Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Stephanie E. Chamberlain
"It's best to keep the established laws": Antigone's Act of Cultural Conformity
Stephanie E. Chamberlain is currently a doctoral student at Purdue University, specializing in Renaissance literature. Her dissertation addresses the limits of social conformity in Renaissance England, with emphasis on Shakespeare.
The scene is poignantriveting, one which continues to fascinate. Under a bright mid-day sun, Antigone wildly flings handfuls of dirt on the rotting corpse of her slain brother in what appears to be overt defiance of Creon's express decree that Polyneices remain unburied. When confronted by her incredulous uncle, she unflinchingly defends her action, declaring that "great unwritten, unshakable traditions" (505) take precedence over the laws of the state. Critics have invariably read these "unwritten" laws as divine ordinances, concluding that in choosing to bury Polyneices, Antigone chooses to obey a higher authority. These unwritten laws are, however, inscribed in the everyday practices of Sophocles's culture, customs ritually enacted to preserve the social order. Creon's decree forbidding this customary ritual constitutes a severe disruption of the established social system. Ultimately, Antigone's burial of Polyneices proves less an act of civil defiance than conformity to cultural code.
Critical debate concerning Polyneices's burial has generally focused on the tension between the laws of the state and those of the gods. Aristotle calls Antigone's action an obedience to natural law, noting: "It is this that Sophocles' Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act: she means it was just by nature" (1.13.8-11). Bowra observes that Polyneices's burial "is a domestic duty demanded by the gods" (100). Jones suggests that Sophocles uses the burial to show "the conflict of the lower human law with the higher divine law" (195). Steiner likewise identifies a divine authority at work within the play, noting that "the body of Polyneices had to be buried if. . .the living was to be at peace with the house of the dead" (36). Seale views Antigone's opposition to "man's legal systems" as obedience to a "higher and more mysterious realm" (92). McCall, in agreement with this critical majority, notes: "Antigone in her defence of the individual claims for her side the higher justice of the gods" (116). MacKay not only supports the theory of divine obedience; he makes a careful distinction between laws of the heavens, which he feels Antigone ignores, and those of the nether gods, which "she feels bound to fulfill" (167). More recently, Goldhill has noted: "For Antigone, it is as if Creon and the law he has passed are to be disobeyed because the treatment of a traitor and enemy is at odds with the divine law concerning the family" (97).
While most have viewed Antigone's action as obedience to a higher authority, a few have focused on her relationship to family. Musurillo observes: "Antigone acts out of love for her brother, but, in a far deeper sense, out of loyalty to the Unwritten Laws which govern all mankind" (53). Hamburger goes so far as to suggest that Antigone is consumed by a "death wish": "The desire to die is in her because her relatives are dead, because `Persephone has called most of them home'" (152). It is interesting that while both critics maintain Antigone's deep commitment to family, both nonetheless locate her loyalty within a higher law. Ultimately, Antigone's implicit appeal to a "higher" authority has proven an impasse to discussion within the critical discourse community. While obedience to divine law certainly invests Antigone's action with strong moral authority, it nonetheless removes the burial's significance from a cultural to a mystical realm. A better reading of Antigone's loyalty might be that she obeys a different authority, an authority located well within her cultural system.
From where do the unwritten laws issue, those unnamed edicts which Antigone chooses to obey? Derrida's "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte [There is nothing outside the text]" (158), is illuminating here. Within Derrida's system, social practices comprise a "text," a kind of script which governs a culture's most fundamental beliefs. Further, this cultural text is always actualized through language whether spoken or unspoken. Indeed, we cannot separate the most basic of everyday actions from the language used to describe them, for it is through language that we come to know the world.
In his pivotal study of the mechanisms of order, Foucault has examined the means by which a culture orders itself, noting that it classifies ideas, objects, and practices according to perceived similarities and differences. In this way, a culture structures its everyday experiences, creating a means by which to handle the familiar as well as the unexpected. Moreover, this classification system is governed by an "inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they [the similarities and differences] confront one another" (Foucault xx). It should be emphasized, however, that this "inner law" is a culturally-determined one, operating, for the most part, unobserved unless or until some change unexpectedly occurs which calls attention to its presence. As Foucault notes: "Is not any resemblance, after all, both the most obvious and the most hidden of things?" (26).
