The number three is for many persons special. We say – ‘three cheers!’; three scores we call ‘ a hat trick’; God Himself is three ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’; we ask in fairytales for ‘three wishes’; we get ‘three goes’ with darts; in many sports – hammer – javelin – long jump – high jump – one has in competition three attempts; races and winners of them are placed only first, second and third – three placings. Of course there are many many more examples of how we hold the number three as being somehow sufficient to encompass a comprehensive assessment or description of events or phenomena.
Once again with you (I hope) I want to go back to John Milton and his epic poem Paradise Lost. John Milton’s poem of course has as leading characters the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. It also has a dark reflected image of The Trinity in the form of Satan – who is the dark parallel to The Father – and Satan’s daughter the form of Sin – firstborn of Satan and she, Sin, parallels darkly The Son of The Trinity – and lastly there is the form of Death, son of Sin, born of her, and who parallels on the dark side The Holy Spirit. Thus two Trinities – one Holy the other Unholy.
Now this Unholy Trinity is an incestuous family. Satan is Father to Sin, and by her, Sin, he produces an incestuous child, Death. Thus Sin is Satan’s wife and daughter; and Death is Satan’s son and grandson, etc.
(To pass perhaps a little sacrilegiously to a lighter vein for a moment, you may know the song: ‘I’m My Own Grandpa’; a comic song of some considerable wit and subtlety, and memorably sung by Tom Arnold in his role as Stanley Stupid in the movie ‘The Stupids’. It’s worth getting hold of for a listen, and the movie for a view)
Back now to deeper matters. The mother of The Son of God is of course Mary wife to Joseph, who conceives immaculately by way of The Holy Spirit, a son, Jesus the Messiah. Thus in some way Mary has a place in the Kingdom of Heaven which is very special. Her Magnificat expresses very well her overwhelmed delight in and modesty at her role chosen for her by God.
Now to the Garden of Eden.
God we are told ‘created a garden in the east’ and Milton tells us that this garden is Paradise and that a golden chain connects and secures earth to Heaven at this time and place; and a route of commerce between the angels in Heaven and mankind on earth was open then and freely available. Thus just two ways at this period of time. To earth and to Heaven.
Once Satan in the shape of The Serpent has successfully tempted Eve, The Mother of Mankind, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge an apple sweet, and thereafter Adam, her mate, himself eats of the fruit; thus are our First Parents Fallen from Grace and the regimen and constitution of life on earth changes accordingly for them and for all to be born henceforth. Nature Falls alongside Man’s Fall. Satan thus triumphant assumes the titles Prince of The Power of The Air, and Ruler of the World; and for the time being he is allowed by God to add the earth to his province and empire.
Satan’s incestuous family, Sin and Death, then in recognition of this triumph of their father build a sweeping arch, a bridge spanning from Hell’s Pandemonium, where the Fallen Angels had been deposed as the outcome of The War in Heaven, a bridge stretching all the way through Chaos over space to connect to the earth; thus laying down a direct route for the Children of Men to pass over into Hell upon their ungodly deceases. Thus three ways now – to earth, to Heaven, to Hell – and the place where the three ways meet – is earth.
This fable, or moral tale of Eden, carries within it all of that existential tension belonging to human life; all of that angst and soul-searching, all those hours of near despair and minutes of soaring hope; experienced only here on earth, in our daily lives, where the three ways meet.
Let’s move location a little, from Eden in the east to Athens in the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks had a Pantheon of gods; which behaved like one big dysfunctional family; and incest was among the shenanigans they got up to. We owe deeply to the Hebrews for their early and prime recognition that God is one and is everywhere; all knowing, all powerful, all seeing. A marvellous perception of the essence of all existence.
Added to the list of gods the Greeks also had their Heroes – the progeny of gods and men and women; Achilles was son of Thetis, an immortal nymph, and Peleus, a king among the world of men. Hence our usage of the word hero has suffered a declination from its primitive use. By ‘hero’ we mean anyone who has done something memorable and admirable; but only of human parentage.
On top of gods and heroes the Greeks had a massive and wildly imaginative world of mythology behind their way of life and its successes. Many of these Greek myths were made into dramas by Attic and other poets and were performed in amphitheatres on holy days of festival annually. It is via these dramas, those which have survived the ravages of time, that most of us today, if we have heard any Greek myths, usually have heard them.
One such very famous drama, or set of dramas, written by Sophocles the poet about the King Oedipus, has survived; and the myth of Oedipus has gone through several incarnations over the ages during its coming down to us today. A C Bradley, a prominent literary critic of the early 20th century, saw in Shakespeare’s persona of Hamlet a figuring forth of Oedipus and his tale; and Sigmund Freud made a big fuss over the psychological development of children and its incorporation of key elements of the myth of Oedipus.
Oedipus was a man born fated to a tragic life. His name Oedipus means: ‘He who walks with pain’. He was foretold at birth to become the murderer his father and to be married to his mother. Great lengths were gone to by his parents to prevent Oedipus from fulfilling these terrible prophecies made about him and his life; he was left exposed as a newborn infant to die in the wilds on a rugged mountainside. Of course , one is unable to cheat fate and Oedipus survives to grow to a man and to do all that was foretold he would do.
His father was called Laius; a king. As a grown man Oedipus meets him on the road travelling and gets into a brawl with him and kills him at a place in the road where three ways meet. The actual place is still to be pointed out to you by native aficionados today, were you to holiday on mainland Greece. The place where three ways meet.
