The Fire-Walking Antigone
Antigone may be the most studied character in Greek tragedy. Ostensibly, Creon is the tragic hero of the play bearing her name, but it is she who is the more interesting and controversial figure. The key to appreciating the ideas Sophocles investigates lies in the now-famous but cryptic fire-walking passage, beginning at line 615. This essay explores an interpretation of the play that sees this passage as central, and provides a way of understanding Antigone's perplexing behavior. It presents Sophocles as savvily exploiting an ambiguity in the text to investigate the nature of atē through the character of Antigone, and also to examine the nature of choice.
Students in the humanities have found Antigone intriguing ever since she was cast as the focal character in Sophocles's much contemplated tragedy. Antigone is enigmatic, to be sure; until comparatively recently, most interpretations of her focused on her role in the context of the tragic series of events unfolding in the play. These accounts relied heavily on her portrayal by Hegel, as representing the prepolitical ties of kinship coming into conflict with the ascending authority of the state.
Richer life was breathed into the 2,400-year-old play, however, by Jacques Lacan in his 1960 lecture "The Essence of Tragedy."1 As a result, over the past several decades an intense interest has developed in the persona of Antigone herself, as a character thrust by extraordinary circumstances into transcending metaphysical limits. Her life is fixed by the unrelenting curse, the atē, that afflicts the entire house of Oedipus. This shift in perspective has opened new possibilities, and provided for richer analyses of Sophocles's intentions in crafting the work as he does. It has been suggested, in fact, that one of Sophocles's chief aims in the [End Page 12] entire trilogy is in examining the nature of atē, and its actual effects on the lives of those suffering it.
The most promising strategy for investigating the account Sophocles presents lies in the puzzling fire-walking passage, beginning at line 615. In what follows, I will explore an interpretation of the play that sees this section as pivotal, and provides a way of making sense of Antigone's curious comportment. In so doing, I will present Sophocles as savvily exploiting an ambiguity in the passage, to investigate the nature of atē through the character of Antigone, and especially, to hold the audience's attention until the final scene, when we see how her atē will ultimately play out. In this, I will draw from analyses suggested originally, but not developed, by Richard Jebb2 and Herbert Musurillo.3
The topic of atē was of doubtless interest to the mid-fifth-century B.C.E. Greeks. The accounts of atē in the body of literature with which the average Greek would be familiar are numerous and varied, but they provide at best a hodgepodge of information from which little that is definitive can be gleaned. Like every concept, kind, attitude, emotion, or force of nature, Ate is understood as a deity in the earlier period. Hesiod, at Theogony 230, for instance, casts her as a daughter of Eris (Strife); interesting, perhaps, but not terribly informative. Homer weaves her into the Iliad in many contexts, but casts her as the daughter of Zeus rather than Eris, and offers a slightly more informative account. This observation he puts into the mouth of Agamemnon: "Ate is the elder daughter of Zeus, the accursed that deludes all. . . . She walks the air above men's heads and leads them astray. She has entangled others before me. . . . Once Zeus even was deluded, though men say he is the highest one of gods and mortals."4 Sappho calls her "insatiable," and Aeschylus refers to her in Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Seven against Thebes; the references enrich his narratives but add little to the common stock of knowledge.
For the increasing number of Greeks seeking an account of atē more precise and illuminating, the most authoritative and probing analysis is that offered by Solon early in the sixth century B.C.E., some 130 years before the time of Sophocles. That the Solonian account was highly revered is beyond question, and its influence on Sophocles was considerable. The observations he offers are paradoxical, however. Atē is associated with causing punishment to be visited upon the unjust, of inducing "deeds of injustice (that) cannot go long unpunished;"5 yet he also says, "Even those with good intention, without forethought, have fallen into profound and bitter atē" (Anth. lyr. Graec. 1, p. 68). [End Page 13] Even though the Greeks are known to relish ambiguities, this clearly seems to be unsettling. It provides neither practical nor metaphysical understanding of the phenomenon. Worse, it provides no guidance for those overcome by it.