Through language, cultures both construct and implement the social systems which lend order to their existence. Creon's decree clearly has a textual base, one which prescribes in unambiguous language actions designed to restore the public order. He states:
Eteocles, who died fighting for Thebes,
excelling all in arms: he shall be buried. . .
But as for his blood brother, Polyneices,
. . .a proclamation has forbidden the city
to dignify him with burial, mourn him at all.
(218-19; 222; 227-28)
Here is an explicit set of instructions issued to the citizens of Thebes. It informs them of the status of the dead brothers, officially detailing methods for disposing of their bodies. While Antigone's culture may not have written instructions concerning the burial of its members, language, nevertheless, informs its actions. As the witnessing guard notes: "And she scoops up dry dust, / handfuls, quickly, and lifting a fine bronze urn, / lifting it high and pouring, she crowns the dead / with three full libations" (477-480). The exposed body must be covered with dirt; not any old vessel is used to transport the libations, but a "fine bronze urn," one which is traditionally used in this ritual because its fineness signifies respect for the dead; the oils are poured specifically on the head, no less than three times. Antigone's actions are governed by a cultural code, one which, ultimately, can only be constructed and passed on through language. Thus, if nothing exists outside this cultural text, if, on the contrary, all is inscribed from within it, the written/unwritten distinction proves an arbitrary one. Antigone's quarrel boils down to one between established tradition and state decree. Ultimately, she valorizes one cultural authority over another.
Bourdieu has examined the underlying belief systems legitimized by cultures. At the core of these systems is what he calls the doxa, "the world of tradition experienced as a `natural world' and taken for granted" (164). Antigone's unquestioned obedience to the gods can be seen to issue from a doxic mode. At Polyneices's death, there is virtually no question in her mind but that she must bury her brother, regardless of the consequences:
These laws I was not about to break them,
not out of fear of some man's wounded pride
and face the retribution of the gods.
. . . if I had allowed my own mother's son to rot, an unburied corpse --
that would have been agony! This is nothing.
She is bound to bury Polyneices if she is to ever again experience the peace which comes from a sense of order. Hegel has observed that the individual duty lies in unquestioned compliance with laws "embodied in immemorial custom" (qtd. in Loewenberg 196). These laws govern the unquestioned beliefs which find expression in such fundamental rites as marriage and burial. They are, in the words of Plato, "the bonds of the entire social framework, linking all written and established laws with those yet to be passed. They act in the same way as ancestral customs dating from time immemorial" (277). They define the mythic structure, through which "the society reaffirms again and again its underlying structures of kinship, ritual, familial and sexual mores" (Segal 18). One need not, therefore, search outside Thebes for the source of Antigone's obedience; we need only examine her culture's unquestioned belief structure to see that the obligation to bury is indelibly inscribed in the Greek cultural code.
Fifth century Greek culture, in fact, possessed well-defined burial rituals, rituals which imposed strict duties on both family members and society. The Greeks viewed the unburied corpse as a "monstrous impurity" (Parker 32), and, therefore, as a great threat to the community. At the moment of death, all coming in contact with the deceased were believed to become polluted as well. MacDowell has observed that because this pollution was believed to be of a supernatural nature, quick burial of the body was mandatory (110).
Families bore the greatest responsibility for burial of the deceased, a duty which was carried out for the most part with fierce pride. When Antigone cries out that she would rather suffer death than the agony of allowing her "own mother's son to rot, an unburied corpse" (521), she reveals the strong kinship ties which both define and govern the social structure. Indeed, it is her duty as surviving family member to carry out her brother's burial. Because, as Scodel has noted, "an unburied corpse violates the natural and religious order. . .a sister who protects her brother is to be admired" (47). When Antigone pleads with Ismene for help in burying Polyneices, "Will you share the labor, share the work?" (50), she is appealing to this recognized familial responsibility. Ismene, in refusing to defy Creon and help with the rites, would appear to wrong both family and culture. Yet, she is not the only one who errs. In the absence of survivors, burial becomes a community responsibility (Parker 44), a responsibility Thebes chooses to ignore.
