23 August 2019

Antigone and the name
of one small boat carry
so many memories

Antigone … one small boat, but so many meanings and memories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I walked around the tiny harbour at Aghios Gheorgios in this former fishing village on the coast of south-west Corfu that has been transformed into a small coastal resort, the boats were bobbing up and down in the clear waters of the Ionian Sea, each brightly coloured in blue and white, and each with its own name in characteristic, stylised Greek letters.

The names are often captivating in harbours like this: a patron saint believed to have answered prayers … a lover whose name brings back romantic memories … the saint’s name of a mother or wife … or, perhaps, a reminder of another distant but safe harbour or haven.

Should I wonder whether such small boats have sailed so far, I am reminded that these Ionian islands provided Odysseus with his home in Ithaki and that his journey by sail and sea has inspired poets from Homer to Cavafy.

These names can display a pride and certainty rooted in Greek nationality, identity, culture and classical heritage.

One name that has caught my imagination in the small harbour in Aghios Georgios is a boat called Antigone.

Antigone is the name of a tragedy by the classical Greek playwright Sophocles, around the year 441 BC, the third of his three Theban plays, along with Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus.

Antigone, who gives her name to this play, is a stubborn and defiant heroine who becomes the embodiment of the ideal female character. As such, she contrasts with her beautiful but docile sister Ismene.

The play dramatises the dangers of allowing a ruler to attain absolute power, personified in Creon, the tyrant to whom few speak openly and who leaves few able to speak their true opinions. The people of Thebes know he is wrong, but they have no-one who risks telling him so or who is willing to engage in civil disobedience.

When Antigone is condemned to death, is it too late? Creon’s actions lead not just to the death of Antigone, but to the destruction of the city. Creon is unable to admit that he is mistaken. And so, Antigone hangs herself.

The play has influenced and been criticised by modern philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, in his essay The Ode on man in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Sophocles, in this play, is arguing that Athens needs to be saved from imminent destruction. He warns the people of Athens against arrogance which may lead to their destruction and downfall. Citizens cannot abdicate the responsibility of citizenship.

It is also a debate how to treat foreigners and citizens who are seen as identifying with the outsider and risk being outcasts themselves. Betraying the leader is now identified with betraying the state and betraying society.

There are laws higher than those of the state, we cannot be expected to obey the law above all else, and tyrants do not have the last word. The law is not absolute; nor can we allow rulers to be absolute either.

There seem to be lessons there for many political societies and leaders too. I wonder did the owner of one small boat know what a legacy one small name can carry?

Blue Ionian waters in the harbour in Aghios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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