Chapter in: When the Soul Remembers Itself: Ancient Greece, Modern Psyche. Ed. Thomas Singer, Jules Cashford and Craig San Roque. Routledge, 2019.
Note to reader: In this chapter the author interleaves analytic and subjective reflections with an imaginative account of Jocasta’s life, drawn from her novel, Theban Nights.
Jocasta: The destiny of a mother’s "fantasy of Tikkun"
Oedipus’ mother is identified in Jungian writings with the Sphinx, the monstrous great mother who seduces her son-lover only to destroy and devour him. My novel Theban Nights, a work in progress, is an imaginative attempt to give voice to this denied and rejected mother who dared to disobey the patriarchal oracle. Jocasta, in my narrative, begins her individuation with the wish for a child, which transforms her from a young, obedient, and unaware object to a mature subject fighting for the rights of motherhood. She is empowered by what I call “the fantasy of Tikkun.” Tikkun, in the Kabbalah, an ancient form of Jewish mysticism, means rectification of the world, the human effort to bring order and peace; the bringing of repair, in the sense of reconciliation between opposites either in ourselves or in the world.
Tikkun in this case, the case of Jocasta, involves getting a love-child from an unloving husband, then losing the child and trying to heal the wounded mother-son relationship. But, tragically, the healing is concretized. When concealment and denial fail, Jocasta acts at last out of her own free choice; instead of waiting for Oedipus to discover the truth, she chooses to end her life with the sick and dying people of Thebes. The analyst of our postmodern time has to take into consideration the impact of archetypes not only on the symbolic level, but also in their chthonic-concrete expression. Thus, contemporary families with single mothers, either actually or psychologically, may enact the archetypal relationship of Jocasta and Oedipus. Wounds of rejection, abandonment, and past traumas can arouse “the fantasy of Tikkun,” which cannot be realized.
Allow me to introduce you to the mythological heroine Jocasta, wife and mother of the famous Oedipus, King of Thebes. The well-known myth of Oedipus was, of course, a fertile subject for the ancient Greek poets and for playwrights like Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In Oedipus Rex, the tragedy written by Sophocles around 429 BCE, Oedipus is the protagonist and his wife-mother Jocasta is a secondary character. His life story and the agonies he suffers are described in full, whereas Jocasta’s travails before her marriage to Oedipus are not recounted. We learn only that she married King Laius and bore him a child, and that Laius, fearful that he was doomed to perish by the hand of the child, as predicted by the oracle, orders him killed. Instead, however, the baby is handed over to a shepherd who takes him to Corinth. And the tale resumes when Oedipus, having unwittingly slain Laius and solved the riddle of the Sphinx, is given Laius’ widowed Queen Jocasta as his prize. At this point Jocasta disappears from the scene again until Oedipus learns the terrible truth. The catastrophe is handled differently by the various playwrights and poets, as I will explain later.
It is interesting to note that Sigmund Freud attended a wildly successful modern production of Sophocles’ tragedy in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and it was this performance and his reactions to it that gave rise to his theory of the Oedipus complex. At the time he had been immersed in self-analysis, as he writes in The Interpretation of Dreams and in his letter to Wilhelm Fliess in October 1897:
A single idea of general value dawned on me. I have found, in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood, even if not so early as in children who have been made hysterical. If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the objections that reason raises against the presupposition of fate; and we can understand why the later “drama of fate” was bound to fail so miserably… the Greek legend seizes upon a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he senses its existence within himself. Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy and each recoils in horror from the dream fulfillment here transplanted into reality, with the full quantity of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one.
Jocasta and Oedipus, her son-husband, had an afterlife too, as described by Homer in The Odyssey, the section where Odysseus encounters various characters on his way through Hades:
And I saw the mother of Oedipodes, fair Epicaste, who wrought a monstrous deed in ignorance of mind, in that she wedded her own son, and he, when he had slain his own father, wedded her, and straightway the gods made these things known among men.
And their afterlife continues in literature, psychological theory, and ideology to this day. The character of Jocasta, however, has remained for the most part secondary and latent, and yet she exerts an intense magnetic force that I will explore here.
Almost thirty years ago I found myself sitting in the Freud Center Library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trying to write something about Jocasta. At the time I was a lecturer in the Department of Clinical Psychology with a psychoanalytic orientation—long before I became a Jungian—and I was working as a therapist in the open ward of a psychiatric hospital. I had a nine-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter by then and had spent the last few months of my recent pregnancy in the high-risk pregnancy unit, away from home and my young son and away from my work. But I would have paid any price to have my baby. In the high-risk pregnancy unit, I was surrounded by women like me, women who persevered, day after day, with the fervor of pilgrims and never a heretical thought or doubt as to their divine calling. Time lost its ordinary meaning for us. It crept slowly ahead in a single direction—the expected birth. And all of us in the unit were dressed alike in uniform pink pajamas.