Proper rites were believed to ensure the individual's passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, preventing the dead's "dread errancy and visitation. . . to the streets and houses of the living" (Steiner 115). The deceased was, therefore, washed, anointed with oil and laid out at the home for a specified period, usually two days, to confirm, as Plato notes, "that the person really is dead and not just in a faint" (512). The lament, a song characterized by highly stylized wailing, was performed by women from the time of death until after the funeral (Alexiou 8). Hector's funeral lament is a clear example. At his death, the women of Troy immediately begin singing: "Child, I am wretched. What shall my life be in my sorrows, now you are dead, who by day and in the night were my glory in the town" (Iliad 22.431-33). A funeral procession headed by male members of the family and community then transported the body to an approved burial site (Parker 35), which as Plato notes:
must take up space where nature has made the ground good for nothing except the reception and concealment of the bodies of the dead with minimum detriment to the living. (512)
Further, as Murray has observed, individuals were commonly buried in family plots, a formal recognition of the unity of the kinship group (211). Clearly, the funeral ritual served a highly important function within the Greek culture. As Hardman has noted in her study of the Lohorung Rai, "rituals act to discipline the individual and enhance the strength of the community. . .They also serve to re-establish the social order which daily life tends to disorder" (175). Herodotus's account of Greek burial following battle reveals its highly ritualistic nature:
The Lacedaemonians made three burial places. In one they buried the irens, and among them Posidonius and Amompharetus and Philocyon and Callicrates. So the irens were in one and in another the rest of the Spartiates, and in a third the helots. (9.85)
Even during war, at a time of great social and emotional upheaval, rites were performed in a specified way and at a specified time. Hector's funeral halts fighting for twelve days so that rites may be properly carried out (Iliad 24.660-7).
This sense of what is proper is perhaps key to the entire ritual of burial. Improperly performed rites signify something other than ignorance or duress, for burial and its respective practices form an integral part of the cultural experience. As Parker has noted: "Treatment of the corpse remained one of the means by which men could hurt, humiliate or honour one another, express contempt or respect" (46). Moreover, any respect or disrespect shown to the deceased was directed as well toward surviving family or community members (Lacey 81). Achilles, it will be recalled, inflicts great shame on Hector's body by dragging it about the battlefield before finally releasing it to Priam (Iliad 22.395-403). Herodotus recounts the indignities committed by Cambyses on the dead: He ordered the dead body of Amasis to be brought out of its burying place; and when this was done, he bade his men whip it and pull the hair out andstab it and in various other ways show it outrage. (3.16)
Burial, then, does more than rid society of the pollution accompanying death; it expresses in unambiguous terms the community's final attitude toward the deceased, toward the family of the deceased and ultimately toward itself. Performed as culturally prescribed, this ritual productively channels grief and, in the long run, re-establishes the communal order. And it is a ritual which is denied to Antigone.
Everything within Antigone's world, in fact, seems to have gone wrong. Her father and mother are dead; her brothers have killed each other; and her brother's right of burial has been revoked by "some man's wounded pride" (510). To say that Antigone's world is disordered is an obvious understatement. It is revealing that her first thoughts are to the duty she is to carry out, a duty which Creon has already prohibited: "He's to be left unwept, unburied, a lovely treasure / for birds. . ." (35-6). Her immutable resolve to proceed with the burial despite the official decree makes visible the hidden network which structures Antigone's cultural response. Through her, we learn not only the basics of ancient Greek burial, but its fundamental, unvoiced importance within the community. Her simple declaration tells all: "He has no right to keep me from my own" (59). This is a matter of kinship, one which should remain free from the politics of state.
Despite Antigone's best intentions, however, the rites which follow are botched ones, hastily altered to accommodate unusual circumstances. When her only living blood relative refuses to help, Antigone resolves: "I'll bury him myself" (85). When she is unable to physically bury Polyneices, Antigone opts instead for a symbolic ritual. The sentry recalls:
she cried out a sharp, piercing cry. . .
Just so, when she sees the corpse bare
she bursts into a long, shattering wail
and calls down withering curses on the heads
of all who did the work. And she scoops up dry dust,
handfuls, quickly, and lifting a fine bronze urn,
lifting it high and pouring, she crowns the dead
with three full libations. (471; 474-479)
The elements of ritual burial are all here. The "piercing cry" and the "shattering wail," as well as the "withering curses" are part of the formal lamentation. Covering the body with dust serves a dual purpose; it both prepares the body for burial and substitutes for actual interment. The libations are carefully measured and formally delivered. Despite Antigone's care, however, the rites are visibly flawed; they are too little, too late and even worse, there is little hope that they will survive Creon's continued vigilance.
