Myth & Mind: Furies & hunts

Dec 1, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

“The Remorse of Orestes,” painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau. 1862, public domain.

By Reva Sherrard

King Agamemnon’s ships lay in harbor, manned and ready to sail to war in Troy, awaiting a wind that wouldn’t come. As days crawled past a plague spread in the still air under the drooping sails. With more and more of his army sickening and the outcome of the war in the balance, Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain divine favor. When the girl’s throat was cut a wind sprang up, scoured the plague from the army’s lungs and drove the ships to Troy.

Queen Clytemnestra grieved wildly for her daughter. While her husband was at war she turned for comfort to his rival Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned victorious, bringing a captive princess as his prize and concubine, the lovers killed them both.

It was now the duty of Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, to avenge his father’s murder. He slew his mother and her lover with his own hand. But the crime of matricide woke the Erinyes, or Furies, goddesses of punishment. Relentlessly they pursued Orestes and drove him mad.

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What are the Erinyes? Etymologically, erinys (Greek, singular) likely means just what the Romans glossed it as: fury. These female powers are older than the Olympians, representing an equally ancient law. The laws and cultural values — and breaches thereof — embodied by Zeus and company belong to the machinery of civilization, a complex system of balances and compromises intended in situations of high population density to maintain social harmony well enough to enable the ruling class to consolidate power, control the flow of resources, and wage war for political ends. The law enforced by the Erinyes is infinitely simpler, unconcerned with social equilibrium. In the myth of Orestes the self-perpetuating series of murders has less in common with Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye,” which ends with the retaliatory punishment, than with Newtonian physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Erinyes are as fundamental as a force of nature: remorse of the guilty, revenge of the wronged on a cosmic scale.

Further west in Europe, it was the Wild Hunt (see October’s article) that pursued and punished in folk tradition, cursing mortals guilty of transgressions ranging from breaking the Christian Sabbath to murder and sexual predation to roam the earth forever. As such the legend is akin to that of the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, and Stingy Jack, who was barred from both heaven and hell when he died and is associated with the origin of the jack-o’-lantern. The difference is that the man cursed to lead the Hunt is subsumed into a phenomenon far older than himself.

In its earliest iteration, the Hunt is known as the Host (mesnée, familia) of Herlechin or Hellequin, the legendary Germanic King Herla (Herla Cyning in Old English, Herla König in German; all names pronounced with a K sound) who can be traced back to a West Germanic tribe, the Harii (“warriors”) described by the Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st century C.E. as attacking under cover of night with dark-painted bodies and black shields to give the impression of a “ghostly army.” Interestingly, one thousand years later a monastic chronicler in Normandy (a region with intense Germanic influence from its proximity to England and recent mass colonization by “Northmen,” or Normans) reported that a lucky monk had survived being chased by a band of black-faced demons called Herlechin’s Host, while 36 years later the chronicler of an English abbey wrote of a troop of “black, huge, and hideous” supernatural huntsmen terrorizing the monks and nearby villagers. Dark and devilish Herlechin began to feature in French passion plays, later transforming improbably into the Commedia dell’arte trickster Harlequin, a black-masked subordinate who makes chaos of his master’s plans. Coincidence, but a salient one, that Harlequin began with some of the native barbarians whose culture and religion, generally in the form of “witchcraft,” wrought havoc throughout the still-current age of Roman cultural supremacy.

For who was the king of the Harii, the “Herla-King,” but Wotan/Odin? In the period of militant Roman and Christian expansion his role shifted from patron of wisdom and spiritual ecstasy to god of war, until his peoples were conquered and he was recast as the Sabbath-breaking leader of the Wild Hunt, along with the equally central Germanic goddesses Holda and Perchta. Bereft of their context in the dominant culture yet still psychologically potent, a way of life and its deities were set adrift over the lands they once ruled. Disenfranchised by one of history’s great upheavals, bound to the peoples who created them but robbed of a home in their memory and reverence, the forces embodied in the old gods took on the restlessness of eternal exile, condemned to hunt or march forever, a source of terror and ill omens to the people who broke faith with them.

No action is without its reverberating echo, so long as there is cultural context; no human exists independently of culture. As long as there are living, there will be ghosts to remind us of the consequences of the past.

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While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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