Ruth and Antigone: A Different Kind of Hero

There are those who cannot understand how certain women in history can be considered heroes. These women did not take up a sword and kill everyone to prove their strength, like the warrior, Achilles did. They also never lead an army to overthrow an opposing, evil tyrant, like so many of history’s proclaimed heroes have done. Some of the purest heroes are the gentle, quiet, women sitting in the background. They might not do much to affect many people, but they stand up for what they believe in no matter what. In this respect, they can be categorized with modern day heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and all who have stood firmly for what they believe in. The characters, Antigone and Ruth, are both perfect examples of the modest, female heroes in history, and their heroism can be related to each other in many different ways.

However, before one can analyze their heroism and actions, they must first be familiar with the lives of both women. Ruth’s story is about a woman and the family she married into. A man who lived in Moab, named Elimelech, was married to Naomi, and had two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. Unfortunately, Elimelch suddenly passed away, and left Naomi to raise her sons. When they became old enough, the two were married, one to a woman named Orpah, and the other to Ruth. However, Mahlon and Kilion die, and left Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. Naomi decided to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, and encouraged Orpah and Ruth to return to their, “mother’s home, (365)” and look for another husband. Orpah decided to heed her advice, but Ruth, who still felt she was devoted and accountable for her mother-in-law, insisted she travel and live with Naomi back in Bethlehem (NIV 365-366).

Back in her hometown, Naomi moved into her old home with Ruth. To make a living for her and her mother-in-law, Ruth volunteered to glean the barley fields near them. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, to “glean” means, “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers.” Boaz, the owner of the field, noticed Ruth, liked her, and told his reapers to intentionally leave some grain behind so that she could take it. Naomi tried to find a way for Boaz to legally marry Ruth, and ends up having Boaz buy their estate. When that happened, Ruth became Boaz’s wife, and even though she had a husband again, she still remained loyal to Naomi (NIV 366-370).

The story of Antigone is about a woman who stands up for what she believes in against a man who has authority over her. Antigone had two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, both of whom became involved in a conflict that led to war. Eteocles leads an army to defend Thebes against his brother’s army, who had already been exiled from the city. However, during battle, both brothers were killed, leaving behind their two sisters, Antigone and Ismene. Creon, the current king of Thebes, and Antigone’s future father-in-law allows for an honorable burial of Eteocles, however, he banned anyone from burying Polynices, saying he will be left for the animals and the sun. Creon was acting on the general will of the public, who disliked Polynices for attacking them. They did not feel obligated to bury a man who tried to attack them. Thus, to please his people, he proclaimed that whoever tried to bury Polynices would be stoned to death. The decree that was established to not allow a burial for Polynices was very harsh, because the people of Thebes believed that the souls of the dead wander through space until they are given a proper burial. Since Eteocles was given a burial ceremony, his soul was allowed to cross the river Styx, and enter into the underworld, where souls of dead bodies go (Fagles 61-69).

The story goes that Antigone blatantly disregards Creon’s new decree and goes to give Polynices a proper burial service. After she performs the private ceremony, the guards discover what has happened, though they don’t know who did it. They wipe off the dust that had been sprinkled on Polynice’s body, and then hide to see if anyone comes back to put the dust back on. Eventually, Antigone does come back, infuriated that someone had undone her work, and begins to pour dust on her brother’s body again, but is then captured by the guards. She is questioned by them and shows no remorse for what she has done, and is ready to accept the deadly punishment. Creon ultimately decides that Antigone be taken to the dungeon to starve to death (Fagles 69-91).

Soon after, a prophet named Tiresias approaches Creon to warn him that the gods are very unhappy that he tried to deny someone burial rights. Creon doesn’t take him seriously and mocks his prophecy. Soon after, Haemon, Creon’s son, and Antigone’s fiancÃ?©, discovers that Antigone had hung herself in her cell. Blaming his father for her death, Haemon takes his own life. Then, when Creon’s wife, Eurydice, finds out about her son, she kills herself as well. Creon blames himself as the reason his son and wife are dead, and expresses that the last blessing he’ll receive in life will be the day he dies (Fagles 91-128).

