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What If Oedipus Was a Heathen?
Article ID: 14957
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Ehsha Apple
Posted: March 18th. 2012
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We all know that the Oedipus story is Greek. But if Oedipus is a universal story, there are universal values. If Oedipus were a Heathen, what would the story be like?
Unlike Freud’s assertion that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is about a boy’s desire to usurp his father and marry his mother, Sophocles was writing an instructive for leadership. Oedipus Rex (i.e. “The King”) is about being a good ruler. It’s about personal responsibility and regard for the obligations we make to others.
It’s also about fate. As a Heathen, I say Wyrd. But Wyrd is not quite the same as Fate. I do not believe in predestination. I do believe in Wyrd. I’ve been trying to figure out how to parse this out. And then I remembered the complications I ran into while teaching Oedipus Rex at a Calvinist College.
I, perhaps incorrectly, define it as such: Fate is a predestined fortune. Destiny and fate are imagined as “predestined” (especially to those who don’t look very far into the meaning of the words) . In these concepts, there is a set order to the cosmos and that order cannot be altered. Karma is the give-and-take between actions and consequences over a series of lifetimes. Wyrd is between. It is the give and take between actions and consequences in one lifetime. Wyrd agrees that there is a set order, but that, as individuals, our interaction with that order is what determines our lot. But there’s the extra-added bonus of ruin. At some point, you may make a choice that absolutely “seals your fate.” No backsies. No re-do. No exit strategy. No plan B. Sometimes we can end up “doomed.”
Call it Kismet, Destiny, Fate, or Karma if you like. But when it comes to being bitchy, Karma’s got nothing on Wyrd. It works like this: Wyrd is personal. Not global. Not unlike the three Fates or “Moirae, ” there are three Norns: Skuld, Urðr (Urd) , and Verðandi (Verthandi) . A rough translation of their raison d'être is, “What was, what is, what will be.” Together, they spin our Wyrd. Sure, the decisions we make formulate our Wyrd; we can “make” our own Wyrd through free and personal choice. But, Wyrd is sticky. If a bullet’s got your name on it, oops. But at the same time, according to Beowulf:
Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl þonne his ellen deah!
My clunky translation is, “Wyrd often defends/ an undoomed hero whenever his valor is virtuous” – or, if you prefer the Seamus Heaney to an English teacher in Alabama, which most do: “Often, for undaunted courage, fate spares the man it has not already marked” (572-3) .
There is a sense of being a “marked man” imbedded in Wyrd. But a hero whose courage holds out has a hope of mercy since Wyrd, more literally than “Fate” or “Destiny” is “'the way things happen” or “the way things are happening, ” will often work to help such a man, as long as he is not doomed; conversely if a man is doomed then not even his courage can help him stand against 'the course of events'."
Let me put it this way, the most popular metaphors for Wyrd involve spinning and weaving. If you have any experience with thread, sewing, weaving, crocheting or any of those handicrafts, you know that if you have weak thread or if you have balding fabric, your final project will eventually tear, no matter what. At that point, it’s “doomed.” But if you could go back to the place in time when the thread was being turned out or when the fabric was being woven and make a different decision, one that prevented the weakness in the thread, one that prevented the baldness, the “fate” of the project will be different. (Bear in mind that in this metaphor, you are the one who made the thread and fabric.)
So, even if I don’t believe in predestination, I do believe in doom.
If Oedipus Rex were a Heathen drama, there would be more stress on the moment where Oedipus doomed his life.
As a Greek drama, its focus is the polis, a term that doesn’t quite exist in Heathendom where kinship is more important than politics – or, rather, kinship is politics.
The basic summary of Oedipus is (in a streamlined version) like this:
We meet Oedipus and Thebes in medias res. Most of Oedipus’ choices have already been made; therefore, most of his Wyrd has been spun. He was born. His momma, owing to a prophesy that he’d kill the Daddyman and marry the Momma, was going to kill him; but the executioner, rather than killing him, sent him away to Corinth. Living with his adoptive parents, Oedipus learns about the prophecy. He goes off to “find himself” and accidentally fulfills the prophecy that everybody was trying to avoid. He loses his temper, kills a traveler, recues a town, marries the widowed queen (thereby becoming king) , and lives happily ever after.
Until this plague.
The plague will only end when the murderer of the former king is caught and expelled; the murderer is within the city. Being a good king with his people in mind, Oedipus promises to solve the mystery of Laius’ death. He vows to curse and drive out the murderer. He makes a big to-do about it. Strutting and swearing and pointing fingers. Rather than accepting the possibility of personal responsibility, Oedipus accuses everyone else of the murder. No introspection, no self-examination, no pause.
Oedipus discounts soul-searching in favor of assumed blamelessness. How else is it that Oedipus can hear the story of Jocasta binding her child and not think of his own swollen ankles? He accuses Tiresias; when he can’t make that stick, he accuses Creon; when he can’t make that stick, he accuses the shepherd (former-would-be-executioner) .
In the meantime, the queen has put the pieces together and hangs herself. Finding her dead, he pulls the pins from her clothes and gouges out his own eyes. In the end, Oedipus does not even find the relief of death; he must wander, blind, miserable, and outside of Thebes. Exiled, blind, and all of the implications that attend exile and blindness.
When I teach Oedipus in my secular class, I teach it as being a lesson about leadership. Oedipus is a good king because he follows through with his campaign promise, despite personal forfeit.
As a Pagan teacher, I teach that the best thing a leader can do is accept responsibility – a major Pagan value. If we do nothing else, we must take personal responsibility. Always. Every time.
But as a Heathen, specifically, I ask myself, at what moment did Oedipus bring “doom” into his Wyrd? Was it when he left his adopted home in effort to return to the place of his birth? You might argue that it was when he unknowingly fulfilled the first part of the prophesy in killing Laius. But I would argue that such a mistake, while tragic, doesn’t doom one to exile. In a Heathen culture, there is a concept of weregild; he can (literally) pay for the life he took. As king, however, he is not only responsible for himself but for all of his people. Rather than crying wolf, he should have cried “personal responsibility.”
It’s when Oedipus doesn’t take personal responsibility for his mistakes that seal his fate. It’s when Oedipus struts and swears and promises to “fix” the problem of the plague – without considering that HE IS the problem - pushing and shoving and blaming everyone else in Thebes.
If he had just stopped for one second and said – “Hang on, maybe this one’s on me, ” he could have saved some heartache. Yes, yes, he had killed his father and married his mother, but he wasn't cursed and exiled until he did the one thing that doomed him for good.
But, alas, there are two more plays to be had.
 Gotta hand it to the Anglo-Saxon language. I never appreciated English as I do until I studied Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. the Old Anguish course) . Knowing where my words come from makes me use them in a more reverent way. Some folks sling their language in a slap-dash, hope-it-lands-butter-side-up, sort of way. Makes one wonder what their kitchens look like. Or their magic. Or their Wyrd.
 And got a tongue-lashing from my son for doing so: “Mom. Really? The Fates are a Greek idea and Wyrd is a pre-Roman idea.”
 But time, for the Anglo-Saxons, was not as linear as it is today. The spindle metaphor suggests a circular nature in Wyrd.
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