Antigone: The Woman Who Defied the Theban King in Greek Mythology
Antigone is a key figure in Greek mythology and literature, particularly in the tragic plays of the Athenian playwright Sophocles. Her story interweaves elements of family loyalty, moral choices, and the tragic consequences of defiance against autocratic rule.
Origins and Background
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, and his mother Jocasta. In some other myths, her mother is Euryganeia.
She has two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, and a sister named Ismene. The family is plagued by a curse, which leads to a series of tragic events, beginning with Oedipus unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother, and culminating in the deaths of his offspring.
Meaning of her name
Antigone’s name in Greek mythology carries significance. Deriving from “Anti-” meaning “in place of” and “-gonia” meaning “parents”, her name translates to “worthy of one’s parents” or “in place of one’s parents”, emphasizing her strong familial loyalty and duty.
The crux of Antigone’s story lies in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes. Both her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, die fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle, decrees that Eteocles will be honored with burial rites as he defended the city, while Polynices, who attacked it, will be left unburied, a severe dishonor in ancient Greek culture, and a torment for his soul.
Against this backdrop, Antigone emerges as a figure of moral resilience and determination. Despite Creon’s edict, she believes that the laws of the gods and familial duty are superior to the laws of man. She defies Creon’s order and buries Polynices, performing the minimal sacred rites for her brother.
When Creon learns of her act, he is furious. Antigone is brought before him, and she does not deny her actions. She argues that while kings might issue decrees, the unwritten laws of the gods and the bonds of kinship are eternal and more binding.
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Creon, equally unyielding, believes in the importance of law and order for the city’s stability. He feels that pardoning Antigone would show weakness and undermine his authority. He orders her to be entombed alive in a cave as punishment.
The unfolding tragedy doesn’t just end with Antigone. Her death sets off a chain reaction. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, is devastated by Antigone’s death and commits suicide. When Eurydice, Creon’s wife, learns of her son’s death, she too takes her own life, leaving Creon broken and filled with regret.
How Theseus rescued Antigone
In “Oedipus at Colonus,” which is the last of three Theban plays by Sophocles, Antigone dutifully guides her blind father, Oedipus, into the city. Mirroring her father, she is characterized by her tenacity and tragic fate. Throughout, she remains by Oedipus’ side, until Creon takes her and her sister captive to manipulate Oedipus.
Theseus, the heroic king, intervenes, saving the sisters. As the play concludes, they grieve their father’s death. Though Theseus assures them Oedipus received a proper burial, he reveals they cannot visit the burial site, respecting Oedipus’ wishes. Consequently, Antigone resolves to return to Thebes.
Themes and Interpretations
Antigone’s tale poses profound moral and political questions. At its heart, it’s a conflict between the individual conscience and duty to the state, between divine law and man-made law. Antigone sees her actions as an allegiance to unwritten laws, to the eternal and divine, even if it means her death. Creon, on the other hand, prioritizes the order of the state over individual morality and familial bonds.
This story also touches on the theme of gender. In a male-dominated society, Antigone challenges not just the king but the social norms of the time. Her resistance is not just against a royal decree, but against the broader societal expectations of a woman’s role.
Ancient Greek poet Sophocles’ “Antigone,” part of his Theban plays trilogy, is one of the most performed and studied plays in the world. It has inspired countless adaptations and reimaginings, from plays to novels to films, across different cultures and eras. Philosophers, political activists, and scholars have analyzed and drawn from its deep reservoir of moral dilemmas.
In the modern era, Antigone’s character has been evoked in discussions of civil disobedience. Her decision to prioritize personal conscience and divine law over state law resonates in many global contexts, making her story timeless.