Burial in Two Greek Tragedies: The Iliad and Antigone
The Iliad and Antigone, tragedies written by Homer and Sophocles, both have honor as one of the dominant themes. They both illustrate how Greek heroes regard honor as the foundation of the family and the society. Honor is one of the guidelines that govern the responses, actions, and decisions of the people in ancient Greece. One of the strong indications of an individual’s honor status is the burial. The events surrounding an individual’s burial represents the societal status and regard of the deceased and the deceased’s family. This paper aims to briefly discuss how an individual is robbed of or given honor through burial. Also, through allowing or prohibiting an individual’s burial, Creon and Achilles portray opposite images in the play.
First, both Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’ Creon end up consenting to a proper burial for the enemy. However, despite going through similar struggles, the difference in these men’s characters is exposed at the time they decided on the fate of their dead enemy. Sophocles and Homer debase or glorify their characters’ personalities by exhibiting how these characters react to and decide on the enemy’s burial. For example, after the battle in Antigone, Creon shows his anger by allowing Eteocles’ yet prohibiting Polyneices’ burial. Creon says:
For Eteocles, who died this city’s champion, / showing his valor’s supremacy everywhere, / he shall be buried in his grave with every rite… / …I here proclaim to the city that this man / shall no one honor with a grave and none shall mourn. / You shall leave him without burial. you shall watch him / chewed up by dogs and birds and violated. (Antigone 213-5)
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Achilles treats Hector similarly. In a famous scene in Iliad, Achilles ties the corpse to his chariot and drags it around. He refuses to give it a proper burial and provides further grief and shame to the deceased’s family: “Then he’s yoke his racing team to the chariot-harness, / lash the corpse of Hector behind the car for dragging / and haul him three times round the dead Patroclus’ tomb” (Iliad, 24.17-9)
Furthermore, Antigone and Priam’s reaction to the treatment of the corpses represent the importance of burial in classical Greece. Antigone attempts to bury her brother Polyneices, an act that earns her Creon’s rage. Creon says: “neither she nor her sister should escape / the utmost sentence — death. For indeed I accuse her, / the sister, equally of plotting the burial.” (Antigone 532-4) Similarly, Achilles expresses anger when Priam requests for him to return the corpse of his son Hector, to be given proper burial: “Grief for your son will do no good at all. / You will never bring him back to life — / sooner, you must suffer something worse.” (Iliad 24.644-6)
Eventually, the Creon and Achilles’ inner characters are exposed when Achilles allows Priam to return to Troy safely and provide a proper burial for his son, while Creon buries Antigone alive. Creon exhibits no pity, and without Creon’s wife and son’s suicide, Creon will not change his decisions regarding the burials of his enemies. At the end, Creon gives in but only for his personal and family’s interests. Achilles on the other hand exhibits change of heart. He is shown to have learned flexibility of emotions and pity. Treatment of fallen warriors and enemies is therefore one of the ways to show the inner selves and emotional capacities of the characters in the Greek tragedies.
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Fagles, R. (n.d.). The Iliad. iRetrieved from http://www.scribd.