Sorority: Angels and Bees

Miguel de Unamuno

(Translated into English by Elizabeth R. Earle)

Ensayos, La Pecera, Marta, Ferrari, Sororidad, Unamuno

Let us return to read the tragedy of Sophocles, Antigone. Antigone, one of the daughters of the disgraced Oedipus, who, after having killed his own father without knowing who he was, married his own mother, Jocasta, without knowing who she was. Antigone, contravening the orders of her uncle, the tyrant Creon, who prohibited burial rites of Polynices, also the son of Oedipus and brother of Antigone, buried him and incurred the wrath of the tyrant and the punishment for her disobedience.

In the marvelous Sophoclean tragedy, a dialogue takes place between Creon the tyrant and his niece Antigone, the anarchist, in which Creon reproaches her for wanting to give burial honors to her impious brother who devastated the country and killed their brother, Eteocles. Antigone replies that she does not have the right to judge those differences in the brothers, but to do her duty in the same way for both. “The other world,” says the sister, “demands equality before law.” To which the uncle responds, “How can it be the same for the wicked and the noble alike?” And the niece: “Who knows if they honor this in the world below?” With that, she places the law of familial and domestic consciousness above the civil laws of the tyrant who said that “there is no greater evil than anarchy” (verse 672). And Antigone remains the eternal model of fraternal piety and feminine anarchism. 

Fraternal? No: we must invent another word that does not exist in Spanish.  Fraternal and fraternity come from frater, hermano, brother, and Antigone was soror, hermana, sister. And it would make sense to speak of sorority and of sororal, of feminine brotherhood. In Latin there is the adjective sororius, a, mer, that is of the sister, and the verb sororiare, to grow together. 

Linguistic subtleties? No, it is something more. Just as matria does not mean the same thing as patria, and maternidad (maternity) is not equal to paternidad (paternity), sororidad (sisterhood) would not be the same as fraternidad (brotherhood). A sister is not a brother.

Sister? Antigone, by virtue of her incestuous parentage in the terrible legend, was the aunt of her brother Polynices and the aunt of her own father, Oedipus. And she exercised the maternal functions of aunt. 

In a beehive, there is the queen, the female, the mother, the one who lays the eggs and assures the material, carnal continuity of the swarm. There are also the drones, the males, who fertilize and do not work, and there are the worker bees, sterile females, who make honey and wax and sting. And the spiritual tradition of the hive is transmitted from bee to bee, from aunt to aunt, from worker to worker, and not because of carnal inheritance. How does the worker bee inherit its art of constructing the honeycomb?  It cannot have received it by carnal inheritance, because the queen who gives them life has never worked, nor have those queens before her. Neither their mother, grandmother, great grandmother, nor any of their progenitors worked or knew how to make honeycombs, and neither did the drones.

We return to Antigone. Antigone was the priestess of the religion of the home, the upholder of family tradition. She was the keeper of religious domesticity or domestic religiosity, and in its name, she rose up against tyrannical civility or civil tyranny and broke the law, committing a crime of anarchy.

But can civility and civilization thus be sustained by anything other than domesticity and domestication? If patriarchs were good matriarchs, fraternity could be based on universal sorority.

The barbarism of wars occurs because our civilization is predominantly masculine. Virility has drowned humanity. And, even in our Christian religion, we conceive of God as male, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are also masculine. The role of woman, of the mother, culminates in the gospel in these words of Mary to the angel: “I am the servant of the Lord; May it be done according to your word.” And in the wedding at Cana, when the mother, Mary, asks her son, Jesus, to give the guests wine, he responds to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me?” He doesn’t call her mother, but woman.

Angels must be like bees; mostly undeveloped females, virgin mothers. And like bees that buzz with wings and cicadas that sing with wings, angels must also sing with wings. And isn’t Antigone an angel of paganism? Isn’t she an angel and a bee, that model sister who accompanies her father, her brother, in his disgrace, and piously buries her brother, her nephew, the impious?

Legend says that the Trojan War was fought over a woman, Helen, but this woman was a queen, in the same sense that bees are queens. Her husband, Menelaus and her kidnapper, Paris, and all that fought for her were strictly drones.

“Queens also fly,” it is said. Yes, and drones do, too. But the sweet Virgil who called queens kings, had already learned that their wings should be torn off. “Tu regibus alas eripe,” he says in the Georgics (IV, 106-7), that is: “Tear off the monarch’s wings!” Wise advice! The wings should be torn off, not of the cicada, so that they can use them to sing, nor of the sister bee or aunt, so that they can fly from flower to flower and make honey, but of the drones and the queens! 

If feminists would begin to study the marvelous sisterhood of a beehive, what arguments they would find for their thesis! But departing from femininity…

Published in Caras y caretas
March 12, 1921

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