The signs of anxiety and social unrest are everywhere visible. Not only has war and death disturbed the order of everyday Theban life, but the one ritual which should take over during such a disturbing time, to aid the grief process and return the community to normal order, is denied. Instead a body lies rotting on the plains, a situation all, in the end, find difficult to ignore. The average citizen, Haemon notes, cannot accept Creon's action:
The man in the street, you know, dreads your glance. . .
"No women," they say, "ever deserved
death less, and such a brutal death for such a
glorious action. She, with her own dear brother
lying in his blood she couldn't bear to leave
him dead, unburied, food for the wild dogs or
wheeling vultures." (773; 777-781)
Haemon himself cannot justify the senseless brutality of the situation; he eventually stabs himself, but not before lunging wildly at his father, severing the ancient kinship ties which hold his family and, in turn, his society together.
Antigone's end reveals a great disruption of everyday practice as well. Normally, as noted, a formal procession carries the deceased to the burial site, its members wailing lamentations until long after the burial. Antigone, however, is led to the place where she is to be buried alive, chanting her own funeral lament:
No one to weep for me, my friends,
no wedding-song they take me away
in all my pain. . .the road lies open, waiting.
Never again, the law forbids me to see the
sacred eye of day. I am agony!
No tears for the destiny that's mine,
no loved one mourns my death. (963-969)
Dead men remain above the ground; the living are buried and Antigone must mourn her own impending death because there is no one to do it for her. All is in disarray.
Ironically, the decree even proves unsettling to Creon. When the sentry fearfully reports the initial burial attempt of Polyneices's body, Creon explodes into an Oedipus-like irrationality, angrily accusing the guard of accepting bribes: "I'm convinced / they've perverted my own guard, bribed them / to do their work" (333-335).
Eurydice is perhaps the saddest victim of this world gone wrong. When the messenger informs her of Haemon's death, she does not cry, scream, wail, or even curse. On the contrary, she just turns and walks away, an action which confuses those around her: "What doe you make of that? The lady's gone, / without a word, good or bad" (1374-75). The messenger's rationale, "faced with her son's death, / she finds it unbecoming to mourn in public" (1376-77), is unsatisfying for it fails to acknowledge that she does not respond according to custom. Instead of breaking into loud grief, as does Hecabe at the death of her son Hector, Eurydice withdraws silently into the palace and takes her life. Here is one profoundly disturbing result of the inability to grieve. Grief and other rituals of burial provide a systematic way of restructuring life after the death of a loved one; without them, death can seem the only way of escaping the perennial chaos of life.
Geertz has studied the social disruption accompanying improperly performed burial ceremonies. Traditionally, the Javanese enact rituals which are "hurried, subdued, yet methodically efficient" (146), designed "to carry one through grief without severe emotional disturbance. . .to produce rukun, `communal harmony'" (153). In one observed instance, however, the traditional burial practice failed, leaving both the family and the community in a state of disabling confusion. Because of a controversy over conflicting religious rites, the burial preparation was delayed until the body became stiff, which both confused and upset relatives. Then instead of quietly burying the body, the aunt of the deceased "broke into a loud, unrestrained wailing" (158). Geertz reports that there was tension for months after within the community. As Hamlet so clearly reveals at the funeral of Ophelia: "Who is this they follow? / And with such maimed rites?" (5.1.218-19), botched or altered rituals can produce an overwhelming sense of communal disorder.
While is can be reasonably established that tradition played a primary role in the structuring of Greek cultural life, it can and should be noted that the concerns of the polis took unquestioned precedence over those of the individual citizen. Freud has observed:
Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. . .This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of the community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. (47)
Because the polis was viewed as civilization, guarding the community against the ever-present threat of hostile invasion, the culture undeniably privileged the state in matters of public policy. Murray has noted that the concept of the individual within the state did not even exist in fifth-century Greece (210). Creon's admonishment, "remember this: / Our country is our safety" (210-11), is an unambiguous reminder of the state's authority in public matters. Polyneices is a recognized traitor, the worst form of criminal within the Theban state. Moreover, at his death he is treated as any other enemy to the polis; he is denied burial, his body, like that of a murderer, ordered left as "carrion for the birds and dogs to tear" (230). Antigone's act, while mandated by custom, nevertheless appears defiant in light of established civic practice.