After fully examining the backgrounds of both characters, it is now possible to analyze how their hero-like characteristics are similar. First, the two seem to have been raised in similar settings, and their morals and characteristics are somewhat alike. For example, they were both born into very low status in their community, and being women in their time automatically made them inferior to men. This means that all their lives, they were regarded as second class, and were treated that way. An example of this in Antigone, is when Ismene is giving her sister excuses on why she cannot help her illegally bury their brother, Polynices. In lines sixty-nine to seventy, she says, “Remember we are women,/ we’re not born to contend with men.” In addition, Creon also shows us what he thinks about women disobeying men when he proves to the leader of his army Antigone will not win over him:

“I am not the man, not now: she is the man
if this victory goes to her and she goes free.
Never! Sister’s child or closer in blood
than all my family clustered at my altar
worshipping Guardian Zeus-she’ll never escape,
she and her blood sister, the most barbaric of death.
Yes, I accuse her sister of an equal part
in scheming this, this burial.” (541-548)

When later talking to Antigone, he adds, “âÂ?¦While I’m alive,/ no woman is going to lord it over me. (592-593).” These quotes show that the community of Thebes believes in the idea that women should be inferior to men, and if they disobey, they should be punished.

Another parallel between Ruth and Antigone’s lives is that both had many family members die while they were alive. For Ruth, her husband passed away the same time as her brother-in-law. Antigone’s life is equally unfortunate with the early deaths of her parents and now her two brothers. This shows that Ruth and Antigone had to endure the pain of losing a loved one multiple times. Their pain could account for the reason they stay loyal to the family they have left. Since they already knew the painful experience of losing family members, they wanted to do all they could to remain faithful to the ones they had left, so even if their family was not large in numbers, they could at least be together.

One striking similarity is how both figures had close female family members not join them in their quest to stand up for what they believe in. For the story of Antigone, she eventually reveals her plot to act against King Creon’s orders to her sister, Ismene. This shows that Ismene believes there is nothing they are capable of doing to give Polynices an honorable burial. Ismene’s weakness and low priority for family leads her to try to talk Antigone out of her plan. It’s interesting that even though Ismene is Antigone’s sister, and both were raised in the same house by the same parents, that they cannot agree to act on the important issue of burying their brother. In Ruth’s story, Orpah first agreed with Ruth that they should return to Bethlehem together with Naomi. However, after Naomi insists they go their separate ways, Orpah gives in and goes her own way to search for a new husband and new life. Albeit, Ruth is still set on being with Naomi as long as she can, and neither Orpha’s abandonment nor Naomi’s pleas can dissuade her.

Ruth and Antigone also display patterns in their heroism. For example, they both face their challenges head on and continued to stay loyal to their family no matter what. Through penalty of death, Antigone is faithful to her brother, even if he was considered a traitor to the city. Ruth is given the choice to abandon Naomi and find another husband, yet she still stays with her, knowing it would be easier on herself to leave Naomi. Her dedication to Naomi should not be taken lightly. In Ruth 2:2, it says, “And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor (366-367).”” As one can see from this verse, it was Ruth’s idea for her to glean the fields. This was physically demanding work in the hot sun all day, and even though Ruth knew it was a task usually reserved for lowly farmers, it was something she could do to earn a living for the two of them. This shows us something about Ruth’s character; when life threw her a curve, she didn’t whine or complain, but looked for ways to make the situation a little better. Both Antigone and Ruth act out of selflessness and disregard for their own safety and well-being. There is no point in either story where there is hesitation in what they want to do.

A possible motivation for both characters to do what they think is right is that they find hope in their beliefs that the afterlife is much more important than the world they are living in during the story. Evidence of this is found when Antigone says, “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” (Fagles. 87-89). Antigone is saying that it is more important to follow the law of the gods than the law of her king. Though the punishment for rebelling against the king of this world is harsh, Antigone instead focuses on how she can one day see Polynices and how proud he is of her. In the Bible, Ruth says, “”Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me (366).” Once again, this is a character who, in order to obey their God, must disobey the wishes of a human who has authority over them on earth.

Despite all of these circumstances, many still think these two icons of history do not deserve the title of, “heroines.” However, it seems that these people have a very limited and narrow view of what it takes to be heroic. I do not believe that Antigone and Ruth are heroes because they show the world inhuman strength in what they do, like the stereotypical male hero. I think they are heroes because of how they think, and how they respond to their personal hardships.

Ruth and Antigone are heroes to the typical women of today where disloyalty to family is widespread, with high rates of divorce, and other circumstances where families are being torn apart. Their powerful family connection and devotion are something to be admired, not disregarded as foolishness just because they are women. Not only that, but they were also heroes to certain people in their respective stories. For instance, I’m sure Polynices appreciated it when Antigone stood up against the king to give his body a proper burial. To Polynices, she was his hero. In the book of Ruth, Naomi greatly admired Ruth for staying with her, and saw Ruth as her hero. I think Ruth and Antigone, along with other notable, female characters, have rewritten the definition of a true hero, and deserve recognition for their strong values, morals, and how they took on the challenges that awaited them.

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