THE honoured king, the darling of his people, the saviour of the city is fallen, worse than dead, lower than slavery! The woes he called down on the man whose crimes had brought the wrath of the gods on Thebes have lighted on his own head, for he, alas! he, the princely Oedipus, is shown to be the homicide, the parricide--nay, worse than parricide--whose crimes have tainted the very heart of Thebes, and made her an abomination in the sight of heaven!
Little did the venturous youth think of the man who lay slain by the wayside, as you come from Pytho to Thebes, when his subtle wit solved the riddle of the Sphinx, and freed the Thebans from dismay and death. Was he worth casting a thought upon, that rude old man who had insulted him beyond endurance? Surely not, his blood be on his own head; Oedipus may revel in the joy he has given to the fair Boeotian land. Is there one face in all the happy town that does not brighten as it looks to him, from the stately queen to
the little child who had been frightened in its sleep with dreams of the dread monster?
The throne of Thebes was vacant, and Kreon, the queen's brother, who was regent, had made proclamation throughout the Achaean land that the widowed queen and all the sovereignty of Thebes should be given to him who should solve the riddle of the Sphinx and free the city from her presence.
The riddle of the Sphinx ran thus:
When the stranger came, and standing boldly in front of the winged torment, declared the answer to be "man," and the Sphinx flung herself down in wrath from her pinnacle of rock, the riddle seemed so simple that everyone wondered how he could have failed to guess it, but not the less did they rival each other in paying honour to the stranger: and he, for his part, an adventurer in search of a home and kindred, was well content to find all he needed in this beautiful city of the plain, rich with tales of heroes, foreign and homebred. The royal heart, which cares for all men and thinks for all men, bade him take this kingless people for his people, and be a true helpmate to the childless and widowed queen. Here he might, perhaps, have chosen otherwise; but Jocasta was a gracious lady, and he would bend his heart to be to her
a noble and a worthy consort, better than him she had lost, of whom men spoke but little, and that darkly.
So the easy years sped by, and white hairs scantly mingled with the brown locks of Oedipus; four children were growing up about him, two strong-willed, venturous boys, and two sweet maidens, on whom his heart rested. Then heavy days came, when Thebes was wasted with pestilence, and the king was helpless to avert it. When the prophet declared that he was himself the pollution which weighed upon the land, and the truth was borne in upon his mind that the insolent stranger whom he had struck down at the cross-roads coming from Phocis was no other than Laius, King of Thebes, for whose unavenged death the Erinnyes were now demanding retribution, then horror was added to horror in the conviction that the king so slain, whom, as a king, he was bound to avenge, was the father to seek whom he had left Korinth and his kind foster-parents, and the unhappy Oedipus was ashamed to look longer on the faces of men. In his frenzy he destroyed the eyes in whose sweet functions he had so much de-lighted, and, poor as he had come into Thebes, he left it alone, but for the company of his dear daughter Antigone, who clung to him in his agony, guiding his weary steps, until at last his sorrows were hidden from the upper world and the earth opened to receive him at Kolonus, in Attica.
When Oedipus was dead, Antigone returned again
to Thebes, where her brothers, Eteokles and Polynices, now grown to man's estate, were about to assume the government. Antigone would have been well pleased if they could have been content to rule conjointly, as the Herakleidae in after ages ruled at Sparta, but this the young men were too haughty to assent to; therefore they agreed to rule year by year in turn, and Eteokles, as the elder, was to rule his year first. Now though neither of the brothers had done anything to succour their ill-fated father, but rather blamed him for the curse on their race, yet they were not insensible to the virtue of Antigone, and they made her royally welcome, and strove with each other which should show her most honour; and it may be that her presence in Thebes inclined them more readily to peaceful counsels, and made them think shame of merely selfish ends.
So Eteokles sat in the seat of Oedipus, and Polynices went abroad to study men and manners, and to seek adventures in the fair Achaean land.