By the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., the Greeks were less comfortable with explanations cast in terms of the interventions of fickle gods and goddesses, with which they had been more content in the earlier period, and were becoming aware of the need for lawlikeness in explanations for them to be edifying.6 The average Greek is left wondering, then, what is atē, really? How is it likely to play out? Can it have different effects on a person, and, if one suffers it, what can, or should, he or she do?
To the dismay of many, Solon seems to talk around the periphery of the issue, and leaves the crux of the problem unaddressed. It is plausible, therefore, that sorting these issues out is prominent in Sophocles's mind, and it is especially evidenced in his presenting the characters in the Antigone the way he does. Aeschylus makes many references to atē, but it is apparent that although he is but a generation older than Sophocles, he represents the more traditional view on issues such as these. Sophocles gives voice to the more "modern" perspective, which demands more focused, incisive explanations. Thucydides, for instance, was a young man when Sophocles was writing; he clearly represents the more modern-sounding, social-scientific perspective on both events and human nature. We also remember that Athens was awash with sophists at this time, honing down logical argumentative techniques, and Socrates was in his late twenties.
Given that Carlyle's "great man" theory of history has deservedly fallen out of favor, it is much more plausible that those whom we regard as great, alternatively, are best seen as giving voice to thoughts and ideas that are current but not fully or lucidly articulated in public opinion. Sophocles, with his keen interest in human nature, is somewhat of a forerunner in a perspective, which is more clearly evidenced slightly later in Thucydides.
In order to see how he goes about this, let us examine the most salient features of the play.7 Antigone and Ismene enter together, discussing the curse upon their bloodline. Antigone observes that their two dead brothers fought equally bravely, though on opposing sides, in the insurrection; and she asks Ismene to help her in burying Polyneices. Ismene points out that Creon has explicitly forbidden it, and that she wants no part of it. Antigone responds that she is going to do it, regardless. [End Page 14]
In the next scene, the chorus urges: rejoice, the fighting is over, we have a new king. At this point, Creon speaks, his jaw set, the voice of stability, as he asserts the edict about Polyneices. There is an odd incongruity in how this is presented, however; we are taken somewhat by surprise by the hard edge of vindictiveness in his tone. The sentry then enters, flustered, agitated, and announces that person or persons unknown have buried Polyneices. Creon raises the specter of anarchy, and the chorus explains that humans can deal with any adversity except atē (Ant. 278–330) [332–75]. Antigone, as the culprit, is led in by the sentry. She speaks, explaining her act: "I dared. It was not God's proclamation" (357–58; emphasis mine) [450–51]. She continues, acknowledging the immortal laws, affirming that "they were, and shall be, operative forever, beyond man utterly" (363–64) [456–58]. Creon deems Antigone a scofflaw, yet she claims the moral high ground and argues him down, with a convincing ring to her voice, seemingly rooted in a better grasp of reality.
Ismene then enters, to confess complicity with Antigone, who responds, No, Ismene, "you are alive, but I belong to death" (Ant. 447) . Creon adds: "She is already dead" (453) .8 The chorus observes that inexorable fate comes upon humans (471–84) [583–614]. At this point in the text comes the disputed, ambiguous fire-walking passage (487–92) [615–26]. Atē is compared to burning one's foot on hot coals. Haimon, Creon's son, then enters, making the observation that public opinion is against Creon, almost universally, and in favor of Antigone. The hamartia is unfolding, yet there is palpable ambiguity, uncertainty, and indetermination regarding how things will go.
Creon misses all the clues, and orders that Antigone be locked in a vault. The chorus launches into an ode to love, beauty, and the splendor of Antigone, who then, in soliloquy, compares her death to Niobe's. The chorus notes her honor and uniqueness, and the uncertainty of the specifics of what is happening. Antigone explains, "I have been a stranger here in my own land: All my life the blasphemy of my birth has followed me" (Ant. 699–700) [867–71]. The chorus responds, yet: "You have made your choice, your death is the doing of your conscious hand" (704) [875–76].
Creon sticks to his guns, and the chorus arouses emotions in the audience for a real buildup. The blind seer Tiresias enters, faulting Creon, and the messenger affirms the uncertainty of it all: "I cannot say of any condition of human life, this is fixed, this is clearly good, or bad" (Ant. 903–5) [1156–59]. The ending comes crashing, as it is announced, [End Page 15] "Haimon is dead" (919) ; then we find that Antigone "had made a noose of her fine linen veil and hanged herself" (959–60) [1221–24]; then, "the queen is dead" (1002) [1282–83]. Creon finally realizes the score, but not until it is too late. Everyone who matters is dead. In the final lines, the priest observes, "There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods" (1039) [1347–48].
There are different versions of this story in the surviving literature. In Sophocles's rendition, there are four siblings, the offspring of Oedipus and Jocasta: sisters Antigone and Ismene, and brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, who kill each other, being on opposite sides in an insurrection in Thebes. The generally accepted backstory is that the brothers had agreed to share the rule in alternating years, but at the end of the first year Eteocles refused to relinquish power, and Polyneices attempted a coup. Creon, their uncle, has thus ascended to power, and has arranged a state funeral with full military honors for Eteocles but ordered the body of Polyneices be left for carrion—the height of dishonor in ancient Greece. The brothers were equally virtuous, Antigone observes; only politics, which is conventional, distinguished them.
The central plot lines are clear. Regarding Polyneices, Antigone declares, "I will bury him; and if I must die, I say this crime is holy" (Ant. 55–56) [71–72]. The traditional explanation of these events, derived from Hegel, is that her actions represent the increasingly antiquated view of kinship ties taking precedence over state authority, and while there is something to this interpretation—Creon's initial speech, contrasting friendship/kinship/personal obligation with state authority, attests to this—it misses the interesting and more provocative issue of what is going on with Antigone herself, psychologically and in relationship to reality and the gods.
Sophocles is concerned with social and political commentary, to be sure, but he is also interested in human nature, in exploring puzzling psychological behavior, and the nature of the immortal law. Given this, the mysterious phenomenon the Greeks had traditionally referred to as atē is a prime candidate for investigation. Three points here are worth noting: Eteocles and Polyneices are presented as being equally virtuous, and thus equal in their humanity. Sophocles clues us in, a couple of times, that he is interested in a psychological analysis of choice, and Haimon indicates that, from a perspective different than Creon's, what Antigone is doing is not odious but defensible, even laudable.
Sophocles is addressing familiar themes in Antigone; all the Greek tragedies, in fact, are based on material drawn from but three sources: [End Page 16] the Trojan War, Jason and the Argonauts, and the Theban Cycle. The members of the audience are reasonably familiar with the characters and events being presented; the educational curriculum throughout the Greek world consisted primarily in mastering this material. Evidence for the Oedipus story reaches back at least as far as Cinaethon (early eighth century B.C.E.); the story is presented in a fairly well developed form in Pindar, in his second Olympian Ode (c. 500 B.C.E.), and even more so in Aeschylus's Oedipus trilogy in 467 B.C.E. The novelty of each new play consists primarily in the new and interesting spin the tragedian could put on the well-known characters and events. So, each theatergoer in 441 B.C.E. (Jebb's dating) is wondering: What will Sophocles do with this story? What innovation will he introduce? What special issues will he address?
The term atē is notoriously difficult to translate into English, its closest rendition wavering somewhere between "misfortune" and "folly." Addressing the real implications of this is plausibly at the forefront of Sophocles's motives in guiding the events in the play the way he does. Sophocles is known for his keen awareness of topics just below the level of social consciousness, and in his interest in addressing them in especially revealing ways. By the second half of the fifth century, there was a perceived need for a more focused account of traditional problems. Ate being understood as an intervening deity, relieving those whom she visits of their wits, was seen as less satisfying; an account more in tune with current sensibilities was clearly needed.
