Eteocles and Polynices fought and killed each other. Creon exposed the dead body of Polynices and refused to give it a decent burial. He violated the law of man and the law of the gods. To the ancient Greeks, reverence for the dead was a sacred duty, the violation of which would entail the wrath of the gods.
All the dead, however, were not treated alike. A brother was considered far more important than other relations. Some passages from Swinburne’s The Atalanta in Calydon may be quoted to illustrate our point. It is universally admitted that Swinburne had largely drawn upon the Greek myths and legends. Althea, the mother was angry with her son Meleagar, who had killed Toxeus, and Plexippus, two of her brothers. She made a fatal decision to throw the firebrand, which would kill Meleager. Recalling the sweet memories of the past, Althea spoke feelingly about her dead brothers :
“I would I had died for these :
For this man dead walked with me, child by child,
And made weak staff for my feebler feet
With his own tender wrist and hand.”
While consoled by the Chorus that she had her son and husband Althea replied:
“Who shall get brothers for me while I live?
Who bear them? Who bring forth in lieu of these?
Are not our fathers and our brethren one,
And no man like them?”
She clinched the issue:
“For all things else and all men may renew;
Yea, Son for son the god may give and take.
But never a brother or sister any more.”
After having thrown the brand into the flame she did cry out in deep agony and despair. And yet the brothers got the upper hand in the long run. Psychologically, it is unusual that to a woman brothers can be dearer to her son. One familiar with the Greek myths knows that a brother is dearer than a son.
Antigone chose to die for her brother. And she spoke in the same vein as Althea.
“O but I would not have done the forbidden thing
For any husband or for any son.
For why? I could have had another husband.
And by him other sons, if one were lost;
But, father and mother lost, where would I get
Another brother? For thus preferring you,
My brother, Creon condemns me and hales me away.
Never a bride, never a mother, unfriended;
Condemned alive to solitary death.”
Antigone would not have liked to expose herself to such a grave risk were Polynices anybody other than her brother. She told Ismene :
“To bury my own brother
And thine, even though wilt not do thy part,
I will not be a traitress to my kin.”
She told Creon:
“But had I suffered my own mother’s child,
Fallen in blood, to be without a grave,
That were indeed a sorrow.”
She asked him :
“Yet where could I have found a fairer fame
Than giving burial to my own true brother?”
A brother, from the Greek point of view was closer than a son or even a husband. The mother does not have the blood of the son, nor does she share the blood with the husband. It is the question of consanguinity. What Bowra says in his Romantic Imagination in connection with Althea is equally applicable to Antigone :
“Behind this apparently inhuman and sophisticated argument lies a deep Greek conviction that identity of blood through common parents is a closer and a more binding tie than marriage or motherhood.”
Now we are faced with a serious problem. And the problem has been posed by John Jones:
“How can Antigone’s soul be called stainless once she has betrayed herself with these ignoble admissions : first, that she would not have defied Creon’s edict if the relative lying unburied had been a husband or child instead of a brother, se Polynices’ singular claim rests in the fact that he is her only surviving brother, and, unlike husband or child, irreplaceable?”
Goethe looks upon Antigone as a “stainless soul”. She will obey the dictates of her conscience and submit only to the majesty of the divine law. Goethe, therefore, feels justifiably shocked at the Speeches of Antigone in which she places the brother much higher than even a son or a husband. He seeks to exonerate Antigone by describing the offending passages as spurious or interpolations. It has baffled Goethe that Antigone should make a distinction between one relation and another. She knew as much as any ancient Greek did that it was an impious and barbarous act to leave a dead body uncared for. It was inhuman and detestable to deprive the dead of the tomb. The answer to the problem has been ably given by Bowra :
“She (Antigone) is moved by an intense love for her brother, a feeling that her relation to him is unique and demands a special loyalty. So she explains herself in this unsophisticated, even primitive way. At heart what moves her is a deep sense of kinship and what is owed to it.”
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