My name is Antigone, the largely unfamous daughter overshadowed by an infamous father, Oedipus. Yes, the Oedipus. The one that Freud named a whole complex after. The one whose name has gone down in history as the unfortunate fool who inadvertently did the absolutely unthinkable. The one who killed his father and married his mother then stuck brooches in his own eyes in a rampage of shame and horror. Now there's a lesson in not messing with the plans of the gods. However, being a dutiful daughter, I left my home, my life in Thebes, my sister, and even the boy I loved, to lead my self-blinded and thoroughly disgraced father around Greece until his death.
The poets say that is my story, the truth of what happened. But, that is not the whole story. It is only what everyone remembers thanks to brilliant playwrights like Sophocles, whom the gods inspired to write about me in order to protect themselves. That's right, the Olympian gods themselves hid the truth. However, now, over three thousand years later, their wrath and embarrassment has dissipated enough for me to tell my story, the true story of my life.
As a princess of Thebes, my life was set out before me: learn to sew and run a household, then get married, ideally creating a beneficial political alliance. Basically, be a good girl, do what I was told, and fulfil my duty to my family, my city, and the gods. Before the dreams started I was barely getting by. After the gods started visiting me regularly, I failed miserably.
The visions started when I was sixteen. Even though it was over three thousand years ago, the hair on the back of my neck still tingles when I think of how the gods manipulated me, how the snakes reached out to me, how I learned about the curses that plagued my family, and how I came to realize my true power. My family was a plaything for the gods, curses were tossed around carelessly like a worn out ball, kicked for amusement.
In my first dream-vision, I approached the temple of Apollo with a modest offering, some cakes, fruit, and a small jug of wine, the usual. The gods were a big part of our lives back then, and we provided regular offerings in the hopes that they would look favourably on us. Though these were no guarantee of divine goodwill, it was certainly a step in the right direction. The gods had a nasty habit of making life miserable for those who displeased them. Sometimes really miserable. Nobody does vengeance like a slighted Olympian god. Just look at how Artemis, Apollo's twin sister, sent a monstrous, murderous boar to ravage the Calydon countryside when King Oeneus neglected to honour Artemis during the annual harvest ceremonies, as was her due.
In my dream I walked along the road to the temple, a building which dominated from Thebes' highest point atop the acropolis, overlooking the walled city and its seven gates like a watchful parent. The normally easy and gradual incline grew steep, far steeper than normal. The well worn path became a treacherous uphill scramble as my smooth leather sandals slipped and I lost my footing. Knowing that I had to present my offering to Apollo, I dug in my toes and persisted through my terror and confusion. I was determined. The gods demanded their due and it was my duty to deliver it.
The temple became virtually unreachable and I was forced to my hands and knees, finessing each precious hand and foothold like a mountain goat, clutching the offering basket in one hand and pulling myself up with the other. I clung to the rocks on the sharp cliff face until my nails broke and my hands were scraped raw. My peplos robe ripped; mud, blood, and sweat stained the white, intricately embroidered fabric. Branches tugged at me, scratched me, and yanked at the jewelled combs that confined my hair in its tight knot until they were yanked out and clattered down the steep slope and my dark curls fell in my face, nearly blinding me. Even so, I continued inch by agonizing inch. I had to get to the altar.
Struggling, I reached the bottom wooden step just as the hill fell away into a nearly vertical rock face. Grasping the stair just in time, I avoided a deadly tumble down the cliff after my shattered combs. I swung my arm to fling the offering basket and heard it crash as the contents hit the unforgiving wood. Finally free to use both hands, I strained every muscle to drag myself the rest of the way up and over the edge. As I lay on the stair, smooth and polished from years of footfalls, I caught my breath and thanked the gods to still be alive. Then I examined my torn nails and dress, and ran my hands through my disheveled hair. It crossed my mind that Sandrine, my personal slave and nurse, would kill me if she saw me like this.
A huge snake slithered through my spilled offering. I sprang to my feet and gasped in recognition as the temple python drew closer, eying me as if I were a potential meal. I had only ever seen it inside the temple, its massive bulk stacked in powerful, heaping coils. Now, the unmistakable albino python, ghostly white with caramel and burnt orange coloured markings, stretched out to its full, muscular twenty feet, its width easily thicker than my legs. It could easily wrap itself around my body and squeeze the life out of me me if it chose -- I had nowhere to run except to plunge from the cliff edge to certain death. I froze and stared into the cold, reptilian eyes. Nothing moved. I was like a mouse that had been cornered by a cat. Would the serpent toy with me leisurely or kill me quickly?
As I watched, the snake’s eyes changed. The albino pink darkened into rich hazel brown and would have appeared human if not for the long dark, vertical slits of the pupils. The snake examined my soul for a dream-like eternity. Intuitively, I knew that it was the god Apollo who looked at me though those emotionless, inhuman eyes. Every nerve ending from my toes to my scalp electrified, rooting me in place.
