In Antigone, by Sophocles, what is the meaning of the fourth choral Ode?
Both the rewards and the difficulties of interpreting the fourth choral ode of Sophocles’ Antigone have been dealt with very fully by Reginald Pepys Winnington-Ingram in his book Sophocles: An Interpretation (see link below, especially pp. 98ff.).
Briefly, in this ode the chorus compare the situation of Antigone to that of several other mythical figures: (1) Danae; (2) Lycurgus; and (3) the Phineidae (that is, the sons of Phineus and Cleopatra). As Winnington-Ingram notes, Danae and Lycurgus both suffered by being shut up in darkness and in this way resemble Antigone. Both were royal personages who, like Antigone, suffered misfortune. The Phineidae were figures also shut up in a tomb and blinded. Thus, in all three cases, the mythological figures have suffered great misfortune. In this way they all resemble Antigone, despite various differences among themselves and between them and her.
The eNotes annotations (see link below) explain the three situations in this way:
- Danae A mortal woman beloved of Zeus; her father locked her in a room, which Zeus entered by assuming the form of a golden shower. The result of their union was the hero Perseus.
- Lycurgus A Thracian king who denied the godhood of Dionysus as that god made his triumphal entry into Greece from the East. Dionysus responded by driving Lycurgus mad: After Lycurgus committed many crimes, he was arrested by his people and shut up in a cave, where he was killed by wild animals.
- Idaia The second wife of King Phineus of Thrace; she wanted to secure the kingdom for her own sons, so she blinded the sons of Phineus by his first wife, Cleopatra, who was the daughter of Boreas, the West Wind, and an Athenian princess. It is Cleopatra who is the analogy to Antigone, as Danae was.
Interpreting the fourth ode has proven difficult even for learned classical scholars. Here, perhaps, is what can be said at a bare minimum:
- Danae is said by the chorus to have “lost the light of heaven” and to have been enclosed in a “tomblike chamber” (see translation linked below). Her fate shows the “great and dread might of Destiny.”
- Lycurgus was also “shut in prison cave,” condemned to waste “slowly evermore.”
- The sons of Phineus also suffered a “miserable fate,” and suffering was also endured by their mother Cleopatra (not the famous Cleopatra of Egypt).
- If nothing else, then, the parallels seem designed to emphasize Antigone’s suffering.
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