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Antigone Holderlin

Antigone’s Realm: An Exploration of the Unity of Life and Death in Sophocles’ Antigone

There is an illusion of solidity in the idea of the original ancient Greek text of Sophocles’ Antigone, an artefact of literary archaeology preserved and cherished like the marble statues of Greek antiquity.  But beyond, behind and within the ancient Greek words inscribed on paper lies a realm of meaning and significance; and in this realm, the questions posed by Antigone whirl and eddy in ceaseless motion.  The play is surrounded by a vast sea of scrutiny, translation and interpretation, its vastness fed by the long history of the play[1] and the enduring relevance of the questions the play poses about the nature of humanity, chaos, civilisation, life and death. George Steiner writes in his book Antigones:

‘In the act of philosophical interpretation, in the poet’s recasting, we confront the fundamental constancy of homecoming, the backbone of theme and variation in western sensibility. The Antigone myth reaches unwavering across more than two millennia.  Why should this be?’[2]

The answer to this question proves to be surprisingly elusive.  In the first attempt to answer it, one only discovers more questions, such as “What is it that makes the play great?”, and  “What compels us continually to return to its themes?”  Each of these questions leads to more questions, as one descends layer by layer deeper into the play, through its cultural context, plot, themes, characters,   and language.  Perhaps the incredible generative power of Antigone is one aspect of its greatness – its fertility in producing questions that compel a search within the play for significance that reaches beyond the boundaries of the play to illuminate the nature of humanity.  Perhaps Steiner’s question is difficult to answer because the fundamental nature of tragedy is to pose questions, not answer them, and Antigone will not permit final, sweeping conclusions to settle upon it.  But the act of contemplating minute tensions and harmonies arising from particular themes in the play illuminates aspects of the human experience, and this search for meaning amongst the riches of the play is as valuable as it is endlessly compelling.

One provocative, open doorway leading into a current of significance in Antigone is the consideration of death as a foreign realm into which Antigone travels.  I will explore Antigone’s relationship with death and suggest that she is a guide sent ahead to compel the audience into a journey towards a confrontation with the idea of their own death, which is a confrontation with the forces of the unknown, the fearful, the dark, the powerful, and the ambiguous.  The transcendent result of this confrontation and struggle is knowledge and acceptance of coming death, which is a richer state of being, in which there is a unity achieved between the forces of the familiar and the foreign.  Conducting this exploration through the filters of various translations is curiously revealing, because the act of translation works with the raw materials of a “home” language and a “foreign” language combined in a unique and dynamic relationship.  The translation of Antigone by Friedrich Hölderlin from 1804 is particularly suitable for this exploration, because it represents and enacts the qualities of struggle and unity.  Hölderlin’s Antigone, radically, fused interpretation with translation[3] and is a culmination of his theory of translation, which suggests the necessity of struggle with the foreign, in which the home language “…will become skilful, strong and supple in the struggle with the beauty and greatness of the foreign original.”[4]

Antigone is closely aligned with the world of the dead throughout the play, beginning with the first scene, in which she speaks with her sister Ismene outside the palace gates in her home city of Thebes, and explains her intention to bury their dead brother Polyneices, in violation of the decree made by Creon, ruler of Thebes:

‘ …I

Will bury him.  To die after is good then

And lovely to lie by him then, my loved one,

When I’ve done what is holy.  Then a longer time

I shall be liked by those down there than here

For there I’ll dwell for ever…’[5]

Creon has decreed that Polyneices must remain unburied because he waged war on his home city of Thebes, and the punishment for violation of this decree is death.  To leave the dead unburied was disturbing to the ancient Greek mind[6], and Creon’s decree creates the major conflict in the play.  The language in this passage evokes the physicality of Antigone lying down in her grave and shows her consciousness travelling to the realm of the dead, marking the boundary line between “here” and “there,” and contemplating it as a place she will “dwell for ever.”  There is a remarkable simplicity, purity and balance in the lines “I will bury him.  To die after is good then.” These two utterances contain Antigone’s resolve to bury her brother, alongside her full knowledge that this resolve will bring her death.  Antigone gazes almost gently at death – the language of the passage combines love with death: “to die after is good,” “and lovely to lie by him then, my loved one.”  Antigone’s tender embrace of what is the most foreign and fearful concept to the mind is a jarring juxtaposition of opposing energies, heightening our awareness that she is different, other, foreign to humanity in some as yet undefined way.

