For an introduction to Athenian tragic theater, see Part 1 on Aeschylus.
Sophocles is often the first exposure people have to Attic theater. The first Greek tragedy I ever read was Sophocles’ Antigone, when it was assigned in my junior year English class at my public high school in suburban Boston. To remind us that these were dramatic plays and not just texts, my teacher had us create masks and perform scenes from the play. I remember the thrill of getting into the character of Tiresias in his acrimonious dialogue with Creon. It remains my favorite work of Sophocles. I was assigned the Oedipus Tyrannus the following year in AP English. We read these plays alongside excerpts from the Poetics of Aristotle, who roughly a century after Sophocles held him up as the consummate tragedian, and the Oedipus Tyrannus as the ideal tragedy for its conformity to the rules of tragic composition that Aristotle retrospectively prescribed. These Aristotelian basics plot may be familiar, the notion that a tragedy should have unities of action, time, and place, that characters should be consistent and noble, that it should arouse in the audience feelings of pity and fear that are then purged by a resolution (katharsis), that it should center around a hero who is essentially good but makes a mistake (hamartia) that leads to a reversal in fortune (perpitateia) and a recognition (anagnorisis) of the truth. We have already seen how Aeschylus departed from these rules, and will see how Euripides did as well. Nevertheless, we might thank Aristotle for his role in canonizing Sophoclean tragedy and guaranteeing its survival to the present day, and it was his influence (and surely also that of Sigmund Freud) that made the Theban plays in particular the often first encounter many people have with tragedy, which in turn has implications for their modern reception, including by metal bands.
Even without Aristotle’s endorsement, Sophocles was one of the most successful tragic playwrights in classical Athens, and paired with his active political and military career, he was so beloved by the Athenians that after his death around 405 BCE he was granted a hero cult under the name of Dexion. Like Aeschylus, only seven of his over 120 plays survive intact, and the dates of composition for these are often debated. These are the Ajax, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. The Antigone and two Oedipus plays are often read together as a so-called “Theban trilogy,” but even though they are episodes within the same mythos of the House of Oedipus, unlike the Oresteia they were not performed simultaneously as a connected trilogy, but were in fact produced at very different times in Sophocles’ long career (he was born around 496 and died 90 years later). In fact, the Antigone, which is the last in the mythic timeline, was the first of the Theban plays to be produced.
As is often the case, the reception of Sophocles’ plays in metal is partly a function of their general popularity, but also of subject matter. We will explore adaptations of the Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone, which are his most widely read plays today, and also the Ajax. All three of these plays involve transgression, violence, and suicide, themes often germane to heavy metal. While the Electra enacts the violent revenge of Orestes and Electra against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers from the Oresteia is the preferred source for that tale. The Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus do not involve violence, nor are “tragic” in the modern sense. The Women of Trachis involves the excruciating death of Heracles, but the death of such a hero as a result of the unwitting poisoning by his wife Deianira is not really the heroic death so admired by heavy metal. One group, the American black metal band Velonnic Sin, does mention Heracles’ death in their song “The Lernæan Fiend,” about his defeat of the Hydra, whose blood tipped the arrows that killed the Centaur Nessus. Nessus’ blood in turn supplied the poison that Deianira smeared on the robe that, instead of being the love-charm Nessus told her it was, killed her heroic husband:
For after all his curtailed misery and pain,
Enrobed he lay in agony’s throes—
Pulsing away in Oeta’s pyre,
Soundless like our slaughtered foes.
The American thrash metal band Krom also allude to this myth in the anticlimactic ending to their song on the Twelve Labors of Heracles, titled “Tomb of Hercules”: “the death of this noble god, came at the hands of the woman he loved.” These two songs do not provide sufficient evidence that the bands specifically read the Women of Trachis, which remains Sophocles’ least popular play of those that survive (even criticized as a juvenile work of his for its lack of artistic merit). For one thing, the Krom song suggests that Heracles was still in love with Deianira, when the action of the drama revolves around the fact that Heracles fell in love with a Thessalian princes Iole, whom he brought home to Trachis where Deianira was queen.
