Winged, Black, Dripping Descents: the Monstrous Feminine Death in Early Greek Religion
Characterisations of death in early Greek literature follow a basic general pattern portraying ‘good’ death-agents as male and ‘bad’ death-agents as female. And, these female agents of death are often described as having features bordering on – and sometimes overtly – monstrous. In the Homeric poems these monstrous women include the Sirens, Ker and the Keres, the Erinyes and the Harpies. The Keres, for example, are personifications of death who act as agents of the Moirai (Hom. Il. 2.302, 3.454, 18.535); they rip men away from the battlefield and drag them into the house of Haides (Hom. Od. 3.410). Hesiod describes them as ‘gnashing their white fangs, terrible-faced, grim, bloody, and dreadful.’ (Hes. Sh. Her. 249-250). The Erinyes, similarly, are volatile and liminal underworld goddesses who are most commonly connected with victim retribution towards murderers. They are described in Aischylos’ Eumenides as ‘black and utterly nauseating… dripping a loathsome drip from their eyes,’ and ‘not proper to bring either before the images of the gods or under the roofs of men’ (Aisch. Eum. 51-52, 54-56). All these female agents of death and inhabitants of the underworld share one thing in common: they are all characterised in similarly monstrous terms. The aim of this paper is, therefore, to discuss these feminine figures of death and extrapolate some meaningful conclusions regarding their illustration as monstrous and how their monstrosity informs their reception in contemporary literature and cult. The aim is to contribute to an overall discussion of the use of the monstrous in Greek cultic practice, and relate the wider discussion to death related practice in the archaic and early classical period.