Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus and Iocaste (Jocasta), or, according to the older story, of Euryganeia. When Oedipus, on discovering that Iocaste, the mother of his children, was also his own mother, put his eyes out and stepped down as King of Thebes, Antigone accompanied him into exile at Colonus. After his death she returned to Thebes, where Haemon, the son of Creon, king of Thebes, became enamoured of her. Oedipus had given the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who both agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, the sons showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence.
After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and an angered Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters (the Seven Against Thebes). Both brothers died in the battle, "each slain by the other's hand." King Creon, who ascended to the throne of Thebes, decreed that Polynices "who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers," was not to be buried: "touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame."
Antigone, sister of Polynices, defied the order, explaining, "I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide for ever", but was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be locked in a cave to die (this in spite of her betrothal to King Creon's son Haemon). Antigone's sister, Ismene, then declared she had aided Antigone and wanted the same fate, although she was innocent.
Teiresias, the blind prophet, enters to explain to Creon how he has been wrong in sentencing Antigone to death: "Give in to the dead man, then: do not fight with a corpse- What glory is it to kill a man who is dead?" Throughout this speech, there are many places where Teiresias is essentially restating what Haimon has already said to Creaon earlier on in the play (also to try to convince him to free Antigone). Creon is extremely resistant at first but upon Teiresias's exit, the Choragos remarks that Teiresias has never been wrong, causing Creon to admit that he is starting to worry about his decree. Creon hurries to the cave in which Antigone is locked but Antigone had already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrived at the tomb where she was to be interred, his son Haemon unsuccessfully attempted to murder him and then killed himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, was informed of Haemon's death, she too took her own life.
Antigone's character and these incidents of her life presented an attractive subject to the Greek tragic poets, especially Sophocles in the Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, and Euripides, whose Antigone, though now lost, is partly known from extracts incidentally preserved in later writers, and from passages in his Phoenissae.
In the order of the events, at least, Sophocles departed from the original legend, according to which the burial of Polyneices took place while Oedipus was yet in Thebes, not after he had died at Colonus. Again, in regard to Antigone's tragic end Sophocles differs from Euripides, according to whom the calamity was averted by the intercession of Dionysus and was followed by the marriage of Antigone and Haemon.
In Hyginus's version of the legend, founded apparently on a tragedy by some follower of Euripides, Antigone, on being handed over by Creon to her lover Haemon to be slain, was secretly carried off by him, and concealed in a shepherd's hut, where she bore him a son Maeon. When the boy grew up, he went to some funeral games at Thebes, and was recognized by the mark of a dragon on his body. This led to the discovery that Antigone was still alive. Heracles pleaded in vain with Creon for Haemon, who slew both Antigone and himself, to escape his father's vengeance.
On a painted vase the scene of the intercession of Heracles is represented (Heydermann, Über eine nacheuripideische Antigone, 1868). Antigone placing the body of Polyneices on the funeral pile occurs on a sarcophagus in the villa Pamfili in Rome, and is mentioned in the description of an ancient painting by Philostratus (Imag. ii. 29), who states that the flames consuming the two brothers burnt apart, indicating their unalterable hatred, even in death.
The story of Antigone has been a popular subject for books, plays and other works, including:
- Antigone, one of the three Theban plays by Sophocles
- Antigone, opera by Carl Orff
- Antigone, play by Jean Anouilh
- "The Island", play by Athol Fugard