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The Erinyes

July 18, 2013

It seems only fitting after having discussed the theme of revenge in the Oresteia recently that this week be devoted to the Erinyes.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony the Erinyes were born when Cronus castrated Uranus, ‘the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bore the strong Erinyes’ (184-185). The number of Erinyes are unknown; within The Eumenides they are referred to simply as the chorus with no indication on number. However, as with the sisters of Fate, three Erinyes may have been the number generally adopted; this is how Virgil represents them in The Aeneid.

Within mythology the Erinyes are the ancient goddesses of vengeance and protectors of oaths. The Iliad provides an example of their invocation in an Oath sworn by Agamemnon: 

Be Zeus my witness first…and the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath…And if aught of this oath be false, may the gods give me woes full many, even all that they are wont to give to him whoso sinneth against them in his swearing (259 – 266).

Graves (2000:123) believes that the Erinyes personify consciousness and represent the need to follow social conventions. Swearing an oath with the Erinyes as witness may have had such a controlling effect on some. However, within mythology their function changes and so this control may have diminished over time. Following Athena’s intervention they become the protectors of Athens, its citizens and the harvest (Lefkowitz, 2007:178). This change of function likely reflects the social development of judicial practices and as such the need for Goddesses of vengeance became obsolete. It is probable that in order not to cause ‘offence’ to the deities a new position within Greek culture developed. Greek mythology formed and evolved over countless centuries to the extent that Ancient Gods and Goddesses functions also metamorphosed. The Erinyes are an excellent example of such a change.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Hesiod Theogony The Homeric Hymns and Homerica Translated by H. G. Evelyn-White London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1914.

Homer The Iliad Translated by A.T. Murray Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924.

Secondary Sources

Graves, R. The Greek Myths Volume I The Folio Society, 2000.

Lefkowitz,  M. Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 2007.

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From → Mythical Figures

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