Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Epikleros: Further ironies in Antigone

The new king of Thebes puts forth his claim to the throne:
ἐγὼ κράτη δὴ πάντα καὶ θρόνους ἔχω 
γένους κατ᾽ ἀγχιστεῖα τῶν ὀλωλότων.
I now possess all the power and the throne according to my nearness to the race of the killed. (Antigone 173-74)
Through his ἀγχιστεῖαhis nearness by blood, Creon proclaims himself the legitimate successor to the rule of Thebes.

If one were inclined to take a critical view of Creon's assumption of power, an interesting and unusual Athenian law in effect at the time of the Antigone (c. 461 BC) offers some ammunition.

It was called the law of the epikleros:
epikleros (fem. adj. acting as noun), epiklerote (abstract noun) · An epikleros was the daughter of a man who died leaving no male heir; she was not his heiress, but possession of his estate went together with her hand in marriage. This system of inheritance is described as the epiklerate: for further details, see sv. inheritance; and for comparison, see sv. engue and sv. ekdosis. (The etymology of epikleros is unclear: it may possibly mean “one to whom the property pertains,” but more likely is “one who pertains to the property.”)
The above definition is found on Demos, a site about Classical Athenian Democracy. More about the epiklerate is found in an article on Demos entitled Women and Family in Athenian Law under the section entitled "Women and Property."

According to Wikipedia's article on epikleros, "the entire system of the epiklerate was unique to Ancient Greece, and mainly an Athenian institution."

The German poet and translator Friedrich Hölderlin might have been the first to note the consequential legal relevance of epikleros to the Antigone. As the elder daughter of Oedipus, Antigone would necessarily be betrothed to her closest male relation. As her uncle Creon was already married, she was betrothed to Haemon.

Under the rules of the epiklerate, the daughter's marriage to the nearest male relation carries forward the house (and property) of the bloodline of her father. Were the epiklerate in force, the union of Antigone and Haemon would continue the line of Laius and Oedipus, as if Creon and his blood did not exist. How might Athenians have viewed Creon in this legal context? Would it have put Creon's actions into a different legal, and perhaps moral, light, for Sophocles' audience?

Let's remember that Creon's other son, Megareus, had sacrificed himself to save the city. Under this law, with the union of Antigone and Haemon, Creon and Eurydice's grandsons would be descendants of Oedipus.

This is quite remarkable: the moment he married Antigone, Haemon would no longer be Creon's son. The marriage would cancel Creon's bloodline in Haemon, and, since Haemon is his last living son, it would eliminate the oikos of Creon from the world -- that house would vanish, and be as if it had never existed.

So we can see in this the mirror image of Creon's assumption of power. Creon claimed his nearness ("ἀγχιστεῖα") in blood to Oedipus legitimated his accession to power, which in turn gave him the authority to negate the blood of Polyneices even as he purported to honor that of Eteocles. His decree imposed a law as radical in its own way as the epiklerate.

But if we entertain Holderlin's interesting suggestion, the play has another fateful layer. The one person who violates Creon's decree is the child of Oedipus who, according to the epiklerate, would effectively annihilate Creon.

This could put the relationship of the king to the girl in a different light. When he says, for example,
in no way can we let a woman defeat us. It is better to fall from power, if it is fated, by a man's hand, [680] than that we be called weaker than women - 
the irony deepens as we consider that the epiklerate had performative power: it produced a legal sex change. Antigone would be the "man" in her marriage with Haemon. The couple would assume her oikos, obliterating his.

When the new king says, "In truth, then, I am no man, but she is, if this victory rests with her and brings no penalty" (485-86), his words would resonate with a truth he is far from conceiving, but which would be properly true in Athens. The irony of Sophocles tends to have a sledgehammer inside its glove.
When sons of an epikleros came of age, they gained the ownership of the inheritance.[31] In Athens, this age was given in an extant law, and was two years past the age of puberty of the son.[32] In Solon's laws, it appears that the eldest son of the epikleros was considered the heir of his maternal grandfather, with any further sons being considered part of their father's household.... And the son of an epikleros did not inherit anything from his father, and was named after his grandfather. 
When Antigone says,

οὐδὲ σθένειν τοσοῦτον ᾠόμην τὰ σὰ 
κηρύγμαθ᾽ὥστ᾽ ἄγραπτα κἀσφαλῆ θεῶν 
455νόμιμα δύνασθαι θνητὸν ὄνθ᾽ ὑπερδραμεῖν
Nor did I think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten [455] and unfailing statutes given us by the gods.
the  audience would have reason to see that the unwritten statutes of the gods in fact underwrote the laws of men.

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