Antigone: The Woman Who Defied the Theban King in Greek Mythology

Antigone is a key figure in Greek mythology and literature, particularly in the tragic plays of the Athenian playwright Sophocles. Her story interweaves elements of family loyalty, moral choices, and the tragic consequences of defiance against autocratic rule.

Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, defied King Creon to bury her brother, emphasizing divine justice over human decree, resulting in her tragic death. Image: Antigone by British painter Frederic Leighton, 1882.

Origins and Background

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, and his mother Jocasta. In some other myths, her mother is Euryganeia.

She has two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, and a sister named Ismene. The family is plagued by a curse, which leads to a series of tragic events, beginning with Oedipus unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother, and culminating in the deaths of his offspring.

Meaning of her name

Antigone’s name in Greek mythology carries significance. Deriving from “Anti-” meaning “in place of” and “-gonia” meaning “parents”, her name translates to “worthy of one’s parents” or “in place of one’s parents”, emphasizing her strong familial loyalty and duty.

The Conflict

The crux of Antigone’s story lies in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes. Both her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, die fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle, decrees that Eteocles will be honored with burial rites as he defended the city, while Polynices, who attacked it, will be left unburied, a severe dishonor in ancient Greek culture, and a torment for his soul.

Antigone appears in the three 5th century BC tragic plays written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. The plays, known as the three Theban plays, are “Oedipus Rex”, “Antigone”, and “Oedipus at Colonus”. Image: Oedipus and Antigone by Aleksander Kokular (1825–1828), National Museum, Warsaw

Antigone’s Defiance

Against this backdrop, Antigone emerges as a figure of moral resilience and determination. Despite Creon’s edict, she believes that the laws of the gods and familial duty are superior to the laws of man. She defies Creon’s order and buries Polynices, performing the minimal sacred rites for her brother.

When Creon learns of her act, he is furious. Antigone is brought before him, and she does not deny her actions. She argues that while kings might issue decrees, the unwritten laws of the gods and the bonds of kinship are eternal and more binding.

READ MORE: 15 Lesser-Known Greek Gods and Goddesses

Creon’s Stubbornness

Creon, equally unyielding, believes in the importance of law and order for the city’s stability. He feels that pardoning Antigone would show weakness and undermine his authority. He orders her to be entombed alive in a cave as punishment.

Tragic Outcomes

The unfolding tragedy doesn’t just end with Antigone. Her death sets off a chain reaction. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, is devastated by Antigone’s death and commits suicide. When Eurydice, Creon’s wife, learns of her son’s death, she too takes her own life, leaving Creon broken and filled with regret.

How Theseus rescued Antigone

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” which is the last of three Theban plays by Sophocles, Antigone dutifully guides her blind father, Oedipus, into the city. Mirroring her father, she is characterized by her tenacity and tragic fate. Throughout, she remains by Oedipus’ side, until Creon takes her and her sister captive to manipulate Oedipus.

Theseus, the heroic king, intervenes, saving the sisters. As the play concludes, they grieve their father’s death. Though Theseus assures them Oedipus received a proper burial, he reveals they cannot visit the burial site, respecting Oedipus’ wishes. Consequently, Antigone resolves to return to Thebes.

READ MORE: Greatest Heroes and Heroines in Greek Mythology

Themes and Interpretations

Antigone’s tale poses profound moral and political questions. At its heart, it’s a conflict between the individual conscience and duty to the state, between divine law and man-made law. Antigone sees her actions as an allegiance to unwritten laws, to the eternal and divine, even if it means her death. Creon, on the other hand, prioritizes the order of the state over individual morality and familial bonds.

This story also touches on the theme of gender. In a male-dominated society, Antigone challenges not just the king but the social norms of the time. Her resistance is not just against a royal decree, but against the broader societal expectations of a woman’s role.

Antigone was a prominent character in Greek tragedies, notably in Sophocles’ play “Antigone.” She was the daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. Image: Antigone and the body of Polynices (Project Gutenberg)


Ancient Greek poet Sophocles’ “Antigone,” part of his Theban plays trilogy, is one of the most performed and studied plays in the world. It has inspired countless adaptations and reimaginings, from plays to novels to films, across different cultures and eras. Philosophers, political activists, and scholars have analyzed and drawn from its deep reservoir of moral dilemmas.

In the modern era, Antigone’s character has been evoked in discussions of civil disobedience. Her decision to prioritize personal conscience and divine law over state law resonates in many global contexts, making her story timeless.

Ancient Greek tragedy

Sophocles, an ancient Greek playwright, was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens. Born around 496 BC, he’s best known for his Theban plays, including “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone,” which explore fate, morality, and the human condition.

Frequently asked questions about Antigone in Greek mythology

Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, defied King Creon’s orders to bury her brother Polynices, leading to tragic consequences and her eventual death. Image: Antigone in Front of the Dead Polynices by Greek painter Nikiforos Lytras, National Gallery, Athens, Greece (1865)

What is the main conflict in the story of Antigone?

Antigone defies King Creon’s edict by burying her brother Polynices, which leads to tragic consequences.

Why did Antigone bury Polynices?

She believed in the divine law and the rights of the dead to receive proper burial rituals, which she deemed more important than obeying the man-made laws of Thebes.

What were the consequences of Antigone’s actions?

For her defiance, Creon ordered her to be buried alive, leading to her tragic death.

How does Antigone’s story end?

Antigone hangs herself while imprisoned, and her death leads to a series of tragic events, including the suicides of Creon’s son Haemon and his wife Eurydice.

What is the main theme of Antigone’s story?

The play explores the conflict between divine law and man-made law, individual conscience and political law, and the consequences of moral choices.

How is Antigone related to Oedipus?

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, making her both Oedipus’ daughter and sister due to the infamous Oedipal complex.

Oedipus and Antigone by C. W. Eckersberg (1812)

Who are Antigone’s siblings?

She had two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, and a sister, Ismene.

Why were Eteocles and Polynices in conflict?

After Oedipus’ exile, the brothers agreed to rule Thebes in alternate years, but Eteocles refused to step down, leading to Polynices’ siege of Thebes and their mutual deaths in battle.

What is the significance of Antigone’s defiance?

Antigone’s actions represent an individual’s moral duty and courage against the might of authority, emphasizing the conflict between personal conviction and societal rules.

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