Then for two years the life of Antigone was happy and but little troubled with care. She was as a queen in Thebes, for Ismene, her sister, readily yielded to her more royal nature, and walked by her counsel; while every citizen, from Kreon, the aged, to the stripling who had scarcely reached manhood, honoured and loved her. At the end of the first year Polynices came joyfully home to take his year of sovereignty, sunburnt and strong from his travels.
[paragraph continues] Eteokles cheerily gave way to him, and set out in his turn to see the places and the men of which Polynices had so much to say.
All too happy, all too short were the twelve months during which Polynices was King of Thebes, all too soon arrived the appointed day when Eteokles came home again, weary with his voyaging. Happy as he was in his native town and among his kindred, Polynices duly surrendered the throne to his brother, but he waited to do honour to the betrothal of his sister Antigone to Haemon, the youngest and the noblest of the sons of Kreon; then he departed, not so willingly as before, but with good purpose of leaving the government in the hands of his brother, according to their covenant. But the second year of the reign of Eteokles wanted the grace of the first--the king was moody, sometimes almost despotic, so that men began to look with longing to the time when the spring should bring Polynices home again; and when flowers were starring the grassy plains of the Asopus, back came the gallant Polynices, eager for his home and kindred. But the curse of Oedipus was working, and the gods perverted the mind of Eteokles, so that he flatly refused to do his brother right, and strengthening himself with evil counsellors drove him not only from Thebes, but from the whole land, as though he had been a public enemy, not the brother who had grown up with him at the knees of the same parents.
Dishonoured and cheated of his rights, Polynices
set his face southward, no longer a light-hearted traveller seeking into the manners and customs of men, and eager to make himself famous by his deeds of prowess, or by his well-weighed words, but an angry man whose soul was darkened by a bitter wrong done him by the one upon earth whom of all men he had most delighted to love and honour: southward he journeyed, silent and solitary, eating where food chanced to offer itself and sleeping in a cave or by a murmuring brook, but shrinking from the homes of chieftains and the temples of the gods, or any place to which men resort: and so it came about that his weary way at last led him, when now the light was waning, and the crescent moon hung like a silver bow in the dark sky, to the courtyard of a stately palace, and perchance, though the night was coming on, he might have turned aside to avoid the eyes of men; but while he stood uncertain, there came brushing past him another man armed like himself and solitary, to whom Polynices spoke angrily, bidding him keep to his own side of the road; but the stranger answered his fierce words with words fiercer still, and words led to blows, so that these two men, who had never before looked each other in the face, and each of whom was in sore need of a friend, fell to belabouring each other with such a will that the sound of the blows pierced into the palace where the king sat at meat, and he came forth himself with his attendants to see what unmannerly strangers were quarrelling at his gates.
It was Adrastus, son of Talaus, a wise prince, in the prime of manhood: at the sound of his voice the two young men dropped their swords, and looked abashed upon the ground. Adrastus glanced from one to the other, and his wrath changed into kindly admiration, till as he perused their armour, amazement took possession of his mind.
"Tell me your names, ye noble youths," he exclaimed, "for verily I see on the shield of the one a bear, and on that of the other a lion; truly your coming hither hath been foretold by an oracle, and happy hours await you here. Be friends, then, and tell me each his name."
"I am Tydeus, of Kalydon," said the one.
"I am of Thebes, and my name is Polynices," said the other.
Then Adrastus took them both by the hands and greeted them kindly, bidding them be friends to him and to each other, seeing that they were both suffering the pains of exile through the misdeeds of others, and telling them that he could feel for them since he had himself also been a stranger in a strange land, when Amphiaraus slew his father, and he had to fly for his life; so he bad them be of good cheer, for Phoebus Apollo himself had charged him to make ready for them, and to do his utmost to avenge them on their enemies. These kindly words of the king greatly lightened the hearts of the young men, and when they found themselves in the well-lighted hall, and
were able to see each other, they were greatly rejoiced that Adrastus had stopped a quarrel which bade fair to end in the death of one or other, and they conceived a mighty affection for each other, and from henceforth to their dying clay could never see enough of each other or do enough for each other. And Adrastus for his part could not make enough of them, and, obeying the voice of the oracle, he gave to them in marriage his two daughters, and set himself to strain nerve and sinew to restore them, each to his own land.
