The Bird Motif in Antigone
In Sophocles’ Antigone1 the motif of birds is seen throughout the play. In ancient Greece, birds had a variety of different roles. Birds were associated with creation, deities, love, wisdom, and specifically prophecies. Mentions of this prophetic animal and related terms occur directly eleven times, thus: “birds ? (35, 230, 386, 1104, 1125), “eagle ? (127, 1152), “wings ? (128,1108), “nest ? (472), and “vultures ? (781). Sophocles uses the motif of birds to foreshadow the future actions in the play. The description of birds is used throughout the play to illustrate Polynices’ irony, Antigone’s love, and Creon’s consequences for his actions.
The chorus describes Polynices as a “wild eagle screaming insults “(127) to represent the chaos Etocles and Polynices instigated. The Chorus describes Polynices the eagle as feasting on their blood, “jaws were glutted with our gore ? (136). When Oedipus died, he left his two sons the throne to Thebes. Etocles and Polynices abused the throne with arrogance or “the boast of a proud tongue ?(141).When Polynices was killed, Creon took the throne of Thebes and forbids the burial of Polynices. In the opening of the play Antigone describes Polynices’ dead body as “a sweet treasure for carrion birds to find as they search for food ? (35). This highlights the irony of Polynices because he once was a “screaming eagle ? (127), who brought disaster to the town of Thebes. Now Polynices is the one who is dead and disaster is being brought on him. Sophocles began the story with Antigone describing him as food for birds and later, he is described has a wild eagle.
With Antigone, the motif strengthens her character. She is”a mother bird that comes back to a stripped nest ? (472).Antigone is determined to bury her brother the proper way, even if that means going against Creon’s orders. By describing Antigone as a”mother bird crying bitterly ? (471) over her “young ones stolen ? (473), Sophocles presents her as a maternal figure. Her love for her brother is like a mother bird protecting her eggs. Sophocles portrays Antigone as a representative of the ancient force of nature.
The most important description of birds comes from the blind prophet Tiresias. In ancient Greece, birds were seen as prophetic and prophets used birds to tell the future. Teiresias explains to Creon the meaning of the birds. He begins by saying the birds are all fighting and this is a sign of the corruption in Thebes that Creon created. The Chorus continues by telling Creon that the birds can no longer talk because they are “gorged on the thick blood of death ? (136). Further, “the hearths and altars are stained ? (1124), from the birds that devoured Polynices. Tiresias’ explanation highlights the corruption that Creon has invoked due to avoiding the burial of Polynices.
Sophocles relied on the prophetic image of birds to portray specific ideas and characters throughout Antigone. His description of Polyneices as a wild eagle is ironic because he is later feasted on by birds. Antigone is seen as maternal because of Sophocles’s presentation of Antigone as a mother bird. Tiresias brings the play full circle by using birds to explain the corruption that Creon’s actions have brought upon Thebes.Polynices’ irony, Antigone’s maternity, and Creon’s consequences from his actions were all displayed through the motif of birds. The ancient Greek concept of prophetic birds accurately explains the ideas and characters in Antigone.