terracotta statue of woman

Antigone title

Antigone was actually the earliest of the plays Sophocles devoted to the Theban cycle of myths. It was first produced about 442 BCE, when the playwright was in his fifties. Oedipus the King was produced about 429 BCE, and Oedipus at Colonus was written in the extreme old age of Sophocles and produced sometime after his death near the end of the fifth century.

Story of Oedipus and his family: Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes, was an ancestor of Oedipus (see genealogy). When Laius, one of the Theban kings, asked Apollo, through his oracle at Delphi, whether he and his wife Jocasta would have a son, the oracle replied that they would, but that this son was destined to kill his father. After the child was born, Laius pierced his ankles, bound them together with a leather thong , and gave the baby to a herdsman to expose. Pitying the infant, the herdsman instead gave the baby to another shepherd, who took the child back to his native city, Corinth, and gave him to the Polybus and Merope, the childless rulers of that city. The royal couple named him Oedipus (“swollen foot”) and raised him as their own son.

When Oedipus was grown, some companions taunted him, saying he was a bastard, not the legitimate son of Polybus. Troubled, Oedipus traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle, which prophesied that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Odeipus left Delphi swearing never to return to Corinth, seeking in that way to avoid the awful fate predicted by the oracle. However, at a cross-roads where three roads came together, he met an entourage led by a haughty aristocrat who refused to make way for him. Enraged, he killed the older man and all his servants except for a lowly herdsman. Oedipus soon arrived at Thebes, which was suffering terribly from a Sphinx, a monstrous winged lion with the head of a woman who posed a riddle to all travelers and devoured them when they failed to solve it. When the Sphinx confronted Oedipus with her riddle—“What animal goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?”—he solved it with the answer “Man, who crawls as a baby, walks on two legs in his prime, and walks with the aid of a stick when old.” Defeated, the Sphinx cast herself from the cliff. Having saved the city, Oedipus was proclaimed king to replace the slain Laius and married the queen, Jocasta. When the Theban herdsman finally made his way back to the city, he saw that the man who had killed his master was now king, so he asked to be assigned to an outlying pasture far from the city.

After many prosperous years during which four children were born to Oedipus and Jocasta, a terrible plague ravaged the population of Thebes (the plague in Oedipus the King may allude to the devastating plague that swept through Athens in 429 BCE, killing many, including the statesman Pericles; some modern scientists claim that the symptoms described for this plague resemble those caused by the ebola virus). The Delphic oracle proclaimed that Thebes was harboring a pollution, the murderer of Laius, and the sickness would not leave until this pollution was cast from the land. Oedipus’ efforts to discover who this murderer was ultimately reveal that he was the land 's pollution; seeking to avoid his fate, he had unknowingly killed his real father, married his mother, and produced four children who were also his siblings. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus takes her brooch and stabs his eyes until he can no longer see. A rare vase painting depicts masked actors enacting the scene when the Herdsman discloses the truth to Oedipus as Jocasta silently listens.

Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, accompanied him into exile, while his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices remained in Thebes, where Jocasta's brother Creon was ruling as regent. When the boys were grown, they agreed to rule Thebes alternately. Eteocles ruled first, but when his year was up he refused to relinquish the throne to Polyneices. Polyneices, who had married the daughter of the king of Argos, led the Argives and six other cities in an assault on Thebes (The Seven Against Thebes). Thebes drove off the attackers, but in the course of the battle the two brothers killed each other. Their uncle Creon assumed the throne and decreed that Eteocles was to be buried with honors but his brother Polyneices was to be left unburied, to rot in the sun and be eaten by scavengers.

head of a veiled womanAntigone disobeyed the edict, was caught in the act of attempting to bury her brother, and was sentenced to die by being walled up in a cave. Combining bridal and funeral imagery in a way that would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks, Antigone was described as marrying death itself: “My husband is to be the Lord of Death.” When her fiancé Haemon, son of Creon, attempted to free her, he discovered that she had hanged herself; cursing his father, he stabbed himself. Meanwhile Teiresias warned Creon that the gods were extremely angry that he had disturbed the cosmic order, leaving a corpse unburied but burying a living person. The seer's warnings were so dire that Creon was compelled to bury Polyneices, but while he was on his way to release Antigone, he learned that both she and his son were dead, and that his wife Eurydice had also committed suicide. Utterly devastated by the catastrophe that he has unwittingly brought on himself, Creon, the man who attempted to reverse the worlds of the living and the dead, described himself as “no more a live man than one dead.”

November, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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