Exposed to the Elements
In Greek mythology, the exposure of a child about whom a prophecy foretells of great or terrible things is common. Like Paris, these children are often rescued by a shepherd or servant. Later these children learn of their often noble birth and reclaim their birthright. Below are some examples of exposure stories from Greek mythology and other cultures.
Before Oedipus was born, the oracle at Delphi foretold that any son born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes would kill his father. After Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, gave birth to Oedipus, King Laius bound the baby’s ankles and left him to die on top of a mountain. A shepherd took pity on the baby and rescued him. The shepherd took the baby to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Oedipus was raised in Corinth without knowledge of who his real parents were.
Later Oedipus learns from the oracle at Delphi that he was not the biological son of King Polybus and Queen Merope. He also learned that he was destine to kill his father. Fearing that the oracle’s prophecy would come true, Oedipus fled Corinth. On his journey, Oedipus was attacked by a man and his servants. Oedipus kills the man, whom he later learned was his father, Laius.
In Thebes, Oedipus rids the city of the Sphinx and becomes its king. Oedipus marries the Queen Jocasta, Laius’ wife and Oedipus’ mother. Together Oedipus and Jocasta have four children, Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. Oedipus again consults the oracle at Delphi when he must rid Thebes of a horrible plague. He learns of his true identity and realizes that the prophecy he had originally sought to avoid has come true. Jocasta learns the truth and commits suicide. Oedipus blinds himself. For more on the story of Oedipus, see Oedipus the King from the Netshot The Classical Origins of the Western World by Roger Dunkle.
Romulus & Remus
Romulus and Remus were the sons of the Roman war god Mars and the priestess Rhea Silvia. Their grandfather, Numitor, was overthrown by his brother Amulius. Amulius forced his niece, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin, so that she would not have any sons who might overthrow him. Despite his attempt to prevent his niece from bearing children; Rhea Silvia conceived the twins after Mars came to her in the night.
When they were born, Romulus and Remus were left to die in a remote location. According to the myth, the babies survived by being nursed by a she-wolf under a fig tree. Subsequently, the twins were discovered by the shepherd, Faustulus, who brought them to his home. Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia, raised the boys as their own. When the boys were grown, they learned of the deception of their uncle. Romulus and Remus killed Amulius and reinstated Numitor, their grandfather, as King of Alba Longa.
According to Varro, the brothers established a settlement on the Palatine Hill on April 21, 753 BCE. Remus mocked the diminutive height of the walls that surrounded the city. Romulus killed his brother for this condemnation. Romulus named the city Rome and made himself king.
According to the Bible, Moses was left in the bulrushes by his mother after the Egyptian Pharaoh orders all Hebrew mid-wives to allow new mothers to live but to kill their newborn sons. The Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses at the river. She took pity on the baby. Although she knew he was Hebrew, the Pharaoh’s daughter raised Moses as her son. Although, interestingly, the Bible never tells how, Moses later learned of his true identity. Despite his regal upbringing, Moses returned to his people to lead them out of slavery. In his efforts to free his people from the Pharaoh’s oppression, Moses brought plague upon plague to Egypt until the Pharaoh freed the Hebrews from slavery.
The West African 1982 film Wend Kuuni from Burkina-Faso tells the story of a found child. There was no prophecy about the child, but the boy’s subsequent heroic deeds were of great impact on his community. In the film, a peddler crossing the savanna finds an unconscious boy left in the bush. The peddler leaves the child with a family in the nearest village. The family discovers the boy is mute. They search for his family and, when they cannot find it, they adopt the boy and call him Wend Kuuni or "God's Gift." For a full summary of the film, see Feature Film Report.
In Toni Morrison's book Beloved, a baby is killed by its mother, a former slave. The woman kills her child, not to preclude a prophecy, but to prevent the child from becoming a slave to a cruel master. The baby's ghost haunts the family. It frightens its two older brothers who flee the house in which their mother and sister live. The baby returns to the house in the form of a young woman, named Beloved, who cannot speak like an adult and wears strange clothes.
Morrison’s novel is loosely based on a true story that was highly publicized in the 1850s.The slave woman who actually killed her child, Margaret Garner, was dubbed a "Modern Medea" by the newspapers. In the ancient Greek play Medea, Medea kills her children to save them from the fate of living with a cruel stepmother who cares nothing for them since they are not her own.
Wend Kuuni and Beloved are variations on the exposure theme. Each tells of a mother trying to change the almost certain fate of her child through death. The foreboding foresight of each mother is similar to a prophecy.