Antigone, war and, domestically, Covid-19

Sofocle, Antigone, regia di Federico Tiezzi, Arena del Sole, Bologna 2018

Born of Jocasta and Oedipus, thus of incest par excellence, Antigone is the active protagonist of a tragedy written by Sophocles – Antigone, 422 BC.

Let us start with the name: Anti means ‘against’ and Gono ‘born’, thus literally a person ‘born against’. Some write “born as a substitute”, but this seems implausible given her life led, and we shall see, in opposition to tyranny. Antigone has a sister, Ismene, and two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, all incestuous children. 

After accompanying her father Oedipus to his death, Antigone decides to return to Thebes, where the war of the Seven against the city had just begun, caused by discord between her brothers Eteocles and Polynices, who had killed each other. Creon, the new king of Thebes, Jocasta’s brother, issues a proclamation forbidding the burial of Polynices because he had allied himself for the battle against his brother with the city of Argos, leaving his body lying for the dogs. Antigone, disobeying Creon’s orders, worthily buries her brother Polynices. To bury means to take the body, wash it, anoint it with oil, and then prepare the grave, to bury the corpse. 

The ‘Born Against’ seeks the help of her sister Ismene, and these are the words of Sophocles:

Antigone: You can now show whether your soul is noble indeed or unworthy of your noble lineage.
Ismene: But if this is the case, my unhappy sister, what can I do or not do?
Antigone: You can share with me the burden of action….
Ismene: What action? What are you thinking of?
Antigone: …and help me to lift the body….
Ismene: Do you want to bury him? Even if it is forbidden?
Antigone: He is my brother, he is also your brother. If you oppose, I will not betray him.
Ismene: But Creon forbids it, you wretch!
Antigone: He cannot separate me from the people I love.

Her sister Ismene, whose name probably derives from a river flowing near Thebes, does not help her, condemns her and leaves her alone: alone to lift the corpse, alone to bury it and alone to raise her voice against the tyrant Creon on the abomination of the law against the burial of ‘enemies’. 

The “Born Against”, lacking the magical arts of Circe and Calypso, a common, mortal woman, is perhaps one of the first true feminists in history who will pay the price of their deeds and words with their lives. The “Born Against” is opposed to tyranny but is a continuous source of love: she accompanies her father Oedipus, old and blind, to the end of his existence and then, always out of love, she wants to give her dead brother a final embrace and farewell.

Some historians define the rituals of cleansing the corpse, the last farewell and the birth of burial as the beginning of Western civilisation: here Antigone stands up to savage nature, and without receiving any help or compassion acts spontaneously. Even Achilles was moved by Priam’s requests to bury Hector, whom he killed, granting his father a dignified burial for his son. Achilles was a warrior, not a tyrant.

Antigone’s end is tragic: Creon will order her to be walled up alive in a cave, while Ismene will continue her existence as peacefully as the river near Thebes.

And let us come to today’s events: the tyrant is there, or at least the tyranny is far more extensive than in the city of Thebes, and in Ukraine the dead of both factions are left unburied, and although it is not clear who is responsible for killing whom, the corpses are sometimes vandalised and placed on display in common places, such as in front of supermarkets, with the express mandate to frighten, create horror and break the oldest laws, those related to the honour of the dead. The escalation we are experiencing is daily and this will certainly have tragic repercussions on the outcome of the war. 

Another story, but partially analogous, is the affair of burials in times of Covid-19 (and it is now three years, 2020, 2021, 2022, so it will be good that some rules may change): it is worth mentioning the pain and sadness of what happened in 2020, where funeral rites were not celebrated at all, and the bodies were cremated, without the ashes being returned to their loved ones, indeed the fate of the Covid-19 dead during the first wave’s carnage in the middle of the lockdown was not known. We hoped for a disappearance of the virus, and instead here it is, yesterday alone 176 people also died because of the virus: I now discover that the relatives of those who die of Covid-19 (and I do not wish to enter into the classification of dying with Covid or of Covid, but I would like to see more up-to-date data from the section of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, whose mortality data presenting age, gender, and concomitant diseases are stopped at January 2022) the coffin is given already sealed, without having the possibility of seeing the body, wearing for example earrings (I think of my own death, I know which earrings I wish to burn with me, as I know which ring I have chosen to take away). Whereas for the other dead, salutation is possible, the body is A-list and therefore can be touched by loved ones.

Departures (Japanese: おくりびと, Hepburn: Okuribito, “the one who sends away”) is a 2008 Japanese film about a young man who returns to his hometown after a failed career as a cellist and comes across a job as a nōkanshi, the traditional Japanese funeral rite of preparing dead bodies for burial. Just like that, he is reconciled with his father, whom he had not seen since he was alive, when he has to prepare his body for the funeral rite.

In addition to the nokasnhi, the Antigons who wash the bodies and caress the faces of the dead, we need to say goodbye to our loved ones anyway before their last journey, by seeing their bodies, carefully dressed and made up. If in other countries there is tyranny, here, this virus cannot be the master, on this sensitive issue: ‘they didn’t let me see them’, even the director Paolo Sorrentino in his latest film It was the Hand of God cries out, faced with the loss of his parents – and it was not Covid-19 time, ‘they didn’t let me see them’. We family members are also called like Antigone to be there in a totalitarian way in the last vision that is the preamble to the final farewell. The closed box is an additional loss, adding to the actual grief. Can we prudently afford to change the rules?  Or at least to let loved ones choose whether they want to see with their own eyes the last time the body of the one they loved? Of course, it is an ethical dilemma, between love, mourning and safety. But with due care, just as productivity cannot be stopped, here there is a need to stand in front of the open coffin. 

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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