Antigone: The Tragic Heroine of Theban Mythology

In the vast tapestry of Greek mythology, few figures stand out as poignantly as Antigone, the tragic heroine of Thebes. Her tale, woven with threads of defiance, loyalty, and tragic fate, offers a profound exploration of the human spirit and its unyielding commitment to justice.

Antigone Key Facts

ParentsOedipus and Jocasta
SiblingsIsmene, Polynices, and Eteocles
Other namesNone
Roman nameAntigona
Best Known MythDefiance against King Creon

Name and Etymology

Antigone, a name that resonates with defiance and tragedy, has its roots in the Greek language. The name itself can be broken down into “anti,” meaning “against,” and “gone,” meaning “birth” or “generation.” Thus, her name can be interpreted as “against birth” or “in place of a mother,” hinting at her role in the family after the tragic events surrounding her parents. The Romans, ever the admirers of Greek culture, adopted her tale into their own lore, referring to her as “Antigona.” Throughout history, she’s been known by this singular name, without the epithets that many other Greek figures possess.

Antigone’s story is one that has been retold countless times, and with each retelling, her name carries the weight of her tragic defiance. While her Roman counterpart, Antigona, is less frequently mentioned, the essence of her story remains unchanged. The tale of Antigone, regardless of the name used, serves as a timeless reminder of the cost of standing up for one’s beliefs.

Frederic Leighton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Antigone’s Family and Relationships

Born to the ill-fated couple, Oedipus and Jocasta, Antigone’s life was shadowed by the sins of her parents. Oedipus, unknowingly, married his mother Jocasta, and from this union, Antigone and her siblings – Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles – were born. The revelation of this incestuous relationship led to tragic consequences, with Jocasta taking her own life and Oedipus blinding himself.

Antigone’s early years were marked by the exile of her father and the subsequent rule of her brothers in Thebes. However, a dispute between her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, over the throne led to a civil war, ending in their mutual destruction. This tragic event set the stage for Antigone’s defining act of defiance against King Creon, her uncle.

While Antigone’s tale doesn’t revolve around romantic love, her unwavering loyalty to her family, especially her deceased brother Polynices, showcases a profound form of love. Her bond with her sister, Ismene, though tested, also speaks volumes about the depth of her familial ties.

Myths about Antigone

Antigone’s tale is one of profound loyalty, defiance, and tragic consequence. To truly grasp the depth of her story, one must understand the intricate dynamics of her family and the societal norms of ancient Greece.

Defiance against King Creon

The city of Thebes, where Antigone’s story unfolds, was a place of political unrest and familial conflict. After the revelation of the incestuous relationship between her parents, Oedipus and Jocasta, Thebes was left in turmoil. Antigone’s brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, initially agreed to share the throne, ruling alternately. However, Eteocles, once in power, refused to relinquish the throne to Polynices. This betrayal led to a civil war, with both brothers leading opposing factions.

The tragic climax of this sibling rivalry was their mutual destruction; both brothers died by each other’s hand. In the aftermath, their uncle, King Creon, ascended to the throne. Seeking to stabilize Thebes and assert his authority, Creon decreed that Eteocles, who fought for Thebes, would be given a hero’s burial. In stark contrast, Polynices, deemed a traitor for waging war against his city, was to be left unburied, a fate considered to be the ultimate dishonor in ancient Greek society. An unburied soul, according to Greek belief, would be denied passage to the afterlife and would wander restlessly.

Honoring her brother

Antigone, bound by familial love and religious duty, could not bear the thought of her brother’s soul suffering such a fate. She believed that the laws of the gods, which mandated proper burial for the dead, were paramount, transcending the edicts of any mortal ruler. Driven by this conviction, she defied Creon’s decree and buried Polynices, performing the funeral rites to ensure his soul’s peace.

When confronted by Creon, Antigone’s defiance was unwavering. She argued not out of rebellion against the state, but from a deep sense of loyalty to her brother and a firm belief in divine justice. This act of defiance wasn’t just a personal choice; it was a statement, a challenge to the societal norms and the authority of the king.