The women I treated at the psychiatric hospital also wore pink pajamas, but they were suffering from postpartum depression and an inability to connect with the children they had borne. It was then that I began to write my first book, Women in Pink, which dealt with the patients under my care.
But what was it about maternity and the vulnerable womb that I was trying so hard to understand in the character of Jocasta? As I sat in the library, reading through the few articles I was able to find on the subject, I felt thwarted. The so-called Jocasta complex, I discovered, is the converse of the Laius complex, as explained by the psychoanalyst Georges Devereux: it is a “complex of the parent which manifests itself in seductive behavior, particularly on the part of the mother, who is genitally aroused by nursing.”
I found this theory pejorative in a misogynistic way, and the other articles I was able to find at the time, a handful at most, seemed to regard mothers in general as the mothers of an individual protagonist and primary subject of research, not as people in their own right. A mother might be a good enough mother, a powerful great mother, a terrible dark unconscious mother, but never a subject as such. The material on Jocasta was so dull I gave up trying to understand what she represented to me in terms of my experience as a therapist and as a mother myself and ended my search. I forgot all about her. That is, until she returned full force, like the return of the repressed.
Around that time I had a young patient who was hospitalized some months after giving birth to her first child. One Friday as I helped her prepare for a home visit, she kept asking questions about my children, and I felt a sort of guilty satisfaction when she compared herself unfavorably to me. I was the good, successful mother; she was the bad, unnatural mother. That night I had a dream:
I was rushing down a main street in Jerusalem and noticed that it was deserted and that all the shops were closed. Just then I saw my patient walking toward me. Tamar, she said, how come we’re meeting today? It’s Saturday. And I answered, Because I promised you. Suddenly I noticed that she was wearing my clothes, my favorite long blue skirt, my white blouse, and a sweater my mother knitted for me. I woke up, moved by the dream and a little bewildered.
Later I analyzed it in various ways:As a countertransference dream, the patient representing me and I representing my personal mother` , as a a projective identification dream, the patient interfering with my private life while I take on her sufferings` and as a Buberian Dialogue dream ' presenting the possibility of a real I and You meeting between us..
It was not “the royal road to the unconscious,” as Freud held dreams to be, but an interchange between my Self and the patient in a dialogical dimension. If I interpreted the dream from the outside I would remain in an I-It rather than an I-Thou relationship with her and would miss the chance to help her break out of her isolation. The next time I met with her, she told me she had dreamed she was sick in the head and retarded. Instead of interpreting the dream with her I talked about motherhood, about the feelings of inadequacy and isolation many mothers have, myself included. We spoke about her feeling that something had been taken away from her and had made her unfit for life. I listened without expectations. As she grappled with her ambivalence and her own “good-bad” mother polarity, she was no longer alone in the process and neither was I.
This insight led me to Buber’s psychological legacy, the curative force of the therapeutic encounter. Through Buber I became more and more involved with Jungian psychology and began my training as a Jungian analyst. During my studies in analytical psychology, I took a course with Erich Neumann’s student Devorah Kochinsky on Neumann’s book, The Origins and History of Consciousness. In her class each student chose a chapter of the book to summarize and present to the group. I chose to compare Freud’s exposition of the Oedipus complex and its development in his An Outline of Psychoanalysis with Neumann’s chapter “The Slaying of the Mother” in Origins. I found Neumann’s account of the hero’s struggle with the sphinx, the dragon, and the Great Mother far more illuminating than Freud’s ideas. But although Neumann speaks of the sphinx in the guise of the terrible mother as she appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he never mentions Jocasta by name and I forgot about her again. And then she floated back to consciousness and I began to wonder why she had been so largely ignored in the literature of depth psychology, even by Von Franz and Neumann.
My work at the hospital had led me to write a comparative study of the dreams presented by women during pregnancy, after birth, and in a state of postnatal depression. I began reading more analytical works about the feminine, in general, and maternal subjectivity, in particular. Jocasta floated back yet again. I felt compelled to treat her as a literary and psychological personage this time, not a mythical character, to imagine her fully as a woman who must undergo a process of individuation through pregnancy, the loss of her child, and her reunion with him. She was too remote to communicate her life experience and what she had learned from it, so I would have to enter into a dialogue with her. And ten years ago, I did.
I read everything I could find about life in ancient Greece. The contradictions and ambiguities I found in this greatly admired civilization astounded me. In a secondhand bookstore in the United States I happened on a large dusty volume called The Topography of Thebes from the Bronze to Modern Times, by Sarantis Symeonoglou, filled with maps and sketches of ancient palaces, graves, and other archaeological proofs of prosperous reigns that coincided with the years when King Oedipus is said to have ruled. This was Jocasta’s city, founded by her ancestors Cadmus and Harmonia. Here the mysterious sphinx accosted all who entered. I had to see for myself and so I took a trip to Thebes, called Thiva in modern Greek.
And there I was. I unpacked and sat down on the narrow balcony of my hotel room overlooking the main street of the town. A summer breeze ruffled the white curtains behind me and the live Greek music at the taverna across the way went on until three in the morning. By that time my eyes were drooping but I couldn’t sleep. And when I opened my eyes, I saw her by the light of the street lamp, a slender figure with tangled black hair, draped in white.
