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Antigone A Faithful Daughter And Sister

Source: Myths And Legends Of All Nations.

Jocasta, when she learned that Oedipus was really her son, was so
filled with horror and distress that she took her own life. But
Antigone and Ismene were sorry for their father, whom they loved very
dearly, and sought by every means they knew to render his suffering

Longing to see again the land of Corinth which he had left seized the
blind Oedipus, and like a beggar, staff in hand, he set out. Only
Antigone accompanied him, guiding his step and striving daily to keep
up his courage.

After much wandering Oedipus was finally cast into prison. Then the
two sons took possession of the kingdom, making agreement between
themselves that each should reign for the space of one year. And the
elder of the two, whose name was Eteocles, first had the kingdom; but
when his year was come to an end, he would not abide by his promise,
but kept that which he should have given up, and drove out his younger
brother from the city. Then the younger, whose name was Polynices,
fled to Argos, to King Adrastus. And after a while he married the
daughter of the king, who made a covenant with him that he would bring
him back with a high hand to Thebes and set him on the throne of his
father. Then the king sent messengers to certain of the princes of
Greece, entreating that they would help in this matter. And of these
some would not, but others hearkened to his words, so that a great
army was gathered together and followed the king and Polynices to make
war against Thebes. So they came and pitched their camp over against
the city. And after they had been there many days, the battle grew
fierce about the wall. But the chiefest fight was between the two
brothers, for the two came together in an open space before the gates.
And first Polynices prayed to Here, for she was the goddess of the
great city of Argos, which had helped him in this enterprise, and
Eteocles prayed to Pallas of the Golden Shield, whose temple stood
hard by. Then they crouched, each covered with his shield and holding
his spear in his hand, if by chance his enemy should give occasion to
smite him; and if one showed so much as an eye above the rim of his
shield the other would strike at him. But after a while King Eteocles
slipped upon a stone that was under his foot, and uncovered his leg,
at which straightway Polynices took aim with his spear, piercing the
skin. But so doing he laid his own shoulder bare, and King Eteocles
gave him a wound in the breast. He brake his spear in striking and
would have fared ill but that with a great stone he smote the spear of
Polynices and brake this also in the middle. And now were the two
equal, for each had lost his spear. So they drew their swords and came
yet closer together. But Eteocles used a device which he had learnt in
the land of Thessaly; for he drew his left foot back, as if he would
have ceased from the battle, and then of a sudden moved the right
forward; and so smiting sideways, drove his sword right through the
body of Polynices. But when, thinking that he had slain him, he set
his weapons in the earth and began to spoil him of his arms, the
other, for he yet breathed a little, laid his hand upon his sword, and
though he had scarce strength to smite, yet gave the king a mortal
blow, so that the two lay dead together on the plain. And the men of
Thebes lifted up the bodies of the dead and bare them both into the

When these two brothers, the sons of King Oedipus, had fallen each
by the hand of the other, the kingdom fell to Creon, their uncle. For
not only was he the next of kin to the dead, but also the people held
him in great honor because his son Menoeceus had offered himself
with a willing heart that he might deliver his city from captivity.

Now when Creon was come to the throne he made a proclamation about the
two princes, commanding that they should bury Eteocles with all honor,
seeing that he died as beseemed a good man and a brave, doing battle
for his country, that it should not be delivered into the hands of the
enemy; but as for Polynices, he bade them leave his body to be
devoured by the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, because
he had joined himself to the enemy and would have beaten down the
walls of the city and burned the temples of the gods with fire and led
the people captive. Also he commanded that if any man should break
this decree he should suffer death by stoning.

Now Antigone, who was sister to the two princes, heard that the decree
had gone forth, and chancing to meet her sister Ismene before the
gates of the palace, spake to her, saying:

"O my sister, hast thou heard this decree that the king hath put forth
concerning our brethren that are dead?"

Then Ismene made answer: "I have heard nothing, my sister, only that
we are bereaved of both of our brethren in one day and that the army
of the Argives is departed in this night that is now past. So much I
know, but no more."

"Hearken then. King Creon hath made a proclamation that they shall
bury Eteocles with all honor, but that Polynices shall lie unburied,
that the birds of the air and the beasts of the field may devour him,
and that whosoever shall break this decree shall suffer death by

"But if it be so, my sister, how can we avail to change it?"

"Think whether or no thou wilt share with me the doing of this deed."

"What deed? What meanest thou?"

"To pay due honor to this dead body."

"What? Wilt thou bury him when the king hath forbidden it?"

"Yes, for he is my brother and also thine, though perchance thou
wouldst not have it so. And I will not play him false."

"O my sister, wilt thou do this when Creon hath forbidden it?"

