Adrasteia (Adrastia)

Category: Gods > ?

1 “Let it be said with Adrasteia”

“May Adrasteia, the child of Zeus,
Hold back reproach (phthónos) from my words;
For I shall speak all
That it is dear to my heart to say.”

So says the chorus of the Attic tragedy Rhesus (342–345), traditionally ascribed to Euripides (5th century BCE). Rhesus himself says, more succinctly but with the same meaning, “I speak with Adrasteia” (ibid. 468). Libanius, about a millennium later (4th century CE), still inserts phrases like “I prostrate myself to (or ‘worship’) Adrasteia” (Letter 283.2, etc.) or “Let it be said with Adrasteia” (Oration 2.52).

Such expressions have much the same purpose as knocking on wood or saying “I don’t want to jinx it”: they are meant to turn away retribution (némesis) for speaking with too much boldness or confidence – or to speak with the Rhesus, to hold off reproach and jealousy (phthónos), although it is debated whether the divine is subject to jealousy. (In favor, see for instance Herodtus, Histories 3.40–43; on the other hand, Plotinus, Enneads 2.9.17 writes that “it is not licit for there to be jealousy in the gods”.)

[Demosthenes, Julian, Lucian, Themistius.]

2 Who is Adrasteia?

The question is why it is Adrasteia, out of all the gods, who is invoked in such moments of reckless speech. The answer, in one sense, is very simple: it is because she is none other than Nemesis, the goddess Reproach or Retribution. The Greco-Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus puts it most elegantly: “These things, and innumerable others of that kind, are sometimes brought about by the avenger (ultrix) of impious deeds and rewarder (praemiatrix) of good ones, Adrastia* – if only she always did so! –, whom with a double name we also call Nemesis. (She is) a kind of sublime law belonging to a powerful deity and placed above the lunar sphere, according to the opinion of human minds, or, as others define her, a substantial guardian (tutela) presiding, with a general power, over particular fates. The ancient mythological poets (theologi), while making up (the story) that she is the daughter of Justice (Iustitia), hand down that she oversees all earthly matters from a kind of remote eternity” (Histories 14.11.25)

(*Because ει –ei– was pronounced as a long /i/ sound in the Roman period, the name is adopted into ancient Latin with –i-. Only some words, e.g., the name Aeneas, from Aineias, reflect the older pronunciation as a long /e/ sound. The modern transliteration reflects ancient Greek orthography more than pronunciation.)

There are some things to untangle here. Ammianus Marcellinus does not use the word ‘substantial’ (substantialis) in its ordinary philosophical sense, but to refer to the unique being of the gods, whom he calls substantiales potestates or “substantial powers” (Histories 21.1.8). These powers are not really related to each other as parents and children, but such mythical traditions indicate a philosophical idea, in this case that a kind of law or powerful deity directs the fate of events below the Moon, not indeed by chasing individual evil-doers, but administering individual fates through a universal power and activity.

In short, the goddess is “the judge of human actions (humanorum spectatrix)” (Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories 22.3.12), and “Nemesis is (called) Adrasteia because no one can escape (apodraseien) her” (Hesychius, Lexicon, s.v. Ἀδράστεια).

But this is only one meaning of several. Adrasteia is “a proper name; Nemesis; and a place between (the city) Priapos and Parium” (Pseudo-Zonaras, Lexicon, s.v. Ἀδράστεια). The grammarian Stephanus has a fuller explanation: “Adrasteia, between Priapos and Parium, (is named) after king Adrastus, who first set up the temple of Nemesis. The region was called both Adrasteia and Adrasteia’s plain, and the city (was called Adrasteia). Diogenes in the first book of On Cyzicus says that the city was named after Adrasteia, one of the Orestiad Nymphs. […] There is also a place Adrasteia in the Troad, named after Adrasteia the daughter of Melissus, the son of Idē, who first ruled (as queen) in Troy, as Charax (writes) in the second book of his Hellenica” (Epitome of Stephanus’ Ethnica, s.v. Ἀδράστεια).

Are there two different Adrasteias, then, one Nemesis – whether named after king Adrastus or her ineluctability –, the other a Nymph? Not necessarily, for the scholia on the Rhesus seem to take this as two accounts of the same goddess, who may or may not be Nemesis: Euripides “uniquely says that Adrasteia is the child of Zeus, while others call her the nurse of Zeus” – the nurses of gods usually being understood as Nymphs. “There is also a plain of Adrasteia in Asia Minor, named after king Adrastus, the goddess (or ‘daemon’, hē daímōn) being named after him. Others say that the is the daughter of Melisseus of Crete, the sister of Cynosura, and the nurse of Zeus; Callimachus: ‘Adrasteia lulled you to sleep in a cradle of gold’ (Hymn to Zeus 47). Some say that Adrasteia is one (goddess), Nemesis another; and some say Nemesis is a daughter of Oceanus, others of Zeus and Demeter, born in Rhamnus in Attica” (Scholia on Rhesus 342).

