The Eumenideia starts at sundown on 20 February this year (27 Anthesterion).
Before I get meandering, here are the basics:
- Make some cakes. They can have many humps; they can be smooth on top. It depends on whether you are working with something that holds its shape. I steam soft rice cakes and drizzle honey and sunflower seeds on them.
- Purify yourself. A shower works nicely, followed by the creation of fresh khernips. Pray. Meditate to clear your head. Breathe in the scent of freshly-extinguished rosemary sprigs. Do what you need to do.
- Do a ritual at a separate shrine — these are chthonic Goddesses. You can go elsewhere for basic Hellenic ritual outlines, but beyond that, here’s some basic guidance.
- Purify the ritual space.
- Say something about why you’re there.
- Offer the cakes.
- Light some incense, if you have it.
- Read some hymns for the Eumenides — Orphic Hymns #69-70 if you have them. I have written a few poems here that can be used.
- Libate milk and/or honey.
- Thank the Goddesses.
- The ritual is over.
- Note: Eat none of that. It’s a chthonic sacrifice. You don’t eat anything from those. Dispose of the food and liquid via burning, respectful disposal in a natural space, or whatever you can manage the following day.
And now, the disjointed meander.
In my early 20s, I created a modern version of the festival based on scant notes about the Eumenideia and the Goddesses themselves. I didn’t know that I was getting into worshipping the Eumenides in any routine way. It wasn’t even until this autumn that I connected them to Apollôn via an endnote in the back of the Orphic Hymns (Athanassakis & Wolkow, 2nd ed.):
Orpheus is also supposed to have written that Demeter prophesied to her daughter that she would “mount the blooming bed of Apollon / and give birth to splendid children, their faces burning with fire” (Orphic fragment 284). These children are the Eumenides, who are also described as “bright-faced” in Orphic fragment 293. It would seem, then, that the Orphic tradition had two different fathers for the Eumenides. However, the name Apollon was often connected with the verb “apollumi,” “I destroy,” and it is possible that Apollon here is used as an oracular periphrasis for Hades, “the destroyer” (just as he is called “Chthonic Zeus” in our hymn); another possibility is that the different fathers represent two alternative versions that were considered Orphic in antiquity. These two interpretations are discussed by West 1983, pp. 95-98, 243-244.Orphic Hymns, trans. Athanassakis & Wolkow, 2013, p. 355/432 of the ebook
This excited me, so I requested West 1983, which turned out to be The Orphic Poems — a book I knew about, but have not read. It has now been checked out from the library so I could check the reference.
There are two distinct themes in Kore’s story as the Rhapsodies had it. One is a development of the traditional myth of her abduction by Pluto, with the special features (i) that she bore him children, the Eumenides, (ii) that it was prophesied she would bear these children to Apollo, (iii) that she was guarded by the Kouretes, and (iv) that she was weaving a robe until she was carried off. […] We can if we like gloss [the fact that Hades is actually their father] over by saying that when Rhea-Demeter said it would be Apollo, this was a casuistry of the kind proper to oracles, the name standing for Hades as ‘the destroyer.’ But the point of misleading oracles is normally that they cause the recipient to take the wrong evasive action, or prevent him from realizing when he is approaching danger: we can detect nothing of the sort in Persephone’s case. So perhaps an account in which she did bear the Eumenides to Apollo has been elided into the more familiar story of her marriage to Pluto, which is usually represented as childless, being a complete myth in itself.The Orphic Poems, M.L. West, 1983, p. 95
I wrote a poem a while ago that described the birth of the Eumenides — all of the versions I knew about at the time — and I may need to update the poem to add this one. The A&W comments are rich to unpack regardless of whether it’s Hades or Apollôn. If it’s the first, it’s the Apollonian aspect of Hades, which flows neatly into the all-in-each ideas in Platonism. (Edward Butler has written a lot about that. Try this.) It becomes a curious Chthonization of Apollôn in the second case — something that I could see, being a devotee of the God. Apollôn is the harmonizer of all things, and that harmony can be brought about through both creation and destruction. The wrath of the Eumenides and the way they execute justice contains an echo of that destructive power, a no-holds-barred corrective force. The idea in West that there are nine Eumenides is like the inverse of the Mousai in some respects. It’s all very cool.