Creon, in his attempt to establish order and authority, saw Antigone’s actions as a direct challenge. The ensuing conflict between the two wasn’t merely about a burial; it was a clash of ideologies – the individual’s duty to family and gods versus the state’s need for order and authority.

Antigone’s tragic end, imprisoned and eventually taking her own life, serves as a poignant reminder of the personal cost of standing up for one’s beliefs. Her story, while deeply rooted in the cultural and religious fabric of ancient Greece, resonates with timeless themes of duty, defiance, and sacrifice.

Depiction And Characteristics

Antigone, in art and literature, is often depicted as a young woman of noble bearing, her face reflecting the weight of her tragic destiny. She’s frequently shown in the act of burying her brother or in confrontation with King Creon, emphasizing her courage and moral conviction.

Symbols associated with Antigone include the burial urn and the shovel, representing her act of defiance. No specific animals or plants are directly linked to her, but the imagery of the barren, unburied land can be associated with her myth.

Her personality, as gleaned from the myths, is one of unwavering determination and moral integrity. She stands as a beacon of individual conscience against the might of unjust authority. Her actions, driven by love and duty, showcase her as a figure of immense inner strength and conviction.

The Ancient Greeks, while admiring her courage, also saw her as a cautionary figure. Her tale serves as a reminder of the dire consequences that can arise when personal convictions clash with the established order.

Representations Of Antigone In Art

Antigone’s tragic tale has inspired countless artists throughout history. One of the most iconic depictions is the “Antigone and the Body of Polynices” by Nikiforos Lytras, showcasing the poignant moment she defies Creon’s edict.

In sculpture, the “Antigone” by Jean-Baptiste Auguste Clésinger stands out. This marble masterpiece captures the raw emotion and determination of Antigone, emphasizing her noble sacrifice.

Beyond visual arts, her story has inspired many adaptations. Notably, the ancient playwright Sophocles crafted a play about her. Furthermore, numerous modern playwrights have reimagined her timeless tale, each presenting their unique perspective.

Mentions in Ancient Texts

Antigone’s story, with its universal themes of duty, defiance, and tragedy.

Sophocles’ “Antigone”

Written in the 5th century BC by renowned playwright Sophocles, “Antigone” is perhaps the most famous rendition of her story. The play delves deep into the moral dilemmas faced by its titular character. It explores themes of loyalty, duty, and the conflict between individual conscience and state law. A notable quote captures Antigone’s spirit: “I was born to join in love, not hate – that is my nature.”

Euripides’ “The Phoenician Women”

Another perspective on the Theban saga is offered by Euripides in his play “The Phoenician Women,” written around 410 BCE. Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles, often introduced innovative and sometimes controversial interpretations of traditional myths. In this play, while Antigone’s role is secondary, her character is crucial in highlighting the tragic consequences of the family’s cursed lineage. A poignant line from the play reads: “In war, the first casualty is truth.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did Antigone bury her brother?

Antigone believed in the divine law, which dictated that every individual deserved a proper burial. She buried Polynices to ensure his soul’s peace in the afterlife, defying King Creon’s edict.

What was the consequence of her defiance?

In response to her defiant act, King Creon sentenced Antigone to death. Subsequently, they imprisoned her, and she ultimately took her own life.

How is she related to Oedipus?

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. Making her both daughter and sister to Oedipus since they share the same mother.

Who ruled Thebes after the death of her brothers?

After the deaths of Polynices and Eteocles, their uncle Creon assumed the throne of Thebes.

Did Antigone have any love interests?

Antigone’s story primarily focuses on her loyalty to her family. Profound love for her siblings drives her actions, and although there’s no significant romantic subplot, this love remains at the forefront of her motivations.

How does her story end?

Tragically, Antigone ends her own life while imprisoned, adding to the series of tragedies that befall her family.

Featured Image Credit: Nikiforos Lytras, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of which has been merged with She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.