Understanding his general aim, however, sheds little light on what account of atē he really wants to offer. The issue is further complicated by two ambiguities lying right at the heart of the crucial "fire-walking" passage in lines 618–19. The first of these is philological: the Greek text itself is ambiguous regarding how best to understand the passage, which reads, "Eidoti d'ouden erpei, prin puri thermoi poda tis prosause." The translation favored traditionally, by Jebb and others, is something like this: "The catastrophe comes upon one who knows nothing until she burns her foot on the hot coals." What does this mean, though, in the context of the narrative in which it occurs?
Lacan, for instance, construes the "fire-walking" as a reference to a rite of passage; specifically, epopteia, the rite of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Jebb and the traditional classicists seem to support this view: that the reference is to a rite. Musurillo, too, agrees with the reference being to epopteia, but he disagrees on how to cash out the grammatical ambiguity in the text. Whereas Jebb construes it as "She understands the [End Page 17] true meaning of nothing that happens to her," Musurillo convincingly argues for the alternative interpretation: "Nothing bad happens to the person who is aware of the danger" ("F-W," p. 170).
Each of these interpretations has a fairly convincing case that can be advanced in its favor, and each lends itself to a different understanding of the passage in which it occurs. Arbitrating between them is difficult but may be unnecessary, as it is arguable that the textual ambiguity, and the alternative readings of the passage, is precisely what the cagey Sophocles meant to convey to the audience. At any rate, a more in-depth analysis is needed.
Examining anthropological accounts of these issues is as good a place to start as any. Actual, physical fire walking was a key ritualistic practice of long standing in antiquity. Rites such as these play a central role in many less-developed cultures, which take them incredibly seriously. They involve a marked transformation in one's sense of identity. Eliade, for instance, discusses at length initiation as a principal religious act in classical or traditional societies, defining it as a basic change in existential condition that liberates one from profane time and history.9
In reality, understanding what fire walking means in the context of the play is complicated by there being evidence of different but related types of such rites in antiquity.10 Herein lies the second ambiguity. The different ways of construing the passage correlate, fairly closely, with these differing types of rites. In order to distinguish them, I propose here to use "rites of passage" to characterize those that are essentially liminal, representing the leaving of one realm and the entry into another, and "initiation rites" to characterize those that involve, and are part of an ascension into, an altered and continuing state. I offer these as stipulative definitions for the purposes of this essay, and concede that they don't strictly duplicate the usage in the anthropological literature.
The case of the former, a rite of passage, constitutes a transition from one realm to another, typically involving the performance of a feat or the undergoing of an ordeal. It is, in itself, of comparatively short duration, in contrast to that of the realms escaped from or entered into. Once the ordeal is undergone, it is fini. It is an experience unto itself, and is not integrally a part of the realm left or entered into. In the second case, the initiation rite consists of an ascent to a different level of existence; it is a stage setting, so to speak, and as such is a part of, and has an ongoing influence on, the individual experiencing it. The rite is seen, essentially, as informing in some way the individual undergoing it. [End Page 18]
Which of these two types of ritual does Sophocles intend in the fire-walking passage? More to the point, how does this help to explain the puzzling choices Antigone makes? And how does Sophocles use this as in exploration of the effects of atē on the psyche? A little probing may shed some light on these issues. Antigone's atē centers on her being the product of a notorious incestuous relationship. She bears the curse afflicting her entire bloodline. In her contemporary culture, this is seen as being more than a mere social stigma. She regards herself as polluted, and is clearly so regarded by others. Because of this ordeal, Lacan suggests, she has undergone a transition, a rite of passage—she has paid a price in some sense. But what does this all mean?
In the section of the essay entitled "Antigone between Two Deaths" (E, 270–87), Lacan suggests that the atē Antigone bears constitutes a transition from one realm into another. For clarity's sake, this is what I propose to refer to as a rite of passage. As mentioned above, Lacan suggests that epopteia, a ritual of ancient origin, is the key to understanding what is going on here. Although it is known to mark the initiate's final admission into the Eleusinian Mysteries, not enough is known about the specifics of epopteia to illuminate us to the degree we would like. Nonetheless, Lacan's insight may provide us with a helpful avenue of analysis.
