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How Sophocles Can Help Us In the Age of BLM

One thing the humanities instilled in me was the ability to listen. I’m invited into a conversation, even if I happen to disagree with what’s written. The earliest engagement came from my first semester in my doctoral studies when I read Sophocles’ Theban Cycle, specifically, Antigone. What does a fifth century BCE Greek playwright have to say that could help me be a better listener? That’s a great question.   

The crux of the issue in Antigone revolves around the treatment of the corpse of Polyneices, Antigone’s brother. Contrasted with Polyneices was his brother Eteocles, who fought for the city of Thebes while the former fought against the city, thus garnering a traitor’s status by King Creon. According to law, the burial custom gave honor to the dead and rest for their ghost. What the context of this tragedy reveals is the equal respect for a Grecian citizen regardless of fidelity to the state.

The rebellion of Polyneices against the city of Thebes was undoubtedly a treacherous act. During the rule of Creon, Thebes was defending itself, and during this defense, Polyneices perished. Although, Creon thought Polyneices’ status as a traitor removed from him the honor of a proper burial. Tiresias was careful to point out to Creon that “a dead man’s body left unburied [and] defiled” was a dishonor regardless of the status of patriot or traitor.

The reader can readily sympathize with Creon’s feelings of not wanting to treat a traitor with the same respect as they would a patriot. Creon stated, “Those who are loyal to the city deserve respect when they are alive and every honor when they die.” Regarding Polyneices, Creon pronounced, “His corpse shall be left for carrion birds and dogs to foul and feed on.” His sentiment sounds reasonable. Creon had the authority to “make the laws that apply to both the living and the dead,” a higher law abounded, that of the gods.

Creon reasoned according to what he thought the gods would approve. He said the burial of a traitor was “offensive to heaven” while Antigone maintained that she would suffer “for having shown the laws of heaven reverence.” Creon observed that if the traitor prevailed, he would have likely burned the temples of the gods and their sacred altars. Creon went as far as to swear by Zeus to put to death the one who buried the traitor’s corpse. Therefore, Creon believed he was doing the will of the gods by exposing the traitor’s body.

In religion, the will of the gods always reigns supreme to that of human intellect (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Moreover, at times human intuition based upon a perceived grasp of their god’s holiness and will fails because what they understood to be the will of their god was the complete opposite (cf. Lev. 10:1-3; 1 Chron. 13:9-10; et. al.). Had Creon indeed sought to please the gods, should he not have inquired about the disposal of Polyneices’ body? What is strikingly apparent is that Creon acted based on emotion in declaring his judgment while Antigone acted within the will of the gods. What further vindicated Antigone’s actions were those corroborating interpretations of the gods’ will.

Haemon described Antigone’s deed as a “pious action” thus indicating her adherence to the god, Hades. Even Creon acknowledged her reverence for Hades and his laws in his anger. Creon said she should place her trust in Hades or else learn “that all her piety is useless.” What solidified Antigone’s actions was Tiresias’s words to Creon: “You do not rule over life and death. You cannot keep here what belongs to the gods below, a corpse, unburied, obscene … Therefore, will Furies attend you, relentless avengers dispatched from Hades.”

Perhaps the overarching principle that eluded Creon was that once dead, a person belonged to Hades. To reject Hades’ will by refusing to bury the dead was to reject the collective will of the gods in respect to their realms of dominion. Tiresias seemed to accost Creon’s actions in refusing the gods of the dead by leaving Polyneices’ body open to scavengers. While a man is mighty and influential on earth, he does not rule “Hades’ relentlessness,” but “when he honors the gods’ laws, his city stands proud, but when he ignores them, what of his city?”

In summation, the body of the dead traitor still deserved its due honor to please the gods, specifically Hades, since this was his realm. No clear stipulations appear to justify Creon’s actions and prohibit Antigone’s other than Creon’s mandate, which did not supersede the gods’ laws. Therefore, the dead, patriot or traitor, was to receive equal honor in burial rites.

This tragedy allows the reader to be the proverbial fly on the wall. We hear Creon’s frustration and plan for a traitor, which most of us might agree with, and Antigone’s reverence for the will of the gods. We’re privy to a back-and-forth over the merits of each position only to wonder who is right. Is there an absolute truth? Yes, but it depended on the zeitgeist of ancient Greece. Chief above all to the ancient Greeks was the intertwining of the state and its religion. Unlike our modern separation of church and state, ancient city-states in Greece would have thought such peculiar. The gods were responsible for the city-state’s success, and everyone, even the king, was indebted to them. In their time, the will of the gods reigned supreme. 

For us in the era of Black Lives Matter, we’d do well to listen. As for myself, the will of God, the Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, His will is chief among all. Sadly, not everyone agrees on the validity of the complaints from the black community. It’s because they’re either fueled by bigotry, a political party, or a separate ideology that permits dismissing those griefs. Nevertheless, we can all listen, and we should. 

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