Theban Nights, Jocasta scene 1
Here I am, she said.
I looked for you all day long, I answered. I found a street named after you, and streets named after all the who’s who of Thebes: Antigone, Electra, Pindar, Creon, and Oedipus. There’s even a Laius Street.
Why were you searching for me? She asked with surprise.
I’ve been thinking about you for years. I tried to write a scholarly article about you, but it was so dull and dry I gave up. Then I tried writing a story about you, but the publisher rejected it. He said it was too crammed-full of information and your voice was muffled by it. So I thought I’d come here and just listen. Tell me who you are.
I am Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, wife and mother of Oedipus.
The sun is about to rise. I look at her face in the light of dawn.
Once I was beautiful, she says. Oedipus fell in love with me. But now I’m old. I had better leave before the sun rises—I don’t want anyone to recognize me.
When will I see you again? I ask.
Come to my palace in the afternoon. I’ll be waiting for you. I’ll tell you what I can.
It was very hot in Thebes that afternoon. I sat on a little hill top. Not a soul was in the streets. The young man at the reception desk had said, “You look for antiquities? Walk around and you find them everywhere.” And find them I did, ancient ruins, just out there, unfenced and unmarked, shattered columns, crumbled walls, ancient stone blocks with enormous blood-red poppies growing between them. The museum was closed for renovations. The stone fountain where Oedipus supposedly washed his hands after killing his father is crowned with arches and three sculpted lion heads. Acanthus plants, the spiny leaves of which are imitated in Corinthian capitols, were lovingly cultivated here a long time ago, but now they droop around the dirty fountain.
Where will I find Jocasta? I sit down on a column beside an especially deep pit. The sun begins to set. And there she is, standing before me. Her hair is piled on top of her head and held in place by a golden clasp. Her eyes look bright and thoughtful.
Theban Nights, Jocasta scene 2
How do you see me now in the light of day? she asks.
I see you have suffered, but you have also known happiness. And you are regal and very lovely.
She looks like a marble statue in the rosy twilight hour.
I spent my girlhood in the gynaikonitis where all the women of the household lived. My little brother Creon, my loving playmate, lived with us until one day without warning Father moved him into the andron. He’s too old to play with girls, said Father. It’s time for him to learn to be a man. And then he was gone. I caught sight of him at a distance, wearing an oversize chiton. I spent my days learning how to cook and weave and embroider, how to wind the peplos just so, with the pleats hanging down from the waist. Girls and even women were not allowed out of the house except on special occasions, festivals and ceremonies and the like. Sometimes I would sit on the roof for hours, gazing over the walls of Thebes at the fields beyond. I had a nursemaid, a dear Phoenician slave named Taliopa. She would tell me bedtime stories, the myths of Thebes, about my ancestors, Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Ares, the god of war, and the alarming fate their daughter Harmonia passed on to my grandmother Autonoe and her sisters, Agave, Ino, and Semele, each of whom lost a child through tragic circumstances. Taliopa slept on the floor beside my bed at night and whenever I cried out from a nightmare about Ascalpus, the ill-omened screech owl snatching my doll away, she would rock me in her arms and comfort me.
“Well,” she would say, “Next time run after Ascalpus—make him bring dolly back. Opa! Here she is, my darling. Nasty Ascalpus has mussed her little peplos. Let’s smooth it out. Now hold her tight. Lie down and sleep.”
But I couldn’t stop crying. He was so dark and ugly, circling overhead and hiding the light with his wings. So we’d get up and lay flowers on Hestia’s altar.
And I had nightmares about another winged creature, too, part woman, part lion, who would try to catch me with her sharp talons. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t make a sound; I couldn’t breathe. That was the worst nightmare of all. What it betokened, Taliopa wouldn’t say.
Mother was acting strange. She had stopped weaving. We could hear music and laughter coming from the andron, but Mother wasn’t invited to greet the guests at the banquets anymore. She grew thinner and thinner. Taliopa sent for the pharmica who came to the courtyard in disguise and brewed a potion for Mother, the blood of a young she-goat with crushed cat-claws and sacred ashes from Aphrodite’s shrine, which she smeared all over Mother’s naked body. But nothing helped. She became so ill she no longer left her room and only sprawled on the couch with her eyes closed.
When I began to bleed each month Taliopa took me to the Temple of Artemis for my dedication to the goddess, holy Artemis, the she-bear, protector of cubs. Poor Mother struggled out of bed and came with us—she wouldn’t have missed that for anything.
Not long afterward she sent for Father. He came to our quarters and looked me over. Pretty girl, he said. Mother lowered her eyes. You’ll make a fine bride, Jocasta. I’ve already spoken to your husband to be.
Who is he, Father? Who, Mother? Is he going to take me away? Father just laughed and left us standing there.
Please Mother, tell me. Who is he? Who will I marry?