It was glad news to Ismene and Antigone, the anxious princesses in Thebes, that their outcast brother had found favour in the sight of a prince so famous as Adrastus of Argos, and that he had received as his bride the fair young Argeia, daughter of Adrastus; but their joy was soon darkened by other tidings which followed quickly, of forging of armour, of building of chariots, of marshalling of armies and gathering of chieftains, who rose throughout the Achaean and the Apian land 7 at the bidding of Polynices and Tydeus, who journeyed together from court to court seeking allies and winning golden opinions from all men; for they solemnly called upon every freeborn man who loved the right to aid them in returning to the homes whence they had been unjustly driven--Polynices to Thebes and Tydeus to Kalydon; and when the goodly host was gathered and solemn sacrifice made, the two warriors, Tydeus and Polynices, at the bidding of their father-in-law, flung each his lot into a whirling helmet
to see which should first be righted, and the lot of Polynices leapt forth first. Then they set forth, a gallant armament, and when they came to the grassy valley of the reedy Asopus, they halted, and taking counsel, despatched Tydeus to Thebes formally to demand the restoration of Polynices. When Tydeus came to Thebes, he found Eteokles banqueting among his nobles and boldly did his message; as he well expected, Eteokles haughtily refused to surrender the throne, and spoke of his brother as though he had been a foreign enemy invading his country, and of himself as a patriot ready to risk life and limb in her defence; whereat the noble Tydeus waxed wrathful, and though alone and a stranger, he was no way cowed by the haughty bearing of the Kadmeians, but he challenged them to try their strength with him--to wrestle, to run, or to drive the chariot, and all who offered themselves he easily overcame, so well had he profited by the lessons of Athena, his patroness. Then the men of Thebes were wrathful above measure, and fifty young men lay in wait for him as he came out of the city journeying back from his useless errand: but Tydeus, in no way dismayed, set his back against a tree and dealt about him so lustily that of all the fifty but one, Maeon, the son of Haemon, returned home to tell the tale.
Now all these things grieved the soul of Antigone, to whom honour and justice were dearer than life; but when the invading army came pouring into the plain,
where the sons of Amphion met their death on account of the haughty spirit of Niobe, their mother; when strange helmets flashed and spears glittered among the flowers; bitter woe and dread of evil to come cleft her heart, so that she could find no comfort, but wandered from shrine to shrine with offerings to appease the godheads, bowed in speechless supplication before them that they would avert the evil, or else she mounted the battlements and there descried by their devices the forms of the invading princes.
There she learnt to know the noble Adrastus, who in obedience to the gods had left his home in Argos to do right to Polynices, his son-in-law; the brave Tydeus, whose sword had already drank so deeply of Theban blood; Amphiaraus, the wise prophet, who had come much against his will on this errand; the young Parthenopaeus, the one son of the huntress Atalanta; the impetuous Kapaneus, who had sworn that spite of Zeus himself he would scale the walls; and Hippomedon, son of Taläus.
The ancient city of Thebes lies between the streams of Dirce and Ismarus, which flowing through deep ravines guard it on two sides; the walls of Amphion gird it at either end with three gates at the northern, four at the southern end; making the seven gates, which have given it its name of seven-gated Thebes.
These seven gates were at once pitched upon by the invaders as the chief points of attack, and, as it
chanced that there were seven chiefs, each chief with his powers encamped against a gate, eager to force an entrance; but the men of Thebes, the gallant Kadmeians, were no whit daunted, and Eteokles was busy night and day going from post to post, making the most of a bad cause and reminding them that the gods had promised that not in this generation should the walls of Thebes be overthrown. He stationed his bravest captains at the gates, and himself took charge of the Hypsistae, because there Polynices himself was in the field.