By virtue of her curse, Antigone endures a metaphysical suffering. What Lacan is suggesting seems to be that ordinary people live in a conceptualized web of common, lived experience. This complex is what counts as reality for the average person. It consists of philosophical categories; value theory; cultural mores; societal expectations; legal, political, and economic theories; scientific, social-scientific, and conventional reasoning; anything conformist, decorous, or artificial in any way. All of this is what, according to Lacan's interpretation, Sophocles portrays Antigone as escaping.
The framework for addressing this is encapsulated in the title of chapter 21 of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, "Antigone between two deaths" (E, pp. 270–87). Lacan could make his point more clearly, perhaps, by referring to it, instead, as "Antigone between Two Atain." This gives a little more focus to what her suffering consists in, and how it plays out. The chorus provides the narration; atē is what constitutes the limit (E, p. 277), which, when crossed, defines her entry into another realm. As Lacan phrases it: "something beyond the limits of Atè has become Antigone's good, namely, a good that is different from everyone else's" (E, p. 270). [End Page 19]
Recapping: most people's goodness is defined in terms of the complex, the conventional, and it is precisely this that Antigone has escaped. She has gone through a transition, and what is responsible for it is her atē. As mentioned earlier, what is signified by this term tries any attempt to capture it in contemporary English. In the context of the events laid out by Sophocles, it seems to represent being "screwed," so to speak, of enduring a wrong, rather than "doing something stupid" or ill-advised (E, p. 279). What Sophocles is doing here is explaining, through illustration, the effects of atē on those experiencing it, and how a person suffering those effects deals with them. Antigone has, in effect, left the world of shared moorings, and is in a type of free-floating state, like that of the dead.
So, how are events going to unfold? What is Antigone going to do? That Creon is in the wrong is attested by Haimon, by the blind seer Tiresias, by public opinion, and, apparently, by the immortal law. Yet it is precisely Antigone's having escaped the conventional that allows her to accept motivation solely from this law. She is free because of the price she has paid. She can do anything she damn well pleases. She is completely free; to quote Kris Kristofferson, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."11
On this interpretation of the crucial fire-walking passage, Lacan suggests, Antigone's atē "is conceived of as a stasis" (E, p. 261); that is, as benumbing the person who experiences it, leaving her unarmed, susceptible to a final catastrophe, of getting burned, so to speak. This alternative, in which the accursedness she bears proceeds inexorably to the calamitous outcome, is suggested by Jebb's reading of the passage, and is adopted by Lacan, who construes Antigone's hanging herself, revealed only in the final scenes, as explainable in terms of, and the inevitable result of, the Freudian death drive, specifically, the irresistible, destructive urge toward the repetition of the atē she has endured. Once she has experienced the first atē, her ill-fated birth, the die is cast. There is no way out, and hence she is resigned to death—her second death, actually, in Lacan's view. The way he puts it, fatalistically, is that she realizes her "race is run" (E, p. 272), and so she has no option but to throw in the towel.
However, on Musurillo's interpretation of the passage—"Nothing bad happens to the person who is aware of the danger"—it need not be thus. The effect of fire walking, as an initiation rite, can be that of imparting wisdom and canniness to the person experiencing it. Now the audience realizes that, given the way the events are unfolding, Creon, as a tragic [End Page 20] figure, is going to suffer a horrible fate. Although Antigone is caught in an unfortunate situation, she is still somewhat of a wild card. She has the deck stacked against her, yet she calmly argues down Creon, clearly has a better grasp of the significance of what is going on, and has public opinion (and that of the theatergoers) on her side. We are reminded that in human life, nothing is set. Social conventions mean very little to her. She has a freedom that ordinary people do not. Sophocles is playing the ambiguities and uncertainties for all they are worth. The audience, we can imagine, is on the edge of its collective seat.