Your cousin Laius, the King of Thebes, and you will be his queen.
Oh please, by the gods! Don’t let him take me away; I beseech you!
She closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Again we went to the temple of Artemis, and this time we sacrificed locks of my hair and my childhood toys: a ball, a hoop, my doll.
That night Taliopa woke me up. I had been crying out in my sleep again, the dream about Ascalpus the owl, screeching and hooting with laughter as he flew over my head. Taliopa wrapped her warm arms around me. “Don’t leave me, Taliopa,” I said as she rocked me the way she used to when I was a child. “I’ll ask Father to let you go to Laius’ house with me. Please don’t leave!”
The morning of the wedding I kneeled at Mother’s feet in front of the hearth and Mother beseeched Hestia to watch over me always. Then I dipped in the nuptial bath and the attendant prayed to Aphrodite and sprinkled water over my naked body to arouse my desire, and then she dressed me in a splendid robe, plaited my hair, and adorned me with jewels. Finally, Mother wrapped the red wedding shawl around me and led me to the andron. Laius, behold your virgin consort, Father said. May Aphrodite bless you with vigor tonight!
How old were you then? I ask Jocasta.
I don’t really know, but I must have been fourteen or so. He was at least ten years older. He’d been away from Thebes for a long time, so I had never laid eyes on him before.
And I never saw Mother again until she died. Taliopa stayed with Mother in her gynaikonitis because she was so sick.
The only thing I remember about my wedding night is Laius’ heavy body on my back and the pain when he penetrated me from behind. But after that whenever he took me to bed at night he would caress me. I liked the feeling on my as yet undeveloped body. The moon waxed and the moon waned, but the bleeding came each month. I wanted a baby with all my heart. I longed to give Laius a child so he would be pleased with me. I prayed to Artemis. My body was changing. Laius came less often to my bed. He called for me only to join him in the public feasts and then he would stay in the andron with his friends.
But I was lonely and alone. One night I had a terrifying dream. A large black bird was circling overhead, shedding its feathers over me, and finally it plummeted to the ground, and I knew, my mother was dead. In the morning Laius came to bring me the news.
For the first time since the wedding I walked through the gates of my childhood home. The faithful Taliopa came out to meet me and led me to Mother’s room. She was lying on the couch with her eyes closed. She suffered horribly in her last days, Taliopa said. She no longer knew where she was.
Did she not call for me, Taliopa? I asked.
Taliopa looked down.
Mother had forgotten me.
No, no, never, Jocasta! Taliopa cried. But you are Queen of Thebes now and she did not dare trouble you. You belong to Laius.
Creon came and tried to comfort me. The closeness of our childhood was restored. In anguish I told him how deeply I longed for a child.
Why has Laius stopped coming to your bed? He is duty-bound to sire an heir with you, his queen, his wife. Creon raised his voice.
He desires young boys, not me, I sobbed. But I will be strong. I will entreat our Lady Artemis and she will intercede on my behalf.
Yes, Jocasta, I say, you turned to the dispassionate goddess Artemis and began to have a will of your own.
She seems younger suddenly. Less care-worn. She smiles at me, a sidelong smile. I continued to beg, I supplicated, but Laius only recoiled. He was cursed, he said, on account of a sin he had committed, and I could never bear his child. Taliopa came to live with me. Creon arranged it. She finally told me about the curse on Laius. On his way to the Nemean games, he abducted young Chrysipus, son of Pelops, the King of Pisa who had sheltered him in his exile. And after Laius raped him Chryssipus killed himself out of shame.
I was horrified but I refused to accept my fate. With Taliopa’s help, I would defy the curse.
Written in Jerusalem
I wrote about Jocasta when I returned from my trip to Thebes. Why was I so determined to bring her to life, to put words in her mouth? After a time, I lost direction again and stopped writing, but sometime later I had the first in a series of dreams about an abandoned child entrusted to my care, and I knew I had to keep writing.
When I was finally able to revisit Jocasta, I wrote a scene in which Jocasta dresses as a boy and, with the help of a palace slave who gets Laius drunk, enters his chamber and effectively rapes her husband in order to become pregnant, much as Lot’s daughters raped their father in the biblical story. And again, using a biblical motif, the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar this time, I had Jocasta ask Laius in his drunken delirium for a memento of their coupling. He gives her his signet ring.
So what kind of man is Laius? One who is afraid of the natural processes of life, afraid of maturation, of siring a son who might kill him. He is a persona, not a real father-king. Jocasta sees the child she bears as belonging to her, not Laius, who never intended for her to conceive. The child is to be her compensation for Laius, but what a tragic compensation Oedipus turns out to be. Compensation that is concrete and violent rather than symbolic is inevitably tragic.
Theban Nights, Jocasta scene 3
Jocasta is pregnant, no longer alone. She will give birth. The pregnancy begins to show.
Whore! Laius pummels her head, her belly. I will have you put to death; I mean it! he threatens.