From this beginning speech, Antigone is pulled onwards through the play by a force carrying her towards death, and she is draped in the poetry of death through metaphor and allusion.  What is the nature of this compelling force?  The force partly draws strength from the rigidity of Creon’s decree and the power he commands as ruler of Thebes.  It is wreathed about her head in the form of the pollution of the house of Laius, as the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, both dead.  She says, shortly before being led to her death,

‘The unlucky mother in delusion with her arms around

My father, her

Own birth,

And from them with a darkened mind I came

And to them I am coming cursed…’[7]


But by far the most compelling aspect of the force drawing Antigone towards death is the essential purity of her resolve to honour her brother, which is also perhaps a factor in the power of her story to “[reach] unwavering across more than two millennia” and inspire revolutions.

Antigone’s purity is demonstrated in every speech and action she takes.  She undertakes a self-determined, brave course of action in deciding to bury Polyneices against the decree of Creon upon the authority of her own principles.  She chooses for her actions to be made public by loudly  mourning the body in the sight of its guards.  She displays great integrity in her speeches with Creon and the remarkable quality of tenderness and clear-sightedness when confronting the reality of her coming death.  These portrayals make for a tragic heroine who shines like a beacon, as an ideal to humanity.  Although one possible surface assumption about this state of affairs is that Antigone represents the heights of human achievement in her purity of principle, Antigone’s purity, although ideal, is also somewhat inhuman in its perfection, and this is interesting to consider in terms of Hölderlin’s revolutionary translation of the second choral ode.

Antigone is famous for the beauty and power of its choral odes, and the second choral ode is particularly remarkable in the way it describes humanity’s achievements of existence.  The ode begins with a description of man using a qualifier from ancient Greek – tò deinón or δεινόϲ that is most often translated as “wondrous”, or “wonderful.”  For example, the first lines of Kitto’s translation of this ode are

‘Wonders are many, yet of all

Things is Man the most wonderful.

He can sail on the stormy sea

Though the tempest rage, and the loud

Waves roar around, as he makes his

Path amid the towering surge.’[8]


Hölderlin’s Antigone translates these beginning lines as

‘Monstrous, a lot.  But nothing

More monstrous than man.’[9]

The yawning chasm in meaning between “wondrous” and “monstrous” is shocking, but there is an enticing and subtle harmony existing amidst the discord of these two words, in the connotation of expansion beyond normal limits. T.A. Augst writes:

Hölderlin’s choice of the word “ungeheuer” for the Greek tò deinón…calls monstrosity to mind…given that this curious choice inevitably colours all that follows, the question of accuracy becomes moot, for there is more at stake here than a “correct” translation.  Tò deinón, which Hölderlin translates elsewhere and at other times as “das Gewaltige,” here disturbs in the very act of signifying.  Its translation produces an effect of foreignness in the same gesture that ought to render it comprehensible.  In a striking enactment of what his remarks will ultimately explore, translation begins to take action here, to speak its own name, even as it stands in for an other that will not be silenced.[10]

Holderlin’s choice to fuse interpretation into the act of translation in such a violent way demands from his audience a conscious contemplation of previously hidden subtleties, and this action lifts the reader forcibly out of the play and into a contemplation of the ambiguous relationships existing between language, poetry, tragedy and knowledge of human nature.  In this, translation joins with the original text of the tragedy, united in the purpose of urging the audience towards a confrontation with ambiguity, and with death.  The significant aspect of Hölderlin’s radical word choice to Augst is the producing of “an effect of foreignness,” which is an enactment of the themes of foreignness and monstrosity occurring in the play.  “Monstrous” is foreign in nature to “wondrous.”  The currents of meaning flowing between the words “wondrous” and “monstrous” highlight the ambiguity in the character of Antigone, as well as in the character of all humanity.  Is she wondrous or monstrous in the way her purity of will has expanded beyond the normal limits of humanity?  Steiner discusses the ambiguity inherent in Sophocles’ usage of the original Greek word, “δεινόϲ”:

‘If there is in δεινόϲ the concept of ‘terror’ and of ‘excess’, there is also, as in Herodotus’ use of the term – Herodotus’ idiom being often analogous to Sophocles’…the notion of ‘sagacity’, of  ‘practical wisdom’ and ‘canniness’.  Our own ‘uncanny’, in fact, points to a similar congruence of associations.’[11]

Antigone’s existence in the play is imbued with a slightly supernatural feeling, a numinous quality singling her out as one existing somewhere between life and death.  The elusive meaning of this quality exists, ambiguously, somewhere between the thought-worlds of “wonder,” “monstrosity,” and “uncanniness,” with “uncanniness” being the closest fitting term. When the Messenger reports the first burial of Polyneices to Creon, he describes the strangely undisturbed nature of the ground around the body:

