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Historical Context in Antigone
Antigone belongs to Sophocles’s trilogy of plays set in the ancient city of Thebes. The other two plays are Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) and Oedipus at Colonus. All three plays take place before, during, or after the reign of King Oedipus. Although the events of Antigone take place after the other two plays, Sophocles actually wrote Antigone first. The play follows the structure of a classic Greek tragedy. Traditional Greek tragedies begins with a Chorus, which in this case are a group of Theban elders. As with many Greek tragedies, the action takes place within a single day.
Another key characteristic of Greek tragedy is the tragic hero. This hero must be neither entirely good or entirely bad, but instead display some good characteristics which are coupled with a tragic flaw. Both Antigone and Creon fit this description and serve as tragic figures in this play. In accordance to Greek tradition, this play would have been performed by a troupe of actors at one of two Great Dionysian Festivals held each year. These festivals were central to the cultural life of Ancient Greece, and were hosted at the public expense.
Historical Context Examples in Antigone:
"Or o'er the roaring straits..." See in text (Antigone)
The “roaring straits” here refers to the strait between Boeotia, the region of Thebes, and the island of Euboea.
"And through our streets we Thebans shout, All hall to thee Evoe, Evoe!..." See in text (Antigone)
“Evoe, Evoe!” was the ritual cry in honor of Dionysus, uttered by his ecstatic worshippers.
"In the deep-embosomed glades Of the Eleusinian Queen Haunt of revelers, men and maids, Dionysus, thou art seen...." See in text (Antigone)
The Eleusinian mysteries were initiations held every year in the city of Eleusis in Ancient Greece. While these sacred rituals were primarily for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, Dionysus was also worshipped. With this passage the Chorus once again emphasises the close association between Dionysus and the city of Thebes. Unlike normal Greek religion, the cult of Dionysus promised salvation and paradise after death to believers.
"Thou by many names adored,..." See in text (Antigone)
Dionysus was also known as Bacchus, Iacchus, and Evius, to name just a few of his names. This ode, which anticipates that Creon will remedy the situation and save the day, is a hymn to Dionysus. It emphasizes the universality of his power and, accordingly, lists many places where he is worshipped.
"No human soilure can assail the gods;..." See in text (Antigone)
In this context, “assail” means to insult or attack, while “soilure” means a sinful deed. This statement is an example of Creon’s hubris. He believed that nothing a human could do could be seen as an insult or an attack to the gods. This idea is contrary to traditional Greek piety, but in vogue with 5th-century Athenian humanism and rational thinking.
"Princes of Thebes..." See in text (Antigone)
Thebes is a city in the region of Boeotia in the northern part of mainland Greece. Thebes was one of the most famous cities of ancient times, and is the geographical setting for many myths and legends. In the 5th century BCE, Thebes was a rival to Athens.
"The vengeance by a jealous step-dame..." See in text (Antigone)
Idaea, the second wife of King Phineus, tricked her husband into blinding the sons borne of his first marriage. Later, King Phineus was also blinded. Idaea’s story is another one of the tragedies the Chorus lists to prove that certain families are doomed to tragedy.
"In the wild Thracian land, There on his borders Ares witnessed..." See in text (Antigone)
The Greeks often built temples to the Gods outside the walls of their cities. Ares, the god of war, watches the events “there on his borders.” The presence of war on the outside of the city also suggests the battle of Thebes, which takes place before the events of the play.
"Thus Dryas' child, the rash Edonian King,..." See in text (Antigone)
Lycurgus was the son Dryas and the King of Edoni in Thrace. He denied the godhood of Bacchus and was killed by him as a result. The Chorus use Lycurgus as an example here to show Antigone that even figures of great nobility can be vanquished by the gods.
"Danae, in her brass-bound tower,..." See in text (Antigone)
Danae was a mortal woman who was locked in a room by her father. Zeus was tempted by her beauty and entered her locked room in the form of a golden shower. The result of their union was the hero Perseus. Here, the Chorus describe Danae in her brass-bound tower to demonstrate how everyone is bound or constrained by their fate.
"And thee, O brother, in marriage ill-bestead,..." See in text (Antigone)
Polynices was betrothed to the princess of Argos. Because of this marriage, the King of Argos allowed Polynices to lead the Argive army against Thebes, resulting in both his death and the death of his brother. Antigone includes Polynices’ betrothal in the long list of tragedies that have befallen her family. Most prominently, Antigone connects Polynices’ fate to the tragic fate of her father, Oedipus.