When it comes to direct engagement, two bands have adapted Sophocles’ Ajax. The play takes place during the Trojan War in the aftermath of the death of the Greeks’ greatest champion, Achilles. The leaders of the Greek task force, the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, hold a competition over who should be awarded Achilles’ divinely forged armor, and thus be considered the new “best of the Achaeans.” The contestants come down to Ajax and Odysseus. While Ajax (in Greek Αἴας/Aias) is unrivaled in terms of physical prowess and skill in combat, Odysseus wins the prize for his virtues as a strategist, which at that stage in the war became recognized as a superior asset (Odysseus would, after all, win the war through the ruse of the Wood Horse). The prideful Ajax is furious at the decision, and at the notion that the traditional masculine virtues of open warfare should be so devalued in favor of trickery and subterfuge. He resolves that the only way to compensate for this blow to his honor is to take bloody revenge on Odysseus as well as Agamemnon and Menelaus. But on the night he sets out from his tent to murder these men, the goddess Athena (who favors Odysseus) causes Ajax to hallucinate, and he attacks a flock of sheep, which he tortures and slaughters, under the delusion that these were the men he intended to kill.
Sophocles’ play itself begins just as Ajax wakes up to the reality that, rather than avenging his dishonor, he further humiliated himself through this act of ovine butchery. Though it would mean abandoning his Salaminian comrades (the chorus), his concubine Tecmessa, and the son he had with her, he determines that the only way to save face at this point is to take his own life. In a scene that might have been the rare exception to the practice of avoiding the portrayal of death on stage, Ajax falls on his sword. The remainder of the play revolves around whether this man who plotted treason deserves a proper burial or be left as a feast for dogs and birds (a fate worse than death in Greek eschatology). Agamemnon forbids the burial, despite the protestations of Ajax’s brother Teucer. Odysseus, despite being a primary target of Ajax’s hatred, advises reconciliation, and persuades Agamemnon to relent. Ajax is duly buried. Ajax is ultimately about warriors who resist the changing of the times, Ajax who cannot fathom how intelligence is now valued over brute strength, and an Agamemnon whose royal fiat must give way to democratic debate and persuasion. While patriotically celebrating the new values of democratic Athens, Sophocles nevertheless takes the sore loser of the mythic Ajax and makes him a sympathetic character who, despite his misguidedness, became the plaything of partial gods, and who deserves to be treated with human dignity.
The first treatment of the Ajax comes from the Cypriot heavy/power metal band Solitary Sabred with their song “The Trojan Hero” on their 2009 album The Hero the Monster the Myth. The song focuses mainly on the psychological state of Ajax as he paces in his tent meditating violent revenge on Odysseus.
He started walking in the night
Pictures of anger in his mind
Thought he saw someone ahead
It must be Odysseus he said
He slaughtered him with rage in his eyes
But he didn’t know it was only…
Aias got crazy he got mad
They took his honour he wasn’t a man
He was a hero in the war
But now he wants to fight no more
Wanted to destroy his pain
But tears were dropping down like rain
Wanted to take Odysseus head
To watch his blood running warm and red
Night in his lonely tent
Wondering how it’s gonna end
Made a promise and he swore
Took his armor and his sword
But, suddenly a god appeared
It was Athena with the spear
There, she looked so wise and kind
Took his senses and his mind
Didn’t want to run or hide
Didn’t have a life and pride
Pushed his sword into his heart
Hero died in a foreign land
He met Achilles in Hades’ world
He was a shadow
Like them all
He looked at him straight in the eye
Because he knew he had found…his pride!