"Why should he stand between me and mine?"

"But think now what sorrows are come upon our house. For our father
perished miserably, having first put out his own eyes; and our mother
hanged herself with her own hands; our two brothers fell in one day,
each by the other's spear; and now we two only are left. And shall we
not fall into a worse destruction than any, if we transgress these
commands of the king? Think, too, that we are women and not men, and
of necessity obey them that are stronger. Wherefore, as for me, I will
pray the dead to pardon me, seeing that I am thus constrained; but I
will obey them that rule."

"I advise thee not, and if thou thinkest thus, I would not have thee
for helper. But know that I will bury my brother, nor could I better
die than for doing such a deed. For as he loved me, so also do I love
him greatly. And shall not I do pleasure to the dead rather than to
the living, seeing that I shall abide with the dead for ever? But
thou, if thou wilt do dishonor to the laws of the gods?"

"I dishonor them not. Only I cannot set myself against the powers that

"So be it; but I will bury my brother."

"O my sister, how I fear for thee!"

"Fear for thyself. Thine own lot needeth all thy care."

"Thou wilt at least keep thy counsel, nor tell the thing to any man."

"Not so: hide it not. I shall scorn thee more if thou proclaim it not
aloud to all."

So Antigone departed; and after a while came to the same place King
Creon, clad in his royal robes and with his scepter in his hand, and
set forth his counsel to the elders who were assembled, how he had
dealt with the two princes according to their deserving, giving all
honor to him that loved his country and casting forth the other
unburied. And he bade them take care that this decree should be kept,
saying that he had also appointed certain men to watch the dead body.

And he had scarcely left speaking when there came one of these same
watchers and said:

"I have not come hither in haste, O King; nay, I doubted much, while I
was yet on the way, whether I should not turn again. For now I
thought, 'Fool, why goest thou where thou shalt suffer for it'; and
then, again, 'Fool, the king will hear the matter elsewhere, and then
how wilt thou fare?' But at the last I came as I had purposed, for I
know that nothing may happen to me contrary to fate."

"But say," said the king, "what troubles thee so much?"

"First hear my case. I did not the thing and know not who did it, and
it were a grievous wrong should I fall into trouble for such a cause."

"Thou makest a long preface, excusing thyself, but yet hast, as I
judge, something to tell."

"Fear, my lord, ever causeth delay."

"Wilt thou not speak out thy news and then begone?"

"I will speak it. Know then that some man hath thrown dust upon this
dead corpse, and done besides such things as are needful."

"What sayest thou? Who hath dared to do this deed?"

"That I know not, for there was no mark as of spade or pick-axe; nor
was the earth broken, nor had wagon passed thereon. We were sore
dismayed when the watchman showed the thing to us; for the body we
could not see. Buried indeed it was not, but rather covered with dust.
Nor was there any sign as of wild beast or of dog that had torn it.
Then there arose a contention among us, each blaming the other, and
accusing his fellows, and himself denying that he had done the deed or
was privy to it. And doubtless we had fallen to blows but that one
spake a word which made us all tremble for fear, knowing that it must
be as he said. For he said that the thing must be told to thee, and in
no wise hidden. So we drew lots, and by evil chance the lot fell upon
me. Wherefore I am here, not willingly, for no man loveth him that
bringeth evil tidings."

Then said the chief of the old men:

"Consider, O King, for haply this thing is from the gods."

But the king cried:

"Thinkest thou that the gods care for such an one as this dead man,
who would have burnt their temples with fire, and laid waste the land
which they love, and set at naught the laws? Not so. But there are men
in this city who have long time had ill will to me, not bowing their
necks to my yoke; and they have persuaded these fellows with money to
do this thing. Surely there never was so evil a thing as money, which
maketh cities into ruinous heaps and banisheth men from their houses
and turneth their thoughts from good unto evil. But as for them that
have done this deed for hire, of a truth they shall not escape, for I
say to thee, fellow, if ye bring not here before my eyes the man that
did this thing, I will hang you up alive. So shall ye learn that ill
gains bring no profit to a man."

So the guard departed, but as he went he said to himself:

"Now may the gods grant that the man be found; but however this may
be, thou shalt not see me come again on such errand as this, for even
now have I escaped beyond all hope."

Notwithstanding, after a space he came back with one of his fellows;
and they brought with them the maiden Antigone, with her hands bound

And it chanced that at the same time King Creon came forth from the
palace. Then the guard set forth the thing to him, saying:

"We cleared away the dust from the dead body, and sat watching it. And
when it was now noon, and the sun was at his height, there came a
whirlwind over the plain, driving a great cloud of dust. And when this
had passed, we looked, and lo! this maiden whom we have brought hither
stood by the dead corpse. And when she saw that it lay bare as before,
she sent up an exceeding bitter cry, even as a bird whose young ones
have been taken from the nest. Then she cursed them that had done this
deed, and brought dust and sprinkled it upon the dead man, and poured
water upon him three times. Then we ran and laid hold upon her and
accused her that she had done this deed; and she denied it not. But as
for me, 'tis well to have escaped from death, but it is ill to bring
friends into the same. Yet I hold that there is nothing dearer to a
man than his life."