He is about to kick her in the belly when she presents him with the signet ring.
Laius, in the name of Artemis, I implore you! Look at the ring! Is it yours or not?
Mine, is it? Maybe someone stole it from my room at your behest.
I have stolen nothing. You gave the ring to me yourself five months ago. You didn’t recognize me because I came to you disguised as a boy.
What have you done, Jocasta! Liar! Deceiver! Your fate is sealed, whore!
I was the boy the slave master brought to your chamber five months ago, and I asked you for your signet ring as a sign of your love. Yes, Laius. I was the boy. You penetrated me in your drunkenness and sewed your seed. A child grows inside my womb, your son, your heir.
What have you done to me? I am doomed…
Why doomed? The child will preserve your name and carry on the reign of the house of Labdacus.
By Apollo, I am a cursed man, and my curse will fall upon you, too.
What is the curse, Laius? Tell me!
How should I tell you? Better that you never know, he moans.
She feels a stirring of compassion for him and opens her arms, but he pushes her away and leaves.
And every night the sphinx returns to Jocasta and lies heavy on her chest. She sends Taliopa with a message to Creon. Your sister Jocasta will soon give birth, and Laius threatens to kill the child. Help her, she begs you, in your mother’s name! Save the baby’s life! She will send the newborn to you directly, and you must hand him over to the shepherd who will take him somewhere far away.
A servant presses a poultice of artemisia leaves to Jocasta’s belly to relieve the throes of labor. The baby is born into the waiting hands of Taliopa, who cuts the cord and lays him on Jocasta’s breasts. Jocasta kisses the tiny hands and feet.
When Laius comes to take the child from her, Jocasta shields him with her body. No, Laius! You will not kill him! Not my son! she proclaims.
I command you, Jocasta, turn him over to me at once! It is our fate; it is the will of the gods!
Let me suckle him tonight, one night, to be his mother. Grant me this.
One night and no more!
Suddenly he leers at the infant and grabs it from her arms. Squeezing the tiny feet together he pierces them with the gold pin from her chiton. The baby screams in pain and blood drips from its wounded heels.
Now his feet will never catch me! He flings the infant back to her and stamps off.
All night long Jocasta feels the baby on her breasts. She suckles him. His smell, his touch envelope her. She knows that he will live. She knows he will return to her one day. She must believe it.
In the morning she kisses him again and again and wraps him in a sheepskin. Taliopa delivers the sleeping baby to Creon’s chambers.
Written in Dor Beach
Dream of the Hyena
Here I am, at the seaside cottage on the coast, still struggling with Jocasta. Last night I tried to describe how she feels when the baby has been sent away. How she imagines him, exposed on a mountain peak, devoured by wild dogs. Toward morning I had this dream:
I’m sitting and writing in a fairly large, unfamiliar room. Then a hyena enters. It looks more like a big dog, but I know it’s a hyena, with black fur spotted white. I’m not afraid. I pat it on the back and feel the fur. The hyena pays no attention to me and crawls under the round table in the corner of the room. It stands very still. Then I woke up.
I researched “spotted hyena” and found that it’s the sole species of the Crocuta genus, also known as a “laughing hyena,” and it really does look like the hyena in my dream. Spotted hyena society is matriarchal. The females are larger than the males and dominate them.
Suddenly I realized that Jocasta—and my identification with her as I wrote—is present in the world of archetypes, gods, incest, and maybe that’s what the hyena represents, a world that lurks under the table, threatening my conscious self.
And returning to Jocasta I know that she is haunted now. She imagines the baby and wishes she had died with him. She tears her clothes, her shawls and belts, her peploi and himations. She stops bathing herself and combing her hair; she refuses food except for a crust of bread with a bite of cheese. No more meat or wine. She stops offering sacrifices on the altar of Hestia. She leaves her room only at night to wander the long corridors of the palace. The sentinels let her pass. The Queen of Thebes is deranged, haunted by ghosts, the ghosts of her grandmother Autonoe and her sisters, all of whom lost their sons. Jocasta envisions them, like her, tearing their hair out and screaming. And the baby on the icy mountain peak, parched and blue with cold, freezing to death and swallowed by the hungry earth. Again and again she recalls the scene of Laius seizing her baby, dangling him by his tiny red feet, and piercing them with the golden pin of her peplos.
Theban Nights, Jocasta scene 4
Fifteen years go by, fifteen times summer, autumn, winter, and spring. And toward the end of the sixteenth summer when the corn is ripe, for the first time since she bore her son and lost him, Jocasta leaves the palace grounds. She joins the women of Thebes in a procession to the Temple of Demeter to celebrate the rite of the mother and daughter who are one, the festival of the Thesmaphoria. Jocasta, wearing a long dark mantle, walks among them, carrying the laws of Demeter on her head and offerings for the goddess on her shoulder. At sunset they arrive on a hilltop where each woman in turn casts a live piglet into the Megaron, together with a clay phallus and cakes in the shape of men and serpents. All of these will rot in the pit and will later be mixed with seed to fertilize the earth. After the ceremony the women lie down to sleep in the temple courtyard and Jocasta dreams that she is in a dark cave where she meets the gods of Fear and Death, Phobos and Thanatos, who say to her, Soon death will come to your door again, bearing the mystery of the father who is the son.