It’s suggested by the lyrics that his state of madness, and even his suicide, perhaps even precedes Athena’s divine intervention. One gets the sense that Ajax’s honor could not be reclaimed after the initial disgrace of denying him the honor. Similar to the reasoning of Achilles for withdrawing from the fighting after being insulted by Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad, Ajax thought that continuing to fight in the war had no purpose, despite the fact that a warrior was his only identity. A murder-suicide was the only way out of this situation. Yet the slaughter of the sheep is not even mentioned in this song, as though his fit of madness inspired by Athena merely reinforced the already deep-seated rage he felt after his humiliation in the contest of the arms. Fitting then that in the last stanza he meets Achilles in the underworld, a kindred spirit who similarly found a reason to be proud. Achilles chose a short life that would give him eternal fame. In his iconic suicide, Ajax also reclaimed the immortal fame he may well have lost had he lived.
The second treatment comes from the Hungarian progressive metal band Miserium. Their 2017 release Ascension is a concept album on Ajax’s career during the Trojan War at large. This despite the depiction on its cover artwork of the Trojan Horse used in the 2004 film Troy, the construction of which occurred after Ajax’s death. The horse nevertheless symbolizes the paradigm shift that ultimately led to Ajax’s demise in Sophocles’ play, the change from brute strength to intelligence as the preferred means of waging war.
The events immediately preceding the action of the play come with the sixth song “Incomprehensible Act.” This song covers Ajax’s rage at losing the contest of the arms and his deluded rampage against the sheep. It contains dialogue spoken from the point of view of Ajax, Athena, and an omniscient narrator. The first half of the song is acoustic and sung in frontman Szabolcs Tari’s clean vocals, and covers a conversation between Ajax and Athena. Miserium not only revise the myth by having Athena visibly present to him, but they even suggest that Athena was Ajax’s patron goddess and not (just) Odysseus’. Ajax fulminates against Agamemnon specifically:
The king’s decision has made it clear to me
No matter what feats I’ve accomplished
I might never get the proper respect
A post resembling what Ulysses established
Side by side we fought for the king of errors
But I’ve never seen him on the battlefield, never!
These words put Ajax in parallel to Achilles in Book 1 of the Iliad. Both warriors claim that since they were dishonored (deprived of a prize, whether Briseis or the arms) there is no use fighting any more in the war, where material rewards for valor were an important means to quantify a warrior’s prestige. As Achilles does in the Iliad, Ajax insults Agamemnon for not fighting in the front lines despite being their leader (this is merely rhetoric, as Agamemnon does fight that way later in the Iliad). And finally, just as Athena intervened to restrain Achilles when he drew his sword to kill Agamemnon in Iliad 1, so she is forced to divert Ajax’s murderous frenzy in this situation. Halfway through the song, Ajax springs into action, as the electric guitars and drums thunder in a doom metal style, and Ajax’s lyrics are sung in rough vocals: “Step forward, sons of bastards / Let me see your faces!” Athena responds with one final warning, sung cleanly by a female vocalist: “Son of Telamon! There’s no need for this. / The bloodshed that you’re goin’ to do / will be the end of your journey, my great hero.” Heedless, Ajax revels in carnage, only coming to his senses at the end of the song: “Shame on me, Aiax.”
In the next two songs, “Cast to Waves” and “A Silent Prayer,” are from Ajax’s perspective as he reflects on his humiliation, and prays to the three Fates to end his misery and cut “the ashamed hero’s yarn” they had spun for him. He hopes that in death that the gods will not “hide my mortal name when a new age comes / Let me be remembered as a hero, the damned one.” Thus in his suicide he tries to secure his immortal fame, the goal of all classical heroes. The final track, the acoustic postlude “Ascension,” is sung by the same female vocalist who plays Athena:
Aias, the son of Telamon, you took your life by your own hands
Dagger created a great hole in your heart
Whose fault is your death matters no longer
Nobody held your hand, you’re lying here unburied
with wounds in your heart, in your mind
Alone, lost in the dark in the end…
The album ends midway through the action of the Sophoclean play, before Odysseus persuades Agamemnon to let Teucer bury his brother. Ajax dies alone, as we all will, ultimately, die alone, death always being an experience no one can really share. However, the title of the song and album, Ascension, suggests that even in this lonely, miserable death, Ajax achieves immortality through the memory of his name, this album being but the latest in a line of songs told by bards since the origins of the Epic Cycle in Greece’s dark age.
