Antigone: A Young Woman in a Tight Corner

I was introduced to the story of Antigone in the mid-1970s when I was still at secondary school (High School). Organized by the overly-optimistic Mrs Mabbot, the entire English department combined forces over a short period to try out a very different style of teaching. In what was effectively a team-taught drama workshop, a number of classes joined together to study an English language version of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 play Antigone. Maybe something got lost in translation or maybe it was the kind of play that only works when you already know the story—or get to see it performed by a great cast who do—but either way I ended up understanding not a word of what was going on.

I think I knew what was meant to happen—the crux of the drama, so to speak: we were meant to understand why Antigone would risk life and liberty in order to bury her dead brother. Unfortunately I was none the wiser at the end than I was at the beginning. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m throwing spoilers into the works before mapping out the legend in full, a legend that begins with the birth of Oedipus, the future King of Thebes.

Antigone and the body of Polynices - Project Gutenberg eText 14994

Antigone and the body of Polynices - Project Gutenberg eText

Oedipus was born to King Laius of Thebes and his wife Jocasta, but his delivery was far from being a happy event for it had been prophesied by the oracle at nearby Delphi that the child would one day slaughter his father and marry his mother. Therefore Laius secured the baby’s feet together with a pin so he could not crawl (hence the boy’s name—Oedipus—swollen foot), had him taken far from the city to an exposed mountainside where he was left to die.

But the babe was found by shepherds and presented to the King and Queen of Corinth, who raised him as their own. Time passed and Oedipus grew to manhood. When he consulted the oracle at Delphi about his future, he learned to his dismay about the prophecy that hung over his head. Not wishing any harm to come to Polybus and Merope, his beloved parents, he set off to make his own way in the world. As fate would have it, he encountered a swarthy chariot driver on a narrow stretch of road who refused to give way to him. The situation rapidly deteriorated into blows and Oedipus slew the stranger in self-defence. Half of the prophecy down, half to go.

Continuing his journey, he eventually approached to the city of Thebes, which was beset by troubles. Not only had news just reached them of their king’s sudden demise, they were now under attack by a wily and terrifying monster—a sphinx, possessing the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a human—who devoured all those who failed to answer her riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? When Oedipus supplied the correct answer (a man during the course of his life, first as a babe crawling, then as an adult walking, and then as an old man hobbling along with a stick), the thwarted creature threw herself off a cliff to her death on the rocks below.

In the absence of a king, Queen Jocasta’s brother, Creon, had declared that whoever succeeded in ridding the city of the sphinx would be crowned its ruler and be granted his sister’s hand in marriage. And so it was that the prophecy came to be fulfilled.

There were, of course, consequences. Thebes became an accursed place where crops would not grow and women and livestock turned barren. Only Jocasta and Oedipus bore children—two boys, Eteocles and Polynices, and two girls, Ismene and Antigone. Again the oracle at Delphi was consulted. The answer: the plague on Thebes would continue until the murderer of King Laius was found and brought to justice.

On Creon’s advice Oedipus sought an audience with the blind seer Tiresias, who entreated him not to seek out Laius’s murderer, but, when provoked, let the facts slip out. Fearing that the seer was in league with the power-hungry Creon, Oedipus remained unconvinced. Only when each piece of the puzzle had revealed itself did he come to believe. Appalled by the truth, Jocasta hanged herself. On discovering her body, Oedipus took a pin from her dress and gouged out his eyes.

Antigone and Oedipus - painting by Aleksander Kokular

Antigone and Oedipus - painting by Aleksander Kokular

With the help of his loyal daughter Antigone, he then escaped into exile, finally finding sanctuary in the sacred grove of Colonus on the outskirts of Athens under the protection of Theseus, its king. And there he died peacefully, but not before cursing his his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, for their lack of filial concern. Meanwhile, back in Thebes…

On their father’s departure, Eteocles and Polynices took the throne, agreeing to rule the city alternately for one year each. Eteocles went first then refused to yield it to his brother when his year was up. Polynices raised an army and attacked Thebes, and both brothers were killed in the heat of battle, each at the other’s hand.

Creon now seized the throne, declaring Polynices the interloper and decreeing that his body remain unburied to serve as carrion for the wild dogs and the birds of prey. Antigone, who by this point was betrothed to Creon’s son, Haemon, defied the decree and tried to bury her brother, but was caught in the act. For this, Creon sentenced her to be buried alive in a rock-cut tomb.

When Creon was informed by the blind seer Tiresias of the gods’ disapproval of his decisions, he and his son Haemon returned to the tomb to release Antigone, only to discover that she had already hanged herself. In a rage, Haemon set upon his father, but when he failed to kill him he killed himself instead. On learning of her cherished son’s death, Haemon’s wife also hanged herself.

In most Greek tragedies a person’s fate is normally determined by their fatal flaw, a weakness of character that sets the course for their ultimate demise. It has been suggested that Antigone’s fatal flaw is either autognotos—which could be translated as self-righteousness—or autonomos—being a law unto one’s self—yet in this day and age both explanations seem rather inadequate.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed one or two plot points that found their way into The Scarab Heart, and the reason is simple. In his 1960 book Oedipus and Akhenaten, which provided the initial inspiration for my novel, Immanuel Velikovsky proposed that the Oedipus legend was in fact based on late 18th dynasty Egyptian history. He identified King Laius as Amun-ho-tep III, Queen Jocasta as Ti, Creon as Ay, Oedipus as Akhen-aton, Antigone as Merit, and Polynices as Smenkh-ka-re.