and proffer my passport, the officer asks if I’ve “ever been inside.” It’s a nerve-wracking moment. “Inside?” as in jail? Finally I realize I’m being asked to pull over for a search. I’m so freaked out that I run up over the curb and strip a tire.


Basically, I turn into a puddle of worry when faced with any kind of official authority. I have this vague but powerful feeling that I am about to be found out and apprehended for some unknown, unintentional or overlooked shortcoming. And I don’t think I’m alone. Perhaps that’s why the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus is still so powerful.


 Oedipus, who discovers too late that he has mistakenly killed his father and married his mother, terrifies us all with this primal fear. In the myth, an oracle announces that his sin has brought a plague on the city he rules. Disgusted by his metaphorical blindness, he makes it literal, putting out his own eyes. Finally, he exiles himself… and the plague recedes. In these days of our own plague and assorted crises, there are no oracles to tell us what to do, no one culprit, and no such neat (if terrible) way to solve things. The causes are complex and sometimes mysterious. The sense of unease remains, and we may feel both helpless and to blame for the state of the world.



In the ancient world such society-wide unease was addressed by myth and ritual. In tales like that of the Athenian King Codros, the Roman general Martius Curtius or the daughters of Athenian founder Erechteus, communities in trouble, after seeking the decree of an oracle, are saved by the willing self-sacrifice of whomever the oracle demands.  Usually it is highest ranked among them—kings or their children, noble youths and maidens—who must offer their lives.


Parallel to these stories of sacrifice were rituals of scapegoating, found all over the ancient world from the Mediterranean to Tibet. Some unlucky soul, deemed to bear all the community’s bad luck, would be driven out into the wilderness by stoning or whipping, carrying the evil away. Contrary to what happened in myth, the victim was chosen from the “expendable"—animals, the poor, criminals, foreigners. However, those who want the gods’ favour were meant to give the best. So victims were often adorned,  honoured and feasted for some time before being driven out, in an effort to make them seem worthier offerings.


But while the violent expulsion might have a cathartic role in dispelling social tensions, it still incurred guilt, a guilt only somewhat relieved by treating the victim well beforehand. At some level, even as the participants pitch stones at the retreating scapegoat, they must recognize the victim’s vulnerability as a reflection of their own. Violence against another rebounds into fear of violence against oneself, building the very tension that is bound to seek yet another violent release. 


The story of Oedipus is testament to the fact that the sense of being at fault for whatever disasters arrive, while being helpless to forestall them, has haunted us for millennia. Attempts to displace that guilt, to embody it in something or someone easily disposed of are understandable… but in the end futile. Today our inner oracles may likewise tempt us to find the perfect sacrifice to avert disaster. To which evil-doer can we point in an effort to define ourselves as good? Whose behaviours and language encapsulate our problems so perfectly that it feels good to identify and punish them? Who needs to be “cancelled”? Those whose anger frightens us. Those whose lack of response frustrates us. Those whose language offends us…and so on. 


If we can find these people and subject them to this modern form of expulsion, we may feel the satisfying bite of righteous anger fulfilled. But one cancellation, one sacrifice, rarely does the trick. Our divisions are numerous: one group's villain is another’s martyr, so that sacrifices pile up and become reciprocal. The drama can be addictive, but also corrosive. The peace that follows the ritual will always be short-lived—hence the need to repeat it. 


The truth is, guilt and blame lead nowhere. The inner oracle demanding sacrifice is a liar. We must accept a less exciting but more skillful road, one that involves acknowledging that causes and conditions beyond any one person’s control make for an imperfect and unjust world. If our ignorance or obliviousness have led us to this passage, then perhaps the first step is gaining knowledge and awareness. 


And the second is to have compassion for ourselves as we attempt to find our way through to a better world. 



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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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