Musurillo's second construal of fire walking is as a transgression that instills a wise and cautionary steadfastness in an individual. This second type of fire walking—an initiation rite, as I have termed it—is a sort of threshold existence, in which the firewalker grapples with the dual desire to transgress while still maintaining her connection to the world, to some extent, and to the people in it.12 In maintaining this connection, she has a hedge against the death drive. She is free of ensnarement in the spiral of repetition while, at the same time, being released from the demands of conventionality. It is as if she retains some of the benefits of each realm, and yet she is largely free of the constraints of each. It is a somewhat unstable position, but it is more positive and optimistic than in the first interpretation. It leaves us with the possibility of an Antigone who refuses to knuckle under, who retains both her defiance and her autonomy. She has already argued down Creon; what else is she capable of? Because of her position beyond the conventional she can do the unspeakable, even, it seems, the inconceivable.
This is where we are as the final scene of the play unfolds. These are the possibilities. We can only imagine the tension and suspense felt by the theatergoers on opening night (so to speak). On one line of thought suggested to the audience by the fire-walking passage, given where Antigone is now, the baleful outcome is inescapable. She has no defense against the maelstrom in which she is caught.
The possibility of a different turn of events, however, glimmers in the ambiguities Sophocles plants in the passage. These are hinted at, both in the dialogue and in how events seem to be playing out. Antigone may not be able to successfully, physically resist being deposited in the vault, but she still has options—options, in fact, that transcend ordinary possibilities. She is defiant, she is resourceful, and, importantly, she is free of societal demands. Moreover, as Sophocles goes out of his way to indicate, she has time on her side. At this point, one is tempted to view Creon's situation, in terms of John C. Calhoun's famous edict [End Page 21] (paraphrased slightly), "Beware of a patient adversary." How is this all going to play out?
In choosing the ending he does—Antigone's death by hanging, by her own hand—Sophocles likely achieves the greater dramatic effect. Creon's insensitivity and inflexibility lead inexorably to his undoing, in a way of which Aristotle would approve. This tragedy breaks the mold, though: in Antigone not only do we have a female character center stage, we have a revolutionary who defies conventionality in toto. This allows for a new range of possible scenarios. From the perspective of the audience, then, things could have turned out differently. Much more perceptive and reflective than the tin-eared, shortsighted Creon, Antigone exhibits a depth of character new to the Athenian stage. Through her, on one level, we glean insight into the nature of the psyche, how it deals with societal restrictions, and the atē that plagues it. In crafting her character in the context he does, Sophocles explores the complex mixtures of constraint and freedom that underlie choice. His real genius, though, lies in fracturing the mindset blinding us to the possibilities before us. In part because of the ambiguities he skillfully weaves into the play, in part because of the independent-mindedness of Antigone contrasted with the stolidity of Creon, and in part because of the mood-altering choral contributions, we are left wondering: what would have happened had things gone a little differently. . . ?
1. Jacques Lacan, "The Essence of Tragedy," in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960, trans. and with notes by Dennis Potter, book 7 of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), pp. 243–87; hereafter abbreviated E.
2. Richard Claverhouse Jebb, Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891).
3. Herbert Musurillo, "Fire-Walking in Sophocles' Antigone 618–19," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 94 (1963): 167–75; hereafter abbreviated "F-W."
4. Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 19.85–89.
5. Ernst Diehl, ed., Anthologia lyrica Graeca, Fasc. 1, trans. Herbert Musurillo (Leipzig: Teubner, 1958), p. 16; hereafter abbreviated Anth. lyr. Graec. 1. [End Page 22]
6. One is reminded of the Homeric explanations of a storm being the result of the wrath of Poseidon, and of the inability to anticipate what would anger him.
7. Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001); hereafter abbreviated Ant. Fitts and Fitzgerald's line numbering is in parentheses, that of Storr's Greek text in brackets.
8. This is likely a double entendre, as will be revealed as the events unfold.
9. Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper, 1958).
10. See, for instance, Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
11. Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, "Me and Bobby McGee," EMI Music Publishing, 1969.
12. The ambiguity in Antigone's relationship with her sister, Ismene, may be strategic on Sophocles's part. I am indebted to T. R. Chemel for this suggestion, and for other insights into Antigone's character. [End Page 23]