On the second day the women eat nothing but sesame cakes with honey, and sitting barefoot on mats of grass, their hair unkempt and dressed in rags, they mourn with Demeter over her daughter Persephone who is held captive by Hades in the underworld. Jocasta weeps and vows to the goddess that she will abstain from meat and wine and intercourse until her son’s return.
The third day, the day of the beautiful birth when Demeter is reunited with Persephone, is filled with ribaldry and merriment around a giant bonfire. The women are dressed in white, their hair combed and faces shining. The priestess throws herbs into the fire and then they all feast on roast piglet and drink quantities of wine, all but Jocasta, that is, for she has made a sacred vow to the goddess to abstain from meat and wine and intercourse until her son’s return. Yet although she has drunk only water, she too is seized with frenzy.
And suddenly it’s over, and as the procession goes down the hill Creon’s chariot appears in the distance and Jocasta’s heart stands still. What word of her son has he brought her?
My sister, my queen, he says. Your husband, Laius, is dead. Slain at the crossroads by a band of robbers who disappeared without a trace.
For two nights Jocasta stands vigil over the corpse of Laius, her husband, her king, washed with fragrant water, anointed with oil, adorned with a wreath, a coin in his mouth, boat fare for his journey to the world of the dead. Dead. Dead are her eyes, dead and dry. She tears at her hair with the other mourners but feels no grief for this stranger who begot a son in her womb; no pity for her husband who was killed by a band of brigands on the road. An ignoble end of life. His soul has departed like a little breath of wind.
Before dawn of the third day, Jocasta lights the hearth fire and offers Hestia a sacrifice of renewal. Laius has no heir to offer a funerary sacrifice on his behalf. Creon has taken charge of the kingdom.
All winter long Jocasta abides in her room as befitting the widow of the king, but when the swallows return and the west winds blow, the courtyard of the gynaikonitis blooms with life again. The ladies set up their looms in the sunshine; they weave and sew and prepare a feast; they dance and play their drums and cymbals, flutes, and pipes. But at night Jocasta’s sleep is still troubled by Phobos and Thanatos and the dreams that tell her death is on the way, bringing the secret: from the mother’s womb came the son, and into her womb the father will return, the father who is the son.
It is not for us to question fate or the ways of the gods, says Taliopa when Jocasta tells her the dream. Come child, she says. Spring is here. You must ask the priestess of Demeter to release you from your vow of abstinence. And so she does, and Jocasta feasts and drinks her fill of new wine night after night and joins the women in their maniacal dances until she falls exhausted on her bed.
But one morning Creon arrives with fateful news: the sphinx is perched on the city gates and swoops down on all men who leave or enter Thebes. Jocasta whispers in his ear: is she here to punish us for abandoning the baby to die on the mountain top?
Creon shudders. What could I do? I pledged my help, dear sister, and so I called on a shepherd to take the infant there, but a pack of wolves descended on his flock and the shepherd fled. Neither of us is guilty of the infant’s death and the father who willed it is now in Hades.
Death fills the streets of the kingdom. The cruel sphinx has devoured many men, and no one dares to walk abroad. Plague and famine spread. Taliopa dies and with her dies the hope of new life in Jocasta’s breast. Death has come as in her nightmare, but what of the mysterious message about the father who is the son?
As she stands vigil over Taliopa, Creon arrives. Tomorrow, he announces, I will send out a proclamation that whosoever answers the riddle of the sphinx shall wed Jocasta and rule over Thebes.
Jocasta hangs her head. As you wish, she says. My kingdom shall be his prize and my body his reward.
Written in Santorini
I haven’t written in a long, long time and I know why. Jocasta is about to be reunited with Oedipus, and I fear I’ll sink into a depression when I pick up the story.
I am daunted by what comes next, the encounter between Jocasta and Oedipus and the awakening of her erotic love for him.
During my stay at the Ancient Greece, Modern Psyche conference in Santorini I had two more recurrent dreams about a child in my care.
In the first, I’m looking after a blue-eyed baby girl with a bright round face. I take her for a walk on the beach, but she is cranky and starts to cry. Later on we play—maybe she’s a little older by then—and in the afternoon I bring her home but her dark-haired father is waiting in a black car, looking furious, and says that he kept calling and calling but I didn’t answer. I apologize and say we were busy and I didn’t hear the phone ring.
In the second dream, I’m looking after an infant wrapped in a big blanket that is in fact the blanket on my bed here in Santorini. Some children ask me, “How are you going to nurse the baby?” and I say,” Don’t worry, I’ll bottle feed him.” It isn’t clear when the mother is due back, but when she comes I return the baby to her and help her bathe him, and hold the towel for her when she takes him out of the tub, and then wrap him in a little blanket and put him in her arms and say, “I’ll leave you alone now and let you two get acquainted.”
