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Poor Jocasta. That’s quite some complex she’s got to overcome, PC thinks

September 25, 2013
Oedipus separating from Jocasta. By Alexandre Cabanel, 19th century

Oedipus separating from Jocasta. By Alexandre Cabanel, 19th century

We all know about the Oedipal complex, a son’s disproportionate love for his mother; but Jocasta lurks on the other side of that psychological coin.

The Jocasta complex, according to medical dictionaries, is either the ‘sexual desire that a mother has for a son’ or ‘the domineering and intense but non-incestuous love that an affect-hungry mother has for an intelligent son’, combined with the scenario of ‘an often absent or weak father figure’. You can even apply it, at a stretch, to the mother-in-law who finds no woman good enough for her son, or even the woman in a male-free household who fixates on her daughter’s boyfriends.

In my new novel, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, we get glimpses, fractional dimensions, of the complex ( In a cameo scene within a scene, a foreign tourist on the steps of the Tate Gallery, London, moves her son round her while taking his photo ‘like a chess piece’; and you could argue that the relationship of Jonas, half-brother to the heroine Martine, with her own mother is in danger of verging on it – as are some of Martine’s own relationships with boys.

In Greek mythology, Oedipus slept with his mother unwittingly: fate was to blame. Literature tends to portray him as a tragi-romantic figure, undergoing an extreme and self-destructive rite of passage into manhood. Among male mythologisers, Jocasta doesn’t fare so well.

The story goes that King Laios of Thebes marries Jocasta/Jocaste (aka Epikaste or Iokaste), a descendant of the Spartoi, after he’s abducted and raped Chrysippus. But then an oracle from Delphi warns him that they mustn’t have a child together, otherwise that child will kill him and marry her (or, in Aeschylus’ version, he must save his city by dying childless). But Laios gets drunk, fathering Oedipus in his cups.

Laios (or is it Jocasta?) fastens the ankles of baby Oedipus together, and has his chief shepherd expose him on Mount Cithaeron. The shepherd can’t bear to perform the deed and hands the baby to the shepherd of King Polybus of Corinth, a childless monarch, who raises the infant as his own.

In adulthood, Oedipus himself receives a prophecy from the Oracle: that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his parents to be Polybus and his Queen, he flees from Corinth to avoid disaster.

On the road he meets King Laios and, in dispute over a right of way, kills him. Arriving in Thebes, he discovers that the city is being terrorised by the Sphinx. He resolves the conflict, whereupon the city elects him King; Jocasta, his mother, is given to him in marriage as a reward. She bears him four children.

The consequences of the prophecy unroll. The city becomes plague-ridden, whereupon Oedipus discovers his patricide and incest. Jocasta independently discovers the truth. In one version of the tale, she hangs herself; in another, she stabs herself after her sons fight each other in a quarrel for the throne. According to some accounts, Oedipus gouges his eyes out; according to others, goes into exile with his daughter Antigone.

While most writers’ interpretations of the story exonerate Oedipus – claiming he didn’t know his own mother when he met her – things aren’t so blame-free on Jocasta’s side.

Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex is the literary keystone of the myth on which most other written versions are built. Some critics argue that in the play, Jocasta knows Oedipus as her son from the outset. After all, on various occasions, Oedipus relates his past: he tells Jocasta of the Delphic prophecy his parents received, and yet she fails to recognise it as identical to the one that she and Laios heard when he was born. Maybe, the doubters suggest, she’s disguising her awareness for her own ends. When Oedipus admits to the fear of marrying his own mother, her only response is, ‘Why should the thought of marrying your mother make you so afraid? Many men have slept with their mothers in their dreams…. See your dreams for what they are – nothing, nothing at all.’

And in Jocasta’s final scene, she tries to prevent Oedipus from absorbing a messenger’s account of how he was rescued as a baby: ‘It’s not worth talking about…. No Oedipus! No more questions. For god’s sake, for the sake of your own life!’

Sophocles shows Jocasta a distinct moral ambivalence. Homer relates her fate in Book XI of his Odyssey with more sympathy: ‘[Her] awful lot it was to marry her own son without suspecting it.… Epicaste went to the house of the mighty jailor Hades, having hanged herself for grief.’