‘…the land

Was solid, the earth nowhere dug up,

Not ridden over by wheels.  The master had left

No mark and when the day’s first glimpse denounced

It to us, it had an eerie feel, like a miracle.’[12]

We know that the “master” who has sprinkled dust on Polyneices is Antigone, and the nature of the action, imbued with religious power, but comprehended by the Messenger as having been done by an unseen force, recalls the formlessness, power, and presence of the Greek gods, and suggests Antigone’s alignment with them.   The wandering nature of words and their meanings, and the inability of words to settle on Antigone, to perfectly capture her, contains an essential point about the nature of art and humanity – there is a realm of unconquerable ambiguity that exists just between life and art, and the art that has the most life in it, travels through this realm and draws from its power.

The manner in which Creon punishes Antigone is a rich symbol for the strange territory of otherness that Antigone inhabits – he walls her up alive in a stone tomb.  In the Hölderlin translation  Creon says “I’ll…keep her living in the pit of rock,”[13] in Grene’s translation the words are “I will…hide her alive in a rocky cavern,”[14] and Kitto translates these lines as “I’ll find a cave in some deserted spot,/And there I will imprison her alive.”[15] This isn’t just a juxtaposition of death and life – it is life existing within death, and death existing within life.  This theme of the intermingling of life and death in the character of Antigone chimes again and again throughout the play.  She says to Ismene after her first scene with Creon,

‘You are alive, be cheerful, but my soul

Long since is dead and so I serve the dead.’[16]


And shortly before her death, Antigone says,

‘ Neither among the living nor the dead

do I have a home in common -

neither with the living nor the dead.’[17]


In Antigone’s raw and constant contemplation of death through the course of the play, she is inhabiting the realm of death in her mind, which is representative of how the audience, under Sophocles’ spell, is led to inhabit the same imaginary realm of death, to follow where Antigone leads in her journey towards death.

It is significant that Antigone, as the eponymous central figure in Sophocles’ play, does not actually travel the path of the tragic hero.   Froma Zeitlin writes,

‘Women as individuals or chorus may give their names at titles to plays; female characters may occupy the center stage and leave a far more indelible emotional impression on their spectators than their male counterparts (Antigone, for example, with respect to Creon).  But functionally women are never an end in themselves, and nothing changes for them once they have lived out their drama on stage.  Rather, they play the roles of catalysts, agents, instruments, blockers, spoilers, destroyers, and sometimes helpers or saviors for the male characters.’[18]

Zeitlin is making this point in the context of a discussion about the significance of gender roles in tragedy, but this passage is relevant to the depiction of Antigone as a numinous, liminal being existing in a foreign realm somewhere between the living and the dead.  It is significant that she has a role different from that of the tragic hero, and an existence in a realm somewhat separate from that of the living.  The striking measure of this is the fact that Antigone never experiences a revelation that changes her knowledge of her self.  This is another mark of the purity Sophocles builds into her character.  Whereas the chorus advises Creon to abandon his position in the conflict with Antigone, the chorus says to Antigone, tearfully, just after the beautiful choral ode about love:

‘But you go famous and accompanied by praise

Off to this chamber of the dead’[19]

and a four speeches later in the same scene,

‘A dweller neither with

The living nor the having died.

Pushing boldness to the parting place

On to the heights of justice…’

These lines show that the purity of Antigone’s will is rewarded by the chorus assigning her praise and the the high honour in the Greek world of a famous name.  She is depicted as “pushing boldness…to the heights of justice.”  This distinction has the effect of giving her a measure of authority, and imbuing her actions with the quality of the ideal.  Antigone does function as a catalyst instrumental in Creon’s tragic trajectory, but she also acts as a guide.  In his book, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? – in which he offers a subtle, powerful variation on Aristotle’s theory of the purpose of tragedy (to accomplish a “catharsis of pity and fear”[20]) – A.D.  Nuttall writes “It is easy to see how the human imagination might begin to exhibit a need, in art, for a death-game, a game in which the muscles of psychic response, fear and pity, are exercised and made ready, through a facing of the worst, which is not yet the real worst.”[21]  Antigone is the leader of this death-game in Antigone. 

