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Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the
three Fates sat at their spinning.
No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange
necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without
knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a
life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion
of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life
short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like
spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it
must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand.
There was once a king named Laius (a grandson of Cadmus himself), who
ruled over Thebes, with Jocasta his wife. To them an Oracle had
foretold that if a son of theirs lived to grow up, he would one day
kill his father and marry his own mother. The king and queen resolved
to escape such a doom, even at terrible cost. Accordingly Laius gave
his son, who was only a baby, to a certain herdsman, with instructions
to put him to death.
This was not to be. The herdsman carried the child to a lonely
mountain-side, but once there, his heart failed him. Hardly daring to
disobey the king's command, yet shrinking from murder, he hung the
little creature by his feet to the branches of a tree, and left him
there to die.
But there chanced to come that way with his flocks, a man who served
King Polybus of Corinth. He found the baby perishing in the tree, and,
touched with pity, took him home to his master. The king and queen of
Corinth were childless, and some power moved them to take this
mysterious child as a gift. They called him Oedipus (Swollen-Foot)
because of the wounds they had found upon him, and, knowing naught of
his parentage, they reared him as their own son. So the years went by.
Now, when Oedipus had come to manhood, he went to consult the Oracle at
Delphi, as all great people were wont, to learn what fortune had in
store for him. But for him the Oracle had only a sentence of doom.
According to the Fates, he would live to kill his own father and wed
Filled with dismay, and resolved in his turn to conquer fate, Oedipus
fled from Corinth; for he had never dreamed that his parents were other
than Polybus and Merope the queen. Thinking to escape crime, he took
the road towards Thebes, so hastening into the very arms of his evil
It happened that King Laius, with one attendant, was on his way to
Delphi from the city Thebes. In a narrow road he met this strange young
man, also driving in a chariot, and ordered him to quit the way.
Oedipus, who had been reared to princely honors, refused to obey; and
the king's charioteer, in great anger, killed one of the young man's
horses. At this insult Oedipus fell upon master and servant; mad with
rage, he slew them both, and went on his way, not knowing the half of
what he had done. The first saying of the Oracle was fulfilled.
But the prince was to have his day of triumph before the doom. There
was a certain wonderful creature called the Sphinx, which had been a
terror to Thebes for many days. In form half woman and half lion, she
crouched always by a precipice near the highway, and put the same
mysterious question to every passer-by. None had ever been able to
answer, and none had ever lived to warn men of the riddle; for the
Sphinx fell upon every one as he failed, and hurled him down the abyss,
to be dashed in pieces.
This way came Oedipus towards the city Thebes, and the Sphinx crouched,
face to face with him, and spoke the riddle that none had been able to
"_What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon
on two, and in the evening upon three?_"
Oedipus, hiding his dread of the terrible creature, took thought, and
answered "Man. In childhood he creeps on hands and knees, in manhood he
walks erect, but in old age he has need of a staff."
At this reply the Sphinx uttered a cry, sprang headlong from the rock
into the valley below, and perished. Oedipus had guessed the answer.
When he came to the city and told the Thebans that their torment was
gone, they hailed him as a deliverer. Not long after, they married him
with great honor to their widowed queen, Jocasta, his own mother. The
destiny was fulfilled.
For years Oedipus lived in peace, unwitting; but at length upon that
unhappy city there fell a great pestilence and famine. In his distress
the king sent to the Oracle at Delphi, to know what he or the Thebans
had done, that they should be so sorely punished. Then for the third
time the Oracle spoke his own fateful sentence; and he learned all.
Jocasta died, and Oedipus took the doom upon himself, and left Thebes.
Blinded by his own hand, he wandered away into the wilderness. Never
again did he rule over men; and he had one only comrade, his faithful
daughter Antigone. She was the truest happiness in his life of sorrow,
and she never left him till he died.
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