Yet, the real intent of the law was apparently to deny the offender's continued presence on native soil. As Lacey has noted: "Denial of burial in one's homeland was one of the consequences of exile for life, a sentence commonly inflicted on murderers, traitors, and similar people" (80). Burial within the confines of the city was indeed denied to traitors, but the law did not specifically extend beyond its borders; family members could remove the body for burial in exile, a severe enough fate, for it prevented future care of the grave site (Lacey 80). Parker further observes: "Prolonged public exposure of the corpse, as prescribed by Creon in Antigone, was not the practice of any Greek state, and when mentioned is treated as shocking" (47). Vico has similarly observed:
Nor, finally, has there been any nation, however barbaric, in which the unburied corpses of its members have been left to rot above the ground, for such would be a nefarious state, i.e., a statesinning against the common nature of man. (83)
Thus, while Creon may have been justified in denying Polyneices proper burial on Theban soil, he seems to have erred in altogether forbidding it, an error he is eventually forced to concede: "I and my better judgment have come round to this. . . / I am afraid. . .it's best to keep the established laws to the very day we die" (1233; 1235-36).
It is, in fact, to established laws that Antigone consistently conforms, for throughout the play, she affirms again and again both her right and her obligation to bury her dead. When Creon accuses her of honoring a traitor, she tersely responds: "No matter Death longs for the same rites for all" (584). It can be said that in the end Antigone essentially refuses to recognize Polyneices's betrayal of Thebes; he remains simply "brother, yes, by the same mother, the same father" (575). Antigone's chilly rejection of Ismene's altered loyalties reveals the strength and endurance of these ancient kinship ties: "Your wisdom appealed to one world mine, another" (628). Antigone seems unable or unwilling to engage in an alternative dialogue, one which sees the atrocity of Polyneices's action. She has simply carried out a required family duty.
It must, however, be noted that Antigone does call her action a divinely ordered one, that regardless of the consequences, she is acting in accordance with the wishes of the gods. Before she even undertakes the burial, Antigone appeals to divine authority. To Ismene's refusal to help, Antigone notes: "Do as you like, dishonor the laws / the gods hold in honor" (91-92). Again and again, she appeals to the gods as the source of the law which requires burial; she is merely obeying divine authority. In his study of cultural systems, however, Geertz has observed that religious systems themselves are cultural constructs. He notes:
Whatever role divine intervention may or may not play in the creation of faith . . . it is, primarily at least, out of the context of concrete acts of religious observance that religious conviction emerges on the human plane. (112-3)
Ironically, Antigone comes to know the dictates of her gods through the practices of her culture. Nowhere, in fact, within the play do the gods directly speak. It is only through cultural ritual that we learn of their displeasure. When Tiresias attempts to light the sacrificial flame at the altar, the blind prophet reports that "the god in the fire" (1113) will not blaze. Despite its religious association, the rite remains a cultural one, enacted to determine the feelings of the gods toward human actions. When the sacrificial flesh will not flame, a very human Tiresias provides an explanation for his culture: "The gods are deaf to our prayers, they spurn / the offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh" (1127-28). Ironically, despite her firm pronouncements, Antigone herself at times seems to confuse the laws of her gods with the customs of her culture. When charged with the unlawful defiance of Creon's edict, she defends:
Nor did I think your edict had such force
that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,
the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.
They are alive, not just today or yesterday:
they live forever, from the first of time,
and no one knows when they first saw the light. (503-508)
While appealing to divine authority, Antigone unwittingly introduces a cultural appeal. The term "traditions" refers to those practices customarily enacted by cultures, which may be, yet are not exclusively of a religious nature; marriage and burial practices are, of course, also traditional. Further, as Antigone herself notes, the origins of traditions are difficult to determine, stretching far back into the imperceivable past. It is revealing that even Antigone suggests the impossibility of dating such practices. Divine laws would seem to fall into perpetuity, having neither beginning nor ending. Only human practices are of an originary nature.
Sophocles's portrayal of the individual will against that of the state reveals some interesting insights about the power of the cultural code on members of the community. Greenblatt has observed that "the apparently isolated power of the individual genius turns out to be bound up with collective, social energy" (165). From this perspective, Antigone's civic defiance proves a sound reaffirmation of those ancient cultural rites which exist to hold the community together.
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