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Ancient Greek Story of Antigone Warns Against Sin of Pride

Nikiforos Lytras’ depiction of Antigone and Polynices, 1854. National Gallery, Athens. Credit: Nikiforos Lytras /Public Domain/ Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

The story from Greek mythology of Antigone and Polynices is a cautionary tale about the sin of pride and how like so many other personal failings in Greek mythology it causes us to do things that result in our downfall. The tragedy of Antigone after she conducted funeral rites for her dead brother, written about so evocatively by Sophocles, continues to resonate today to everyone in the modern world.

Polynices, whose name in Ancient Greek means “much strife” was the son of Oedipus and either Jocasta or Euryganeia; he was also the older brother of Eteocles (according to Sophocles’ work “Oedipus at Colonus”).

When Oedipus was discovered to have killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling his own curse, he was expelled from Thebes, leaving his sons Eteocles and Polynices to rule in his absence. The two brothers then decided to rule alternately every other year.

Story of Antigone hinges on eternal human sin of pride

However, because of another curse placed on them by their father, when it was time for Eteocles to step down, he expelled Polynices from the realm, keeping the throne for himself.

Polynices then raised an army and marched against the city state, in an incident that is known as the “Seven against Thebes.” The attackers were repelled, but the two brothers ended up in hand-to-hand combat, which resulted in killing each other.

After their unfortunate deaths, their uncle, Creon ruled Thebes as a tyrant; he buried Eteocles in a glorious ceremony befitting a ruler, but left the body of Polynices, who had been wronged by his own brother, to be exposed and eaten by animals since it was he who had marched against his own city.

Seeing the hideous sight of her brother, Antigone felt duty-bound to minister to him, burying him with the appropriate rites that all people were due.

However, when she was caught doing so, it was she who paid yet another price; therefore, the tragedy of the siblings was complete.

But there were reasons for these misfortunes; according to the norms of the time, both brothers and their sister had to pay for the sin of pride which they had demonstrated in the past.

Brothers’ pride, disrespect of father leads to cycle of punishment

In the “Thebaid,” the epic poem concerning the battle over the dominion of Thebes, the brothers were cursed by their father, Oedipus, for the disrespect they had shown him on two occasions.

The first of these occurred when they served him using the silver table of Cadmus and a golden cup, which he had forbidden. The brothers then sent him the haunch of a sacrificed animal, rather than the shoulder, which he deserved. Suitably enraged after these supposed affronts, Oedipus prayed to Zeus that his sons would die by each other’s hand.

However, according to Sophocles’ work “Oedipus at Colonus,” the story is a bit different. Oedipus wanted to continue to rule over Thebes but he was expelled by Creon. His sons then argued over the throne, but Eteocles gained the support of the Thebans and expelled Polynices, who went to Oedipus to ask for his blessing to retake the city.

However, Polynices received only a curse, namely to die by his brother’s hand. His son was Thersander.

The “Bibiltheca” and Diodorus both state that Eteocles then has his brother exiled although Polynices soon finds refuge in the city of Argos. There, he is welcomed by the king, Adrastus, who gives him his daughter, Argia, for his wife.

Adrastos promises to help his new son-in-law regain the throne of Thebes and gathers an expeditionary force, appointing seven men to lead this assault, one for each of the seven gates in the walls of the city.

Together, these champions, including Adrastus and Polynices themselves, are known as the “Seven Against Thebes”. The expedition soon proved to be a total disaster, however, since  all of the men other than Adrastus were killed; it is then that the brothers Polynices and Eteocles finally face each other in close combat.

Sophocles’ epic tragedy still resonates today

In Sophocles’ epic tragedy “Antigone,” Polynices’ story continues after his death. King Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, decreed that Polynices’ body was not to be buried or even mourned over, on pain of death by stoning. However, his sister Antigone pridefully defied the order. When she was caught breaking the law, Creon sentenced her to death despite the fact that she was betrothed to his son, Haemon.

Antigone’s sister, Ismene, so upset over her sister’s fate that she wanted to join her in death, then declared that she had aided her in giving burial rites to Polynices. Creon had Antigone thrown into a sepulcher to die.

But the gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, told Creon that they were unhappy with his decision, so he rescinded his decree of death. Ashamed, he then went to bury Polynices himself and release Antigone from her death sentence.

To his chagrin, she had already hanged herself rather than die slowly while being buried alive. When Creon arrived at her tomb, his son Haemon killed himself over his loss. When Creon’s own wife, Eurydice, found out about the deaths of the young people, she too committed suicide.

After all this death, it may seem that the ancients were trying to say that life itself was meaningless since everything man does ends in tragedy, and it is hopeless to try to escape from that fate. However, the harmful effect of the Achilles heel of pride is the overwhelming message in this ancient story.

In the second chorus of Sophocles’ play, called the “Ode to Man,” the author extols the greatness of mankind, including our intelligence and resourcefulness. “What a wondrous thing is this creature,” he says of human beings. But the greater part of human happiness, he goes on to say, is wisdom, not necessarily our intelligence or inventiveness. This involves the use of judgement and respect for the power of the gods, as the ancient Greeks saw it.

It is pride when Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polyneices both wanted the power of ruling Thebes for themselves. In the end, pride killed them both. Their sister, Antigone, is proud in that she cannot stand to let people see her brother’s body lying in the open, exposed. When she goes against the law that Creon had laid down concerning such bodies, she puts her pride first.

Creon is perhaps the ultimate villain in the story since his pride for the reputation of Thebes caused Polyneices to not be buried properly; it was due to this prideful decision that led to the complete carnage that followed.

Ultimately, Creon dismissed the power of the gods long enough to cause further bloodshed. By the time he realized he was supposed to have heeded their warning, it was too late.

Since the tyrant also tells his son that he is “like a slave” to Antigone and mocks him, Heamon’s own pride wells up, ultimately causing him to commit suicide. Only at the very end of the story and at the end of our own stories does Creon become humbled enough to understand that his mistakes led to catastrophe for many.

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