Eroticism is emotional and passionate—not sexualized and instinctually procreative—and there is a big difference between them. Erotic feelings are normally experienced by nursing mothers because the baby is an extension of her body and so may arouse what Freud termed autoeroticism. It is the intimacy between mother and baby, not just the nursing per se that is erotic. The baby’s very dependency may arouse a mingling of maternal and erotic feelings, and this in Neumann’s view is a positive phenomenon as opposed to the negative mother’s pathological rejection of the child and the physical aversion she experiences toward it.
As the child grows up the mother’s feelings undergo a transformation. Negative feelings come into play alongside positive expressions of child-rearing—annoyance, anger, disappointment, and so on. As the child grows and develops, so does his or her distance from the mother, and the erotic component of the relationship is changed. But if a child is given up by the mother at birth, an idealized image often develops along with fantasies about what might have been and about reuniting with the child one day.
Miriam: A case situation
A patient of mine comes to mind. I’ll call her Miriam. She sought therapy because of the overwhelming guilt she felt when her son came out of the closet and abandoned his wife and children. At the age of sixteen, Miriam fell in love with a married man who wooed her passionately but abandoned her once she became pregnant. When the baby was born, she did her best to care for him on her own, but she felt so helpless she put him in an institution. A few years later he was taken in by a foster family.
Miriam married subsequently and gave birth to two daughters, one after the other. Her husband refused to allow the boy into their home, or even to let her meet him. He demanded that she give him up formally for adoption and threatened to divorce her if she refused. Miriam was too concerned about her daughters’ future to oppose him.
When the boy was eight, Miriam’s relationship with her husband ended in divorce. A few months later she brought her son home, and he immediately became the center of the family and of Miriam’s life. His sisters had their father to go to, but for him, Miriam was everything. She felt a strong need to compensate him for all the years they’d spent apart from each other. His sisters had their own bedroom, but he slept in his mother’s room until he was fourteen years old. Miriam pampered him endlessly. She would soap him up in the shower and take him out for dinner and a movie when the girls were with their father. Sometimes she and the boy would spend a weekend at a beach front hotel where they shared a room as usual. But at some point, Miriam began to realize that he was too old to sleep in her bed, and she tried to change their arrangement. Her son reacted to this with outbursts of rage, and Miriam sought psychological help. Finally, she was able to move him out of her room, but the strange intimacy between them persisted.
The boy graduated from high school and did his army service. He entered a relationship with a female soldier on his base, and they married shortly after meeting. The relationship between the bride and her mother-in-law was rather cool and distant, but Miriam doted on her grandchildren—in compensation, she believed, for the empty years without her son.
But then her son broke the news to her that he was gay and had decided to leave his family and move in with his lover. Miriam was devastated. In tears she confessed that she had willfully ignored the signs of his sexual orientation. “Everything’s ruined! Everything I tried to create is ruined!” She could not bring herself to acknowledge that it was brave of him to come out of the closet and to live according to his true nature. She was terrified that he wouldn’t be allowed to see his children anymore and that she wouldn’t either, and even after she was told where the law stands on the issue, the nightmare scenario continued to torment her. Anger at him for destroying her fantasy was overlaid with guilt. She had pampered him too much. She should not have let him sleep in her bed. She had given in to his every whim.
The love and intimacy that seemed to compensate for the cruelty of their separation had turned against them—like Oedipus and Jocasta, they had become a couple: physically, a grown woman with a grown man, but emotionally, a mother and child.
The course of Miriam’s treatment was extremely frustrating. She was so locked into her guilt, she could not begin to address her feelings of disappointment and anger. Thoughts of suicide assailed her. The relationship with her daughters, never particularly close or warm, was all but cut off now, and she had no desire to see them, no impulse to speak to them on any subject. She dropped out of therapy several times but would return a week or two later. It took many hours of therapy to reach beyond the guilt, anger, and disappointment to the profound underlying grief she still felt for the loss of her son in his early years.
Genetic sexual attraction, as it is now termed, is not uncommon between blood relatives who have been separated for a long time. Family members who meet in adulthood may recognize in each other a romantic ideal of perfect love. The sense of recognition and kinship, of having found a true soulmate has been observed in a surprising study by Maurice Greenberg and Roland Littlewood published in 1995 in the British Journal of Medical Psychology showing that 50 percent of those who sought post-adoptive counseling “experienced strong sexual feelings in reunions.” The same has been found by Raie Goodwach in Australia, who studied feelings of sexual attraction among reunited mothers and sons who had been separated immediately after birth.
