Guide Antigone and Cosmic Sin

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Literature which deals with the past therefore has a foot in two worlds. This includes Greek tragedy. The effect is to make the tragic world a middle space where heroic past and present meet. This makes the tragic stage an ideal space to explore political issues of interest to democratic Athens. Not all tragedy is political and not all of the political questions are unique either to Athens or to democracy. But Athens with rare exceptions was unusual among the classical Greek states in its openness to dispute and dissent and Athenian drama is almost unique in Greek literature in its ability to explore areas of actual or potential political tension.

This is true in the case of Antigone. Anyone in the audience listening to the newly appointed regent Creon might well catch echoes of contemporary sentiments about loyalty to the city. The rhetoric of devotion to the city above all else and at any cost which Sophocles puts in his mouth sounds very like the rhetoric of the democratic statesman Pericles in the historian Thucydides Pericles even goes so far as to claim that we should all be lovers of the city. The sentiment has a powerful appeal.

This was a world of citizen soldiers and a citizen was expected to fight and if necessary die for the city. The issue of burial which forms the focus for conflict in this play had political echoes. Burial was a vitally important aspect both of family and of civic life. For the city it was a means both of honouring devotion and also of punishing disloyalty. The world of this play is not just postwar but post-civil-war. The dead Polynices came with a foreign army to take his home city by force and died in the attempt.

So some features of the play probably sounded very familiar.

Antigone Study Guide

Democratic Athens demanded a lot of its citizens and at the probable date of Antigone this was visible especially in the treatment of the dead. As far as we know Athens monopolized its war dead to a degree unmatched by any other Greek state.

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Where most Greek states simply buried their dead on the battlefield, Athenian practice was to collect and burn the dead and bring the bones home. They then held a state funeral and buried the war dead in communal state graves excavations for the new Athens metro unearthed one such burial just a decade ago with no designation of family, just the name of their tribe.

The war dead are now the property of the city. At the same time private grave memorials almost disappear. It looks as though only public burials, and specifically those for the dead warriors, matter. But by tradition the family not only buried its dead but also made offerings every year at the family tombs; and the job of preparing the dead and the lead in mourning fell to the women. By the late fifth century the private memorials, including memorials for those who died in war, become more common, and it looks as though the tensions between the demands of the state and the needs of the family have been resolved.


But tensions there probably were and death and burial was one of the key areas. Issues such as family or individual versus state are Greek issues as well as Athenian issues. But they were probably present in Athens to an unusual degree and were at their most visible at the time Antigone was performed in the late s. And it is not about contemporary democratic ideology. It is a story about a clash of wills, a clash of principles and a clash of loyalties. About power and its limits and legitimacy. About commitment, tenacity and integrity.

And it is not a sermon. It throws up more questions than it answers. It could play in any theatre of the Greek world, as it has played in countless theatres in many languages since. But for its Athenian audience the echoes of contemporary areas of tension gave it an added intensity. Antigone is a play full of intensity. The remaining views recognise various degrees of legitimacy in both arguments, eventually proving the impossibility of the task in discerning right from wrong in this conflict.

Despite the fact that this explosive clash highlights the vast differences between Creon and Antigone in terms of world views and loyalties, it also brings to the fore their similarities in terms of characterisation. Creon continuously asserts his power, both in terms of social and gender status; he is the ruler of the city, in fact, its defender in what is seen an unlawful attack by Polyneices against his own fatherland the gravest of sins in civic terms.

Moreover, he is a man, faced with an insubordinate, stubborn, powerless female who is also a member of his own family and under his jurisdiction and protection. Antigone, on the other hand, continuously asserts the validity on her argument in religious and moral terms, being, at the same time, constantly aware of her limitations due to her gender and position in the city and her own family. Both insist on upholding their respective values with obstinate determination to the end: More importantly, neither of them are easily relatable — or indeed sympathetic — characters.