We come next to the Oedipus Tyrannus (aka Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King, OT for short), which thanks to Aristotle’s endorsement remains one of the most widely read Greek tragedies, often the first introduction to the genre for high school students. Like the Ajax, the audience of the OT came to the Theater of Dionysus around 429 BCE knowing the background of the story. I will not recount every detail of its complex plot, but here is a precis. The king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, receive an oracle from Delphi that their unborn son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. In a futile effort to circumvent this prophecy, they order a slave to expose the infant Oedipus to die in the wild. The slave ends up giving the baby to a shepherd, who brings it to Corinth to be adopted by the king and queen, Polybus and Merope. When Oedipus grows up he receives a similar oracle from Delphi, that he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, so he flees Corinth in the belief that its king and queen are his true parents. He heads north toward Thebes, and meets at a crossroads a man who is his real father Laius, whom Oedipus kills in an episode of ancient road rage. As he approaches Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a monster that had been terrorizing Thebes and strangling any passerby who could not answer her riddle: “what walks on four legs, then two, then three.” Oedipus correctly answers “humans,” and the Sphinx throws herself off a cliff. Oedipus arrives in Thebes, where he is awarded the recently vacant kingship for saving the city. He marries Jocasta and they have four children, Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene.
The play begins when a plague strikes Thebes, and the Delphic oracle proclaims that it will be lifted only by driving out Laius’ murderer. King Oedipus launches an investigation, and consults the blind prophet Tiresias, who is reluctant to give any information until Oedipus forces it out of him. When told he is the murderer, Oedipus refuses to believe it and paranoidly accuses him and his brother-in-law Creon of conspiring against him. However, as the investigation continues in the play, Oedipus eventually finds proof of the truth of his parentage, and that he did in fact fulfill the prophecy he sought to avoid. Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus stabs his eyes out in response to the ironic revelation that he was truly blind to things a blind man (Tiresias) could see. The OT is pregnant with universal questions about the relationship of human beings and divine destiny: did Oedipus deserve his fate? Was his fulfillment of it the inevitable consequences of his character? More modern interpretations of this play include, most famously, that of Sigmund Freud, who read it as encoding truths of human psychology, namely the so-called Oedipus Complex in which a child naturally resents his father and is sexually attracted to his mother. The legacy of Freud’s analysis is evident in Oedipus’ exemplum in a number of metal songs, including those dealing with the extremes of human perversion and violence. For instance, the Italian brutal death metal band Vulvectomy in their song “Deformed Tits Collection,” about a serial killer who collects the severed breasts of his victims in his basement, reflects on the underlying neurosis: “unpredictable consequences of Oedipus complex.” I will spare you the remainder of the graphic, misogynistic lyrics endemic in the subgenre.
Also noteworthy is numerous bands’ interest in the Sphinx episode of the Oedipus myth, for which check out “Suffocate the Ignorant” by the French death metal band Kronos, “Sphinx’s Riddle” by the Portugese death metal band Epping Forest, and “Sphinx ov Tebas” by the Brazilian death metal band Hate Embrace. These songs do not interpret the episode in the wider context of the Oedipus myth, but rather frame it as a Perseus-and-Medusa type of encounter between a feminine monster and a masculine hero whose bravery and intelligence saves civilization.
