How Important are Traditional Burial Rites in “Antigone” by Sophocles

In the famous Greek tragedy, “Antigone,” written by Sophocles, we learn about the importance of ritual and traditional burial rites.

The Greek Tragedy Goes …

Antigone is a tragedy written by Sophocles in the year 441 BCE and is a play about the aftermath of a civil war in which the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, kill each other. Although Eteocles is the next in line to receive power to the throne after Oedipus, Eteocles takes over and banishes Polyneices from Thebes. Polyneices then gathers an Army and attacks his brother. Polyneices succeeds in killing his brother, while simultaneously being killed by his brother in battle.

How Important are Traditional Burial Rites in "Antigone" by Sophocles
How Important are Traditional Burial Rites in “Antigone” by Sophocles

After their death, their uncle Creon came to power; he buried Eteocles in a glorious ceremony but left Polyneices’ corpses to rot and be eaten by animals, as Polyneices had marched against the city. The story of how Polyneices was buried by his sister who was then incarcerated, is told in this tragedy by Sophocles.

Once King Creon decrees it illegal to “bury him [his son, Polyneices], even mourn him,” Antigone takes it upon herself to bury her brother in secret to abide by the law of the Gods. And it is the law of the Gods that Creon is in direct violation of.

Before she goes and buries her brother, she discusses this task with her sister who will not take part in this illegal action. Antigone then tells her sister, “do as you like, dishonor the laws the Gods hold in honor,” since Ismene [Antigone’s sister] will not join Antigone on her mission to bury her brother. Clearly, Antigone is aware of the law that Creon is violating as a mortal.

Robbing the Gods in Antigone Play

In a later debate between Creon and Antigone, Antigone demands that “Death longs for the same burial rites for all.” Once again, we see the importance of the traditions that the Gods expect and demand from them. Whether the mortal was just or a fool, his body should still be given back to their creators; if not “then you’ve robbed the Gods below the Earth, keeping a dead body here in the bright air, unburied, unsung, unhallowed by the rites.”

Antigone is caught burying Polyneices and is condemned to death. Her fiance and Creon’s son, Haemon, learn about this and tries to convince Creon to change his mind. It’s only then that the seer Tiresias appears. After a long discussion, he finally persuades Creon that the gods want Polyneices buried. By then it’s too late — Antigone has hung herself, Haemon kills himself when he finds her, and Creon’s wife kills herself when she learns about her son.

If you are enjoying this article, check out our other Literary reads, here.

Even Haemon, Creon’s own son tries to point out to his father his foolish sense and tells him that the whole city is mourning for Antigone after Creon has buried her alive, but Creon is only worried about his power and his rights, so Haemon then tells Creon, “Protect your rights? When you trample down the honors of the Gods.”

Finding Morality in Antigone

How Important are Traditional Burial Rites in "Antigone" by Sophocles
How Important are Traditional Burial Rites in “Antigone” by Sophocles

Set in the past where values then differ from values today, Antigone sheds light upon conflicts with morality. She is faced with Creon’s decision of how her two brother’s deaths will be memorialized. Is it fair that one brother receives a proper burial and the other one does not?

Doing what is right, is not always doing what is legal. And we learn this in the Greek tragedy, “Antigone.” Unfortunately, this outcome ended in tragic fasion.


Antigone by Sophocles:

Towering over the rest of Greek tragedy, the three plays that tell the story of the fated Theban royal family—https://amzn.to/3t5RlAH”>Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus—are among the most enduring and timeless dramas ever written.  

Read it now.

Antigone by Sophocles:

Antigone, on the other hand, believes that family is more important, as she secretly sets out to hold a proper burial for Polyneices even if it means risking her life and going against the law. “I’ll still bury him. It would be fine to die while doing that…you can show contempt to those laws the gods hold in honor.” (89-96)

If you are enjoying this article, check out our other Literary reads, here.

By giving Polyneices a proper funeral, Antigone is obeying the morals set by the gods the Greeks honor and follow; in this case is that the dead should be given proper burial. Although Polyneices may have caused harm to Thebes, as a relative of a family who cares about him, Antigone’s decision to have a proper funeral for him is the right and respectful thing to do.

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