Antigone is often too self-righteous, obsessed with honouring Polyneices at all costs. She is dismissive of Ismene, almost indifferent to her betrothed, Haemon. Creon is equally obsessed with administering what he perceives as justice, as well as upholding his law and punishing the offender, he is cruel and dismissive towards his son. It is easier for us, the audience, to identify with Ismene, Eurydice or Haemon.

Ismene, a foil for Antigone and her exact opposite, is arguably less determined and daring than her sister; but she is also much closer to an everyday person, aware of her limitations and hesitant to challenge authority and the laws imposed by a ruler. Antigone may be admirable for her bravery and resolution, but she is also extraordinarily distant to ordinary human beings.

Although she presents herself as a weak woman and speaks of all the typical female experiences she will be missing with her untimely death, she functions more like a symbol — some say she is almost genderless. Ismene, however, appears to be more human, displaying a more conventional kind of femininity, which renders her pitiful but also more relatable as a character. In a similar way, we feel more pity and sympathy for Haemon than we do for the two protagonists. His attachment to her is evident in a rare tragic instance of a young man being in love, but it is hardly reciprocated.

This is a young man in love, who is denied his chance to be with his beloved and, on seeing her dead decides to take his own life out of grief. Her appearance on stage is limited to one scene, with her uttering one single question to the Messenger before departing in silence, ominously, after the death of her son is confirmed, never to reappear on stage.

Antigone and Creon are caught in an impossible circle of stubbornness, miscommunication and destruction. Together, they manage to cause utter grief and ruin for their family caught in a conflict of ever-increasing intensity as they pull further and further apart. To what extent do you agree with this claim? Most famously, the German philosopher G. Hegel saw the tragedy as depicting, at its core, a conflict between the abstract principles of the household the oikos and the state the polis , embodied in the characters of Antigone and Creon respectively.

When we come to watch the play, it is not hard to see why this interpretation has proven immensely influential. On a purely formal level, the two characters dominate the action more than any of the others. Sewell- Reuter, due to lack of evidence regarding an utterance of the curse, speaks of a possibility for inherited taint of guilt, not for a proper curse For an analytical d iscussion see West , Lloyd-Jones and Sewell- Rutter See also Kyriakou This reconstruction is based on the tenuous and confused evidence of the so-called Peisander scholium on Eur.

Antigone, appealing to her sister, introduces us right away to the shameful misfortunes of her family: Translation by Fainlight-Littman , The major role of kinship in tragedy is outlined by Sophocles right away in the opening speech of the play. Antigone then poses a question related to Oedipus and Zeus: There is an obvious hue of negativity that appears at the very beginning of the play; the fact that the two sisters are standing in the dark outside the city gates l.

Thus two themes are appearing at the very start; the primacy of kinship and the successive Labdacid misfortunes caused by Oedipus; and exactly the fact that those motifs will determine the dramatic action in Antigone proves the importance of supernatural causation and tragic fate in Sophocles. Can we though, after reading the first verses, talk about these misfortunes as a result of a curse or ancestral guilt? There is no such evidence here, but what we rather have is simple reference of calamities; no supernatural factors are mentioned as a clear parameter to this ruin Ismene is trying to dissuade her sister from doing the forbidden burial.

The order in which these deaths are mentioned is not temporal, since, as we know, Jocasta died before Oedipus. Now that the two sisters, the last stocks of the family, are left alone, their fate will get 49 See Sourv inou-Inwood 50 Sewell-Rutter What is not said in the prologue, however, is that the present situation is the working-out of a curse or the reenactment of ancestral guilt.

We must draw the elementary distinction between Labdacid horrors per se and supernatural factors that contribute to or constitute a part of these horrors. The use of language forms a strong association: And that is what Ismene is highlighting to her sister at this point: Antigone of course will not be convinced and with her actions she will set herself in the context of the old misfortunes.

The possibility that her downfall is caused by a parallel working of the family curse will be examined in the very controversial lines of the second stasimon. The poet inserts to the play the theme of kinship stock: As stated above, a careful reading of l.