Two bands engage directly with the Oedipus Tyrannus, the first of which is the Dutch black metal band Terzij de Horde with their song “The Roots of Doomsday Anxiety” on their 2010 EP A Rage of Rapture Against the Dying of the Light. The song mixes elements from the Sophocles play with those from the biblical book of Revelation:
Cry out for the king
To bring salvation from the plague
Cry out for the king
To bring the cleansing flame
And build the new Jerusalem
The king is the cause of the plague
We capsize, overwhelmed
By cascading oedipal revelations
Jocasta’s feet have finally left the ground
Fissures running all the way down
Our sacred visions of Apocalypse
Epic comic-book escape fantasies
We are conveniently unworthy
Lull our budding concerns to sleep
And every doomsday tragedy
Ends with a place in eternity
The Delphic oracle grows fat
On self-fulfilling prophecies
And the Ark of the Covenant
Holds a pair of golden brooches
The Sophoclean elements are evident throughout the song, as a play beginning with the Thebans crying for their king Oedipus to deliver them from the plague ends with the realization that their savior was also the cause of the pestilence (this aspect has led many scholars to map Oedipus onto Pericles, who was the de facto leader of Athens when a great plague hit at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, just a year before the OT’s production). It alludes to Jocasta’s suicide and her golden brooches that Oedipus used to put out his eyes, as well as to the notion that the Delphic oracle’s prophecies, in the hands of Oedipus, are indeed self-fulfilling if we read them as the consequence of his own character and choices. The marriage of this myth with Revelation turns it into a meditation on the human condition and its myths of universal salvation. Like Oedipus, Christians believe that God/Christ the King will deliver them from the suffering that is embodied existence and establish Heaven on Earth (the New Jerusalem) at the end of days. Yet much as Oedipus proclaimed himself as savior but was in fact the cause of the plague, so apocalyptic religion, while preaching deliverance, turns out to be responsible for our suffering. Revelation is reduced to the escapist fantasies of a comic book, wishful thinking that discourages us from delivering ourselves. Such is the lesson of the Oedipus Tyrannus, that our saviors can also be our oppressors.
A more recent engagement with the OT comes from the Indian black metal band Holokauston, in the “Pessimism” trilogy of songs on their 2018 EP Hymns for an Unavailing Tragedy. Holokauston take a bleak view of humanity’s place within the cosmos in their interpretation of this myth, hence the title of the trilogy. Its first song covers the background to the OT, beginning with original Delphic prophecy and its relentless fulfillment: “the path of destiny in a wretched and entropic cosmos.” Much as the universe is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, so human destiny progresses toward decay at a microcosmic scale. These parallel phenomena combine in the overdetermined action of Greek thought, that fate and character reciprocate. Thus Laius, the song alleges, causes his own death through his choices of pitiless violence, first to destroy his newborn child, then to challenge the stranger (Oedipus) at the crossroads: “King Laius thus stands merciless again…Oedipus shall fearlessly strangle his father.” The choice of the verb “strangle” is significant here, as the name of the Sphinx literally means “Strangler.” Oedipus’ manifestation as the Sphinx on the road to Thebes suggests that he is to become simultaneously Thebes’ savior and oppressor who destroys himself as a consequence of solving the riddle of his existence. The song further reflects on the moral interpretation of this specific episode:
The constraints in us is Laius.
We shalt kill, shall isolate.
I see the prophecy come true, the father lies dead while his mother awaits.
The code of ethics, is subjective while some of them call him a sinner.
In somewhat of a nod to the standard Freudian analysis, Oedipus’ murder of his father symbolizes the liberation of the self from the external moral constraints of parents, but also from the superego, or the daimon of Socrates, the inner voice that restrains us from doing harm. Yet in crossing the line, we nevertheless ask whether what Oedipus did was morally wrong. Laius was the aggressor in the highway encounter, and Oedipus killed him ignorant of who he really was. Is he guilty of this sin, or of the subsequent incest? These are traditional questions posed by the Sophoclean tragedy.
“Pessimism II” covers the action of the OT itself, beginning with Creon’s report of the Delphic message, along with Tiresias’ revelation: “Oedipus is blinded. / The irony of our existence. / You yourself are the criminal you seek.” Holokauston channel Sophocles in their multivalent uses of blindness, that Oedipus’ self-inflicted blindness at the end of the play is prefigured by his more figurative blindness to the truth of his identity. In switching to the second person, the song universalizes the truth of Oedipus: the cause of our suffering comes from within ourselves. This revelation leads to further existential reflections: “Acceptance of the inner purpose… / Which is forbidden, because it doesn’t exist.” Tiresias was reluctant to reveal to Oedipus the truth, because he knew it would destroy him. Human destiny is self-destructive much as the cosmos is fated to collapse. The suicidal mechanism built into our nature negates a higher purpose. Such is Holokauston’s nihilistic reading of OT.