             The world of the dead as it existed in the collective ancient Greek mind is probably like our modern perceptions of Heaven, which is to say that it is shaped by our poets and artists, as well as religious practices.  It is impossible to arrive at any true understanding of how ancient Greeks conceived of the world of the dead, the “underworld” – therefore it is difficult to draw conclusions about the significance of the underworld in tragedy.  But clues from literature and archaeology paint some kind of picture and give some suggestive ideas of a separate world, foreign, and dark.  Edith Hamilton writes “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows.  Nothing is real there.  The ghosts’ existences, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”[22]  After the fourth choral ode in Antigone, Antigone is edging ever closer to death, and she says

‘The god

Of death who hushes everything

Is leading me living

To the banks of Acheron…’[23]

And she imagines that she is entering into a marriage with death: “O grave, O bridal bed and housing Underground.”[24]  Antigone’s view of the afterlife is presented as this “hushed” and “shadowy” place where she will live a half-existence and probably represents the prevailing tide of belief in ancient Greece.  However, there is a less prevalent, alternative and provocative view of the afterlife in Greek mythology that is suggested by the myths surrounding the cult of Eleusis, which was originally associated with Demeter, and which came to be associated with Dionysus.[25]

Thus far the figure of Dionysus has been a silent presence in this exploration of the themes of death, foreignness, ambiguity and tragedy, but he is the god who symbolizes these themes, and he has been waiting in the wings.  The final choral ode in Antigone is a paean to Dionysus:

‘Creator of names, pride of the waters

That Cadmus loved, and a part of him

Who echoes in the thunder

Earth’s Father

And over famous Italy

You rove far and wide

In growth.  But common to all

Is something impenetrable.  For you

Govern also at Eleusis, in the womb.

But here, O God of Joy,

In the mother city, in bacchantic

Thebes you are at home…’[26]

This ode alludes to Dionysus’ association with wandering, the vine, ecstasy, and his home city of Thebes.  He was considered to be an Earth god, and not an Olympian, because although he was the son of Zeus, he was the result of one of Zeus’ liaisons with women other than Hera, and Hera would not permit his presence.  So Dionysus wandered, a perpetual foreigner.  Dionysus represented the vine itself, a wandering plant growing up from the earth, producing an elixir with transformative powers, which must be harshly pruned, and which had the appearance of death every winter, followed by rebirth in the spring.[27]  Three lines in particular from the ode above allude to Dionysus’ association with rebirth:

But common to all

Is something impenetrable.  For you

Govern also at Eleusis, in the womb.

This allusion to Dionysus’ association with rebirth is significant to an understanding of the themes of foreignness, death and unity in Antigone.  Kitto translates these lines as “King are thou in the crowded shrine/Where Demeter has her abode”[28] and Grene as “you who rule where all are welcome in Eleusis; /in the sheltered plains of Deo.” Hölderlin’s interpretive enhancements intensify the strength of the passage’s allusion to themes about the journey from life to death: the universality of the contemplation of the afterlife, the universal inability of all humankind to penetrate the mystery of what happens to the soul (or consciousness) after death, and the governance of Dionysus over “the womb”, or birth and fertility – in this context, probably the rebirth of the soul in a new realm in the afterlife.  Antigone has a bleak view of the world of the dead, but the cult of Eleusis offered initiates an alternative way of perceiving the afterlife.  Charles Freeman, describing what little is known of the initiation ceremony into the mysteries of Eleusis, writes

‘What went on at this moment [the climax of the initiation ceremony] remains secret (no ancient author ever revealed it), but it was clearly a highly emotional experience in which the participants felt they had achieved direct contact with the divine world and would enjoy a blessed afterlife.’[29]

The choral ode to Dionysus, coming as it does after the emotionally beautiful and charged final speeches of Antigone as she approaches her death (which are filled with a deep sorrow at her passage from life into what she perceives as a “desert of the dead”[30]), spoken by the chorus of Theban elders, has the effect of widening the play’s contemplation of the nature of the afterlife beyond the prevailing view, which is Antigone’s view, to include the nature of the afterlife presented by the cult at Eleusis.  This passage of the ode also provides a philosophical point emphasizing the “impenetrable” nature of these mysteries – that in truth, it is impossible for anyone to know what happens after death until they have experienced it.

