Death of Laius. A.M. 2728

WAG 7681


This is one of a group of drawings by British artist and book illustrator Edward Francis Burney, depicting scenes from Greek and Roman history and mythology. This drawing shows a scene from the Greek tragedian Sophocles' play, 'Oedipus Rex'. It depicts the moment when the ill-fated Oedipus kills his own father, Laius. Laius was the Prince of Thebes. In a play by Euripedes, 'Chrysippus', it is related how, after Amphion and Zethos usurped his throne, Laius sought sanctuary with Pelops, who welcomed the young prince as one of his own alongside his own sons, the twins Atreus and Thyestes, and the illegitimate Chrysippus. Pelops asked Laius to help train Chrysippus in charioteering for the Nemean games. Laius fell head-over-heels in love with his pupil, but Chrysippus spurned his advances. On route to the games Laius kidnapped the beautiful youth and raped him, taking him to Thebes where he reclaimed his throne. Euripedes described Lauis as the first human to love another of the same sex. Laius later married Jocasta, but was warned by the Delphic Oracle to abandon thoughts of fathering a child since he was fated to be killed by his own son. Though he initially managed to keep away from her bed, one night succumbed and fathered a child while drunk on wine. When their son, Oedipus, was born Laius thrust a spike through his feet and handed him to a shepherd to be abandoned. However, the shepherd took pity on the child and placed him in the care of a childless couple in Corinth who raised him as their own. In his youth Oedipus was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he resolved never to return to Corinth. He set out for Thebes and on the road encountered King Laius. The pair got into a quarrel over the right-of-way which quickly escalated. Ignorant of his true ancestry, Oedipus killed his own father, slaying him with his sword. When Oedipus got closer to Thebes he encountered the Theban Sphinx, a mythical monster with the face and breasts of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings. The Sphinx was said to have been sent down by the marriage-goddess, Hera, as punishment for the Thebans' failure to atone for the crimes of Laius. She guarded a pass on a cliff by the sea and asked all who would pass a riddle. When Oedipus gave the correct answer, the Sphinx hurled herself over the cliff to her death in the sea below. As a reward he claimed the throne of Thebes and the hand of the former queen, his mother Jocasta. The story of Lauis, portrayed in this drawing, highlights that consent was an important factor regulating same-sex relations in Ancient Greece. Same-sex relations were generally hierarchical, with the older partner taking a dominant and active role in the sexual act. At that time age was not seen to affect the ability of the younger partner to give consent as it is now, however, consent was crucially important.