Who are the Erinyes (Furies) of Greek Mythology?
The Erinyes (Furies) were the avenging three goddesses of vengeance and retribution in Greek mythology and were known as “the angry ones”. They were born from the blood of Uranus that fell into the womb of Gaia when Cronus, his son, castrated him. The Erinyes or Furies were portrayed as ugly women with snakes entwined in their hair and were pitiless to those mortals who had wrongly shed blood.
They relentlessly pursued Orestes, who avenged his father Agamemnon’s murder by killing Clytemnestra, his mother. The Furies were only persuaded to abandon their persecution of Orestes after his acquittal by the Areopagus; an ancient Athenian council presided over by the goddess Athena. The verdict calmed the anger of the Erinyes (Furies), whose name was then changed to the less-threatening Eumenides (“the soothed ones”).
When it came to dealing with crimes in ancient Greece, the majority of punishments were left to the individual states, but there were some exceptions. The goddesses usually ignored petty crimes such as theft. However, when it came to crimes against the gods, or matricide and patricide—the murder of one’s mother and father—the gods would then intervene.
It was rare for the gods to pursue the guilty personally. Instead, they enlisted the services of the Erinyes, or the Furies, as they were sometimes referred to.
The Erinyes were the three goddesses of vengeance and retribution, and they would be responsible for pursuing and punishing those for their crimes against the natural order. They were created when the Titan Cronus castrated his father, Uranus. His genitals were thrown into the sea, thus creating Aphrodite, and the blood that dripped down onto Gaia, the earth, created the Erinyes.
The actual number of Erinyes that were born is unknown, but the three best known were Alecto, the unceasing; Megaera, the grudging or jealousy; and Tisiphone, the vengeful destruction. It’s because of these three that when we refer to the Erinyes, they are seen as a trio.
With the Erinyes essentially being the police force of the gods, we can look at these three as the three Chiefs in charge. It wasn’t just the gods that could summon the Erinyes; it was believed that any victim could call down the curse of the Erinyes upon a criminal.
The most potent curse was the curse placed by a parent on their child, as the Erinyes are born of a similar crime, with Cronus castrating his father. The murder of one’s mother and father were considered the worst crime in the eyes of the Erinyes.
One of their first appearances was in Homer’s Iliad, where they were Punishers of oathbreakers, and they embodied the curses of parents who had been wronged by their children. The Erinyes wrath would manifest itself in several different ways. Murderers would often suffer illness and disease. Cities that were found harbouring criminals would share in the punishment, with disease, hunger and death spreading amongst its people until the fugitive was given up.
The Erinyes were known for endlessly pursuing criminals and tormented them until they were driven insane. For those being pursued by the Erinyes, the only alternative to being driven insane was atonement—a process that involved complete in a series of labours, followed by a purification ritual.
The Erinyes Depictions
The Erinyes were often depicted as rather ugly winged women, not too different from the appearance of a Harpy. But unlike the Harpies, the Erinyes had poisonous serpents entwined in their hair, arms and waist. They could often be seen as wooden a whip as a weapon, and the clothing they wore often differed. Sometimes wearing long black robes, and other times, short length skirts and boots, similar to that of a Huntress.
The Erinyes Story, Orestes—Change of Name
One of the most well-known stories that feature the Erinyes is one that we partly touched on when discussed in the story of Iphigenia. Her brother, Orestes, had slain his mother because she had slain her husband for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Committing the crime of matricide meant that the Erinyes tormented Orestes.
This led Orestes to seek the help of the Oracle of Delphi. He was told to go to Athens and ask the goddess Athena for a trial. During the trial, the Erinyes appeared as the accusers of Orestes, who were eager to spill his blood.
The trial ended in a split decision, with Athena having the costume vote. She decided to acquit Orestes of all of his crimes.
As expected, the Erinyes disagreed with the decision of the goddess, and they threatened torment and a plague upon the people of Athens. After a long negotiation with Athena, the Erinyes eventually changed their mind.
It was after this discussion that they would no longer be the Erinyes, protectors of vengeance. They became the Eumenides, protectors of justice.
The Erinyes Q&A
What are the Names of the Erinyes?
The three goddesses of the Erinyes are Alecto, the unceasing; Megaera, the grudging or jealousy; and Tisiphone, the vengeful destruction.
Who were the Parents of the Erinyes?
The parents of the Erinyes were Uranus and Gaia.
Why was Orestes chased by the Furies?
Orestes was chased by the Furies because Orestes had slain his mother because she had slain her husband for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Committing the crime of matricide meant that the Erinyes tormented Orestes.
Image Sources: Vee Chayakul.