When the day of battle came and the seven gates were assailed at one time, the princesses, Antigone and Ismene, received with trembling anxiety the tidings of the fray. Fierce and deadly was the fight, when from the seven gates the seven Theban captains charged with the shock of an earthquake; Kapaneus at the Elektrae had already set his foot upon the wall when Jove, whom he had defied, smote him with his lightning and hurled him blazing to the earth. Amphiaraus and Tydeus were both slain in the melee, and of all the invaders Adrastus alone escaped, being saved by the speed of his good horse Areion; but the gladness of the victory was destroyed, for Eteokles, the king, rushing from the Hypsistae, met Polynices his brother in mid career; and so fierce was the charge that the sons of Oedipus lay side by side in the dust, slain each by the hand of his brother.
The invading army deprived of its leaders melted
like a snow-wreath from before the city, and Kreon, son of Menoekus, once more assumed the government. The sons of Oedipus are dead (so thought Antigone in her sorrow), the curse is accomplished, and perhaps Death, the healer of strife, may have made them friends again, and in the shadowy fields, whither the august spirit of Oedipus is gone, his two fair sons may be once more united in a bond of brotherly love. So the sisters mourned and prepared the funeral rites, the honey cakes and wine, the locks of flowing hair, the black robes, offerings fit to appease the spirits of heroes who have parted in anger. But, alas! it is not to end thus. The curses that hang over the house of Oedipus are not yet worn out; Polynices died in arms against his native town, and a horrible idea of justice takes possession of Kreon, forgetful of the wrongs which had driven him to take up arms against Thebes. The first use he makes of his royal authority is to make proclamation that Eteokles shall be buried with all honour, because he met his death in defence of his country; but that Polynices, whose body had been brought within the gates by his pitying countrymen for his sisters to see, should be flung out again upon the open field, to be torn by wolves and birds of prey.
When this cruel proclamation was reported to Antigone, her soul flamed up with indignation; in life, she had loved her brothers with an equal love, or if latterly she had inclined more to Polynices, it was only the
sense of his wrong that made her thoughts dwell more on him; now that they were dead, she would have mourned for both alike, but the dishonour put upon Polynices drew all her care to him. She angrily remonstrated with Kreon, and declared that, woman though she was, she would find means to bury him, if she carried the earth in the folds of her veil; and she strove to work upon Ismene her sister to join her in defying the king. But Ismene was of a soft and timid temper, and much as she loved Antigone, she feared the king's anger; and worn with many sorrows, would fain have persuaded her sister not to risk her life for an injustice which was not of her doing, but which the gods would surely avenge on Kreon.
Kreon, finding that the proclamation by which he had intended to show his patriotism and justice was not received by the Thebans with favour, but that many were disposed to sympathize with Antigone, became obstinate--as men of narrow minds are wont to do, if opposed--and refused to soften in any degree his sentence; and knowing the resolute temper of Antigone, he caused the body of Polynices to be flung out on the plain outside the city, and set sentries to watch that no one should approach it; adding a fresh proclamation that any one daring to inter the body of Polynices, who died in arms against his country, should be stoned to death.
All night long the sentries kept watch, pacing wearily backwards and forwards between the city and
the spot where the body lay, and the dark hours passed slowly; but when at length the day dawned and the fresh sentries came to relieve guard, and they looked about for the body of the slain prince, it was nowhere to be seen; at first they supposed that some wild beast had dragged it away, and sought about in consternation, but they presently became aware that the poor corpse lay just where it had been thrown, only that some kindly hand had covered it from head to foot with sand, even as wayfarers are wont to cover the body of a strange mariner wrecked on the shore; and while then were still gazing in wonder at this bold act, a voice so loud and clear that it seemed to the poor soldiers who heard it like the voice of a god, and they bowed their heads to the ground before it, bade them at once report to Kreon what they had seen, and attempt no concealment.