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Sophocles draws a parallel here between human life—sea and misfortunes— waves. This image of the turbulent sea in the second stasimon —that emphatically recalls ll. Here the activity of Ate is likened to the wildest tempest. This simile with the sea, a common motif in ancient Greek literature 55 , introduces us to the notion of human unhappiness as a result of a punishment with a hereditary character imposed by Zeus. In this occasion the victims are Antigone and Ismene: This mood, along with the emphasis on the gods of the lower world and the remote power of Oly mpian Zeus, leads into the next phase of the action, where the tragic catastrophe begins to unfold.

Ancient and present woes oppress the house of Labdacus. Translation by Fain light and Litt man , , adapted In my understanding of the passage, the main idea is the hereditary nature of Ate; this thesis is supported with the violent image of sea nature. First the Chorus does a general allusion to human infelicity: The catastrophic power of Ate strikes consecutive generations just like successive waves hit the shore. We shall see a total inversion of nature that might represent the distortion of a family in time. In this sense Ate in these lines might be a reactivation of the ancestral fault that engrains the Labdacids.

What I read at the first stanza of the simile l. The result of this activity reveals the untamed and confusing power of nature: At the second stanza of the simile l. See Lloyd-Jones, JZ , who makes the valid point that, if Laius spoke the prologue of the first play as we have reason to suppose , he must have had something to say and may have told the Chrysippus story. Why was he not to have a son?

As against this, Sept. There seems to be a confusion of metaphors expressing: The ancient scholiast writes: Winnington-Ingram , argues: Is Antigone an exclusive victim of the accursed house of her ancestors or we are only dealing with some continuity of the family doom because of divine anger? Before I proceed to an analysis of the second stanza l. In the violent simile of the sea two elements are dominating: Black is the prevailing color accompanied by strong gusts of wind and waves breaking on the shore with roar.

Now on the context; besides the depiction of nature within a usual framework e. This could not happen without the aid of the winds, but it seems that there was already a groundswell deep in the sea, which might be an indication of a growing sense of disaster. This chaotic transgression of an aggressive and hostile nature mirrors the extended distortion in the order of the family: The violent upheaval of nature contains also some important symbolisms; and an effort to decode this image seems like a daring task. At the bottom of the sea the beginning of the family time-stream lies black sand reflecting a source of pollution that can cause divine anger or awaken and reinforce a family curse.

This anger or curse appears to be in an idle state, as long as the black sand remains intact at the bottom.

When though the fierce Thracian winds 71 a symbol of human blasphemy, fatal decisions, hopes or desires stir it up and help it reach suddenly the surface of the sea, the black sand pollution covers the sun—lighted surface thus darkens the hope over the last scions of the family. In this image the fact that the winds human choices as a product of mental imbalance generate the anodic movement of black sand towards the surface could mean that divine anger is generated or a family curse is being re-activated —once again— by some recent source of pollution, blasphemy or folly.

In the first antistrophe l. In Aeschylus, however, they belong to the offspring not of Earth, but of n ight. In both cases their relationship with darkness and their dark character is a result of their origin. As for their sphere of activity this was already determined by the t ime of Ho mer. The passage offers too much effect but too little cause, in my view, but an analysis of these controversial lines might help in determining if we are dealing with an ancestral curse here.

The gradual climax we saw in the image above might reflect the dark fate of the Labdacids: It has been argued that because this burial see l. Of course that opposition is there, but there is more to be said. The main problem is the intermediate position of corpses, between life and death. As we have seen in chapter four, the Greeks considered unburied corpses dangerous sources of pollution. The sprin kling of dust was a ritual endeavouring to exorcize the pollution by separating the body from the civ ilized sphere and confining it to its proper realm, the earth.

In this stasimon we are confronted with a breach of this ritual, resulting in even more pollution and danger. Here the dust is not a separative power, but has become an active, lethal force killing the living instead of saving them. The perversion of the ritual of dust sprinkling has the horrible result that Polyneices' corpse does not only retain its polluting power, but extirpates the whole race of the Labdacids. A family curse, even though it might be implied or depicted in the second stasimon, is not mentioned distinctly.

