If you have ever wondered why Creon refuses to bury Polyneices body, you’re in the right place. We’re here to help you understand Creon’s declaration prohibiting a proper burial for Polyneices.
We do know the latter committed treason. But in this article, we’ll give you an in-depth discussion about the event and what led Creon to deny a burial for Polyneices.
King of Thebes
Creon, the king of Thebes, brought about disaster towards himself and his family due to his hubris. Creon prohibits burying Polyneices, dubbing him a traitor. The course of how he leads his empire, his mistakes, and his pride prevented him from ruling wisely and justly.
He became a tyrant instead, giving harsh and unjust punishments to those who defy him. In Antigone, he portrayed a significant villain who goes up against the divine law and his people to garner loyalty. But what exactly happened for him to dub his nephew a traitor?
To understand his reasoning, we must go over the events of Antigone:
- After the war that killed both Polyneices and Eteocles, Creon rose to power and took over the throne
- His first decree as the emperor was to bury Eteocles and forbid the burial of Polyneices, leaving the body to rot on the surface
- This move upset the majority of the people, for it goes against the divine law
- The divine law, passed by gods, states that all living beings in death and only death must be buried
- The most upset by this, unsurprisingly, is Antigone, Creon’s niece, and Polyneices’ sister
- Antigone talks to her sister Ismene about the unjust treatment of their brother and asks for her help to bury him
- Upon seeing Ismene’s reluctance, Antigone decides to bury their brother alone instead
- Creon is enraged by the sheer defiance
- He has Antigone arrested for burying Polyneices and was then sentenced to death
- Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé, and Creon’s son beg his father to let Antigone go
- Creon refuses, and Antigone is brought to a tomb to await her fate
- Tiresias, the blind prophet, visits Creon and warns him of angering the gods.
- Tiresias says, “Self-will, we know, incurs the charge of folly. Nay, allow the claim of the dead; stab not the fallen; what prowess is it to slay the slain anew? I have sought thy good, and for thy good, I speak: and never is it sweeter to learn from a good counselor than when he counsels for thine own gain.“
- Creon’s self-will is seen in the laws and punishments he passed upon Antigone
- Tiresias’ words warn Creon of the wrath he faces upon angering the gods due to his decree
- His actions of allowing the burial of a well and alive woman and refusing the tomb of the dead man will incur their wrath and bring pollution to Thebes, both figuratively and literally
- Tiresias then continues to describe his dreams vividly. He recounts dreaming of two birds fighting, the same birds fighting over Polyneices’ until one finally dies
- Tiresias, in fear, rushes to Antigone’s tomb
- Arriving at the cave, he sees Antigone hanging from her neck and his son dead
- He is distraught over the death of his son and brings his body to the temple.
- Eurydice (Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife) stabs herself in the heart after learning of her son’s death
- Creon lives his life in misery from the tragedy that was bestowed upon him
Creon’s Rise to Power
Creon first rose to power when Oedipus exiled himself in shame. The particular reason for Oedipus’ sudden departure leaves the throne of Thebes to his twin sons, Eteocles, and Polyneices. His sons, who were too young, could not rule a nation. To resolve this, Creon took over the reign.
Once both sons were of age, the brothers decided to rule Thebes in alternating years, starting with Eteocles. But when the time for him to pass the crown to his brother came, he refused and instead sent Polyneices away.
In anger and shame, Polyneices wanders the lands but eventually settles in Argos, Here, he becomes betrothed to one of the princesses. He recounts his desire to take over the throne that was so bitterly taken away from him. The king of Argos then gives Polyneices the power to take over the throne by force, leading to war. One that killed both Eteocles and Polyneices.
Creon as a King
Creon, as a king, was described to be a tyrant. He was a prideful man who viewed himself on equal footing with the gods. He opposed their laws, caused discord, ignored the pleas of his people, and gave out harsh punishments to those who opposed him.
He showed his tyranny to Antigone, who was punished despite his son’s and the people’s request. This constitutes an example for those who wish to oppose him, consequently incurring the wrath of the gods.
Despite loving his son, he could not give in to his request for his son’s fiancé’s release. For her to go against his orders he believed that she deserved death.