As no better course suggested itself to them, the night sentries drew lots, and he on whom the lot fell went, sorely against his will, to report to the king that his mandate had been defied. Kreon, dreadfully enraged at the contempt of his decree, bade the messenger begone, threatening him with terrible vengeance if he did not discover who it was that had dared to set at naught his authority; and the man glad to escape alive and sound of limb, returned to his watch, and sweeping off the sand from the body laid it bare to the sun, then sitting down under a hill to avoid the stench, waited with his fellows until noon was past; but when it was
now high noon and the heat was intense, there arose a fearful whirlwind, sweeping a cloud of blinding dust before it, so that the men were glad to bow their heads and endure the misery.
The whirlwind was scarcely past when a sharp cry of agony smote their ears, a cry as of a mother-bird robbed of her little ones, and looking up they beheld beside the body of the prince a woman, holding a sacrificial vessel in her hand, and kneeling in despair beside the uncovered corpse. Thrice with loud weeping and lamentation she poured the sacrificial mixture of honey and wine upon the dead, then in eager haste gathered the dust in her hands and began to heap it on the body; but the guards, recovered from their surprise, rushed upon her, and seizing her by the arm beheld with amazement and dismay that it was no other than the princess Antigone. But the sentries chosen by Kreon were of the baser Theban type, and preferred a whole skin and the favour of the monarch to the suggestions of sympathy and virtue, and stifling such self-reproaches as their dulled consciences made to them, they dragged the unresisting lady to the palace gates.
When the eyes of Kreon rested on the culprit as she stood before him, her eyes cast upon the ground, her thin hands folded, and her fair hair unbound, the thought of her dead mother, his once beloved sister Jocasta, and of Antigone herself, a winning little damsel playing about the palace, came back upon him, so that for a moment he pitied her, and as it were to
open a loophole of escape, he asked her if she knew of his decree.
"I knew it well," said Antigone, slowly raising her truthful eyes to his and looking him in the face. "I could not fail to know it, it was public enough." "And knowing it to be my law, my decree, you dared to disobey it!" "Yea, for it bore not the stamp of highest Jove, the one true lawgiver, nor yet of Justice, who dwelleth with the gods below; and know, O king, that no ordinance of thine which runs counter to the unwritten and infallible laws of the gods, which are not of to-day, but for all time, can weigh with me. Thou threatenest me with death; hadst thou not threatened it, death will assuredly overtake me, and my lot in life has not been so enviable that I should think an untimely death other than a gain. But if I had left the body of my dear brother and sweet playfellow unburied, should I not have grieved those who are gone below, with whom I must dwell for all time?"
Incensed at the calm defiance of this speech, Kreon inquired how she who professed such respect for the dead, dared insult the brother who had died in defence of his native town, by showing equal honour to the parricide who had brought a foreign army to sack it?
"Ye have shown all honour to the gallant Eteokles," replied Antigone; "but as for me, Polynices also is my brother. I am bound to honour both alike, and it may be that in the house of Hades whither they are gone, events and acts are not judged as they are judged
here. I can love with you, uncle, but I cannot hate with you."
As she thus spake, forth from the palace came Ismene in sad distress at her sister's danger, and when Kreon charged her with being party to the act of Antigone, she would have taken the blame of it, but this Antigone would not permit, seeing that when she had invited her assistance she had timidly shrunk back. But now Ismene, orphaned of both parents, bereaved of both brothers, clung with desperate fondness to her one sister, and when rejected by Antigone, who would not involve her in her ruin, her timid nature waxed bold from despair, and turning to Kreon, she bade him remember that Antigone was the affianced wife of Haemon, his son; but this appeal wrought nothing on Kreon's stubborn nature, for, to say truth, he had never thought it well to affiance his son to one of the house of Oedipus, seeing that from their birth they were all accursed, and Ismene only injured her sister's cause by her appeal, for Kreon angrily replied that there would be no difficulty in finding a bride for Haemon, and bade the guards at once remove her, as they had already removed Antigone; indeed, he seemed only to be the more confirmed in his resolution to leave the body of the unhappy Polynices a prey to birds and beasts, and to destroy by a cruel death the princess whose devoted love won her the admiration of all but the miserable slaves who executed the orders of the king.
