Ever since time as we know it first began, mythologies have shaped the consciousness of a nation. In days of old, storytellers would narrate these stories to the people of a tribe or a clan. As time went on, our storytelling traditions became more complex. Various art forms were born. From theatre, to puppetry, to music, to drawings which later turned into formalised language; we, as humans, have always sought to express who we are–not as a Self, but as a People.
Artists have shaped many a nation’s nationalistic movements. They have spearheaded the creation of a shared destiny and identity through their songs, their stories and the instruments which enabled them to tell those stories to an audience that would never grow tired of hearing the myths that made them who they are.
With time, academia shone a harsh spotlight on these stories. Historians found inaccuracies. Psychologists did one too many character analyses. We began to see these myths in a new light. As time went by, we began rewriting these stories. The characters archetypes, the plot, the overarching themes, however, would remain as they were.
Even when we did retell or come up with new tales, these old stories remained the foundation stone of who we were, our shared aspirations and perhaps even became a prophetic vision of a world we would one day reside in.
Seers and soothsayers no longer hold the reverence they once did. But in days of old, an unfortuitous forecast could change the destinies of many–even unborn children.
Were the soothsayers and seers fortelling the future or were they creating it?
If prior knowledge of the future compels us to embark on a certain path as opposed to another; it can be argued that we are not seeing the future, but rather, we are shaping it.
In ancient China, oracle bones–pieces of ox scapula and turtle plastron–were used for pyromancy, a form of divination. The oracle bones bear the earliest known significant corpus of ancient Chinese writing. The inscriptions contain around 5,000 different characters and they provide important information on the late Shang period. Those who sought answers would submit questions to deities regarding future weather, crop planting, the fortunes of members of the royal family, military endeavours and so on.
Would knowing the future compel you on a different path? Would it forewarn you so that you can adjust your response? Or will it simply not come true?
After studying archeology and history for many years, I’ve discovered that the past is as mysterious as the future. The more we excavate, the more our concept of the past undergoes a metamorphosis. If the past, the so-called ‘what has happened’, is a mystery; then what could be said of the future?
The academic would argue–if ‘they’ knew how to foretell the future, then the dynasty wouldn’t have died and so on. But then again, who can ever cheat death? We can tempt and toy with faith and fate; but not with life, and definitely not with destiny. Somehow or another, when it comes knocking, all our attempts to subvert it will only bring it closer to our door.
Think about the kings who ordered all male first-borns to be executed, only to have that first-born saved and raised by a stranger. There are these stories–these unthinkable stories–that have come to define and even inspire our existence. They are myths because they are unthinkable. The heroes accomplish impossible feats. The enemy is always overcome, eventually. The tides always turn.
As for the soothsayer, you can count on him or her to create prophesies; which one day, someone will make come true.
The Oracle of Delphi
The most well-known version of the Oedipus myth was written by the Athenian playwright Sophocles. His play, “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus the King” was first performed in approximately 429 BCE and survives to the present day. There are many retellings of this tale, but the story goes something like this.
Once upon a time, in the city of Thebes, there lived King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Their union was barren. Finally, the day came when Jocasta carried a special child in her womb. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi was consulted about the fate of the child. She prophesied that the son of King Laius was destined to one day kill him.
In an attempt to circumvent this tragic fate, King Laius decreed that the baby be abandoned to die atop a mountain with his ankles tied. The servant who was tasked with abandoning the child took pity on him and gave him to a childless couple who desired a child. They named him Oedipus.
Oedipus grew up as a prince, as was his birthright. When he became an adult, he consulted the Oracle at Delphi who told him that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Shocked and bewildered, Oedipus left his home; not knowing that he was adopted.
He returned to Thebes and decided to make his fortune there; not knowing that he was walking into the arms of misfortune. Oedipus unknowingly killed his father, Laius, during a confrontation at a crossroads.
Shortly after, Oedipus met a Sphinx who demanded that he answer her riddle or he may not pass. By solving the Sphinx’s riddle, Oedipus garners the attention of the Queen of Thebes, who is newly widowed. The two are arranged to be married.
The widow becomes a bride again and goes on to have four children. Things seemed happy. Many years later, a plague hits Thebes and the Oracle prophesies that the only way to cure the plague is to avenge the death of King Laius.
It is then, and only then, that Oedipus discovers that he has married his mother. In anguish, Oedipus stabs his own eyes and becomes an exile.
There are many ‘What Ifs’ in this story. What if Oedipus had never left home? Would he then have known not to kill his father?
What if we never tempted fate? What if we never attempted to foretell the future? If they had never consulted the oracle, they might have had a happily ever after.
But perhaps all the myth is illustrating is that; try as we might, we can neither avoid our fate nor escape it. Sooner or later, it will come knocking on your door. By that time, you are left wondering–if only Oedipus’ family had told him what would come to pass, instead of leaving him to die on a mountaintop–none of this would have happened.
It is, ultimately, not knowledge; but ignorance that kills Oedipus. All the seer did, it seems, was provide knowledge that the King and Queen did not want to look in the eye. By doing so, they only ended up creating the very situation they were seeking to avoid.