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The role of Gods in Antigone and Electra July 29, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.

In classic Greek literature, the deities of the period were often represented in various different manners, from insignificant to much more substantial. Minor roles might simply have consisted of a character or chorus mentioning a particular god in speech, possibly by impulse, or insinuations throughout a play that the gods were actively involved in current events or the potential consequences thereof.

More important parts might have been the physical appearance of multiple deities throughout a play, interacting with mortals, or entire scenes being dedicated to their activities in heaven. The role played by gods will be examined in two specific Greek tragedies: Sophocles’ Antigone (translated by David Grene) and Euripides’ Electra (translated by Emily T. Vermeule).

Questions to consider will include the following: How substantial a role, when compared to important events in the tragedy, was attributed to the divine? Was their appearance and interaction actually as significant as may be claimed by the mortal? Are there any other possible interpretations of these events?

With respect to Sophocles’ Antigone, the contribution of the gods to the events of the story may be open to largely different interpretations, ranging from indirect influence to constant involvement. Taking the story at face value, it can be seen that while the direct interaction of the gods was nonexistent, their indirect effect on the stated beliefs and actions of the main characters influenced the events of the entire play. The character of Antigone was portrayed throughout the tragedy as being clear of mind, always certain not only that honoring the divine was the proper course to take in any situation, but also of how exactly to pay respect to them: “I know I am pleasing those I should please most” (88).

After finding out that the body of her brother Polyneices wouldn’t be given last rites, she immediately went to her sister, asking for help in properly honoring the divine. Even as her sister refused and warned her of the danger of such actions, Antigone was unwavering in her decision, knowing that disrespecting the gods was a more dangerous path to take: “The time in which I must please those that are dead/ is much longer than I must please those of this world” (76-7).

Her character was contrasted with that of Creon, who respected the honor of men over divine law. Although he appears to have once followed the will of the gods, his mind had since been corrupted by pride and power. For instance, in lines 147-150, the Chorus spoke of the supposed actions of Victory (Nike):

                       Now Victory, whose name is great, has come

                       to Thebes of many chariots

                       with joy to answer her joy,

                       to bring forgetfulness of these wars; (147-50)

It was soon revealed, however, that instead of bringing “forgetfulness” of past events, including the deaths of the two brothers by their own hands, Creon would instead leave Polyneices’ body unburied, as a constant reminder of the past: “You shall leave him without burial; you shall watch him/ chewed up by birds and dogs and violated” (205-6). If indeed Victory was supposed to be honored by putting the past behind them, then Creon did in fact disrespect the divine.

Unlike the steadfast and clear-headed Antigone, at times Creon was also hypocritical, and he became unsure of himself as the play progressed. As an example of his contradictory actions, compare the statements in his first speech to what he said and did later. Initially, he claimed that wanted the best for his citizens, and would do anything to make sure they were safe and content:

                       I think that a man supreme ruler of a whole city,

                       if he does not reach for the best counsel for her,

                       but through some fear, keeps his tongue under lock and key,

                       him I judge the worst of any; (178-81)

                       For my part, God is my witness,

                       who sees all, always, I would not be silent

                       if I saw ruin, not safety, on the way

                       towards my fellow citizens. (184-7)

As it became apparent that the public didn’t believe Antigone should die for her actions, that instead they claimed she had acted honorably, Creon continued to act against the will and safety of his people, forgetting what he had said earlier:

                       Creon: Is she not tainted by the disease of wickedness?

                       Haemon: The entire people of Thebes says no to that.

                       Creon: Should the city tell me how I am to rule them?

Instead of seeking what had historically been the best counsel for the city, the blind prophet Teiresias, Creon initially claimed him to be influenced by money and ignored his commandments. By the time he had realized his mistakes, it was too late, and the repercussions of his disrespect for the divine were worse than if he had initially given and lost some of his pride. In all of these ways, Sophocles showed that it is better to follow eternal law than mortal law.