“Pessimism III” proceeds to the plot of the Antigone, so let us first briefly review that play. Some years after Oedipus’ fall from power, and his sons Eteocles and Polynices come of age, they quarrel over who gets to be king of Thebes. They agree to share the throne in alternate years, but when Eteocles’ year elapses, he refuses to concede to Polynices, who enlists the help of Argos and raises an army to march on Thebes. Then come the events of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, where seven champions on either side face off, including the two brothers, who mutually kill each other in battle. The native Theban side wins, and the brothers’ uncle Creon takes the throne, issuing an edict that, while Eteocles should be buried as a patriot with full honors, Polynices as a traitor should be left to rot without burial. As we have seen with the Ajax, being left unburied is a horrible fate, since the soul cannot cross to its final resting place in Hades.
The Antigone begins when it is discovered that despite Creon’s edict, someone had secretly buried Polynices. The culprit is eventually caught, and turns out to be Polynices’ sister, and Creon’s niece, Antigone. Antigone, who was betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon, was faced with the dilemma of choosing duty to family and gods or duty to the laws of the state, Creon with the dilemma of yielding for the sake of family or adhering to his own political policies. They choose the opposing alternatives, and after fierce debate, Creon condemns Antigone to be walled up in a tomb for the rest of her life. After she is hauled off, Haemon fails to persuade his father to spare his betrothed, and storms off. Then Tiresias comes to argue that, based on the omens he received from the gods, it is proper to have Polynices buried. After Creon vehemently rebuffs him he too storms off, but not before threatening him with divine wrath. It is at this point where Creon has a change of heart, orders Polynices buried, and rushes to free Antigone from her tomb. He arrives too late, as Antigone has hanged herself. Haemon, seeing his betrothed dead, falls on his sword. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hearing of this news, also hangs herself, and Creon is left alone to suffer the consequences of his actions. Sophocles’ Antigone is pregnant with fundamental conflicts in Athenian society, that between the private and public spheres, between sacred and secular law, between male and female. There is also the question of who is the hero of the play. Is Creon an autocratic monster whose refusal to compromise destroys his whole family, or a man of principle who sacrifices everything on behalf of the state? Is Antigone a model woman who sacrifices herself for her family, or is she a dangerous religious zealot and threat to law and order?
Such issues are tackled in heavy metal adaptations of the Antigone, including in Holokauston’s “Pessimism III.”
The swords of Thebes in Battleground,
While Creon ascends to the throne.
On holy land shall Oedipus die,
Spoke Apollo, from amongst the desolated arts…
Antigone was left behind…
To burry her brother she craves…
Her tears rant of Creon’s eddict.
Into infinite sorrow she drowns…
For the Vultures feed on to…
The body of Polynices.
Hymns of the gods echo, while the crime had been committed.
In search of Antigone, the Sentry was lost.
Morality of the eddict was questioned enough.
Corrupt and conspired against Creon almighty;
Antigone was imprisoned.
As her body hangs, from the ceiling of the cave.
Creon’s morals appear out of a void.
A void in which we live.
Of familial duty, she dies…
Existential void, fulfilled.
A story of utter humor.
Pessimism at my will.
Pessimism at my will.
The song highlights the contradictions at the heart of the play, between political authority and filial and religious duty, indicated by the paradox of hymns and crime and conspiracy. Antigone’s suicidal actions serve to expose the arbitrary nature of secular law, that the social contract is a human convention at odds with human and divine nature. Instead, Antigone sees her purpose not in the life of a citizen, but as a family member; yet in serving that purpose she sets off a chain reaction that annihilates her family. Amid the resultant carnage Holokauston can only conclude that the tale shows the absurdity of existence, that good intentions create disaster, that striving for ideals causes collateral damage. Holokauston read Sophoclean tragedy as indicative of an ultimately pessimistic view of the universe, one where heroism is met with suffering, and where the character assigned us by fate leads to inevitable consequences.