An ancient lexicon offers: “Some say Adrasteia is someone else than Nemesis, others that she is the same as Nemesis, and they say she is named after Adrastus, because he alone of the Seven (Against Thebes) survived and in turn sent his son among the Epigones;¹ others, after a certain Adrastus son of Mysus,² who set up her temple. But it is better (to derive it) from the fact that nothing can escape (apodidráskein) her” (Pausanias, Compendium of Attic Words, s.v. Ἀδράστεια).

1: This would be Adrastus, the king of Argos, who led the Seven Against Thebes.
2: This, evidently, would be the Adrastus connected to the city of Adrasteia in Mysia,
Asia Minor, which was mentioned above.

“Adrasteia: some say she is the same as Nemesis, and receives her name from Adrastus, the son of Talaus, who was indignant (nemes-) at the boasts of the Thebans. Then, because of certain divinatory injunctions, Nemesis had a temple set up for her, which was called (the temple) of Adrasteia after these event, as Antimachus makes clear in these lines:* ‘There is a certain great goddess, Nemesis, who was allotted all these things from the blessed; and her altar was first set up by Adrastus (Ádrēstos), near the stream of the river Aesepus (in Mysia), where she has been honored and is called Adrḗsteia’.

*The poet Antimachus is in fact referring to the Mysian Adrastus,
not the Argive Adrastus, son of Talaus.

“Some regard her as differing from Nemesis, like Menander and Nicostratus. But Demetrius of Scepsis says that Artemis is Artemis, (whose temple) was set up by a certain Adrastus” (Harpocration, Lexicon on the Ten Attic Orators, s.v. Ἀδράστεια).

The reference to Menander may touch on the fragment: “Adrasteia and Nemesis, sullen goddess, forgive (pl.)!” (Menander, fr. 321, ed. Kock). Inscriptions also mention “Adrasteia and Nemesis” thus, alongside each other (SEG 33:645; IG XII,5 730), though also as receiving shared sacrifice (IG XII,4 1:325), and inscriptions to “Nemesis Adrasteia” as one goddess can also be found (TAM III,1 912).

We still have not exhausted all explanations. In the scholia on Aeschylus, Adrasteia is variously explained as “Justice (Dikē), who punished Adrastus”, “a goddess punishing the arrogant”, “Nemesis” (ibid.), and “Fortune (Tykhē) whom no one can escape; or Fortune who does not permit us to do whatever we wish” (On Prometheus Chained 936).

The scholia on Callimachus’ Hymn to Zeus identify Adrasteia (in the poem, Adrḗsteia, a dialectal form) as “a sister of the Curetes”, the gods who guarded the god in his infancy (Scholia on Hymn to Zeus 47).

In a fragment of the Phoronis, an early epic poem, the Idaean Dactyls are called the attendants of oreíē Adrḗsteiē or “Adrasteia of the mountains”; in other words, she is identified with Mother Idē, i.e., the Mother-of-Gods or Rhea, associated with Mount Ida/Idē (Scholia on Apollonius, Argonautica 1.1129; compare Idē as first queen of Troy above).

In a Greco-Egyptian ritual text, “Isis Nemesis Adrasteia, of many names and many shapes” is invoked (Greek Magical Papyri 7.503). This reflects a common practice in Isiac devotional texts of referring other deities’ names to the Egyptian goddess.

Of course, what this variety of isolated explanations shows above all is the obscurity of the goddess; they cannot rival the much more common idea that she is, or is closely similar to, Nemesis.

[Zosimus, Scholia on Iliad 1.32]

3 The saying “Adrasteia Nemesis”

[Diogenianus, Chrysocephalus, Apostolius, Aelius Dionysius (reverse order), Zenobius (also on the horn of Amaltheia, cf. pseudo-Apollodorus). Theban: Scholia on Pindar, Libanius Progymnasmata.]

4 Adrasteia and Fate in Philosophy

The scholia on Plato tell us that “they say there are three Moirai (Fates), the daughters of Ananke (Necessity), namely Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, whom they also call Adrasteia, because no one can escape her; or because she is a kind of aeidrásteia, as always (aeí) bring about (drôsa) things in accordance with herself; or as polydrásteia, because she brings about many things, the a– indicating multitude as in axýlos hýlē.* The same is also called Nemesis from distribution (nemḗsis), as dividing and distributing what is due to each” (Scholia on Republic 451a).

*‘Forest of much wood’; better understood as ‘uncut wood’.

The reason Adrasteia is specifically identified with the Fate Atropos is that […]

[Inscription adrêsteias; Cornutus, Nemesius, Apuleius, Galen, Plato, Plutarch, De mundo, Hermias, Proclus, Damascius (also on Nemesis), Plotinus, Lydus, Martianus Capella, Stobaeus.]

5 Worship of Adrasteia

[dice oracle?, Pausanias, Strabo (also for above?), Photius: hebdomad, inscriptions again? Orphic Hymn proem?, Athenagoras(!); Greek Anthology 12.160.]