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Oedipus and the Sphinx

The Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau

Translation by Duncan Alexander Smart and David Rice, with John T. Hamilton
When Oedipus met the Sphinx on the road to Thebes, he did more than answer a riddle—he spawned a myth that, told and retold, would become one of Western culture’s central narratives about self-understanding. Identifying the story as a threshold myth—in which the hero crosses over into an unknown and dangerous realm where rules and limits are not known—Oedipus and the Sphinx offers a fresh account of this mythic encounter and how it deals with the concepts of liminality and otherness.
Almut-Barbara Renger assesses the story’s meanings and functions in classical antiquity—from its presence in ancient vase painting to its absence in Sophocles’s tragedy—before arriving at two of its major reworkings in European modernity: the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and the poetics of Jean Cocteau. Through her readings, she highlights the ambiguous status of the Sphinx and reveals Oedipus himself to be a liminal creature, providing key insights into Sophocles’s portrayal and establishing a theoretical framework that organizes evaluations of the myth’s reception in the twentieth century. Revealing the narrative of Oedipus and the Sphinx to be the very paradigm of a key transition experienced by all of humankind, Renger situates myth between the competing claims of science and art in an engagement that has important implications for current debates in literary studies, psychoanalytic theory, cultural history, and aesthetics.

136 pages | 4 halftones, 1 table | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2013

Ancient Studies

Folklore and Mythology

Gender and Sexuality


 “The encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx has always been one of the most intriguing scenes of Greek mythology. Almut-Barbara Renger first subjects the riddle solving of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to an innovative analysis and then turns to the role of the Sphinx in Freud’s work and the way Jean Cocteau used Sophocles against Freud in his Machine infernale. In her challenging work, she shows how the figure of the Sphinx continues to fascinate modernity, but also portrays the changing fates of this once so threatening female monster in the age of gender uncertainties.”

Jan N. Bremmer, University of Groningen

“[A] beautifully written and deftly argued book…. Highly recommended.”


Table of Contents


Part One
Oedipus before the Sphinx in Antiquity: On Sophocles

Chapter 1. The Prince of Thebes and the Monster
     “With intelligence, not taught by birds”
     Face-to-Face: Oedipus before the Sphinx in the Vase Painting of Antiquity
     In the Hero’s Account: The monstrum from Seneca to Corneille

Chapter 2. Thresholds: Zone, Transformation, Transition
     “Betwixt and Between”: The Threshold Theories of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner
     A “Double-Formed Monster” (δίμορφον θηρίον): The Sphinx as Threshold Figure in Antiquity
     “Œdipe est double”: Hero and Monster in Jean-Pierre Vernant
     Coda I: One Monster Confronts Another: Oedipus before the Sphinx as a Warning against Hubris

Part Two
Oedipus before the Sphinx in Modernity: On Freud and Cocteau

Chapter 3. Freud the Riddle Solver and the “Riddle of the Feminine”
     Infantile and Juvenile Wish Fulfillment: Freud as κράτιστος ἀνήρ
     Perversion and Hubris: Thoughts on the Anecdote of Freud’s “Turning Pale”

Chapter 4. “The night that concerns me is different”: Cocteau’s Distancing from Freud
     Between Finding and Invention: “Archaeology” as a Shared Figure of Thought in Freud and Cocteau
     “No-man’s-land between life and death”: Cocteau’s “Zone” between Visible and Invisible Worlds
     “Where dream and reality merge”: Mythic Personalities between Dream and Reality
     “An Oedipus and the Sphinx”: Cocteau’s Machine infernale
     Deprived of Characterization by Basic Principles: “Œdipe et le Sphinx” on the Threshold
     Coda II: With Sophocles contra Freud: Cocteau’s Work of Enlightenment

Notes     Bibliography

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