Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Eumenides

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EUME′NIDES (Εὐμενίδες), also called Erinnyes, and by the Romans Furiae or Dirae, were originally nothing but a personification of curses pronounced upon a guilty criminal. The name Erinnys, which is the more ancient one, was derived by the Greeks from the verb ἐρίνω or ἐρευνάω, I hunt up or persecute, or from the Arcadian word ἐρινύω, I am angry; so that the Erinnyes were either the angry goddesses, or the goddesses who hunt up or search after the criminal. (Aeschyl. Eum. 499; Pind. Ol. ii. 45; Cic. de Nat. Deor. iii. 18.) The name Eumenides, which signifies "the well-meaning," or "soothed goddesses," is a mere euphemism, because people dreaded to call these fearful goddesses by their real name, and it was said to have been first given them after the acquittal of Orestes by the court of the Areiopagus, when the anger of the Erinnyes had become soothed. (Soph. Oed. Col. 128; Schol. ad Oed. Col. 42; Suid. s. v. Εὐμενίδες.) It was by a similar euphemism that at Athens the Erinnyes were called σεμναὶ ϑεαὶ, or the venerable goddesses. (Paus. i. 28. §6.) Servius (ad Aen. iv. 609) makes a distinction, according to which they bore the name Dirae, when they were conceived as being in heaven by the throne of Zeus, Furiae, when conceived as being on earth, and Eumenides, as beings of the lower world; but this seems to be a purely arbitrary distinction.

In the sense of curse or curses, the word Erinnys or Erinnyes is often used in the Homeric poems (Il. ix. 454, xxi. 412, Od. xi. 280), and Aeschylus (Choeph. 406) calls the Eumenides Ἀραί, that is, curses. According to the Homeric notion, the Erinnyes, whom the poet conceives as distinct beings, are reckoned among those who inhabit Erebos, where they rest until some curse pronounced upon a criminal calls them to life and activity. (Il. ix. 571, Od. xv. 234.) The crimes which they punish are disobedience towards parents, violation of the respect due to old age, perjury, murder, violation of the law of hospitality, and improper conduct towards suppliants. (Hom. Il. ix. 454, xv. 204, xix. 259, Od. ii. 136, xvii. 475.) The notion which is the foundation of the belief in the Eumenides seems to be, that a parent's curse takes from him upon whom it is pronounced all peace of mind, destroys the happiness of his family, and prevents his being blessed with children. (Herod, iv. 149; Aeschyl. Eum. 835.) As the Eumenides not only punished crimes after death, but during life on earth, they were conceived also as goddesses of fate, who, together with Zeus and the Moerae or Parcae, led such men as were doomed to suffer into misery and misfortunes. (Horn. Il. xix. 87, Od. xv. 234.) In the same capacity they also prevented man from obtaining too much knowledge of the future. (Il. xix. 418.) Homer does not mention any particular names of the Erinnyes, nor does he seem to know of any definite number. Hesiod, who is likewise silent upon these points, calls the Erinnyes the daughters of Ge, who conceived them in the drops of blood that fell upon her from the body of Uranus. (Theog. 185; comp. Apollod. i. 1. §4.) Epimenides called them the daughters of Cronos and Euonyme, and sisters of the Moerae (Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 406; Schol. ad Soph. Oed. Col. 42); Aeschylus (Eum. 321) calls them the daughters of Night; and Sophocles (Oed. Col. 40, 106) of Scotos (Darkness) and Ge. (Comp. some other genealogies in Hygin. Fab. p. 1; Serv. ad Aen. vii. 327; Orph. Hymn. 69. 2.) The Greek tragedians, with whom, as in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, the number of these goddesses is not limited to a few (Dyer, in the Class. Museum, vol. i. pp. 281–298; comp. Eurip. Iphig. Taur. 970; Virg. Aen. iv. 469), no particular name of any one Erinnys is yet mentioned, but they appear in the same capacity, and as the avengers of the same crimes, as before. They are sometimes identified with the Poenae, though their sphere of action is wider than that of the Poenae. From their hunting up and persecuting the cursed criminal, Aeschylus (Eum. 231, Choeph. 1055) calls them κύνες or κυνηγέτιδες. No prayer, no sacrifice, and no tears can move them, or protect the object of their persecution (Aesch. Agam. 69, Eum. 384); and when they fear lest the criminal should escape them, they call in the assistance of Dicé, with whom they are closely connected, the maintenance of strict justice being their only object. (Aesch. Eum. 511, 786; Orph. Argon. 350; Plut. de Exil. 11.) The Erinnyes were more ancient divinities than the Olympian gods, and were therefore not under the rule of Zeus, though they honoured and esteemed him (Eum. 918, 1002); and they dwelt in the deep darkness of Tartarus, dreaded by gods and men. Their appearance is described by Aeschylus as Gorgo-like, their bodies covered with black, serpents twined in their hair, and blood dripping from their eyes; Euripides and other later poets describe them as winged beings. (Orest. 317, Iphig. Taur. 290; Virg. Aen. xii. 848; Orph. Hymn. 68. 5.) The appearance they have in Aeschylus was more or less retained by the poets of later times; but they gradually assumed the character of goddesses who punished crimes after death, and seldom appeared on earth. On the stage, however, and in works of art, their fearful appearance was greatly softened down, for they were represented as maidens of a grave and solemn mien, in the richly adorned attire of huntresses, with a band of serpents around their heads, and serpents or torches in their hands. With later writers, though not always, the number of Eumenides is limited to three, and their names are Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera. (Orph. Hymn. 68; Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 406; Virg. Aen. xii. 845.) At Athens there were statues of only two. (Schol. ad Oed. Col. 42.) The sacrifices which were offered to them consisted of black sheep and nephalia, i. e. a drink of honey mixed with water. (Schol. l. c.; Paus. ii. 11. §4; Aeschyl. Eum. 107.) Among the things sacred to them we hear of white turtle-doves, and the narcissus. (Aelian, H. A. x. 33; Eustath. ad Hom. p. 87.) They were worshipped at Athens, where they had a sanctuary and a grotto near the Areiopagus: their statues, however, had nothing formidable (Paus. i. 28. §6), and a festival Eumenideia was there celebrated in their honour. Another sanctuary, with a grove which no one was allowed to enter, existed at Colonus. (Soph. Oed. Col. 37.) Under the name of Μανίαι they were worshipped at Megalopolis. (Paus. viii. 34. §1.) They were also worshipped on the Asopus and at Ceryneia. (Paus. ii. 11. §4, vii. 25. §4; comp. Böttiger, Furienmaske, Weimar, 1801; Hirt, Mythol. Bilderb. p. 201, &c.)