The idea of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is old. It dates back to ancient Greek mythology.
When a person’s expectation of an outcome becomes a reality, without the person taking any action towards it, it’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. In simple terms, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true purely as a result of that prediction.
Two unparalleled stories of self-fulfilling prophecy are that of King Oedipus Rex and the sculptor Pygmalion from Greek mythology. Both their names made their way into modern psychology, as Oedipus Complex and the Pygmalion Effect.
Today, it is also used in politics and economics to describe a theory that states that if people believe an event will happen, it is more likely to happen. Let’s travel back to Greek mythology to look at the origins of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Legend of Pygmalion & Galatea
Ovid, the Roman poet, told this tale like no one else.
In his Metamorphoses, an 8 CE Latin narrative poem considered his magnum opus, Ovid recounts the story of Pygmalion. The epic poem, adopting mythical-historical structure, follows the history of the world from its origin through Julius Caesar’s deification.
Pygmalion’s tale is one of the most important and inspiring ancient Greek myths, and it has inspired numerous stage shows, films, and paintings. Here goes the story.
Pygmalion, a sculptor from Cypriot, lived by himself. He had taken a vow of celibacy after witnessing the Propoetides of Cyprus engage in prostitution, “detesting the faults beyond measure which nature has given to women.”
He spent days and months carving one female figurine out of marble. After finishing, when he stepped back to look at his work, he was transfixed. The statue was not only the most beautiful thing he had ever seen but also the most lifelike.
By the time he regained his senses, he was deeply in love with it. He named it Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk.”
He would bring Galatea gifts every day. He brought seashells, beads, birds, ornaments, and flowers in the hopes that it would charm her. He would adorn her with rings, necklaces, and bracelets, and dress her up in fine silk.
He would caress and kiss Galatea’s statue, and spend hours talking to her. He was madly and passionately in love with a woman who could never love him back.
As his obsession with the statue grows uncontrollable, he runs to the temple of Goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. He sacrifices a bull and kneels before her, asking her to turn it into a real woman.
Aphrodite, or Venus, saw the young man’s plight and gave him a sign. As the offering burned, the flames surged up one, two, then three times.
Pygmalion returned home, perplexed by the episode. But when he walked into his studio and saw Galatea, all his other thoughts vanished. He rushed up to her and kissed her.
As he kissed her, the statue’s lips felt soft. He took a step back in surprise. He saw what seemed like a glint of life in the marble.
Then it dawned on him: Aphrodite had given life to Galatea.
Pygmalion sank to his feet in honor of the Goddess.
Pygmalion and Galatea married soon after, and Aphrodite sanctified their union. They had a son named Paphos, after whom the city of Paphos in Cyprus was named.
Throughout their lives, Pygmalion and Galatea carried gifts to Aphrodite’s shrine, and the goddess showered them with happiness and love.
Pygmalion, a 1748 opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau, is based on the story of Pygmalion. Il Pigmalione, Gaetano Donizetti’s first opera, was also about it.
In 1913, George Bernard Shaw wrote a romantic theater play on it, named Pygmalion. Pygmalion in the play was Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, and the statue was Eliza Doolittle, an untutored flower girl from the London streets.
In 1964, the play was adapted into a celebrated movie starring Audrey Hepburn: My Fair Lady.
There’s even a modern prom-themed teen-movie version of Shaw’s Pygmalion: She’s All That.
The Story of Oedipus Rex
Oedipus is the mythological character immortalized in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Tyrannus.
Oedipus was merely a baby when his father Laius, King of Thebes, gave him away to a shepherd. Laius instructed him to take the child into the mountains and leave him there, to die.
Laius had a reason for his cruelty. He had received a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that his son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. That diabolical prophecy made him send his son away to death.
The shepherd took the child into the mountains, but could not bring himself to leave him there. He took Oedipus to Polybus, King of Corinth, and told him about his predicament. Polybius adopted the child.
Growing up in the palace, Oedipus came across the Oracle of Delphi’s prophecy one day. He was so disgusted by its darkness that he fled Corinth. Full of shame, he ran into the mountains.
As he wildly made his way across, he came upon a chariot completely blocking his path. In his blind fury, Oedipus attacked them and killed both the charioteer and the rider.
He did not know the man sitting inside was his father, King Laius. He fulfilled the first part of the prophecy.
He moved on and reached the city of Thebes. There, a Sphinx stopped him at the city gates. She explained if anyone wanted to enter the city, they must answer her riddle first. If they gave the wrong answer, she killed them.
Her riddles were so profound, no one could answer them correctly. The Sphinx gave Oedipus this riddle:
What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?
Oedipus thought for a while and answered:
Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then on two legs as an adult, and then with a walking stick when in old age.
Upon hearing this, the Sphinx hurled herself to death, granting freedom to the people of Thebes. As a reward, the citizens offered Oedipus the empty throne.
They also give him the hand of the widow-queen, Jocusta.
They marry, with none of them knowing they are the son and the mother.
Thus, Oedipus fulfilled the second part of the prophecy.
Long after this, when they discovered the dreadful truth, Jocusta hanged herself. Oedipus gouged out his eyes and left the city forever.
The play finishes with Oedipus’ death in an Athenian neighborhood, to which he had wandered. His death is described as “without pain” and “more than mortal, a miracle” ( Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology, Longman Publishers, 1998).
Sigmund Freud named his Oedipal Complex after him.
Pygmalion acts in the belief that Galatea is real, and the marble statue comes to life as a result of his belief. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we discount his ardent prayers to Aphrodite as actions towards making his wish come true.
Oedipus unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy killing his father and marrying his mother, thereby wreaking havoc on his city and family.
Looking back, we see that the power of the Oracle of Delphi was not in predicting the future, but in influencing the present. Oracle’s prophecies were self-fulfilling. For Oedipus, it was a negative self-fulfilling prophecy, in that he knew about it and did not want it to happen, yet it did.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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