Hester79 asserts the opposite: For the motif see also l. My doubts are expressed in BICS 26 71f. The objection to this expression is that it waters down, if not abolishes, the personification which is strongly present in such non-literal references to Erinyes as Trach. The doubt is part icularly maddening, since the word Erinys co mes at the end of a stanza, closing the first half of the ode, and is immediately followed by the name of Zeus and the description of Zeus's power.

The ju xtaposition must be willed; and it is a juxtaposition of light and darkness, of two worlds: There are three forces upper and lower that dominate in the second stasimon, as Ate, the nether gods and Zeus in the second strophe. But in the strict sense of an instrument that fulfills a family curse, an Erinys does not occur here, I believe. Reading the second strophe we see that it ends with Ate, the same word that the second stasimon started with.

In these lines we see an antithesis between the lower gods and sleepless Zeus85 , whose presence is prominent here. A glance at the second stasimon of Antigone helps clarify the relation between eternal d ivinity and Zeus. Praising the power of Zeus that is beyond all human overreaching, the chorus emphasizes the god's timeless rule, free of the mo rtal need of sleep or rest, ageless in its possession of radiant Oly mpus Antigone The succession of disasters which dog the house; the operation of nether powers, and then of Zeus; a law that relates disaster to excessive prosperity and to the temptations which it offers men so that their judgement fails and disaster ensues.

Zeus might be seen here as standing for those invisible forces of the underworld that have brought to Antigone infatuate folly. The concept of inherited guilt however appears in this passage, but in a general sense of a progression of inherited disaster. In the lines the theme of familial continuity re-appears.

Since such an extreme sort of rashness made her run up against the lofty altar of Justice 89 , the punishment, according to the Chorus, befalls as a natural consequence. This sentence agrees thematically with the opening speech of Antigone and with the lines , where the Chorus refers to the inherited misfortunes of the Labdacids; it clearly points to some evil inheritance.

The latter sounds more plausible since the reference to her father woes does not grant that she is cursed but rather that she walks in a similarly catastrophic path How did it come about that this young girl, to their sorrow, had advanced to such an ext remity of rashness and brought this fate upon herself? It must be - and this they feel as a kind of mit igation - the work of an evil inheritance.

Contra West Those were my parents already at birth I was doomed to join them, unmarried, in death. If the latter meaning can be applied here, it appears that both the Chorus and Antigone might view her punishment as the effect of offending a god. At a first glance those are perhaps the woes of her father. Clarke wonders if that mirrors the abduction and rape of Chrysippus by Laius and he acknowledges the difficulties in deploying this story in Antigone In the figure of Aras, the same double ro le appears.

He is an autochthon, but he is also "Plowman" - he sows the earth fro m which he sprang. Oed ipus, too, is a plowman of the earth fro m wh ich he sprang. It suffices here to mention that the Peisandros credited with telling the story may have been the Archaic poet of that name, that some of the obscure choral passages of the Seven Against Thebes esp.

The Chorus then replies the following: But the man who holds the power must also be acknowledged. The theological standpoint of l. Because of a passion inherited from her father Antigone will also meet the evil fate of the Labdacids. What I conclude from the analysis of this controversial passage l.

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For this reason she is presented by the Chorus —and she agrees on that— to be paying an ancestral ordeal and as a result she is set in a context of inherited misfortunes. So far there is no sign of an inherited curse.

From what we read in the text it is rather safe to discern in general terms of hereditary guilt and predisposition of folly as Antigone is joining her family fate and misfortunes, for also the mythological background is not clear and the poet is not any specific about it. Furthermore the evil inheritance of Antigone in this passage indeed plays a role to her doom but, as I believe, not such a significant one. During this timeline of changes and different approaches some basic principles remained the same in the genres discussed above; supernatural and human causation, fate, necessity and moral inheritance appear as common elements.

Inherited guilt and delayed punishment of the morally innocent are related to divine envy and anger against human prosperity.