Antigone: Death and Womanhood

Marina Abramović, Self Portrait with Skeleton, 2003

There is a divine intimacy between women and death in our understanding of Greek antiquity. I am not the first to make this claim and it’s unlikely I’ll be the last. Women are as intimately associated with the gestures of death and mourning in the eyes of classicists as they are with the rites and deities of the khthónios — the underworld. Perhaps the saturation of scholarship on this niche of ancient society can be accounted for by the general poverty of evidence concerning much else in the lives of Greek women,[1] but it’s worth contending with the possibility — as many have[2] — that the Greek association of femininity and mortality has a certain resonance with contemporary readers, either by merit of mere literary influence or some essential metaphysical veracity, which makes this connection particularly attractive to us in both our historical and aesthetic reading of Greek culture. With the question of death and womanhood in mind, then, I turn my attention to an interrogation of how this relation functions in the finest tragic treatment of the subject in ancient literature bar none; namely, Sophocles’ Antigone. In the notes to follow I seek not to speculate on how this tragedy might inform our understanding of women’s involvement in Greek funerary rites but, instead, to read in Antigone the drama of a particular Greek woman’s relationship with death, that is Death itself, and the gods, mythos, and theological-political sentiments associated therewith.

By way of context, Antigone was written sometime in the mid-fifth century B.C. at a time when Athenian society was embroiled in fervent nationalism and military tension. It was the first of three plays popularly known as the Theban Cycle written despite taking place last according to the events of the trilogy. Antigone follows the trials of its titular protagonist, Antigone daughter of Oedipus, as she attempts to offer proper burial rites to her brother, Eteocles, the latter’s rotting body having been left exposed to be picked apart by vultures as punishment by decree of the reigning tyrant Creon for his having unsuccessfully tried to conquer the Theban kingdom. Antigone is brought before Creon twice after being caught attempting to give her brother’s body a symbolic burial; at the first meeting she is imprisoned, at the second she is sentenced to be buried alive in a cave. Tiresias, Creon’s prophetic advisor, convinces the king to free Antigone and bury Eteocles at risk of angering the gods, but it is too late: Antigone has hanged herself, and Creon’s son — Antigone’s heartbroken fiancé — is dead at her side, also by his own hand. Returning to the palace Creon learns that his wife, Eurydice, has also taken her own life upon learning of the death of her son. The play ends with Creon overcome by despair, defeated by the vengeance of gods.

Continuing this train of thought, one will find through even a cursory reading of the tragedy that the gods most frequently invoked by Antigone are those of the underworld. Indeed, Creon is keen to direct our attention to this habit as he compels his son to abandon the latter’s would-be bride: “Spue and cast her off, / Bid her go find a husband among the dead [in Hades’ house]” (Ant. 651–52[3]). Later, condemning her to the cave where she is to be buried alive, Creon again mocks Antigone’s chthonic piety: “There let her pray to the one god she worships: / Death” (778–79), and she herself references her intimacy with Persephone soon after (894; “Persephassa” in Sophocles’ dialect). Antigone’s devotion to Hades (the “chthonian Zeus,” as he was sometimes known) represents a foil to the inverted, celestial piety of Creon, who is oft to pronounce his reverence of the “dread of Zeus” (302), a god whose political authority Antigone stubbornly denies (450). The tragedy in this manner presents us with a curious dichotomy; namely, the feminine-chthonic as contrasted against the masculine-celestial.

It’s true that this model may appear to some as a kind of tired theological trope; that men are of the sky while women are of the earth is by now a well-documented classical pattern of association.[4] And yet to recognize the feminine in antiquity as terrestrial is one thing; to recognize it as chthonic (worse: infernal), one might protest, is a different claim entirely. With a sympathy for this distinction in mind, then, we return to our initial claim that death and womanhood are conceptually intimate within the Greek imagination. The plot of Antigone happens to hinge on the custom which best exemplifies this association: the duty placed on Greek women to clean the body of predeceased family members and prepare them for burial. Over the course of this intricate process female relatives would “bathe the body, anoint it with oil, dress and adorn it with flowers, wreaths, ribbons and jewelry.”[5] Following the cleaning they would arrange the procession of the body to the grave, organize funerary visitations, and mark the conclusion of mourning.[6] Greek women also had an explicitly emotional dimension to their funerary duties; archaeological evidence indicates that following the preparation of the corpse for burial it was the women who were responsible for its mourning. Female attendants were thus known weep to excess and tear out their hair per the demands of ritual.[7] Parallel burdens of mourning seem to be found among women in ancient cultures elsewhere in the Near East and Africa.[8]

How are we to account for this pattern, and to what extent is Antigone’s chthonic devotion attributable to it? The most immediate explanation is a kind of association of opposites: women are identified with death by virtue of their organic identification with birth. In accordance with an archaic understanding of the cyclical nature of death and rebirth,[9] one might argue, traditional societies deemed it appropriate that the social actor most responsible for the procedures of death and burial be a kind of maternal stand-in, or else a prelude to the maternal figure one is bound to soon encounter in the succeeding life.[10] The question of Antigone’s relationship to childbirth in itself is a fascinating one.[11] Let it suffice to say for our purposes, though, that given the responsibility of ancient Greek women in matters of mourning one can imagine that the death of her brother would have recalled Antigone’s position as a woman to the fore of her mind, creating a certain psychic associative chain linking the death of Eteocles (and, more immediately, the object of his corpse) with her own femininity.

