Deinos in Antigone

~ A guest post by Jessica Eichelburg ~

As members of “Team Antigone” tasked with flagging the HeroesX core vocabulary and modernizing Jebb’s great translation, we worked slowly with the text, examining each word, and discussing best practices for how to capture the clarity and subtlety of Sophocles’ Antigone. In the process of “Hero-izing” the text, we were confronted with a word—deinos—that launches the Chorus’ famous ode on man (starting at line 332): “Wonders (ta deina) are many and none more wondrous (deinoteron) than man” (334, Jebb translation). This confident statement about man’s achievements shifted and became problematic once we considered that deinos means paradoxically both “wonderful” and “terrible.” Does context decide which of the two meanings to use? If so, can our understanding of the context shift and change, problematizing the word choice? So while deinos is not one of the HeroesX core vocabulary words, we chose to flag both meanings within our “Hero-ized” text with the belief that a careful unpacking of the occurrences of this word may yield a better understanding of Sophocles’ tragic vision.

Using the Perseus word search tools, we found 14 occurrences of deinos in the play. First used by Antigone (96, 914), then by the Guard (243, 323, 408), it is most frequently and fully developed by the Chorus (332, 333, 951, 959, 1091), once relied on by Haemon (690), and finally used by Creon (1046, 1096, 1097). The arc of its use over the course of the drama is interesting from several perspectives. Antigone and Creon, two characters who are the central and double focus of the play, are the first and last to use deinos. It is possible that the term is one way for Sophocles to fuse both characters into a complex unity. Equally noteworthy is that the Chorus makes the most frequent and ambiguous use of the word.

As we consider each instance of the term, how do we understand its semantic range within the text? For example:

  1. Is it context that guides which meaning to highlight, and so we must intuit the natural/implicit logic of the narrative? If so, how can we verify our assumptions?
  2. Does the word always allude simultaneously to both meanings? Is it the literary equivalent of playing two musical notes simultaneously, one in a slightly minor key, in order to communicate the tone and tenor of an idea, and that for Sophocles’ audience, a population trained in the verbal arts, the dynamic range of the term was understood?
  3. Is deinos like versicolored fabric, to borrow Anna Bonifazi’s term, so that “various readers looking at the very same text can see macroscopically different phenomena” and so be lead to different interpretations?[1] In other words, Sophocles’ text purposefully offers an openness to more than one interpretation because polyvalence is the business of poetry—no reading is absolute or final.
  4. Does deinos in some situations and when used by certain characters contain only one meaning? In other words, can deinos become a means to flag a character’s limitation?
  5. Finally, do we need to consider the arc of the word’s use within the play itself and within the context of its performance within an oral culture? Is it possible that there is a kind of echo effect so that the term can hark back to an earlier occurrence and retrospectively nuance meaning? For example, when Creon uses the term at 1096–1097, relying on similar syntactical structures as found in the Chorus’ ode on man (332 ff.), the audience of an oral culture would have the capacity (verbal acuity) to recall the earlier triumphant statement about “wonders” of man and revisit it, shading deinos with ambiguity and irony.
  6. Are there discourse markers that flag the meaning of deinos, such as particles or metrical position?
  7. How does deinos function in other texts and can they shed light on its complex use in Sophocles’ drama?

If you would like to take part in a word study to re-examine the use of this word in Antigone, please let us know in the Forum!

The group may then go on to explore the term in other texts.

The attached PDF file lists all the occurrences of deinos in Antigone, for easy reference, or you can look at the whole play via the Texts page.


[1] Anna Bonafazi, Homer’s Versicolored Fabric: The Evocative Power of Ancient Greek Epic Word-Making, page 2, available at CHS Publications

Image credit

Adapted from By Wonderlane (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons