Oedipus and the Sphinx: The Threshold Myth from Sophocles by Almut-Barbara Renger

By Almut-Barbara Renger

Whilst Oedipus met the Sphinx at the street to Thebes, he did greater than resolution a riddle—he spawned a fable that, advised and retold, might turn into one in all Western culture’s significant narratives approximately self-understanding. deciding on the tale as a threshold myth—in which the hero crosses over into an unknown and unsafe realm the place principles and boundaries aren't known—Oedipus and the Sphinx offers a clean account of this mythic stumble upon and the way it bargains with the thoughts of liminality and otherness.


Almut-Barbara Renger assesses the story’s meanings and capabilities in classical antiquity—from its presence in historic vase portray to its absence in Sophocles’s tragedy—before arriving at of its significant reworkings in ecu modernity: the psychoanalytic thought of Sigmund Freud and the poetics of Jean Cocteau. via her readings, she highlights the ambiguous prestige of the Sphinx and divulges Oedipus himself to be a liminal creature, delivering key insights into Sophocles’s portrayal and constructing a theoretical framework that organizes reviews of the myth’s reception within the 20th century. Revealing the narrative of Oedipus and the Sphinx to be the very paradigm of a key transition skilled through all of humankind, Renger situates fable among the competing claims of technological know-how and artwork in an engagement that has vital implications for present debates in literary reviews, psychoanalytic concept, cultural background, and aesthetics.

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Extra info for Oedipus and the Sphinx: The Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau

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Externally, he performs this task with certain bravery and success; yet internally, the mission is incomplete. Although he moves past the Sphinx, victorious and therefore seemingly postliminal, he is in fact perpetually liminal, for internally he remains trapped within a threshold existence, outside the borders of the 26 c ha pter two society in which he lives. In the end, as he recognizes this inescapable, internal liminality, he draws, according to Sophocles, the consequences and renders himself externally visible as a threshold being by blinding himself and then, as an abomination to himself and to others, by leaving the city along with all human community behind.

45 All of these conceptions connected with the Sphinx make it clear that the Greeks saw the threshold passage, which they associated with her, as a highly significant spatial and existential change. They conceived of it as a directional movement in both a horizontal and vertical direction. While the Sphinx’s function as a bringer of death, as well as an escort into death, indicates a vertical movement between the world above and the underworld, her position in the vicinity of Thebes, even though it is in an elevated place on a mountain—Euripides called her οὔρειον τέρας (“mountain monster”)46—implies, rather, a horizontal movement between city and wilderness.

Whereas until the end of the sixth century BCE the feminine gender could only be deduced ex negativo—as some male features like the beard and the helmet started to disappear—in the fifth century, female accentuation through breasts became common, even if it was still not obligatory. 28 Diodorus Siculus related her monstrous appearance to the thought- provoking duplicity formula δίμορφον θηρίον (“double- formed monster”). 29 By this point, it was t hresh o l d s : zo n e, tra n s f o rmati o n, t r an si t i o n 33 no longer the case that her deviation from physical and recognizably human integrity was a mark of distinction and proof of a superior— godly—state of being, as it had been suggested in earlier Greek receptions of the Egyptian Sphinx type.

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