The final song we will examine is an adaptation of the Antigone by the Australian power metal band Ilium. “Antigone” is the opening track on their 2003 debut album Sirens of the Styx. Unlike other adaptations, this song gives Antigone a voice, and while Sophocles paints her uncompromising character through her outward speech, Ilium reveal through internal monologue a mind conflicted over the opposing paradigms that clash in the play:
The fight is over now, both are dead
Which way will I turn?
Polynices, Eteocles my friends
Both in blood we’re bound
Fought for the Polis, take it for their own
But now death’s seeds are sown
What is happening to the system?
Is this really Dikaios?
Where is my free will?
Family or Polis – who can tell?
Creon the Polis supports Polynices
As he fought for the state
But I cannot bury only one
Fear miasma my fate
Creon sees Eteocles a traitor
Turning on his state
My life of pain has taught me this
That no one reign ensures you bliss
Be true to me ’cause I’m the one
Not the state who can bring me undone
Creon has now lost his family
Creon’s tragedy is now overt
Now he sees his guilt
Oedipus my father of the curse
Has led us all to death
Ilium make the unfortunate mistake of switching Eteocles’ and Polynices’ roles, as it was the latter, not the former, who was declared a traitor. But in the narrator Antigone’s eyes, both her brothers had equal claim to the polis (city-state) of Thebes, and to both she remains a devoted sister. But in light of her uncle’s edict, she is forced to choose one or the other. Rather than the Sophoclean Antigone who is firm in her convictions, Ilium’s Antigone is genuinely conflicted in her allegiances, and given the external pressures laments her lack of free will to choose without consequences. She invokes the Greek work for “just” (dikaios) in pondering how an edict that opposes familial to civic duty can truly be just. Her reasoning through her options reveals her ultimate choice: “Creon the Polis” echoes l’état, c’est moi, that the law is the word of only a man, while failure to bury Polynices risks incurring miasma, the death-pollution that arises from uninterred corpses.
However, once Antigone makes her choice and suffers the consequences, she becomes resolute in her martyrdom, defiant against the arbitrary sway of an autocrat. Her suicide is her own choice to destroy herself, an escape from her prison sentence, as well as a calculated act to make Creon realize the error of his ways through his family’s destruction. Yet the final words of the song are not of satisfaction that justice was served. Antigone, from the grave, reflects that her death and that of her family was ultimately the fault of Oedipus, whose acts of parricide and incest inaugurated a family curse that afflicted subsequent generations. This may be so, though the genealogy of the curse may trace back to Oedipus’ father Laius, who in his youth was cursed for raping Pelops’ son Chrysippus.
“Antigone” was rerecorded for their 2017 release Sirens of the Styx: Re-Styxed and their Bandcamp page features special artwork for the song, which depicts Eteocles and Polynices, clad in classical hoplite armor but with Mycenaean figure-eight shields, at the moment of their mutual deaths in combat. Antigone looks on, dropping a golden crown from her hand, symbolizing her rejection of Creon’s royal authority.
Ilium’s “Antigone” is a powerful retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy, not one that revises the story, but brings to it greater complexity and new dimensions by revealing the inner thoughts of its eponymous heroine. This reveals her depth and her humanity even more than what could be shown on the Athenian stage. This shows that the Antigone was not merely a clash of intransigent personalities, but of discordant ideas and institutions that those personalities are caught in the middle of.
Sophocles and his tragedies explore several themes readily serviceable to heavy metal artists. He plumbs the darkest depths of human psychology, explores how suicide is a weapon against the paradigm shifts from a world of gods and heroes to one of laws and citizens, and illustrates the inherent absurdity and pessimistic outlook of existing in a world without purpose. Ajax, Oedipus, and Antigone inspire metal bands through their bold acts of self-negation, their ultimate rebellion against the oppression of living on this planet. Rather than submitting to the new world order, they stand defiant, and in their self-destruction shatter the edifice of progress. If that’s not heavy metal, I don’t know what is.