Then said the king to Antigone:

"Tell me in a word, didst thou know my decree?"

"I knew it. Was it not plainly declared?"

"How daredst thou to transgress the laws?"

"Zeus made not such laws, nor Justice that dwelleth with the gods
below. I judged not that thy decrees had such authority that a man
should transgress for them the unwritten sure commandments of the
gods. For these, indeed, are not of today or yesterday, but they live
forever, and their beginning no man knoweth. Should I, for fear of
thee, be found guilty against them? That I should die I knew. Why
not? All men must die. And if I die before my time, what loss? He who
liveth among many sorrows even as I have lived, counteth it gain to
die. But had I left my own mother's son unburied, this had been loss

Then said the king:

"Such stubborn thoughts have a speedy fall and are shivered even as
the iron that hath been made hard in the furnace. And as for this
woman and her sister--for I judge her sister to have had a part in
this matter--though they were nearer to me than all my kindred, yet
shall they not escape the doom of death. Wherefore let some one bring
the other woman hither."

And while they went to fetch the maiden Ismene, Antigone said to the

"Is it not enough for thee to slay me? What need to say more? For thy
words please me not, nor mine thee. Yet what nobler thing could I have
done than to bury my mother's son? And so would all men say, but fear
shutteth their mouths."

"Nay," said the king, "none of the children of Cadmus thinketh thus,
but thou only. But, hold, was not he that fell in battle with this man
thy brother also?"

"Yes, truly, my brother he was."

"And dost thou not dishonor him when thou honorest his enemy?"

"The dead man would not say it, could he speak."

"Shall then the wicked have like honor with the good?"

"How knowest thou but that such honor pleaseth the gods below?"

"I have no love for them I hate, though they be dead."

"Of hating I know nothing; 'tis enough for me to love."

"If thou wilt love, go love the dead. But while I live no woman shall
rule me."

Then those that had been sent to fetch the maiden Ismene brought her
forth from the palace. And when the king accused her that she had been
privy to the deed she denied not, but would have shared one lot with
her sister.

But Antigone turned from her, saying:

"Not so; thou hast no part or lot in the matter. For thou hast chosen
life and I have chosen death; and even so shall it be."

And when Ismene saw that she prevailed nothing with her sister, she
turned to the king and said:

"Wilt thou slay the bride of thy son?"

"Ay," said he, "there are other brides to win!"

"But none," she made reply, "that accord so well with him."

"I will have no evil wives for my sons," said the king.

Then cried Antigone:

"O Haemon, whom I love, how thy father wrongeth thee!"

Then the king bade the guards lead the two into the palace. But
scarcely had they gone when there came to the place the Prince Haemon,
the king's son, who was betrothed to the maiden Antigone. And when the
king saw him, he said:

"Art thou content, my son, with thy father's judgment?"

And the young man answered:

"My father, I would follow thy counsels in all things."

Then said the king:

"'Tis well spoken, my son. This is a thing to be desired, that a man
should have obedient children. But if it be otherwise with a man, he
hath gotten great trouble for himself and maketh sport for them that
hate him. And now as to this matter. There is naught worse than an
evil wife. Wherefore I say let this damsel wed a bridegroom among the
dead. For since I have found her, alone of all this people, breaking
my decree, surely she shall die. Nor shall it profit her to claim
kinship with me, for he that would rule a city must first deal justly
with his own kindred. And as for obedience, this it is that maketh a
city to stand both in peace and in war."

To this the Prince Haemon made answer:

"What thou sayest, my father, I do not judge. Yet bethink thee, that I
see and hear on thy behalf what is hidden from thee. For common men
cannot abide thy look if they say that which pleaseth thee not. Yet do
I hear it in secret. Know then that all the city mourneth for this
maiden, saying that she dieth wrongfully for a very noble deed, in
that she buried her brother. And 'tis well, my father, not to be
wholly set on thy thoughts, but to listen to the counsels of others."

"Nay," said the king; "shall I be taught by such an one as thou?"

"I pray thee regard my words, if they be well, and not my years."

"Can it be well to honor them that transgress? And hath not this woman

"The people of this city judge not so."

"The people, sayest thou? Is it for them to rule, or for me?"

"No city is the possession of one man only."

