Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the better known Greek dramas. It relates the tragic events that follow after a power struggle in ancient Thebes. The political dispute ultimately continues among family, when formerly warring factions find themselves under the same roof.
The protagonist of the play, Antigone, is at odds with Kreon—the new Theban dictator who also happens to be her uncle and guardian. The issue at stake is whether or not the body of Polyneices (Antigone’s brother and Kreon’s nephew) should be buried. Kreon says no—Polyneices was an enemy of the state; Antigone says yes, and even more, that the gods demand it.
Long story short: Antigone buried her brother in contravention of Kreon’s edict. For this she is condemned to death.
In a pivotal scene of the play, Antigone is led by guards to the cave where she will die. As she laments her fate, she unleashes a final curse upon her enemies, saying the following:
ἀλλ᾽ εἰ μὲν οὖν τάδ᾽ ἐστὶν ἐν θεοῖς καλά,
παθόντες ἂν ξυγγνοῖμεν ἡμαρτηκότες:
εἰ δ᾽ οἵδ᾽ ἁμαρτάνουσι, μὴ πλείω κακὰ
πάθοιεν ἢ καὶ δρῶσιν ἐκδίκως ἐμέ.
But if these [actions of men] are good to the gods,
having suffered this, I could agree that I had erred;
but if these men err in these matters,
let them suffer no fewer bad things
than what they do unjustly to me.
This curse could be considered a confession curse, and it is likely that Athenian audiences would have recognized it as such, for reasons we will see shortly. Such curses seek to exculpate a person when they have been accused of wrongdoing. Confession inscriptions fight fire with fire, so to speak. By inviting the god to punish them, the author effectively demonstrates their innocence and turns the gods against their enemies.
Two examples of confession inscriptions will serve to illustrate this point. The first is an inscription from the first century BCE found in Cnidus, in Asia Minor. In our first example, a woman has been accused of poisoning her husband. She pleads her innocence, and asks that the gods punish her accuser:
I hand over to Demeter and Kore the person who has accused me of preparing poisons/spells against my husband. Having been struck by a fever, let him go up to Demeter with all of his family, and confess (his guilt). And let him not find Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter (to be) merciful…I hand over also the person who has written (charges) against me or commanded others to do so. And let him not benefit from the mercy of Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter, but instead suffer afflictions with all of his family. (Gager no. 89=DT 4 no. 85)
The second also comes from from Cnidus and also involves a case of poisoning. Here, the woman (coincidentally named Antigone—no relation!) submits herself to divine punishment in the event she is truly guilty of her crime:
I, Antigone, make a dedication to Demeter, Kore, Pluto and all the gods and goddesses with Demeter. If I have given poison/spells to Asclapiadas or contemplated in my soul doing anything evil to him…[if so] may Antigone, having been struck by a fever, go up to Demeter and make confession, and may she not find Demeter merciful but instead suffer great torments. (Gager no. 89 = DT 1 no. 81)
It is easy to see the parallels between Sophocles’ Antigone and the confession inscriptions here. Both seek to clarify the nature of the punishment in proportion to the crime. Both argue that they are willing to accept the punishment, as long as it is just. They also request divine retribution in the event that they have been treated unfairly. The function of these curses is obvious: These persons are using them to clear their name, explain their situations, and enact revenge on their accusers.
Confession curses are thought to be very important in situations where legal redress wasn’t always possible. In such cases, the gods themselves are called upon to rectify matters (Assmann 150-151). Confession curses expand upon this theme; there is the question of whether proper action has been pursued, and an appeal to higher powers for a reevaluation. Clearly, it is hoped that the gods will determine, once and for all, the degree of appropriateness of a given punishment.
For Antigone (the one in the play), the laws of the gods are timeless and superior to any temporal, ad hoc decisions made by humans. She specifically lays out here reasons for disobeying the laws of Kreon by citing the supremacy of the gods. For example, in one passage she says:
οὐ γάρ τί μοι Ζεὺς ἦν ὁ κηρύξας τάδε,
οὐδ᾽ ἡ ξύνοικος τῶν κάτω θεῶν Δίκη
τοιούσδ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ὥρισεν νόμους.
οὐδὲ σθένειν τοσοῦτον ᾠόμην τὰ σὰ
κηρύγμαθ᾽, ὥστ᾽ ἄγραπτα κἀσφαλῆ θεῶν
νόμιμα δύνασθαι θνητὸν ὄνθ᾽ ὑπερδραμεῖν.
οὐ γάρ τι νῦν γε κἀχθές, ἀλλ᾽ ἀεί ποτε
ζῇ ταῦτα, κοὐδεὶς οἶδεν ἐξ ὅτου ‘φάνη.
It seems to me that Zeus was not the one who was declaring these things,
nor did the Justice of the gods below lay down these very laws for men,
Nor did I think that your proclamations were strong in such a way as to be able to prevail, because you are being mortal, and since the laws of the Gods are unwritten and unshaken. Indeed, the laws of the gods are not something that had been placed today or yesterday,
but these things live on always,
and no one knows from when it was revealed.
As Mark Griffith observes, appeals to “universal codes of morality” were frequently used in court cases to challenge the validity of a charge (Griffith 201). And I think this is where the confession curse comes in. Antigone has been defeated by the mortal courts, which she had little faith in to begin with. As such, she appeals to what she see is the real authority in the case—the gods. It is the gods she looks to rectify what she see as an unjust situation. Sophocles tacitly supports this view as the play—and Kreon’s life—unravels. It is the gods who have the final say in the affairs of men.
Confession inscriptions then can be seen as a key component of extra-legal redress, not just in situations where access to recompense is hindered, but also where human adjudication may not render the desired outcome. The gods are viewed as superior to humans, and thus able to rectify situations gone wrong on earth. Antigone’s curse represents the incorporation of a cultural practice into a dramatic literary form. It is likely that ancient audiences would have clued into her final invocation of the gods and recognized her actions as an attempt at divine exoneration.
Assmann, Jan. “When Justice Fails: Jurisdiction and Imprecation in Ancient Egypt and the Near East,” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 78 (1992): 149-162.
Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Sophocles. Antigone. Edited by Mark Griffith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.