What exactly is a hero? Is it someone who rushes into a burning house to rescue a child? Or is it a monk who abstains from worldly pleasures and comforts in order to be closer to the Gods? Joseph Cambell, one of the foremost authorities of Greek mythology, defined the literary hero as someone who accomplishes extraordinary feats in at least one of two basic realms: worldly or spiritual. If the aforementioned prospective heroes were the protagonists of a story and were transformed by their deeds and imparted the wisdom they learned on to others, then, according to Cambell, they could be viewed as heroes. Not only has Cambell defined the word hero but he has also outlined a simple cycle that most heroes follow. An annotated version of this ambiguous cycle would begin with a Call to Adventure, then the assistance of a helper, then an irrevocable crossing of the Threshold of Adventure, followed by an undergoing of an ordeal and receiving of a reward, and, finally the return of the hero with the quintessential solution. Although Oedipus clearly follows this cycle, he was an antihero rather than a hero.
To better understand this, one must first follow Oedipuss adventure in respect to how it fits into the Hero Cycle. Oedipus was born under a curse that said he would kill his father and marry his mother. His Call to Adventure came the moment he was born because fear of the prophecy led his parents to have him killed. It was only through the mercy of the helper, a shepherd, that Oedipus was spared. The shepherd gave Oedipus to a childless couple, Polybus and Merobe, to be raised as their own. Oedipus, after hearing the curse and believing the couple to be his natural parents, flees Corinth in an attempt to foil the Gods and fate. Oedipus crosses the Threshold of Adventure when he meets, quarrels with, and then murders a stranger who happens to be his father. Upon arrival at Thebes, Oedipus proves his great powers of logic when he defeats the Sphinx by answering its riddle. It is this ordeal that wins the unwitting adventurer the reward of his mothers hand in marriage. Several years and four children later, the old prophecies return to the surface because the consequences of this incestuous relationship have begun to manifest themselves in the form of a terrible plague on the city of Thebes. It is at this point that Oedipus exposes two very unflattering human traits: pride and a foul temper. When Oedipus discovers the truth, he gouges out his eyes and, following his own edict, he banishes himself from Thebes. Twenty years later, Oedipuss sons have begun feuding over the crown and yet another prophecy has arisen indicating that only he who has Oedipuss blessing will rule in peace. Oedipus recrosses the Threshold of Adventure when he refuses to give benediction to either of his sons. This is also the moment that Oedipus becomes an antihero.
Why did Oedipus suddenly become an antihero? An explanation is as simple as the definition of the word itself: an antihero is the protagonist of a story who lacks the virtues of a traditional hero. Oedipuss dialogue with Teiresias in Act I, Scene I of Oedipus Rex shows a very proud man controlled by his own anger. So driven is he by pride and his own emotions that he is a breath away from sentencing the old prophet to death for speaking the truth. This, however, does not disqualify him as a hero. What
summarily eliminates him is that, in the end, he never transcends these human qualities. Rather, his anger is transformed from fits of rage to vindictive wrath. This can be seen in Scene VI of Oedipus at Colonus when Polyneices, who has raised an army against Thebes, comes to ask for Oedipuss blessing and Oedipus, thinking largely of perceived wrongs done to him, responds with:
You scoundrel! When it was you who held the throne and authority. . .
you drove me into exile: Me your own father:
Now go! For I abominate and disown you! Wretched scum!
pronounce for you: that you shall. . .
die by your own brothers hand, and
you shall kill the brother who banished you.
With these selfish words, Oedipus not only sentences his own sons to death, but also hundreds of innocent men on battle fields, and, incidentally, Antigone who had given up the better part of her life to selflessly take care of Oedipus. At this point, a little diplomacy from a man in the position that Oedipus was in might have gone a long way. He was in a position to mediate but he was not in a position to judge and his feeble proclivity towards the former caused him to forgo the latter. The very petty, vindictive nature of his words casts doubt upon the altruistically noble gouging of his eyes and self-enforced banishment from his home. Did he forget about the consequences of his having anything to do with Thebes?
What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? The answer is a man and that is exactly what Oedipus was, a man and nothing more (foreshadowing?). What exactly is a hero? A hero is a protagonist in a story who accomplishes extraordinary feats while going through the process of being transformed into an extraordinary human. Oedipus was visited upon by many trials and tribulations but was not transformed. He was, therefore, an antihero.