It was satisfying to read these things. Most Gods I worship (beyond routine offerings) have a strong connection to Apollôn. He is at the center of the web, the common point. The Eumenides had been the odd ones out — chthonic Goddesses —— a strange attraction, all things considered.
In early 2010, I encountered a Thomas Taylor footnote in which he quoted Hermias taking notes from Syrianus’ lectures. It led to some very productive work on revived cultus for the Eumenides. I had no idea that, in May 2019, I would encounter the passage again within its fuller section because the Hermias had been translated (half of it), nor did I know that reading it would be like cupping liquid lightning in my hands to drink.
Cracking open the Hermias wasn’t intentional — I wanted to read all of Plato before doing the commentaries because it seemed like a prereq — but a conversation on Twitter prompted me to check the book out and break out of my then-routine.
It was April 2019. We were talking about Helen, the ancient criticism tradition with respect to Homer, and I brought up the part of the Phaedrus in which Socrates discusses purifying himself after having wronged Eros. Edward Butler brought up that this passage is discussed at length in Hermias — pollution and purification according to three examples, Homer, Stesichorus, and Socrates. I have been interested in purification since my early teens, so I asked for a link to the monograph, checked it out from the library, and decided that the most meticulous and responsible thing to do would be to read the commentary from the beginning instead of skipping ahead to the relevant section.
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, not having read a Platonic commentator before beyond brief excerpts. Like, I had decided to read Plato, right? I am a to-do list person. My food is stacked in the refrigerator in neat Tupperware. I own a pen case. I use the pen case.
At the tail end of April, I started reading it.
May is a weird month in the academic support staff world. At the end of exam period, there’s this meeting lull. The period right before exams is busy with stressed, deadline-crunched undergrads. Then, the grad students and faculty binge-grade, so they are not asking a lot of research questions. During the meeting-free days when it was just me, my office, the occasional committee meeting, and the spreadsheets I review every quarter or so, I decided to listen to the entire corpus of Peter Gabriel on shuffle. I was reading Hermias over lunch. The combination of listening to the Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back cover of “My Body is a Cage” and reading about purification in Hermias — along with the isolation because that time of year always makes me so restless — exploded my brain. Days later, after all of that was resolved, I was still a bit lightheaded, and I felt giddy, like someone who had just been on a roller coaster ride. I continued reading, and I reread, and it was still exciting, but bearably so. All of 90,1 to 105,15 was just riveting and the most beautiful stuff I have ever read in my entire life. That is not hyperbole.
Originally and at first the soul was united with the gods and that ‘one’ of its was joined to the gods. [I’m skipping the description of descent, but the soul ends up in matter. -K] It must, then, return once more to its own origins and go back once more to the place whence it descended. And in this ascent and restoration these four types of madness assist it. Muse-engendered [madness] brings into concord and harmony those of its parts that have fallen into disorder and have declined into indterminacy and discord and are afflicted with great confusion, while telestic renders the soul perfect and whole and equips it to operate at the intellective level; for Muse-engendered madness tunes and orders the parts alone, while telestic makes it function as a whole and renders it whole so that its intellective part too is active. For after it has descended the soul seems to be shattered and weakened and the circle of the Same, i.e. its intellective part, is obstructed, and the circle of the Other, i.e. its opining part, suffers many bends and twists, [and] therefore it functions [only] one part at a time and not with its whole being. Dionysiac possession, then, after the harmonisation of [the soul’s] parts, renders it perfect and makes it function with its whole being and live intellectively. Apollonian, on the other hand, causes all of its multiplicitous powers and the whole of it[s being] to return to its one and [thus] revives [it]. (Hence [the god] is called Apollo as leading the soul back ‘from the many’ to the One.) And, finally, Erotic [possession], receiving the unified soul, joins this one of the soul to the gods and to intelligible beauty. So all the others are, as I said, seen in each of them, but each is named according to what dominates. For, these donor gods themselves being three and their gifts [three] and the [entities] that partake of them [sc. souls] threefold, since the givers are united in the highest degree and are in each other, on that account the gifts too partake of and share in one another, and the recipient, namely the soul, is fit to [receive] all of the gifts.Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 227A-245E, trans. Baltzly & Share, 2018, 93,20-94,20
This is just a taste of what is there. It comes before the part that Taylor quoted from in his footnote — which is the part beginning at 101,1. If you want to read more discussion of that, go to “Coda: Blood Crimes, Purification, and the Eumenides,” when I related honoring them to the ancestral blood crimes that come from historical genocide and settler-colonialism.
