The Oedipus Myth: Beyond the Riddles of the Sphinx

  • Laura Mulvey
Part of the Communications and Culture book series (COMMCU)


Riddles of the Sphinx was made in 1976–7. The film used the Sphinx as an emblem through which to hang a question mark over the Oedipus complex, to investigate the extent to which it represents a riddle for women committed to Freudian theory but still determined to think about psychoanalysis radically or with poetic licence. Riddles of the Sphinx and Penthesilea, my previous film with Peter Wollen, used ancient Greece to invoke a mythic point of origin for Western civilisation, that had been reiterated by high culture throughout our history. Both the history of the Oedipus Complex and the history of antiquity suggest a movement from an earlier ‘maternal’ stage to a later ‘paternal’ or ‘patriarchal’ order. For me, as someone whose interest in psychoanalytic theory was a direct off-shoot of fascination with the origins of women’s oppression, this dual temporality was exciting. Perhaps there was an original moment in the chronology of our civilisation that was repeated in the chronology of each individual consciousness. Leaving aside the temptation to make speculative connections and an analogy between the earlier culture of mother goddesses and the pre-Oedipal, the idea of a founding moment of civilisation, repeated in consciousness, suggested that it might be possible to modify or change the terms on which civilisation is founded within the psyche and thus challenge the origins of patriarchal power through psychoanalytic politics and theory.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 6.
    Vladimir Propp, ‘Oedipus in the Light of Folk-Tale’, in Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundas (eds), Oedipus, a Folk Lore Case-Book ( Garland, New York and London, 1984 ).Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t ( Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984 ), p. 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 8.
    Sophocles, ‘Oedipus the King’, The Three Theban Plays, Robert Fagles (trans) ( Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1982 ), p. 182.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Detective Fiction’, Poetics of Prose ( Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1977 ).Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Muriel Gardiner (ed.), The Wolf-Man and Sigmund Freud ( Hogarth Press, London, 1972 ), p. 146.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Paul Arthur, Shadows on the Mirror: Film Noir and Cold War America 1945–57 ( Praeger, New York, 1989 ).Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Jacques Lacan, ‘The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis’, Ecrits. A Selection ( Tavistock Press, London, 1977 ), p. 50.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan ( Routledge amp; Kegan Paul, London, 1970 ), pp. 91–2.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Shoshana Felman, ‘Beyond Oedipus. The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis’, MLN Comparative Literature, vol. 98, no. 5 ( Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1983 ), pp. 1029–30.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot ( Vintage, New York, 1985 ), pp. 99–100.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    François Roustang: Dire Mastery ( Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982 ), p. 21.Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    Marie Balmary, Psycho-analysing Psycho-analysis ( Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982 ).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Laura Mulvey 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura Mulvey

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations