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THE STORY OF ANTIGONE.
When the 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 honour 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 honour,
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 Ismené 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
Then Ismené 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 honour; 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 stoning."
"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 honour to this dead corpse."
"What? Wilt thou bury him when the King hath forbidden it?"
"Yea, 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; and 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
must 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 dishonour to the laws of the Gods."
"I dishonour them not. Only I cannot set myself against the powers that
"So be it: but I will bury my brother."
11 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 sceptre 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
honour 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.
But 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 waggon 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 ill 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 together. 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
"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 to-day or yesterday, but they live for ever,
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 indeed."
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."
[Illustration: ANTIGONE AND THE BODY OF POLYNICES.]
And while they went to fetch the maiden Ismené, Antigone said to the
King, "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 own 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
"Yes, truly, my brother he was."
"And dost thou not dishonour him when thou honourest his enemy?"
"The dead man would not say it, could he speak."
"Shall then the wicked have like honour with the good?"
"How knowest thou but that such honour 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
Then those that had been sent to fetch the maiden Ismené 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 Ismené saw that she prevailed
nothing with her sister, she turned to the King and said, "Wilt thou
slay the bride of thy son?"
"Aye," 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 Hæmon, whom I love, how thy father wrongeth
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 Hæmon, 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
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
nought 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 Hæmon 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 own 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 honour them that transgress? And hath not this woman
"The people of this city judgeth 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
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 the 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 the 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 all the
cities, whose sons thou hast made to lie unburied. And now, my child,
lead me home, and let this man rage against them that are younger than
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 burial."
Then the King cried to his people that they should bring bars wherewith
to loosen the doors of the sepulchre, and hasted 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 Hæmon stood with his arms about her dead corpse,
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 drave 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, that was 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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