By: Marc De Kesel

Love as self-sacrifice: is this typically Christian? Does antique pagan mythology not provide examples of self-sacrifice out of love? Antigone, for instance. What else is it that she did for her dead brother?

After his tragic discovery, blind Oedipus went into exile and left power to his two sons who were supposed to occupy Thebe’s throne in rotation, one year Polynices, the next Eteocles. Polynices started, but once in power, Eteocles refused to hand it over to his brother. Supported by seven other Greek cities, Polynices waged war against his own brother and city. The story ended in a duel in which both were killed by the other’s sword. Creon, the new king, forbid the burial of Polynices, Thebe’s aggressor. Antigone refused to obey and gave her ‘bad’ brother – state enemy number one – a formal burial, knowing in advance that by this she signed her own death sentence. Indeed, this was the conclusion Creon drew.

Benjamin Constant, Antigone and Polynices, ca 1806

Benjamin Constant, Antigone and Polynices, ca 1806

Of course, Antigone loved her brother, but nowhere in the sources we have of Greek mythology, is love – in the sense of Eros – explicitly mentioned as her motive. Neither in the tragic play of that name by Sophocles. Within the crowd of scholars and philosopher who have studied the play (among them Hegel, Hölderlin, Schelling, Heidegger, Lacan, Žižek ), no one puts forward Eros as what drives Antigone to her act. 

This, however, is not to say that Eros is not mentioned at all in Sophocles’ play. There is even a song by the chorus entirely dedicated to it (v. 781-9). It is one of the most famous hymns on love we have from Antiquity.. 

O Eros, the conqueror in every fight,
            Eros, who squanders all men’s wealth,
            who sleeps at night on girls’ soft cheeks,
            and roams across the ocean seas
            and through the shepherd’s hut—

            no immortal god escapes from you,
            nor any man, who lives but for a day. 
            And the one whom you possess goes mad.  

Even in good men you twist their minds,
            perverting them to their own ruin.
            You provoke these men to family strife.
            The bride’s desire seen glittering in her eyes—
            that conquers everything, its power
            enthroned beside eternal laws, for there
            the goddess Aphrodite works her will,
            whose ways are irresistible.

The song presents the classical Antique Greek idea of love, a love that conquers, but with no good intentions. It is a love that ruins rather than heals, affects even gods and perverts the best among humanity. It is love as mere Beauty, detached as it is from its classical triad with Goodness and Truth. The hymn praises love as superficial splendor which, although wounding, cannot but be enjoyed.

Yet, rather than the content, it is the place within the play that is significant here. In the sentence before, after Antigone’s last confrontation with Creon, she is told her verdict: she will be buried alive in an empty grave. From then onwards, the spectator will follow her in the direct way to her death. But not without having heard first an ode to “Eros, conqueror in every fight”.

Does the Sophoclean Eros conquer death? That is what Christian Love would do. On the very place where she enters the realm of death, it would erect a cross that ultimately leaves not life but death slain. Instead of a cross, Sophocles puts Eros here, in the shape of a girl’s beauty. Eros as mere splendor, as what “sleeps at night on girls’ soft cheeks”.

Jean de Rotrou, Antigone (title page), 1638

Jean de Rotrou, Antigone (title page), 1638

Here, love conquers everything except death. Death is in a sense what love enables us to look at. In Sophocles’ tragedy, we look at desire: desire in so far as it cannot be satisfied, desire in its tragic condition. We look at the impossibility of satisfaction as the hallmark of the human. Death is the figure of the impossibility human desire is oriented towards. It is up to Antigone’s beauty to show us that.

On the title page of Jean de Rotrou’s Antigone translation (1638), we see her captured by Creon’s soldiers. She deliberately is performed as an erotic beauty. Behind her we notice death as what slashed down her two brothers (and, thus, the entire House of Cadmus). It is the function of beauty: being a veil that ‘clearly’ hides what is behind, i.e. the impossibility our desire longs for.

It shows us desire as what is strong as death – as is sung in the Song of Songs.