They were also known as the Three Erinyes or Eumenides. According to Ancient Greek mythology they were the daughters of Gaia, the earth goddess and described as hideous snake-haired monsters who pursued unpunished criminals. This article provides facts and information about the Furies.
Definition of the Furies (Erinyes)
Who were the Furies of Ancient mythology? The meaning and definition of Furies are as follows: Definition of Furies: The Furies were the goddesses of Vengeance and Retribution also referred to as the “infernal goddesses”. According to Greek Mythology they were the daughters of Nyx the ancient dark goddess. The Furies were described as horrible winged women, often draped in black, with serpent hair and eyes that dripped with blood. The Furies personified conscience and punished crimes. The Furies or Dirae (meaning the 'Dread Ones') typically had the effect of driving their victims insane, hence their Latin name “Furor”. The Furies was the collective name given to these terrifying goddesses in Roman mythology and corresponded to the Erinyes in Greek Mythology. The names of the Furies were Megaera, Tisiphone and Alecto.
The Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies, the three infernal goddesses of vengeance and retribution personified conscience and punished crimes and each also had specific traits that they were associated with:
- Megaera was described as the 'jealous one'
- Tisiphone was described as the 'blood avenger'
- Alecto was described as 'unceasing in pursuit'
The Furies (Erinyes) were virgin goddesses, but they were not beautiful or innocent like other goddesses. Their appearance was frightful, they were horribly ugly, hideous, merciless, full of blood lust and madness. They carried a whip of vipers. The writer Ovid, in Metamorphoses, describes the Furies with Tisiphone wearing "a robe all red with dripping gore and wound a snake about her waist". The snakes that were entwined in her hair were described as "The snakes, dislodged, gave hissing sounds; some crawled upon her shoulders; some, gliding round her bosom, vomited a slime of venom, flickering their tongues and hissing horribly."
The Furies (Erinyes) and Hades
People, not surprisingly, were terrified of Hades the god of the Underworld, and believed it brought bad fortune to even mention the god by name. He was referred to as 'Prince of Darkness' or Aidoneus meaning the “Unseen One” for fear of attracting his attention. The same applied to the Furies and the many who feared to speak their name called them by euphemisms such as Eumenides meaning the “Kind Ones”. The main responsibility of Hades was to ensure that the punishments of the dead decreed by the gods were carried out. However, such tortures and punishments were usually inflicted by the Furies (Erinyes). Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment was ascribed the responsibility of keeping the Furies in check.
The Role of the Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies were thought to dwell in Tartarus, a dark abyss, below the Underground - the equivalent of Hell. Their role was to apply their tortures to the damned souls there. The Furies acted as agents of the Fates (Moirai), exacting the punishments decreed by the gods and were also associated with the Keres, the 'Death Spirits'. When called upon to act, the Furies ascended to earth to pursue the wicked and unpunished criminals. The Furies were relentless, unceasing in pursuit, and hounded their victims until they died in a "furor" of madness or torment.
'The Furies' by Aeschylus
In classical literature Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.) describes their role in his work 'The Furies'
"Of Justice are we ministers, and whosoe'er of men may stand lifting a pure unsullied hand, that man no doom of ours incurs, and walks thro' all his mortal path untouched by woe, unharmed by wrath. But if, as yonder man, he hath blood on the hands he strives to hide, we stand avengers at his side, decreeing, thou hast wronged the dead: we are doom's witnesses to thee. The price of blood his hands have shed, we wring from him: in life, in death, hard at his side are we!".
In response to a question from Athena the the chorus of Furies answers:
"We are the children of eternal Night, and Furies in the underworld are called...
We chase from home the murderers of men"
(Aeschylus, The Furies Part II)
The Powers of the Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies possessed all the supernatural Powers of the Greek Gods including immortality, superhuman strength, stamina, vitality, and resistance to injury. They also had the power of flight and invisibility. The writer Ovid, in Metamorphoses describes poisons with magic power:.
"Tisiphone brought with her poisons too of magic power: lip-froth of Cerberus, the Echidna’s venom, wild deliriums, blindnesses of the brain, and crime and tears, and maddened lust for murder; all ground up, mixed with fresh blood, boiled in a pan of bronze, and stirred with a green hemlock stick."
Furies (Erinyes) - Matricide and Patricide
The Furies were especially vigilant of crimes that were committed within a family, of which matricide and patricide were viewed as the most heinous of crimes. Matricide is the murder of a mother and patricide is the murder of a father. In Ancient Greece and Rome such crimes were expected to be avenged by the children of murdered parents. The Furies would haunt a son who had failed to avenge a parent who had been killed unjustly. The Furies were relentless and hounded their victim until he made retribution on the death of his parents.
Mythology of the Furies (Erinyes) - The Harpies
Their is myth that tells of the Harpies and the Furies. King Pandareos stole a golden dog from the shrine of Zeus and was punished by the gods, as were his daughters. The Harpies were terrible creatures with the head of woman and the body of a vulture. The Harpies were perpetually devoured by the pangs of insatiable hunger, which caused them to torment their victims by robbing them of their food. The Harpies had the power rapid flight that far surpassed that of the winds. The Harpies took away the daughters of King Pandareos to act as slaves to the Furies (Erinyes).
Mythology of the Furies (Erinyes) - Orestes
The Furies feature in the Myth of Orestes and Agamemnon in which they appear as the agents of revenge for Clytemnestra, the mother of Orestes. Orestes had killed Clytemnestra to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. The goddess Athena absolved Orestes of guilt in the murder of his mother, and in order to appease the Furies (Erinyes) she gave the Furies a grotto at Athens where they received sacrifices and libations where they became euphemistically known as the Eumenides (the kindly ones).
The Furies (Erinyes) - The Eumenideia
The Eumenideia was an annual festival in honor of the Eumenides (euphemism for the Erinyes) which was held in Athens. The Mystai (priests) made the preliminary sacrifices to the Eumenides of cakes and libations of water and milk. A libation was a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to the gods. The aim of their rite was to placate dead souls. Animal sacrifices were then made at the Eumenideia in the form of black sheep which were burnt in a night ceremony. Wine was poured onto the animal as part of its ritual slaughter and preparation, and then afterwards onto the ash and flames. The Eumenideia was an important festival and due to the nature of the goddesses only free-born citizens of known virtue and integrity were admitted as the only acceptable attendees. The symbols of the Eumenides were turtle doves and the narcissus.
Invocations to the Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies brought terror but also a sense of justice to mortals. According to the traditions and beliefs of the Ancient Greeks, people would invoke the aid of the Furies to gain justice, retribution and revenge for wicked acts that had gone unpunished. These invocations took the form of a prayer for retribution from the 'infernal goddesses'. An example of an invocation to the Furies:
"I plead to thee, oh Furies, avenge these heinous deeds. Descend with wings of razors, grant me the vengeance that I seek. I beg for retribution. Let the rivers all run red, punish those who swear false oaths and allow me my revenge."