"Take this solace to thy tomb Hers in life and death thy doom...." See in text (Antigone)
The Chorus are not insulting Antigone, although she thinks they are. The Chorus merely reminds Antigone that she is mortal, because it was considered incredibly sinful in Ancient Greece to compare oneself to a god. Such a comparison would be an example of hubris, an excessive pridefulness in which mortals consider themselves godlike. Creon commits hubris by asserting that his laws are of equal or superior importance to divine laws.
"Tantalus' doomed child,..." See in text (Antigone)
Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus and a prominent mythological figure in her own right. Niobe famously boasted to Leto that she fourteen children. This angered Leto, who only had two children, the twins Apollo and Artemis. As punishment for her boastfulness, Apollo killed Niobe’s sons, Artemis killed Niobe’s daughters, and Niobe herself was turned into a stone on Mt. Sipylus. A rock face on Mt. Sipylus does indeed resemble a female face, and is often called ‘the Weeping Rock’ due to the rivulets of water covering its surface. This water is said to be the tears of Niobe who remains in eternal mourning for her lost children. Antigone fears the same fate will befall her.
"With food no more than to avoid the taint That homicide might bring on all the State, Buried alive...." See in text (Antigone)
If Antigone starves to death, she will technically have been murdered. As such, Antigone must be buried with just enough food to stay alive, so that the state cannot be tainted with a homicide. The Greeks thought that such a live burial would not cause the gods to curse the executioners.
"Appeal to Zeus the God of Kindred..." See in text (Antigone)
Zeus was such a major authority that his various roles were separated into different arenas, signalled by different epithets or labels. The God of Kindred is most likely a reference to Zeus Herkeios. Zeus Herkeios was the protector of the family and home (herkos is the Greek word for fence.) Many families had altars to Zeus Herkeios in their homes, where members of a family sacrificed and worshipped together.
"latest of thy brood;..." See in text (Antigone)
Creon's older son, Megareus, died to save Thebes from the Argive army. Haemon is Creon’s youngest child.
"But strewn with dust, as if by one who sought To avert the curse that haunts the unburied dead:..." See in text (Antigone)
The Ancient Greeks believed that when passing an unburied corpse you must show respect by throwing dust over it. If one failed to do so, they would come under a curse from the ghost of the corpse. The guard discovers that the corpse of Polynices has been covered by dust, despite Creon’s order that the body should remain unburied. However, the guard finds no footprints or sign that another person has been present, leading him to think that this is the work of the gods.
"Now that his two sons perished in one day,..." See in text (Antigone)
“His two sons” refers to Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who died on the battlefield.
"I knew you loyal to Laius of old;..." See in text (Antigone)
King Laius was the father of Oedipus and the grandson of Cadmus, the founding father of Thebes. In “Oedipus the King,” Laius is murdered by Oedipus.
"Bacchus, shaker of the ground!..." See in text (Antigone)
Bacchus was a god associated with revelry. He was often invoked in situations of wine and intoxication. He was the son of Zeus and a mortal Theban princess, hence his close association with the city of Thebes.
"Each left behind his armor bright, Trophy for Zeus who turns the fight;..." See in text (Antigone)
The victor in combat often dedicated the spoils of his victory, usually his opponent's armor, to a god in gratitude for the victory. Zeus would be a common choice for this dedication.
"like a war-horse wheeled;..." See in text (Antigone)
In Ancient Greece, chariots were often used in battle. Chariots were small carts on wheels pulled forward by four horses. Chariot racing was also a popular form of entertainment. There were four horses to a chariot, who raced side-by-side. Strategy dictated that chariots always placed the strongest, fastest horse on the right end.
"they turn Forced by the Dragon;..." See in text (Antigone)
Dragon’s teeth play a prominent role in Ancient Greek legend. In the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, dragon’s teeth planted in the ground are said to grow fully-fledged warriors. Dragon’s teeth also appear in the founding myth of Thebes. In this myth, Phoenician prince Cadmus sowed a field with the teeth of a dragon, out of which sprang the citizens of Thebes.
"tombless and unwept..." See in text (Antigone)
The Ancient Greeks believed in the necessity of a proper burial. The omission of burial rites was an insult to basic human dignity. Female relatives of the deceased were primarily involved in conducting the elaborate burial rituals. These rituals included the laying out of the body (prothesis), the funeral procession (ekphora), and the interment or cremation of the body.