As for the role of the divine in Antigone, the preceding interpretation implies that the gods were only indirect influences on the main characters’ actions. It may also be possible to claim that their impact was actually much greater. Consider the speech by the Chorus after Creon has decided the fate of Antigone:

                       With wisdom had someone declared

                       a word of distinction:

                       that evil seems good to one whose mind

                       the god leads to ruin,

                       and but for the briefest moment of time

                       is his life outside of calamity. (619-24)

This statement, as well as other hints by the Chorus and events of the story, leads to another possible understanding of the role of gods in the play: they were in control of everything, causing the events to unfold, perhaps to teach a moral lesson to the city or even to the audience itself. Events that support this suggestion include the arrival of Antigone at the resting place of her brother after the guards removed the dust from his body:


                       a squall lifted out of the earth a storm of dust,

                       a trouble in the sky. (417-9)

                       We closed our eyes, enduring

                       this plague sent by the gods. When at long last

                       we were quit of it, why, then we saw the girl. (422-4)

These claims suggest physical anger brought about by the gods as a result of the guards’ actions. Another instance was the mysterious man who convinced the first sentry to send word back to Creon about the original rites given to Polyneices. The Chorus wondered if this man was a deity: “My lord: I wonder, could this be God’s doing?/ This is the thought that keeps on haunting me” (278-9). Whether or not this more pronounced role of the divine better explains the events of the play is open to interpretation.

With respect to Euripides’ Electra, the gods, in one sense, played a less important role in this tragedy than they did in Antigone, but also have a much more obvious and physical part. In Antigone, the function of the divine was as a moral reminder throughout the story that the proper route in life involves respecting the gods. No obvious divinities were involved, but the main characters exhibited moral conduct that, at least in the case of Antigone, was the result of belief in the divine. The same can be said of Orestes motives in Electra. The oracles, probably heeding Apollo’s commands, falsely instructed Orestes to honor his father by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Although the origins of the main characters’ motives may have been the same in each story (to follow the “will” of the gods), the role of the gods in the rest of each play was different. Most of the moral implications present in Antigone were ignored in Electra, with the latter focusing rather on the characters and their feelings. Instead of repeatedly looking to the gods for the correct path, Electra and Orestes were motivated by their deep sorrow and spite, only calling on the gods for support or disapproval:

                       Orestes:  O Zeus of Our Fathers, now be Router of Foes.

                       Electra: Have pity on us, for our days are piteous.

                       Old Man: Pity them truly – children sprung of your own blood.

                       Electra: Oh Hera, holy mistress of Mycenae’s altars—

                       Orestes: Grant us victory if our claim to victory is just. (671-5)

                       Orestes: I walk a cliff-edge in a sea

                        of evil, and evil I will do. If the gods approve, let it be so. (985-7)

After Aegisthus and Clytemnestra were finally killed, Orestes and Electra, who, as always, were motivated more by their feelings, began worrying that they had done wrong and would be punished as a result. It was then that the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces, appeared in physical form to calm their worries. The Dioscuri informed the siblings that their actions were motivated by emotion rather than Justice, but that Apollo and his oracles were to blame, and as a result they wouldn’t be punished by the gods:

                       Justice has claimed her but you have not worked in justice.

                       As for Phoebus, Phoebus – yet he is my lord,

                       silence. He knows the truth but his oracles were lies. (1244-6)

                       On Pheobus I place all guilt for this death. (1296)

The purpose of the appearance of these deities at the end of the play may have been as a final moral statement that the divine are always watching over the mortal, even pitying them (in this case) for being so worried about following the wrong path:

                       Alas, your despair rings terribly, even

                       to listening gods;

                       pity at mortal labor and pain still

                       lives in us and the lords of heaven. (1327-30)

These two plays exhibit different ways in which the role of gods has been depicted in Greek tragedies. Although their parts may be minor in comparison to other classics, in which the gods physically participate in everyday events, their presence is still felt throughout both plays. In the case of Antigone, no gods ever appear for certain, but divine law and her devotion to pleasing the gods shaped Antigone’s actions, preparing her for a welcome into the afterlife. Creon, whose judgment may have been intentionally clouded by the gods, learned a hard moral lesson, as did the rest of his city and the audience.

As for Electra, the focus was more on personal emotions and their impact on decisions than on any specific overarching moral dilemmas. However, the siblings’ appeals to the gods, and the appearance of the Dioscuri at the end let the characters and audience know that they are not alone and that the divine law does exist.

EDITOR’S NOTE > Article by Brian T. 2006 © Associated Content. All rights reserved.

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