Jocasta, an Unsung Heroine

The myth of Oedipus the king of Thebes, who killed his father and married his mother, is one of the most famous stories of classical mythology. However, it is impossible to imagine Oedipus without his mother and wife, Jocasta —the most rational and objective perspective from the cycle of theban tragedies—. But she, incredibly, has remained unsung.

One of the characteristics of myths is variability. Myths always have different versions. Authors repeat them, omitting or adding “things” whimsically, or not. And these changes, as in life, are part of their beauty.

Jocasta’s story is set two generations before the Trojan War, which later authors date to the 12th or 13th century BCE. We find her first reference in the Odyssey, in fact, traditionally in ancient Greece, everything started with Homer. And that is too Jocasta’s birth for us.

Homer called her “the beautiful Epikaste”, but like so many of his “minor” heroes, he only devoted a few lines to her. Fortunately, there were other sources. Forgetting Stesichorus and his papyrus fragment, we have “Oedipus Tyrannus”, by Sophocles, and “The Phoenician Women”, by Euripides. And each of them wrote the true, tragical and incompatible history of Jocasta.

Oedipus Tyrannus” is the second book written of the trilogy that Sophocles devoted to Oedipus. As everyone knows, Oedipus, trying to escape his fate, killed Laius, king of Thebes —not knowing that he was his father—, and married his mother, Jocasta. The discovery of this truth and its’ appalling consequences is the plot of “Oedipus Tyrannus”. This is a story of prophecies and oracles, disbeliefs and achievements.

The Phoenician women”, Euripides’ version of the Theban myth, is also part of a trilogy. In it, the tragedian gives Jocasta a voice, having her explain the story of Oedipus after discovering the truth; and the war for the throne of Thebes of her sons —Eteocles and Polynices—. It also narrates Jocasta’s attempt to mediate, creating a truce; and, together with her daughter Antigone, to stop a duel between them. But it was too late. Although secondary characters in “The Phoenician Women”, in a very Euripides way, women have a significant role.

The word “hero”, which means "protector" or “defender”, comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs). It refers to an illustrious person whose achievements deserve to be remembered. Jocasta acts as a hero, but is also a character in a tragedy, and in tragedies heroes do not triumph. She is a tragic hero because she fits the definition of a person doomed by fate, whose misfortune is brought about by error or ignorance, not by vice or depravity.

Jocasta's essential quality is her rationality. She appears to be the voice of reason and equilibrium. In fact, the emotional argument is that of Oedipus and his sons, and the rational one is that of Jocasta. For many centuries, this would have been considered something of a gender reversal —and perhaps, for too long, there was no interest in highlighting genuinely rational female characters—.

Jocasta, much like a hero, maintains her rationality —her defining characteristic— to the end. Even her suicide is not irrational, nor that of a coward; it is the logical end to a tragic hero. And, very much like in a myth, she does so twice: with Oedipus, according to Sophocles, and again when her children die, according to Euripides.

Today, the term “Jocasta Complex” is used in psychoanalytic theory. It refers to an abnormally close or incestuous attachment of a mother to her son.

And it is much more beautiful to have called a moon of Jupiter Jocasta. Which, as it could not be otherwise, it is a retrograde motion moon —meaning that it moves in the opposite direction to most planets and satellites, counter-clockwise—.

In conclusion, many would say, and perhaps it is true, that ignorance makes us happy. But as we learnt from our heroine Jocasta, only rationality can save us from the wild, natural, and chaotic Olympic fate.


Valeria Á, Year 9



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