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with a contemplation of death as a final homecoming and the transforming power of art.  Hölderlin’s act of translation in the passage above enacts the process of wandering in the foreignness of the original text, drawing power and illumination from the ambiguous energies of meaning and connotation assembled in the air around the words, and incorporating that energy into his interpretive translation in his home language.  Hölderlin carries over from the original Greek energies that are alive but hidden behind the surface meaning of the words.  Dionysus is the god representing these ambiguous energies, and these energies are represented in this ode as a part of the healing power of Dionysus, being invoked at this moment in the play:

‘O you walker in fire

Leader of the dance of the stars and keeper

Of secret speech’[31]

This allusion to Dionysus’ power over hidden, unseen energies comes from Sophocles’ original text – Grene translates “keeper of secret speech” as “master of the voices of the night.”[32] It is significant that Dionysus, as god of the ambiguous and of transformation, should be appealed to for his healing power.  The power of tragedy to transform and heal is the final unity in this exploration of death as a foreign realm.  The union of knowledge of the foreign with the original state of “home” produces a new state of being in which home includes an acceptance of the foreign.  Heidegger’s work on the river hymns of Hölderlin leads him to a contemplation of this eventual unity between home and the foreign:

The essence of one’s own is so mysterious that it unfolds its ownmost essential wealth only from out of a supremely thoughtful acknowledgement of the foreign…[33]

The healing, transformation and enlargement offered by the journey to the foreignness of death isn’t something that affects Antigone, because her role isn’t to be transformed, it is to inspire the journey, then to go first, compelling the imagination to follow her.  The nature of the tragic is the symbolic representation of the progression of the human consciousness coming to terms with what simply IS, and the final point to make about the nature of death in Antigone, and in life beyond Antigone, is that death is ultimately familiar, ultimately natural, ultimately a homecoming.  A final acceptance of the truth, rightness and certainty of death is essentially satisfying to human consciousness because it is a natural progression.  The journey to death involves an encounter with the unknown, which produces awe, fear, pain, and a reluctance to embark. Tragedy powerfully enacts the forces of “what must be,” and creates an explosion of complexities of emotion and significances when an individual is compelled to confront these forces. Beyond the words inscribed on paper, which have carried Antigone safely across two thousand years,  Antigone exists in a parallel realm that is like a crack in the universe and the mysterious space that exists between one thing and another.  In this dark, fertile, and mysterious place that gives birth to great art,  Antigone is alive.




Works Cited

Aristotle.  The Rhetoric (trans. W. Rhys Roberts) and the Poetics (trans. Ingram Bywater) of         Aristotle.  New York: Random House, 1984.


Augst, T. A. “Difference becomes Antigone: Hölderlin and the Ethics of Translation.”  Seminar    (Toronto).  38.2 (May 2002) : 95 – 115.


Constantine, David, trans.  Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus and Antigone. Highgreen, UK:            Bloodaxe Books, Ltd, 2001.


Freeman, Charles.  The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World.  London: Viking          Penguin, 1999.


Grene, David and Lattimore, Richard (Editors).  Greek Tragedies (Volume 1) (2nd Ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Hall, Edith (Editor).  Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra.  H. D. F. Kitto (trans.).       Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Hamilton, Edith.  Mythology.  New York: Little, Brown, 1998.


Nuttall, A. D.  Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.


Steiner, George.  Antigones.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.


Zeitlin, Froma.  Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature.  Chicago:     University of Chicago Press, 1996.



[1]    Edith Hall, citing Bernard Knox’s Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theatre, in her introduction to Kitto’s translation of Antigone, writes “An ancient, but unreliable, tradition implies that Antigone may have been produced in the late 440s [b.c.].”  p xiv

[2]    Steiner, p 106

[3]    Constantine, p 8

[4]    Constantine, p 7

[5]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone,  p 73

[6]    Historian Charles Freeman writes, “When Thucydides describes the plague of 430 in Athens he seems as much concerned with the abandonment of the rituals of burial…as with the loss of life itself.” p 131 – 132

[7]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone,  p 97

[8]    Kitto trans., Hall (ed), p 13

[9]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 81

[10]  Augst, p 101

[11]  Steiner, p 89

[12]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 78

[13]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 94

[14]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p 212

[15]  Kitto trans., Hall (ed.), p 27

[16]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 87

[17]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p 214

[18]  Zeitlin, p 347

[19]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 96

[20]  Aristotle, trans. Ingram Bywater, p 230

[21]  Nuttall, p 77

[22]  Hamilton, p 42 – 43

[23]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 95

[24]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 98

[25]  Hamilton, p 75

[26]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 106

[27]  Hamilton, pp 64 – 76

[28]  Kitto trans., Hall (ed.), p 38

[29]  Freeman, p 142

[30]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 99

[31]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 106

[32]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p. 225

[33]  Heidegger, p 55