The Stories Of Alcestis And Antigone
by Charlotte M. Yonge
It has been said, that even the heathens saw and knew the glory of self- devotion; and the Greeks had two early instances so very beautiful that, though they cannot in all particulars be true, they must not be passed over. There must have been some foundation for them, though we cannot now disentangle them from the fable that has adhered to them; and, at any rate, the ancient Greeks believed them, and gathered strength and nobleness from dwelling on such examples; since, as it has been truly said, ‘Every word, look or thought of sympathy with heroic action, helps to make heroism’. Both tales were presented before them in their solemn religious tragedies, and the noble poetry in which they were recounted by the great Greek dramatists has been preserved to our time.
Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, King of Pherae, who, according to the legend, was assured that his life might be prolonged, provided father, mother, or wife would die in his stead. It was Alcestis alone who was willing freely to give her life to save that of her husband; and her devotion is thus exquisitely described in the following translation, by Professor Anstice, from the choric song in the tragedy by Euripides:
‘Be patient, for thy tears are vain
They may not wake the dead again:
E’en heroes, of immortal sire
And mortal mother born, expire.
Oh, she was dear
While she linger’d here;
She is dear now she rests below,
And thou mayst boast
That the bride thou hast lost
Was the noblest earth can show.
‘We will not look on her burial sod
As the cell of sepulchral sleep,
It shall be as the shrine of a radiant god,
And the pilgrim shall visit that blest abode
To worship, and not to weep;
And as he turns his steps aside,
Thus shall he breathe his vow:
‘Here sleeps a self-devoted bride,
Of old to save her lord she died.
She is a spirit now.
Hail, bright and blest one! grant to me
The smiles of glad prosperity.’
Thus shall he own her name divine,
Thus bend him at Alcestis’ shrine.’
The story, however, bore that Hercules, descending in the course of one of his labors into the realms of the dead, rescued Alcestis, and brought her back; and Euripides gives a scene in which the rough, jovial Hercules insists on the sorrowful Admetus marrying again a lady of his own choice, and gives the veiled Alcestis back to him as the new bride. Later Greeks tried to explain the story by saying that Alcestis nursed her husband through an infectious fever, caught it herself, and had been supposed to be dead, when a skilful physician restored her; but this is probably only one of the many reasonable versions they tried to give of the old tales that were founded on the decay and revival of nature in winter and spring, and with a presage running through them of sacrifice, death, and resurrection. Our own poet Chaucer was a great admirer of Alcestis, and improved upon the legend by turning her into his favorite flower—
‘The daisie or els the eye of the daie,
The emprise and the floure of flouris all’.
Another Greek legend told of the maiden of Thebes, one of the most self- devoted beings that could be conceived by a fancy untrained in the knowledge of Divine Perfection. It cannot be known how much of her story is true, but it was one that went deep into the hearts of Grecian men and women, and encouraged them in some of their best feelings; and assuredly the deeds imputed to her were golden.
Antigone was the daughter of the old King Oedipus of Thebes. After a time heavy troubles, the consequence of the sins of his youth, came upon him, and he was driven away from his kingdom, and sent to wander forth a blind old man, scorned and pointed at by all. Then it was that his faithful daughter showed true affection for him. She might have remained at Thebes with her brother Eteocles, who had been made king in her father’s room, but she chose instead to wander forth with the forlorn old man, fallen from his kingly state, and absolutely begging his bread. The great Athenian poet Sophocles began his tragedy of ‘Oedipus Coloneus’ with showing the blind old king leaning on Antigone’s arm, and asking–
‘Tell me, thou daughter of a blind old man,
Antigone, to what land are we come,
Or to what city? Who the inhabitants
Who with a slender pittance will relieve
Even for a day the wandering Oedipus?’
The place to which they had come was in Attica, hear the city of Colonus. It was a lovely grove–
‘All the haunts of Attic ground,
Where the matchless coursers bound,
Boast not, through their realms of bliss,
Other spot so fair as this.
Frequent down this greenwood dale
Mourns the warbling nightingale,
Nestling ‘mid the thickest screen
Of the ivy’s darksome green,
Or where each empurpled shoot
Drooping with its myriad fruit,
Curl’d in many a mazy twine,
Droops the never-trodden vine.’
This beautiful grove was sacred to the Eumenides, or avenging goddesses, and it was therefore a sanctuary where no foot might tread; but near it the exiled king was allowed to take up his abode, and was protected by the great Athenian King, Theseus. There his other daughter, Ismene, joined him, and, after a time, his elder son Polynices, arrived.
Polynices had been expelled from Thebes by his brother Eteocles, and had been wandering through Greece seeking aid to recover his rights. He had collected an army, and was come to take leave of his father and sisters; and at the same time to entreat his sisters to take care that, if he should fall in the battle, they would prevent his corpse from being left unburied; for the Greeks believed that till the funeral rites were performed, the spirit went wandering restlessly up and down upon the banks of a dark stream, unable to enter the home of the dead. Antigone solemnly promised to him that he should not be left without these last rites. Before long, old Oedipus was killed by lightning, and the two sisters returned to Thebes.
The united armies of the seven chiefs against Thebes came on, led by Polynices. Eteocles sallied out to meet them, and there was a terrible battle, ending in all the seven chiefs being slain, and the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, were killed by one another in single combat. Creon, the uncle, who thus became king, had always been on the side of Eteocles, and therefore commanded that whilst this younger brother was entombed with all due solemnities, the body of the elder should be left upon the battlefield to be torn by dogs and vultures, and that whosoever durst bury it should be treated as a rebel and a traitor to the state.
This was the time for the sister to remember her oath to her dead brother. The more timid Ismene would have dissuaded her, but she answered,
‘To me no sufferings have that hideous form
Which can affright me from a glorious death’.
And she crept forth by night, amid all the horrors of the deserted field of battles, and herself covered with loose earth the corpse of Polynices. The barbarous uncle caused it to be taken up and again exposed, and a watch was set at some little distance. Again Antigone
‘Was seen, lamenting shrill with plaintive notes,
Like the poor bird that sees her lonely nest
Spoil’d of her young’.
Again she heaped dry dust with her own hands over the body, and poured forth the libations of wine that formed an essential part of the ceremony. She was seized by the guard, and led before Creon. She boldly avowed her deed, and, in spite of the supplications of Ismene, she was put to death, a sufferer for her noble and pious deeds; and with this only comfort:
‘Glowing at my heart
I feel this hope, that to my father, dear
And dear to thee, my mother, dear to thee,
My brother, I shall go.’
Dim and beautiful indeed was the hope that upbore the grave and beautiful Theban maiden; and we shall see her resolution equaled, though hardly surpassed, by Christian Antigones of equal love and surer faith.
Charlotte Mary Yonge