Wall Frieze of the legend of Oedipe

Artefact Details

Gallery number: 50 – Ground Floor

Period: Roman period (c. 30 BC – AD 306)

Size: Height: 98 cm, width: 239 cm

Place of discovery: Tuna el -Gebel (Upper Egypt)

Material: Stucco pigment (unspecified)

Oedipe (Oedipus), according to Greek mythology was the son of Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes. When he was born the king consulted an oracle that revealed he was condemned to die at the hands of his son. Because of this prediction, the parents ordered a servant to kill the child; however, the servant took pity on the child and gave him to a shepherd. The shepherd called him Oedipus or ‘swollen feet’ since his feet had been tied tightly by Laius. Oedipus was taken to Corinth and was given to King Polybus and his wife Merope, who decided to raise him as his own. As an adult Oedipe went to the oracle of Delphi wanting to know if he was the son of the king and queen of Corinth, but instead the oracle told him that he had a dark destiny whereby he would kill his father and marry his mother. To evade the oracle’s prediction, Oedipe decided to leave Corinth and head to Thebes.

On his way to Thebes he came across King Laius riding his chariot at a narrow spot on the road. The king ordered Oedipe to move aside, resulting in an argument, leading to the king to killing one of Oedipus’s horses. Oedipe in return drags the king from his chariot and killed him not knowing that he is his real father.

Before entering Thebes, Oedipe met the guardian sphinx of the city, with the head and breast of a woman, the body of a lioness and the wings of an eagle. She was sent as punishment from Hera or Ares, as mentioned in the latest version of the myth. The sphinx would stop all travellers unable to solve certain riddles such as: What creature with one voice moves on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday and three in the evening? The answer is man during his life stages. Another riddle mention asks: Two sisters one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. The answer was the day and the night.

Oedipe answered this riddle correctly and the Sphinx was destroyed by either throwing herself from her high pedestal, killed by him, or in a third version, devouring herself. As a reward for liberating Thebes Oedipe was offered the hand of the Dowager Queen Jocasta, subsequently becoming king of Thebes, not knowing that she was in deeded his mother. However, Oedipe struggled in his duties and the oracle warned that the only solution was to kill any eyewitnesses the fight, but Jocasta had already started the search for a witness to murder of her former husband. On questioning the witness, Oedipe realised that he was the son of the king and queen of Thebes and that he had killed his father and married his mother as the oracle predicted. At this realisation, Jocasta ran to the palace and hung herself in her rooms. When Oedipe discovered her body, he stabbed his eyes with the needles of his robe, left the palace and asked for quick punishment. He blinded himself because he could not bear to look on the faces of his parents, his family or the people of Thebes.

This wall frieze, framed with a band of three lines in blue, yellow and black, decorated a tomb wall and illustrates three major moments in Oedipe’s life. Read from right to left, the first scene depicts Oedipe slaying his father Laius, king of Thebes. Oedipe is represented nude except for his brown high boots flowing reddish–brown cape, and the baldric of his sword, grasping his father’s hair with one hand, while the other plunges the sword into his body. Behind the king a stela is represented to mark his grave, next to which the figure of Agnoia, personification of ignorance is dancing.

The central scene depicts the god Zetema and the goddess of Thebes. Zetema (whose name means Inquiry and search) is depicted as a young man seated with his legs to his left, looking back to the right, towards Oedipe, wearing a green himation garment wrapped around his lower body. Thebes is depicted as a young female wearing a light brown himation wrapped at her lower body and resting against a rocky ridge that probably indicates Mount Kithairon. The third scene, depicts Oedipe opposing the sphinx outside the city walls inside a stone arched gateway, his left hand grasps the hilt of his sword, while his right arm is raised. The winged sphinx crouches on a high pedestal in Greek style.