Read MINOR DIVINITIES. of Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome, free online book, by E.M. Berens, on ReadCentral.com.

THE HARPIES.

The Harpies, who, like the Furies, were employed by the gods as instruments for the punishment of the guilty, were three female divinities, daughters of Thaumas and Electra, called Aello, Ocypete, and Celaeno.

They were represented with the head of a fair-haired maiden and the body of a vulture, and were perpetually devoured by the pangs of insatiable hunger, which caused them to torment their victims by robbing them of their food; this they either devoured with great gluttony, or defiled in such a manner as to render it unfit to be eaten.

Their wonderfully rapid flight far surpassed that of birds, or even of the winds themselves.  If any mortal suddenly and unaccountably disappeared, the Harpies were believed to have carried him off.  Thus they were supposed to have borne away the daughters of King Pandareos to act as servants to the Erinyes.

The Harpies would appear to be personifications of sudden tempests, which, with ruthless violence, sweep over whole districts, carrying off or injuring all before them.

ERINYES, EUMENIDES (FURIAE, DIRAE).

The Erinyes or Furies were female divinities who personified the torturing pangs of an evil conscience, and the remorse which inevitably follows wrong-doing.

Their names were Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, and their origin was variously accounted for.  According to Hesiod, they sprang from the blood of Uranus, when wounded by Cronus, and were hence supposed to be the embodiment of all the terrible imprecations, which the defeated deity called down upon the head of his rebellious son.  According to other accounts they were the daughters of Night.

Their place of abode was the lower world, where they were employed by Aides and Persephone to chastise and torment those shades who, during their earthly career, had committed crimes, and had not been reconciled to the gods before descending to Hades.

But their sphere of action was not confined to the realm of shades, for they appeared upon earth as the avenging deities who relentlessly pursued and punished murderers, perjurers, those who had failed in duty to their parents, in hospitality to strangers, or in the respect due to old age.  Nothing escaped the piercing glance of these terrible divinities, from whom flight was unavailing, for no corner of the earth was so remote as to be beyond their reach, nor did any mortal dare to offer to their victims an asylum from their persécutions.

The Furies are frequently represented with wings; their bodies are black, blood drips from their eyes, and snakes twine in their hair.  In their hands they bear either a dagger, scourge, torch, or serpent.

When they pursued Orestes they constantly held up a mirror to his horrified gaze, in which he beheld the face of his murdered mother.

These divinities were also called Eumenides, which signifies the “well-meaning” or “soothed goddesses;” This appellation was given to them because they were so feared and dreaded that people dared not call them by their proper title, and hoped by this means to propitiate their wrath.

In later times the Furies came to be regarded as salutary agencies, who, by severely punishing sin, upheld the cause of morality and social order, and thus contributed to the welfare of mankind.  They now lose their awe-inspiring aspect, and are represented, more especially in Athens, as earnest maidens, dressed, like Artemis, in short tunics suitable for the chase, but still retaining, in their hands, the wand of office in the form of a snake.

Their sacrifices consisted of black sheep and a libation composed of a mixture of honey and water, called Nephalia.  A celebrated temple was erected to the Eumenides at Athens, near the Areopagus.

MOIRAE OR FATES (PARCAE).

The ancients believed that the duration of human existence and the destinies of mortals were regulated by three sister-goddesses, called Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who were the daughters of Zeus and Themis.

The power which they wielded over the fate of man was significantly indicated under the figure of a thread, which they spun out for the life of each human being from his birth to the grave.  This occupation they divided between them.  Clotho wound the flax round the distaff, ready for her sister Lachesis, who span out the thread of life, which Atropos, with her scissors, relentlessly snapt asunder, when the career of an individual was about to terminate.

Homer speaks of one Moira only, the daughter of Night, who represents the moral force by which the universe is governed, and to whom both mortals and immortals were forced to submit, Zeus himself being powerless to avert her decrees; but in later times this conception of one inexorable, all-conquering fate became amplified by the poets into that above described, and the Moirae are henceforth the special presiding deities over the life and death of mortals.

The Moirae are represented by the poets as stern, inexorable female divinities, aged, hideous, and also lame, which is evidently meant to indicate the slow and halting march of destiny, which they controlled.  Painters and sculptors, on the other hand, depicted them as beautiful maidens of a grave but kindly aspect.

There is a charming representation of Lachesis, which depicts her in all the grace of youth and beauty.  She is sitting spinning, and at her feet lie two masks, one comic, the other tragic, as though to convey the idea, that, to a divinity of fate, the brightest and saddest scenes of earthly existence are alike indifferent, and that she quietly and steadily pursues her occupation, regardless of human weal or woe.

When represented at the feet of Aides in the lower world they are clad in dark robes; but when they appear in Olympus they wear bright garments, bespangled with stars, and are seated on radiant thrones, with crowns on their heads.

It was considered the function of the Moirae to indicate to the Furies the precise torture which the wicked should undergo for their crimes.

They were regarded as prophetic divinities, and had sanctuaries in many parts of Greece.

The Moirae are mentioned as assisting the Charités to conduct Persephone to the upper world at her periodical reunion with her mother Demeter.  They also appear in company with Eileithyia, goddess of birth.

NEMESIS.

Nemesis, the daughter of Nyx, represents that power which adjusts the balance of human affairs, by awarding to each individual the fate which his actions deserve.  She rewards, humble, unacknowledged merit, punishes crime, deprives the worthless of undeserved good fortune, humiliates the proud and overbearing, and visits all evil on the wrong-doer; thus maintaining that proper balance of things, which the Greeks recognized as a necessary condition of all civilized life.  But though Nemesis, in her original character, was the distributor of rewards as well as punishments, the world was so full of sin, that she found but little occupation in her first capacity, and hence became finally regarded as the avenging goddess only.

We have seen a striking instance of the manner in which this divinity punishes the proud and arrogant in the history of Niobe.  Apollo and Artemis were merely the instruments for avenging the insult offered to their mother; but it was Nemesis who prompted the deed, and presided over its execution.

Homer makes no mention of Nemesis; it is therefore evident that she was a conception of later times, when higher views of morality had obtained among the Greek nation.

Nemesis is represented as a beautiful woman of thoughtful and benign aspect and regal bearing; a diadem crowns her majestic brow, and she bears in her hand a rudder, balance, and cubit; - fitting emblems of the manner in which she guides, weighs, and measures all human events.  She is also sometimes seen with a wheel, to symbolize the rapidity with which she executes justice.  As the avenger of evil she appears winged, bearing in her hand either a scourge or a sword, and seated in a chariot drawn by griffins.

Nemesis is frequently called Adrastia, and also Rhamnusia, from Rhamnus in Attica, the chief seat of her worship, which contained a celebrated statue of the goddess.

Nemesis was worshipped by the Romans, (who invoked her on the Capitol), as a divinity who possessed the power of averting the pernicious consequences of envy.