So the two answered one the other, and their anger waxed hot. And at
the last the king cried:

"Bring this accursed woman and slay her before his eyes."

And the prince answered:

"That thou shalt never do. And know this also, that thou shalt never
see my face again."

So he went away in a rage; and the old men would have appeased the
king's wrath, but he would not hearken to them, but said that the two
maidens should die.

"Wilt thou then slay them both?" said the old men.

"'Tis well said," the king made answer. "Her that meddled not with the
matter, I harm not."

"And how wilt thou deal with the other?"

"There is a desolate place, and there I will shut her up alive in a
sepulchre; yet giving her so much of food as shall quit us of guilt in
the matter, for I would not have the city defiled. There let her
persuade Death, whom she loveth so much, that he harm her not."

So the guards led Antigone away to shut her up alive in the sepulchre.
But scarcely had they departed when there came an old prophet
Tiresias, seeking the king. Blind he was, so that a boy led him by the
hand; but the gods had given him to see things to come.

And when the king saw him he asked:

"What seekest thou, wisest of men?"

Then the prophet answered:

"Hearken, O King, and I will tell thee. I sat in my seat, after my
custom, in the place whither all manner of birds resort. And as I sat
I heard a cry of birds that I knew not, very strange and full of
wrath. And I knew that they tare and slew each other, for I heard the
fierce flapping of their wings. And being afraid, I made inquiry about
the fire, how it burned upon the altars. And this boy, for as I am a
guide to others so he guideth me, told me that it shone not at all,
but smouldered and was dull, and that the flesh which was burnt upon
the altar spluttered in the flame and wasted away into corruption and
filthiness. And now I tell thee, O King, that the city is troubled by
thy ill counsels. For the dogs and the birds of the air tear the flesh
of this dead son of Oedipus, whom thou sufferest not to have due
burial, and carry it to the altars, polluting them therewith.
Wherefore the gods receive not from us prayer or sacrifice, and the
cry of the birds hath an evil sound, for they are full of the flesh of
a man. Therefore I bid thee be wise in time. For all men may err; but
he that keepeth not his folly, but repenteth, doeth well; but
stubbornness cometh to great trouble."

Then the king answered:

"Old man, I know the race of prophets full well, how ye sell your art
for gold. But make thy trade as thou wilt, this man shall not have
burial; yea, though the eagles of Zeus carry his flesh to their
master's throne in heaven, he shall not have it."

And when the prophet spake again, entreating him and warning, the king
answered him after the same fashion, that he spake not honestly, but
had sold his art for money.

But at the last the prophet spake in great wrath, saying:

"Know, O King, that before many days shall pass thou shalt pay a life
for a life, even one of thine own children, for them with whom thou
hast dealt unrighteously, shutting up the living with the dead and
keeping the dead from them to whom they belong. Therefore the Furies
lie in wait for thee and thou shalt see whether or no I speak these
things for money. For there shall be mourning and lamentation in thine
own house, and against thy people shall be stirred up many cities. And
now, my child, lead me home and let this man rage against them that
are younger than I."

So the prophet departed and the old men were sore afraid and said:

"He hath spoken terrible things, O King; nor ever since these gray
hairs were black have we known him say that which was false."

"Even so," said the king, "and I am troubled in heart and yet am loath
to depart from my purpose."

"King Creon," said the old men, "thou needest good counsel."

"What, then, would ye have done?"

"Set free the maiden from the sepulchre and give this dead man

Then the king cried to his people that they should bring bars
wherewith to loosen the doors of the sepulchre, and hastened with them
to the place. But coming on their way to the body of Prince Polynices,
they took it up and washed it, and buried that which remained of it,
and raised over the ashes a great mound of earth. And this being done,
they drew near to the place of the sepulchre; and as they approached,
the king heard within a very piteous voice, and knew it for the voice
of his son. Then he bade his attendants loose the door with all speed;
and when they had loosed it, they beheld within a very piteous sight.
For the maiden Antigone had hanged herself by the girdle of linen
which she wore, and the young man Prince Haemon stood with his arms
about her dead body, embracing it. And when the king saw him, he cried
to him to come forth; but the prince glared fiercely upon him and
answered him not a word, but drew his two-edged sword. Then the king,
thinking that his son was minded in his madness to slay him, leapt
back, but the prince drove the sword into his own heart and fell
forward on the earth, still holding the dead maiden in his arms. And
when they brought the tidings of these things to Queen Eurydice, the
wife of King Creon and mother to the prince, she could not endure the
grief, being thus bereaved of her children, but laid hold of a sword
and slew herself therewith.

So the house of King Creon was left desolate unto him that day,
because he despised the ordinances of the gods.

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Previous: Oedipus And The Sphinx

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