Oedipus was the infamous king of Thebes who murdered his father, married his mother (both these unwittingly, it is true), and then 'when he saw what he had done' put out his own eyes and retired to Colonus near Athens led by his daughter Antigone. The meaning of his name, however, does not (apparently) lie in this fearful catalogue but in his babyhood.

An oracle had warned Laïus, the child's father, that any son his wife Jocasta bore him would kill him. When therefore it was indeed a son that Jocasta bore, Laïus took the baby, pierced its feet with a spike, and abandoned ('exposed') it on Mount Cithaeron. As a name, thus, Oedipus means 'swollen foot', from oideo, 'to swell' and pous, 'foot'.

How exactly Laïus came to decide on this grim expedient is not clear: possibly he thought it would hasten the child's death. Another explanation is that he thought it would prevent its ghost from walking (but how?). The story of course did not end there, since the shepherd who had been ordered to abandon the child actually gave it to another shepherd who took it to his king, Polybus.

He, having no children of his own, adopted the child and named him Oedipus. There may be some erotic or phallic sense behind the name, so that Oedipus is perhaps the 'son of a swelling' (compare a similar sense for the Dactyls). It may be, too, that such a torturous start to the child's life was in some way symbolic of the terrible things to come.

Oedipus became unjustly and unreasonably famous in the twentieth century for his association with the so-called Oedipus complex', whereby a boy child expresses a sexual desire for his mother (without being aware of it) and conversely a rejection of his father. (The opposite, a girl child's attraction for her father, is known as an Electra complex. Both terms were devised by Freud.)