For those unfamiliar with her story, here is a short version:
Erigone was the daughter of Icarius, who was the first wine maker (and who shouldn’t be confused with Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.) Dionysos taught him this art as a bride price for Erigone, who the God had fallen in love with. When Icarius shared the new drink with his Athenian neighbors they became greatly intoxicated and, unfamiliar with the sensation, thought that they had been poisoned. They formed and angry mob and set upon Icarius, murdering him. Erigone looked everywhere for him, until the family dog, Meara, led her to his body, which had been thrown down a well. In despair at her father’s death, Erigone hanged herself. The dog threw itself into the well and drowned.
Dionysos, as one might imagine, was greatly angered and cursed the city of Athens. The land became barren and all the daughters of the city went mad and hanged themselves. The king of Athens, despairing for his city, went to Delphi to learn what caused this curse. Upon being told that it was due to the fate of Erigone the king instituted a festival in her honor, in which dolls were hung from trees in lieu of the daughters of Athens. Young girls would sit on swings, emulating the motion of her body in death. Thus Dionysos was appeased and his punishment was lifted. The God further honored the family by placing them in the stars as the constellations Virgo (Erigone) and Boötes (Icarius), and the star Procyon (Maera.)
Today, on the second day of Anthesteria, we hang dolls and ribbons from trees and we swing in the memory of Erigone, Icarius, and their loyal dog.
I did not know this story until I began to prepare for the celebration of my first Anthesteria. While women such as Daphne, Ino, and Psyche are well known, even in this day and age when a classical education is considered an extravagance, Erigone is much more obscure – at least outside of Hellenic circles.
Since our introduction, however, Erigone has come to mean a lot to me. As I wrote in my earlier post about depression, on one level she symbolizes to me the nature of that disease – a grief or despair so great that all the joys of life cease to matter. Or even to be comprehended. On another, her story speaks to me of the divided loyalties that can be a consequence of a close relationship with the divine – in the end, her loyalty to her father outweighed the loyalty she had for Dionysos.
But on another, deeper, level her story gives me hope. Like most of the mortal women who seem to have suffered for getting the attention of a God, Erigone actually became greater after death. She was purified and transformed through the action of Dionysos. She has achieved a human sort of immortality after all: while her name is remembered only by a few, it is still remembered, and even more well known is her form among the stars – the constellation Virgo.