Ignorance of Animals

In the world of Sophocles’s Antigone, birds and dogs are instruments of defilement associated with the corpse of Polynices:

Creon to the Chorus (203-206):

Regarding this man, it’s been proclaimed to this city
That no one honor him with burial or mourn him,
And his body be left unburied for the birds
And dogs, ravaged fare, and for all to see.

τοῦτον πόλει τῇδʼ ἐκκεκήρυκται τάφῳ
μήτε κτερίζειν μήτε κωκῦσαί τινα,
ἐᾶν δʼ ἄθαπτον καὶ πρὸς οἰωνῶν δέμας
καὶ πρὸς κυνῶν ἐδεστὸν αἰκισθέν τʼ ἰδεῖν.

Tiresias to Creon (1015-1018):

There’s plague in the city because of what you concocted.
All our altars and hearths are clogged
With the carcass scraps, carried by dogs and birds,
Of the ill-fated, fallen son of Oedipus.

καὶ ταῦτα τῆς σῆς ἐκ φρενὸς νοσεῖ πόλις.
βωμοὶ γὰρ ἡμῖν ἐσχάραι τε παντελεῖς
πλήρεις ὑπʼ οἰωνῶν τε καὶ κυνῶν βορᾶς
τοῦ δυσμόρου πεπτῶτος Οἰδίπου γόνου.

Wild animals can trouble corpses too, but in Antigone they are associated with corpses other than Polynices’. Wild animals are absent from Creon’s prescription for Polynices’ remains and absent from Tiresias’s account of what befell them.

Dogs and birds are certainly a threat to all unburied corpses, but the involvement of wild animals marks corpses as not-Polynices’:

Tiresias to Creon (1080-1083):

All the cities are vibrating with hate:
Bits and pieces of their dead have been hallowed
By dogs, wild animals, or some winged bird transporting
The unholy stench into the hearth-bearing city.

ἐχθραὶ δὲ πᾶσαι συνταράσσονται πόλεις,
ὅσων σπαράγματʼ ἢ κύνες καθήγνισαν
ἢ θῆρες ἤ τις πτηνὸς οἰωνός, φέρων
ἀνόσιον ὀσμὴν ἑστιοῦχον ἐς πόλιν.

If this is a plausible reading of dogs, birds, and wild animals, then something must be said about the guard.

The guard, a curious figure in many respects, speaks of Polynices’ corpse in relation to wild animals and dogs, a combination absent from the authoritative discourses of Creon and Tiresias:

The guard to Creon (253-258):

When the first watch of the day showed us,
Amazement hard to grasp came over us all:
The man could not be seen! He was not entombed,
But there was fine dust on him.
It was as if someone had done it to avoid pollution.
Also, there were no signs a wild animal
Or dogs had come and torn the body.

ὅπως δʼ ὁ πρῶτος ἡμὶν ἡμεροσκόπος
δείκνυσι, πᾶσι θαῦμα δυσχερὲς παρῆν.
ὁ μὲν γὰρ ἠφάνιστο, τυμβήρης μὲν οὔ,
λεπτὴ δʼ, ἄγος φεύγοντος ὥς, ἐπῆν κόνις·
σημεῖα δʼ οὔτε θηρὸς οὔτε του κυνῶν
ἐλθόντος, οὐ σπάσαντος ἐξεφαίνετο.

I’m going to suggest the guard’s invocation of animals is at odds with Creon’s and Tiresias’s precisely because the guard does not know the identity of his dead charge.

That is why the guard speaks of “the corpse” (τὸν νεκρόν), “he” (ὁ), “the man” (τὸν ἄνδρʼ), and “a body” (σῶμα). He never says “Polynices,” “the son of Oedipus,” or anything of the kind.

Consistent with that, the guard also does not know the identity of the woman he’s arrested. That is why he says “she” (ἦ), “this woman” (ταύτην), and “the girl” (ἡ παῖς). He never says “Antigone,” “the dead man’s sister,” or anything of the kind.

Black and white bird sitting on back of german shepherd

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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