The snake broke our connection first. It hissed and flicked its forked tongue, smelling my fear. “You dare to ruin my offering,” the sacred snake spat. It swung its tail through the smashed cakes, spoiled fruit, and shattered jug, scattering the contents.
“I-I-I...” Beads of sweat dripped down through the dust on my face and I clenched my hands together to stop them from trembling. I knew better, even then, than to argue with the gods or to come up with excuses, no matter how valid. The god didn't care about my perilous journey up the hillside and I would undoubtedly, justifiably in Apollo's eyes, be punished for this insult. After all, I had ruined the offering. I fell to my knees in front of the snake, not even trying to protect myself. My only hope was that he would accept my penance. “I didn’t mean to, Lord Apollo. Please forgive me. I will replace the offering, double it even.”
I bowed my head, eyes averted from the snake. My stomach fluttered anxiously and anticipation stole my breath as I braced for the worst, fully expecting the snake to strike me at any moment, to feel my life be squeezed away as the snake easily strangled me. The floor beneath me swirled and my chest screamed for fresh air. I exhaled deliberately to steady myself.
The snake remained statue still for a full minute before I sensed it stir. I looked up. It nodded then turned and slithered past the stone altar toward the inside of the temple.
“You recognize me and are pious. Come,” it demanded.
I followed the snake, stunned and grateful to still be alive. As we entered the cool of the temple, the imposing statue of Apollo loomed over us, its colourfully painted wooden form standing at least twelve feet high. The life-like brown eyes, uncannily reproduced in the python's, stalked me as I made my way to the hole near the base of the statue that the sacred python called home. It was eerily silent in the temple, not even any of the normally ever-present priests hovered around, going about their duties. Still, I felt a sense of comfort which put me at ease, like I belonged there, and the knot in my chest loosened slightly. The familiarity of the temple and the statue reassured me, like coming into the safety of my own bedroom. If the snake's intention had been to kill me, it could have done so without difficulty outside. Surely a god would not strike me down in the sanctity of his own temple.
The python curled its immense bulk up effortlessly then eyed me carefully. “Do you know why you are here?”
“To bring an offering from my household,” I replied.
“No." The snake flicked its tail. "Why I summoned you.”
“You summoned me?” Why would Apollo have wanted me? And under such mystifying circumstances.
“Of course. Why else would you be here. Your family is the subject of many oracles. Do you know what happens when humans attempt to outsmart the gods?”
“Nothing good,” I replied, brows furrowed. If the gods given prophesies about my family, I didn’t know anything about them, which was strange because usually predictions from the gods were well known and celebrated. It was hard to imagine an oracle ever being hidden, even a terrible one. A shiver wound its way up my spine, chilling me to my core at the implications; the knot in my stomach tightened like a noose.
“Exactly.” The snake contemplated me for a minute. “You may be able to help.”
“How?” The question escaped my mouth. My chest burst with pride at the prospect of helping the gods, of the prestige that would bring, of maybe even adding to the glory of the heroic deeds preformed by my father.
“I expect obedience.”
“I will serve the gods however I can.”
“Everyone says that. But do you mean it? Really mean it?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but Apollo interrupted me. “Do not answer too quickly, girl. Think on this. The stain of blood on your family’s hands is substantial. I may ask something considerable of you. You need to listen to your heart. Are you strong enough? Others will have to live with the consequences of your actions, just as you have to live with the consequences of others’ actions. I am giving you a chance to back out now, without blame or shame. You will not be offered this chance again.”
What was he talking about? What blood was on my family’s hands? This was Apollo, an Olympian god, the son of Zeus, the Oracle himself. How could I refuse anything he requested? What would happen to me if I agreed and couldn't fulfill my promise?
The laurel branch encircling Apollo's head gave me my answer. That is what happened to those who spurned the gods. When Daphne went back on her promise to Apollo, he turned into a laurel tree, a symbol he now used to crown himself. Her shame became his glory. Our history was full of stories like this, of the gods punishing mortals for their misdeeds. The lesson was clear: do not trifle with the gods.
I knew what I would answer. What I had to answer.
Sweat dripped down my back, chilling me as it dampened my peplos. I swallowed in a vain attempt to quench my dry throat. My knees nearly buckled as I knelt becoming eye to eye with the colossal snake. It's tongue darted out from between its razor like teeth and brushed against my cheek. “I will do what you ask, my lord, though I don’t know how I could possibly help one as great as you.”
The snake inclined its head. “You can start by bringing me a proper sacrifice tomorrow. Something fit for a snake and not the priests who populate this temple.”
The giant python blinked and its eyes returned to their normal albino pink. The god was gone.