I’ve decided to stay on in Santorini for a few days after the conference. I’m sitting on the terrace of the Simon taverna under a sun umbrella. Greek music fills the air. I look out at the blue Aegean Sea surrounding this island, Santorini. Thera, the ancients called it, founded by Theras, the last known descendant of Oedipus. But what I am seeing before my eyes now is not this beautiful lagoon but the dusty ruins of Thebes, where I met you, Jocasta. You spoke to me about the birth of your son and your depression when he was taken from you, but you haven’t told me yet about how you waited with mingled fear and expectation for the man who was to become your husband. As I think about Jocasta and my apprehensions about her reunion with Oedipus, I take out my laptop and start to write.
Theban Nights, Jocasta Scene 6
At the time I didn’t know he was the one who had been foretold in my dream by Phobos and Thanatos, “from the mother’s womb came the son and into her womb the father will return, the father who is the son.”
On hot summer nights I bathed in the fountain of the palace courtyard. My white breasts floated like half-moons on the water. What will the man who defeated the sphinx say when he sees my naked body? I thought. And what will I see? Will he be young or old? Slender or stout? Tender or cruel?
I heard male voices coming into the gynaikonitis. A servant quickly pinned my fine white peplos and combed my hair. Standing in the corridor were Creon and a young man.
Queen Jocasta, said Creon, Here is Oedipus who has saved Thebes from the devouring sphinx. He will wed you and take the throne. Young though he may be, he is wiser than many a graybeard. The nuptials will take place three days from now and he shall be crowned.
Looking down I saw the young man’s sandals, covered with the dust of the road; moving closer, step by step, I was seized with a fierce longing to throw myself at his feet, to touch them.
I don’t remember the wedding itself, but it was nothing like the lavish feast and the loud procession that followed my wedding to Laius. After all the guests had left, my new young husband and I kneeled together before Hestia’s altar and prayed:
O Hestia, fair goddess of the hearth
you who are the heart of every home
and guardian of the gates
we pray that all who enter here
may be under your protection and
we ask your blessings
that we may live
our lives in joy and love
Then we bathed in the fountain, and I caressed each fold of the skin on his feet. They were smooth and unblemished.
The ways of the palace were changed. The gynaikonitis was wedded to the andron, music filled the courtyard from morning till night. My king and I would regale our visitors together, and I would ride with him in the chariot, my face uncovered, as he wished. The agora bustled with all manner of goods and crafts, and whenever we set off to bring offerings to the gods, the cheering crowds would follow our procession.
Those were my happiest years, she sighs. But, of course, there was tragedy ahead. I bore my husband two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
And then the plague spread through the city, and Oedipus felt impelled to consult the oracle. I knew what was coming, I had known all along.
Jocasta and Tikkun: A final thought
I open my eyes and for a moment I don’t know where I am. The Simon taverna is almost empty now. I too know what happens next. Before Oedipus returns from Delphi with the terrible knowledge given by the oracle, Jocasta flees from the palace and enters the temple. There she mingles with the plague-stricken Thebans and dies as a common woman among her subjects. Like a true heroine she wrestles with her fate as best she can; she defies the curse.
Jocasta’s attempt at tikkun is concrete and violent rather than symbolic and, thus, inevitably tragic. Though she defied the curse she could not overcome it. Harmonia had passed down the necklace of misfortune to her, and Cadmus the Phoenician, the legendary founder of Thebes, had passed the curse of the dragon to his descendants. But he also introduced the alphabet to Europe, the alphabet that brought about a transition from orality to civilizing literacy and consciousness, and this has enabled us to preserve and ponder the myths of our progenitors.
Tikkun requires creative effort, and for me, the process of writing Jocasta’s untold story was a tikkun of her presentation in literature. The possibility of encountering Jocasta as I have is the great transformational gift of analytical psychology.
 Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds), The Complete Greek Tragedies, 2nd Ed., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991; and Euripides, Phoenissae, trans. and ed. E. P. Coleridge, Perseus Collection. Available HTTP:<www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0118>.
 S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. A. A. Brill. New York, McMillan, 1913; J. M. Masson (ed.), The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985.
 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Barry B. Powell, Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2014.
 T. Kron, Women in Pink (in Hebrew), Tel-Aviv, Am-Oved, 1989; and “The dialogical dimension in therapists’ dreams about their patients,” Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Subjects, 1991, vol. 28, pp. 1–12.
 G. Devereux, Dreams in Greek Tragedy: An Ethno-Psycho-Analytical Study, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976.
 E. Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, with a forward by C. G Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1949/1954.
 S. Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey, Eastford, CT, Martino Publishing, 2011 Reprint of 1949 London edition.
 E. Neuman, “The slaying of the mother,” in The Origins and History of Consciousness, pp. 152–169, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1949/1954.
 S. Symeonoglou, The Topography of Thebes from the Bronze Age to Modern Times, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985.
 M. Greenberg and R. Littlewood, “Post-adoption incest and phenotypic matching: Experience, personal meanings and biosocial implications,” British Journal of Medical Psychology 1995, vol. 68 (pt 1), pp. 29–44.
 R. Goodwach, “Jocasta and the Oedipus myth: The adoption-reunion context for feelings of sexual attraction,” Australasian Journal of psychotherapy, 2004, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 46–65.