Scarcely had the weeping Ismene been dragged from his presence, when the young Haemon, having heard of the danger of his betrothed, came in hot haste to endeavour to save her, and by gentle words of persuasion and entreaty strove to turn Kreon aside from his purpose, representing the strong feeling of sympathy with Antigone among the people, and the hatred he would incur if, at the opening of his reign, he sacrificed to his arbitrary will a citizen so honoured and so beloved; but when Kreon hardened his heart and would not yield, the young man waxed wrathful, and declared that so far was Antigone from deserving punishment or even censure for her act, that she was worthy of a golden honour and of imitation through all time. These words so kindled the wrath of Kreon, that he threatened to make Haemon witness the death of his betrothed, upon which the young man's soul burnt with indignation, and he rushed away declaring that he would never look upon his father's face again.
Then Kreon, in greater wrath than ever, resolved to execute at once on the princess the cruel sentence he had passed upon her, and she was dragged from the arms of her sister and from the home of her childhood, where she had seen so much of joy and so very much of grief, to a cave in the side of a hill and there entombed alive, alas! poor lady, with a cruse of water and a loaf of bread, sad mockery of funeral rites for one so young and fair; and that there might be no
doubt as to the exact carrying out of the sentence, Kreon himself saw it executed in all its details.
When he was but newly returned from this act, Kreon was summoned to receive the prophet Teiresias, the man who was never known to utter a prediction that was not fulfilled, whose mouth had declared the cause of the pestilence that wasted Thebes, when Oedipus was king, and had unravelled all the woful mystery of his accursed life. Worn with age and blind, the prophet was come on a message of mercy and of warning, his eyes, insensible to objects which filled the eyes of ordinary men, beholding coming events pregnant with horror, events which it was still in Kreon's power to mould. And first he declared the insult to the body of Polynices a thing hateful to the gods, and that no victim would be received, no favourable omen given, while that poor corpse lay a prey to every ravenous creature, winged or four-footed.
Kreon, embittered at finding the aged and honoured prophet against him, relieved his heart by hurling back at him bitter jibes and base reproaches, until the prophet raised his terrible voice and declared that the sun would not set until he should himself be wailing over the dead in his own household, seeing that he had outraged the gods below by denying them their due rites, and roused against himself and his own house the terrible Erinnyes, who were even now working out vengeance on him and on the city for the wrongs done to the slain.
When the old prophet had tottered away, shaken by the terror of his own prophecies, the heart of Kreon began to fail him, and he began to distrust his own judgment, and to think that perhaps the prophet might be right, and that, though Polynices had died in arms against his country, it might have been well to remember the wrongs which had driven him to that course, and to hide the memory of the brothers' quarrel in equal funeral rites; and his repentance, being as hasty as his wrath, he summoned his attendants, and went with all speed to render the too long delayed rites to Polynices, and buried what remained of his poor body in the earth, pouring honey and wine, according to custom, and heaping the kindly earth over him.
This done, he proceeded to the hill side to deliver Antigone from her living tomb, but he came alas! too late. Haemon was there before him, and, burning with love and indignation, had forced the opening of the cave, and won a way to his beloved. But even he had come too late, for Antigone, who had borne so much horror and sorrow for her father and her brother, had lost heart, and, shuddering at the slow agonies of the living death to which she was condemned, had with hasty hand assailed her own life, and rashly set free her pure spirit. Thus, when Haemon forced his way to her, and let the light of day into the cavern, it was a dying woman whom he strained to his breast, and failing eyes that were feebly lifted to his.
Then the prophecy of Teiresias was indeed fulfilled, for Haemon, hopeless and despairing, drew his sword and plunged it into his own heart, so that when Kreon reached the cave the moans of his dying son, in death bewailing his beloved, smote upon his ears.
Thus in the flower of her youth perished Antigone, pious and beautiful, passing to the shades below by an act too rash, but worn with the sense of the dread Até 8 which afflicted her house. And the gods below may have been gentle in their judgment, for surely she had been sorely tried, and, wherever filial piety and sisterly love are held in honour, the name of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, should be spoken with reverence.