In Greek mythology, Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. A faithful daughter and sister, Antigone was the main character in a tragedy by the Greek playwright Sophocles*. Euripides*, another dramatist of ancient Greece, presented a different, and happier, version of her life. In more recent times, Antigone has been the inspiration for several playwrights and composers.
Background to the Story. In Sophocles' earlier play, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus had unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, Jocasta. When they discovered what they had done, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself. His sons, Eteocles and Polynices, drove Oedipus from Thebes and took over the kingdom.
Antigone and her sister Ismene accompanied their blind father during his wanderings around Greece. Meanwhile, Eteocles broke his promise to share power with Polynices and drove him from the kingdom as well. Polynices decided to lead an army against Thebes to regain the throne.
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
Their uncle, Creon, supported Eteocles in the conflict with his brother. An oracle told Creon that whoever gave shelter to Oedipus would win the battle for Thebes. Creon therefore asked Oedipus, who had taken refuge in the city of Colonus, to return. When Oedipus refused, Creon sent soldiers to seize Antigone and Ismene to force their father to come back. Theseus*, king of Athens, rescued Antigone and Ismene, but soon afterward, Oedipus died and his daughters returned to Thebes.
The Story of Antigone. Polynices attacked Thebes, and in the battle that followed, the two brothers met in combat and killed each other. Creon became king. He gave Eteocles a hero's burial but refused to let anyone bury Polynices, whom he considered a traitor. Antigone, mindful of her duty to her brother, secretly crept out at night to bury Polynices. She was caught by Creon's soldiers and condemned to death for her disobedience. To avoid direct responsibility for her death, Creon ordered that Antigone be sealed alive in a cave with food and water. Creon's son Haemon, who was engaged to Antigone, pleaded in vain for her life.
A prophet then came to see Creon. He warned that the king had angered the gods by sealing up Antigone and refusing burial to Polynices. Creon immediately ordered that Polynices be buried and went to the cave to release Antigone. On opening the cave, however, he found that Antigone had hanged herself. Haemon was overcome with grief. He tried to kill his father and then stabbed himself to death. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, learned of her son's suicide, she took her own life.
Euripides' version of the story has a happier ending. In his play, Creon instructed Haemon to carry out Antigone's sentence. Haemon pretended to seal Antigone away as ordered but actually took her to the countryside. The couple stayed in hiding for many years, raising a son. After the son grew up, he went to Thebes to take part in an athletic event. There he stripped off his clothes to run in a race and revealed a birthmark that was found only on members of Antigone's family Creon recognized the mark and sentenced Haemon and Antigone to death for disobeying his orders. The god Dionysus (Bacchus)* pleaded with Creon to spare their lives (in some versions of the story, Hercules* is the one who pleaded for them). Creon agreed, and the lovers were formally married.
Sophocles used the story of Antigone to comment on the conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of the gods. Creon's decree against burying Polynices is shown to be unjust and against the gods' wishes. Antigone's decision to perform her religious duty to her brother wins the sympathy of the audience.
prophet one who daims to have received divine messages ights
Literature and Art. Sophocles and Euripides were the first of many to create works of art based on the story of Antigone. Among those who wrote plays about her were the European play-wrights Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Bertholt Brecht. An Italian translation of the Greek play was the basis for an opera of the 1700s called Antigono. More recently, German composer Carl Orff wrote a "tragic play with music" about Antigone in the 1940s.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.