Creon did not heed any advice until Tiresias, the blind prophet, warned him of the tragedy that would befall him if he did not rectify his actions.
Upon the threat to his son, he immediately rushes to free Antigone but instead discovers Antigone’s and his son’s corpse. He was too late as his family’s tragedy had occurred. So he lived the rest of his life in misery because he refused to bury his nephew.
Why Didn’t Creon Want to Bury Polyneices?
Creon, in his attempt to stabilize the country, longed for loyalty. His method – punishment for acts of betrayal. Those who betrayed him and the nation are to be refused their right to a proper burial.
Despite his familial ties with Polyneices, Creon decreed to allow the rotting of his nephew’s corpse and left him for the vultures to feed. His laws caused inner turmoil within his people, and instead of loyalty, he sowed discord and eventually caused pollution in Thebes.
How Did Creon Cause Pollution?
Creon was outright the core of pollution by allowing a corpse to rot on the surface of his land. Figuratively, Creon created so much discord that his laws eventually polluted his people. How? Because he angered the gods by basically burying Antigone alive and refusing to bury the dead, he incurred the wrath of the gods.
The gods rejected all prayers and sacrifices, further polluting the land and dubbing it a rotten land.
The Rotten Land and the Birds
Tiresias’ dream depicts two identical birds fighting to the death, these birds are the same birds that circled Polyneices’ corpses in the play, and somehow Creon realizes the danger he placed himself and his family in.
How did the birds equate to Creon’s misfortune? The bird’s conflict symbolizes the disparity Creon created within his people due to his decree. It could also be interpreted as the uprising that could occur.
Tiresias then tells Creon that these birds won’t tell him about his future because they’ve already immersed themselves in the blood of the man she refused to bury. This can be seen as the gods favoring Polyneices and his family over Creon. Creon is dubbed as the tyrannical king, while in death, Antigone was proclaimed a martyr.
Disobedience in Antigone
Antigone disobeys Creon by burying her brother despite the king’s wishes. Although Antigone is tied to Creon in a familial manner, this does not stop the king of Thebes from punishing her harshly.
He entombs her alive as punishment, angering the gods, and brings about an oracle from Tiresias, warning him of his fate that could cause the demise of both his son and wife.
Antigone’s defiance in the play shows her complete devotion to divinity, and in her disobedience, portrayed obedience to the divine law.
The punishment bestowed upon Antigone dramatizes the conflict between two opposing laws and allows the audience to feel the buildup it creates. But Antigone wasn’t the only defiant one in the story.
In contradiction to Antigone’s civil disobedience, Creon portrayed divine insubordination. He goes against the divine law, decreeing the opposite by refusing Polyneices’ burial, and goes as far as to entomb a living person.
The contradicting beliefs between Creon and Antigone bring them to a passionate argument that escalates to matters of life and death.
Now that we’ve discussed Creon, his reign, his character, the symbols in the play, and Antigone herself, let’s go over the main points of this article:
- Creon is the king that took over Thebes in Antigone
- Creon tried to stabilize the country by giving out a law that prevented the burial of his nephew Polyneices; this causes turmoil within people because their king decided to oppose divine law
- Antigone, angered by this, buries her brother despite the king’s orders. Upon getting caught, she is entombed and sentenced to death
- Creon’s hubris angers the gods, displaying their displeasure through Tiresias.
- Tiresias visits Creon and warns him of the gods’ wrath; warning him of the danger his family faces
- Creon rushes to free Antigone but, upon arriving, realizes he’s too late; both Antigone and his son, Hameon, have killed themselves
- Eurydice, Creon’s wife, learns of her son’s death and could not handle the grief, so she drives a dagger to her heart, completing Tiresias’ omen
- Creon lives the rest of his life in misery from the tragedy that fell upon him and his family
- The vulture fighting symbolizes the disparity Creon created by placing himself on equal footing with the gods
- The gods refuse to accept any offerings and prayers by Creon and the people of Thebes, and thus Thebes is regarded as rotten land or land of pollution — both literally and figuratively
And there you go! A complete discussion on why Creon refused to bury Polyneices, Creon as a king, the rotten land of Thebes, and the symbolic nature of the birds in Tiresias’ dreams.