My mind started racing. A lot of thoughts were colliding together, like the core collapse of a bright star leading to a cataclysmic explosion. A lot happened. This is a post about the Eumenides, and most of the other stuff is not immediately relevant. I will focus on the Goddesses here.
I spent a while processing the Eumenides-given madness that plagues people who have committed blood crimes against 101ff and the other bits and pieces in Hermias. It collided with the levels of purification-by-madness of the soul and the several-times-repeated thing that other Gods provide madnesses like these, but that the ones addressed by Socrates and in Hermias/Syrianus were the ones sufficient for the soul’s restoration, and then there were the what-ifs — it was a lot.
So. It is a harmonization in some sense, to pacify the restless dead. Alongside the idea of the Eumenides as nine Goddesses that I just learned about in West, considering them in the light of purificatory madness feels even more harmonious. It fills a need, and Anankê is the mother of invention.
This is a perspective and a need that, I would argue, is very American (interpretatio Americae?), or very post-colonial, or whatever adjective one wants to use. The emphasis on the Eumenides and on the pacification of the restless dead is not something I would expect someone from Greece or the Hellenic disapsora to cultivate, and if they did, it might be related to a wholly different cultural thing like the Pontic Genocide. Many of us who are not Hellenes have known about the Hellenic Gods since we were young children, so in tandem with the phenomenon of unplacing, the Hellenic Gods are often the polytheistic paradigm of the Gods that we know, so they are the images of the Gods we often reach for when we are searching for a way to be whole.
Furthermore, I think that people are often drawn to Gods, especially ones who are known to be exacting in a certain way, because the soul knows the purifications it needs. It’s not about being “chosen” or anything like that; it’s about knowing what you need to do and deciding to do it. Cultus shifts from place to place based on what is appropriate, and the idea is no different here.
But how is it reasonable for descendants to pay the penalty for [the sins of] their forebears? Well, chiefly [because] they have inherited their estates and their gold and silver, often acquired by wrongful means, which is enough for them to incur a penalty. And then too the souls of the forbears suffer along with those of the descendants that are having a difficult time [here below]. And they [sc. the descendants] do not suffer [these] punishments undeservedly, for the person who deserves to suffer such things is led into that kind of family, since providence and the divine nature and the gods who are the guides of fate transcendentally weave all things together in order and in accordance with justice.Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 227A-245E, trans. Baltzly & Share, 2018, 101,10-20
Too often, those of us born and raised in former European colonies avoid thinking about the implications of what those people did, especially if the criminals were blood relatives. The paragraph above is empowering to me because it shows that our souls have chosen to take responsibility by being who we are in this lifetime. Accepting accountability means you are empowered to do the difficult things that come after.
I think about those crimes whenever I make offerings to my French ancestors. I pay attention to some Canadian politics even though I’m an American because what they did was wrong.
To recap a bit of what I said in “Coda,” I have considered some types of theological questions for years now related to what we owe, from an ancestral blood crime perspective — where “we” includes all of us who are the descendants of the people who did that heinous stuff — with regards to settler-colonialism. In that post, I recommended purification and pacification before making offerings to Nymphai and other spirits of place in the Americas — where “recommend” means do it, but I can’t force you. I also recommended doing actual tangible actions to support the rights of the peoples our ancestors wronged, like supporting cultural revitalization projects and listening to them when they say something America is doing is not okay, like the pipelines or the desecration of the dead.
So, those are my meandering reflections. In a few evenings, it will be time to do a thorough purification and give offerings to the Eumenides, especially for those of us who are descended from ancestors who have committed those kinds of crimes.
First, a cry —
a lightless light blazing bright —
a song — one promise fulfilled,
another now long-forgotten.
This is how the Eumenides were born,
bringing harmony to long-lingering souls.