Oedipus goes onto marry his mother, the queen, and she bears children to him; all this done unbeknownly by the actors of these deeds. Here we have another incestuous relationship with children being born to it; and another place whereabouts three ways meet; and this place taking a central significant place in a fable or tale. Son murders father (at a place where three ways meet) and son marries mother and mother bears son children .
In Heaven, back with the Biblical tradition now, as Milton embellishes it, God has been betrayed by Satan, a Son of Light, and Satan has thereafter married his own daughter and produced a son by this union. This daughter and her child together complete the building construction of a third way, a spanning bridge, which joins with the other two ways (to Heaven and to the earth) at a point on earth and near where had been Eden.
The parallels between the Oedipus story and the as story Milton wrote it are striking. So striking that their coincidence appears to me to be more than accidental.
I have written elsewhere about how the Oxford Annotated Bible treats its interpretation this Book of Genesis story of The Fall of Man. The Oxford Annotated Bible looks at this story as being to do with that moment of time when human beings first became self-conscious; that time when humans evolved or developed from brute beast into sentient creature. The Oxford Amplified Bible argues that this dawning of self-awarenes in humans, it being a necessary event for the development of human civilisations, had brought with it for people what The Book of Genesis describes as ‘the knowledge of good and evil’; and Genesis denominates access to this knowledge to have been a consequence of Eve having eaten of The Tree of Knowledge.
Thus out of this economy of things, from the Fall of Man had arisen those tensions foundational to human sentient life everywhere and at all times it is being lived; and which I have earlier associated with the place where the three ways meet; the three ways to earth, to Heaven, to Hell.
As an enquiring species human beings have a natural curiosity which accrues understanding; of the environment; of the human inner self. Such a journey from a brute awareness to sentient self-aware human consciousness might be seen likewise I believe to be the central theme of the story of the Oedipus myth. Without doubt in my mind the Oedipus myth is a tale about man’s inner journey to self-knowledge; as is the story of The Fall in The Garden of Eden.
Within the Oedipus myth story is an encounter he has with a fantastic creature called The Sphinx. This creature demands men answer its riddle; and Oedipus is credited with being the person who successfully answers the riddle of The Sphinx. The riddle is said to have been: ‘What goes on four legs, two legs, three legs?’ And Oedipus’s answer is said to have been ‘Man.’. As an infant crawling, as an adult walking, as an old person with a stick. This riddle, and its significance as being the challenging riddle posed by The Sphinx, and its answer; all refer it seems to me to the theme of human self-understanding, self-knowledge and self-awareness. It is as if the story of The Riddle of the Sphinx was made so as to point up to its hearers that special quality which humans possess which other life forms do not; self-aware consciousness.
No doubt also the human awareness of one’ s own inevitable death and of our certain mortality is also deeply tied into both stories – that of The Fall and that of The Oedipus Myth.
Adam and Eve are punished by God for them having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge; and a part of this punishment is their eventual deaths, and so mortality for all the human race which is to descend from their progeny. Thus one might read, from this my attempted interpretation of these events, the story of The Fall as being an account of Adam and Eve becoming conscious of their own mortalities; and that this knowledge is that forbidden knowledge which their eating of the forbidden fruit of The Tree of Knowledge has imparted to them? This is my speculation.
So I suggest both stories Oedipus and Eden tackle – in part at least – some closely related themes; themes intractable and deeply inherent in the conscious human life; themes which rather than posing problems to be solved, try to explain why these problems they discuss are by their nature robustly insoluble.
There is another theme to be found in common in Biblical and in Hellenic stories; that of the practice of Human Sacrifice; but maybe this is for another time?
The place where The Three Ways meet then is it seems the crisis point; the place where Oedipus initiates the first inevitable and dreadful act on his fated path by killing his father Laius; and also the place where Adam and Eve and their progeny are to be sorted, the sheep from the goats, and so to be sent from the earth upon their deaths either to Heaven or to Hell. At this crisis point where the three ways meet we as sentient humans subsist and live out our lives; ever and always living at and on the boundaries where the ways to the places we are destined to arrive meet as one.
A very important difference between Oedipus and The Fall is that Adam and Eve had a free choice whether or not they should eat of the Tree; whereas Oedipus was always and inevitably destined to face his perils and to enact his horrors. The Biblical story by allowing us as humans a free choice, adds an essential element of tension to our lives; this tension being that unavoidable and grave onus placed upon each one of us as individuals by our elections on our free choices; an onus for us to choose them wisely and to accept accountability for these our life-decisions before God.
It remains interesting that The Greeks in their Oedipus myth, and in other things of their such as those things Plato writes of in his Republic and in his other works, seem to have received some light from Heaven; a partial revelation. The coming of Jesus the Christ in His Incarnation; and these things as being God’s full and final revelation to men, tell us how He lived and taught and made followers and enacted the whole gospel narrative. And all this done by our Lord in order, by my interpretation made hereabove, for Him to stand out exceptionally as being the whole and sole resolution to these existential tensions, which being set up at the place where The Three Ways meet; are those terms which bear upon us daily, as if living under a volcano, as we as humankind pass our lives.
Here in conclusion then is a citation taken from the poet T S Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, which is one of his ‘Four Quartets’. This citation makes a reference to its narrator being ‘between three districts’ also; and I hope it deserves study and thought in relation to what I have been attempting to lay out in this essay:
“In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: “What! are you here?”
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other–
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded. “