In this capacity, Antigone’s reverence for the chthonic gods carries much more significance than a merely mournful, macabre gesture of identification. To the extent that it reminds one of her feminine funerary obligations, rather, the underworld is in itself — for Antigone and perhaps many women in ancient Greek society — an essentially feminine dimension of sacred reality by virtue of its association with death, dually literal and theological.

There is, however, another aspect to Antigone’s chthonic piety which is rarely considered in the context of her femininity despite the renewed attention it’s received in recent scholarship. Here I allude to Antigone’s relationship with “antiquity”: the concept writ large, that is, in subjective reference to an archaic, distant, and (often) mythic past. The protagonist’s use of language, which we might describe recklessly as “antiquated” even by contemporaneous standards, is perhaps the most obvious indication that her very presence in the tragedy is meant to appear to us as somehow anachronistic or belated; philologists have noted that her use of the concept of philos, for instance, is outdated or “even Homeric,”[12] limited as it is to one’s immediate blood relatives rather than the community at large as in the more contemporaneous, Attic sense.

Indeed, Antigone’s apparent privileging of familial bonds over (proto-)democratic[13] jurisprudence can be understood in itself as a basically reactionary gesture if only in the sense that it prizes, as Bonnie Honig puts it, a fidelity to “clan over polis,” giving expression to an aristocratic anxiety that the ideals of democracy offered “only a pretense of the memorialization and honor [for the dead] that they deserve, a pathetic substitute for the real (Homeric/heroic) thing that only their families or clans, but not the democratic polis, can provide.”[14] One must acknowledge here that the ancient, clan-based dimension of Antigone’s opposing allegiances and her deference therein is as much rooted in her femininity as is her relation to death and the underworld. Put more precisely, Antigone’s responsibility in the burial of her brother is as contingent on her status as Eteocles’ immediate female relative as it is in on her femininity writ large, as discussed above. Understood, then, in relation to this assumption that one’s perception of death would have been linked inextricably with one’s subjectivity as a woman we can thus arrange, alongside Antigone, an associative ring wherein death — that of Eteocles in particular — is linked to femininity, which in turn is linked to an imagined pre-democratic, Homeric-mythic, and clan-organized antiquity, which in itself is linked to death and the khthónios, and so on. Through this lens Antigone’s allegiance to the gods of death represents the tenacity (or—you’ll forgive me—vengeance) of myth, of the forgotten epoch of aristocratic eminence and divine immediacy, all of which is grounded for our protagonist at the site of her feminine subjectivity.

Reading the final scenes of the tragedy with these associations in mind the horrors of Antigone’s vindication and Creon’s subsequent downfall seem to take on a moralizing, nearly prophetic tone. We are warned, in the language of this bloodshed, of the dangers that accompany abandoning the myths of one’s (political, familial) heritage. What is the man who abandons the gods of antiquity, the gods of death? Creon’s last words stand as our reminder: he is “a cipher, less than nothing” (1321). One reads Sophocles’ tragedy, then, and leaves it with a newfound reverence — a trembling, terrible reverence — for death.

[1] Hame, Kerri J. “Female Control of Funeral Rites in Greek Tragedy: Klytaimestra, Medea, and Antigone.” Classical Philology, vol. 103, no. 1, 2008: 2.

[2] See for instance Evy Johanne Håland’s Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece: Writing History from a Female Perspective. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

[3] Citations refer to the Loeb edition.

[4] See Teresa del Valle, Gendered Anthropology, Routledge, 1993 108.

[5] Kurtz, Donna C., and John Boardman. Greek Burial Customs. 1973: 143

[6] Hame, Kerri J. “Female Control of Funeral Rites in Greek Tragedy: Klytaimestra, Medea, and Antigone.” Classical Philology, vol. 103, no. 1, 2008: 1.

[7] Kurtz, 144

[8] Håland, Evy Johanne, ed. Women, Pain and Death: Rituals and everyday life on the margins of Europe and beyond. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009: 21

[9] The question of what influence the Orphic mystery tradition and the ideas around reincarnation contained therein might have had on Antigone are fascinating and merit a separate essay in themselves.

[10] This theory gels well with Demosthenes’ claim that only older women aged sixty and above would typically be permitted near the corpse with the exception of immediate family members. See Kurz, 144.

[11] Look, for instance, to where Antigone references her own birth as a kind of “blasphemy” (Ant. 300).

[12] Davis, Clifford. “The Abject: Kristeva and the Antigone.” Paroles gelées 13.1, 1995: 14.

[13] See Wilmer, Stephen Elliot, and Audronė Žukauskaitė, eds. Interrogating Antigone in postmodern philosophy and criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010: 123.

[14] Honig, Bonnie. Antigone, interrupted. Cambridge University Press, 2013: 97.

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J. N.

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