Right up to date, Christine Morgan has written a first person version of Jocasta’s story in which she talks to Oedipus just after her death. This time, unequivocally, Jocasta confesses that she’s known all along that he’s her son. She’s far from ashamed of it. Her justification is that her first husband, Laios, never loved her, and treated her as an object. The only source of happiness for her has been her boy baby, which is why Laios, from jealousy, left his son to die.

Seeing her son again makes her finally feel loved and needed. It’s a disturbing interpretation, but one with which a woman can empathise, to an extent.

In Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus by Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood, Jocasta is again exonerated: depicted as trapped in a loveless marriage, and impotent to save Oedipus from Laios’s fury. We follow the tragic Queen as, entranced by a foreign prince, she falls in love, oblivious, with her own son.

In 2002 the Indoor Forest Theater, Monterey staged a dramatic version of Jocasta’s story by Sandra Perlman, again through her eyes.

According to Perlman, although Laios and her own mother know of the fatal prophecy, the teenage bride Jocasta does not, and can’t understand why her groom refuses to sleep with her. Entirely innocently, she devises a way to seduce him, begetting the ill-starred Oedipus. It’s her mother Ismene who seems morally ambiguous: it’s unclear when she first learnt of the fatal prophecy, or why she didn’t tell her daughter of it. None the less, by the end of the first act mother and daughter come together in their grief as they lay Jocasta’s supposedly dead child to rest. In the second act, we participate fully in Jocasta’s horror when she learns that she is married to her own son.

Another play, Carol Michèle Kaplan’s Jocasta Rising, tries to rehabilitate the ancient pre-Sophoclean Queen in a different way, heavily influenced by the work of Robert Graves and by 20th century feminism, and claiming that she ‘was in fact a moon goddess long before she became the domesticated wife and mother in Sophocles’ compelling whodunit.’ The play aims to show that by suppressing the feminine, and by allowing the male version of the myth to dominate, world history has been subjected to an endless succession of wars and exploitation. To highlight this, the drama moves between ancient Thebes and conflict-ridden modern Cape Town.

Jocasta appears in the play as a child, a young bride and then as the adult Queen. Antigone, Jocasta’s daughter, features strongly, enforcing the sense of a community of women but also insisting that catastrophe can be averted.

In this account, as a young man Laios has seduced a boy, triggering the curse. A wife has had to be found who wouldn’t object, hence Jocasta, a girl of fifteen, is forced to marry him. The audience is made to see this as another example of the exploitation of women by men.

When the young Jocasta gives birth, she does so prominently, at the front of the stage, demonstrating her pride in life-giving as opposed to the male activity of slaughter.

When Jocasta knows the truth and prepares to hang herself, Antigone dissuades her, arguing that she can elevate herself into a saviour of women if she will only reject her sense of shame and guilt. Oedipus callously blames his mother, but in her desire to save her daughter from tragedy, Jocasta gradually strengthens, and even stops him from blinding himself, insisting that this is the story of motherhood: the womb, not the phallus. In the end this is the tale of a mother’s relationship with her son and daughter, but also a rather crude feminist tract.

For me the most interesting and sympathetic interpretation of Jocasta’s story is Elise Kermani’s short experimental film Jocasta (New York, 2006), in which she involved music makers, actors, dancers and artists. It was inspired by an English translation of Euripides’ play The Phoenician Women. As in Kaplan’s piece, Jocasta survives. But here there’s no crude feminist proselytising: instead, the Queen opts not for suicide but for the creative act of writing. The director’s argument is that writing can, literally, heal (inspired by an ancient Persian ritual of ingesting the Word to cure illness): Jocasta’s new creative self reverses the taboo of incest, and re-establishes the symbolic image of mother and son.

Thank you to all the creative women who have, over recent years, further and further reclaimed Jocasta from her deadly complex. Thank you especially to Elise K.

And BTW, you can find a more recent post of mine on poor old Jocasta (‘Jocasta? Complex? You’re telling me’) at


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