The Place of Religion in Oedipus the King and the Canterbury Tales

The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux
The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux

Throughout history, religion has always taken a prominent role in people’s lives in Western culture to various degrees. However, even if the general belief in higher powers remained prevalent, it evolved and changed greatly. Religions that were once in the mainstream have completely vanished, and other religions have taken their place with their own entirely new spectrum of doctrines and customs. One fascinating field reflecting the prevailing religious practices in a certain era is literature.

This essay will show and discuss how the common Western religious faith has changed in two historical periods through two literary masterpieces, Oedipus the King by Sophocles and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

It is first important to understand the time in which each masterpiece was written. Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King around 420 B.C., in a culture that was deeply infused with polytheism and faith in the ancient Greek gods. The ancient Greek religion already manifests itself in the first scene of the play, where the priest of Zeus, god of all Greek gods, complains to King Oedipus (16) about a disease that inflicts the citizens of Thebes. Everybody perceives the priest as a highly authoritative and respected figure, and all, including King Oedipus, undisputedly accept his sayings.

On the other hand, Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400 A.D., after the faith in the Greek gods was essentially eradicated in Western society. During that time, near the end of the Medieval period, monotheism and especially Christianity was already the predominant religious faith. The effect of Christianity on the story is conspicuous right from the start – the entire plot of The Canterbury Tales revolves around an old Christian custom, a pilgrimage (General Prologue, 12).

Sacred Locales

The different cultural and political roles religion had in the two periods can be illustrated by the representation of sacred locales in each masterpiece.

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus sends Creon to Apollo’s temple at Delphi to find the cause and the solution to the pestilence in Thebes, which shows the grave significance people had ascribed to this holy shrine. Additionally, the chorus, which represents the masses, attributes authority to the blind prophet Teiresias by stating that he was “[s]peaking from the Delphic rock” (562). Another example is when Oedipus reveals to Jocasta (945) how he heard the dire prophecy at Delphi when he was young, which terrified him so much that he fled Corinth to Thebes. That illustrates the utter solemnity and awe those types of temples evoked.

In The Canterbury Tales, however, not only that the sacred destination is less meaningful, but also it never actually reached. Even though the alleged objective of the pilgrims’ journey is to visit the shrine of the “hooly blisful martir” Saint Thomas (General Prologue, 17) in Canterbury, the pilgrims eventually do not get there. The general atmosphere in the story is that the pilgrims do not really seek a religiously cleansing journey, which defines a true pilgrimage, but really just wish to revel and feast. To begin with, the pilgrims meet at an inn, a place notorious for debauchery and certainly not for holiness. One of the characters in the story, the Wife of Bath, appears as an extremely vulgar and promiscuous woman who had no less than five husbands in her lifetime; nonetheless, she went on three different pilgrimages to Jerusalem (465). This implies that supposedly spiritual voyages to holy locations were perceived merely as a pretext for licentious trips.

Therefore, based on the different attitudes to holy religious locales, it appears that religion had a much more integrally gripping control on believers within the culture in Sophocles’ time rather than in Chaucer’s.


Geoffrey Chaucer as a Pilgrim (Ellesmere Manuscript)
Geoffrey Chaucer as a Pilgrim (Ellesmere Manuscript)

An intriguing topic of comparison between the two masterpieces is the godly repercussions of profaning what was perceived as religiously sacred.

In Oedipus the King, the gods actually punish Oedipus for the sin of his father, Laius, who raped a young boy and was never judged for this crime by the respective justice system of the period. Nevertheless, Oedipus is not completely religiously righteous himself. He unjustifiably mistreats several different people throughout the play: Creon, who only attempts to help; Teiresias, the blind prophet and a holy man of the gods; and the messenger, an old shepherd who had even saved Oedipus’ life when he was sent to his death as a baby. Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother/wife, debases a few times the gods and their oracles (871-873, 1120-1132) before she takes her own life. Thus, there is a distinct connection between violating the laws of the gods and punishment.

In contrast, in The Canterbury Tales, the men of the Christian church themselves sin, to no apparent divine punitive response. The Monk is supposed to study in his cloister or work for his monastery, but instead, all he loves to do is to ride, hunt (General Prologue, 189-192) and eat (206). The Friar is described as a wanton (208) and a gossipy (211) person implied to take bribes for absolving people’s sins a few times in the text (225, 232, 249, 254 and 257). The worst of them all is the Pardoner. The Pardoner himself admits that he defrauds people by selling them fake relics and cures (The Pardoner’s Prologue, 103), and he even says that he will cheat a poor widow whose children starve (164-165). There is not any hint in the text that those characters will ultimately be punished for their sins.

From the religious side of consequences for sins, there is a huge gap between Oedipus the King and The Canterbury Tales.

Higher Divine Powers

Another fundamental aspect that exists only in Oedipus the King is the direct involvement of higher religious powers in the main plot.

When Jocasta and Laius hear the prophecy that their son would kill Laius, they give the baby to their servants and order them to leave Oedipus to die in a forest (854-865). Thus, the religious prophecy itself commences the basic chain reaction of the plot. When Oedipus grows a little older, he hears the prophecy that he will kill his father and bed his mother (951-954), and that makes him run away from Corinth to Thebes (955) without knowing that he actually returns to the city where he was born. Again, it is the religious prophecy that initiates the domino effect in which Oedipus kills his father, Laius, on his way to Thebes and marries his mother, Jocasta, after his arrival.

In The Canterbury Tales, it does not seem to be any evident divine control over the plot or the characters in the main storyline. Whether the characters interact with each other or recount events from their own personal history, there is no indication of an active godly intervention that has any significant impact. However, in the tales that the characters tell one another, there are a few incidents where higher religious deities take an active part in these hypodiegetic levels. For instance, the ancient Greek gods greatly influence the tale of the Knight. Mercury appears in Arcita’s dream (The Knight’s Tale, 527) and persuades him to travel to Athens. The gods, Venus and Mars, bicker over the winner of the contest of the humans (1580-1584) until Saturn decrees that Palamon would win (1612-1614). Saturn makes the earth tremble beneath the feet of Arcita and his horse (1826-1829), which leads to Arcita’s demise.

Therefore, in The Canterbury Tales, the interference of higher religious forces solely emerges in the characters’ inner tales, whereas in Oedipus the King, it directly impacts the primary storyline.

In conclusion, the respective widespread religious faith in Western society was altered immensely throughout the ages, as demonstrated in this essay by comparing two literary masterpieces from two various periods. Whereas in more ancient times, there was a common strong polytheistic religious belief, about two thousand years later, religion had become chiefly monotheistic. In addition, even though religion remained very culturally dominant, it does seem to weaken a little bit in its palpable perception among believers.

The conceptualization of the gods in Sophocles’ era was more tangible than in Chaucer’s, which had transformed into a more abstract notion. It appears that religion somewhat loosened its ties to the cultural and political areas of life when comparing the two periods, although it kept on being intertwined in society meaningfully.