In Greek mythology the Erinyes (Greek: Ἐρῑνύες, plural of Ἐρῑνύς, Erinys), also known as Furies, were female deities of vengeance; they were sometimes referred to as “infernal goddesses”. An oath in the Iliad invokes them as “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath”. They correspond to the Dirae in Roman mythology, and some suppose that they are called Furies in hell, Harpies on earth, and Dirae in heaven.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, when the Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the sea, the Erinyes as well as the Meliae emerged from the drops of blood when it fell on the earth (Gaia), while Aphrodite was born from the crests of sea foam.
According to variant accounts, they emerged from an even more primordial level—from Nyx, “Night”, or from a union between air and mother earth. Their number is usually left indeterminate. Virgil, probably working from an Alexandrian source, recognized three: Alecto or Alekto (“unceasing”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone or Tilphousia (“vengeful destruction”), all of whom appear in the Aeneid. Dante followed Virgil in depicting the same three-character triptych of Erinyes; in Canto IX of the Inferno they confront the poets at the gates of the city of Dis. Whilst the Erinyes were usually described as three maiden goddesses, the Erinys Telphousia was usually a by-name for the wrathful goddess Demeter, who was worshipped under the title of Erinys in the Arkadian town of Thelpousa.
The Erinyes live in Erebus and are more ancient deities than any of the Olympians. Their task is to hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants – and to punish such crimes by hounding culprits relentlessly. The Erinyes are crones and, depending upon authors, described as having snakes for hair, dog’s heads, coal black bodies, bat’s wings, and blood-shot eyes. In their hands they carry brass-studded scourges, and their victims die in torment.
Erinyes in Ancient Greek literature
The Erinyes form the Chorus and play a major role in the conclusion of Aeschylus’s dramatic trilogy the Oresteia. In the first play Agamemnon, King Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War, where he is slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, who wants vengeance for her daughter Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by Agamemnon in order to obtain favorable winds to sail to Troy. In the second play The Libation Bearers, their son Orestes has reached manhood and has been commanded by Apollo’s oracle to avenge his father‘s murder at his mother’s hand. Returning home and revealing himself to his sister Electra, Orestes pretends to be a messenger bringing the news of his own death to Clytemnestra. He then slays his mother and her lover Aegisthus.
Although Orestes’ actions were what Apollo had commanded him to do, Orestes has still committed matricide, a grave sacrilege. Because of this, he is pursued and tormented by the terrible Erinyes, who demand yet further blood vengeance. At Delphi, Orestes has been told by Apollo that he should go to Athens to seek the aid of the goddess Athena. In Athens, Athena arranges for Orestes to be tried by a jury of Athenian citizens, with her presiding. The Erinyes appear as Orestes’ accusers, while Apollo speaks in his defense. The trial becomes a debate about the necessity of blood vengeance, the honor that is due to a mother compared to that due to a father, and the respect that must be paid to ancient deities such as the Erinyes compared to the newer generation of Apollo and Athena. The jury vote is evenly split. Athena declares Orestes acquitted because of the rules she established for the trial.
Despite the verdict, the Erinyes threaten to torment all inhabitants of Athens and to poison the surrounding countryside. Athena, however, offers the ancient goddesses a new role, as protectors of justice, rather than vengeance, and of the city. She persuades them to break the cycle of blood for blood (except in the case of war, which is fought for glory, not vengeance). While promising that the goddesses will receive due honor from the Athenians and Athena, she also reminds them that she possesses the key to the storehouse where Zeus keeps the thunderbolts that defeated the other older deities. This mixture of bribes and veiled threats satisfies the Erinyes, who are then led by Athena in a procession to their new abode. In the play, the “Furies” are thereafter addressed as “Semnai” (Venerable Ones), as they will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city’s prosperity.
In Euripides’ Orestes the Erinyes are for the first time “equated” with the Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες, “the gracious ones”, also “Kindly Ones”). This is because it was considered unwise to mention them by name (for fear of attracting their attention), the ironic name is similar to how Hades, god of the dead is styled Pluton, or Pluto, “the Rich One’. Using euphemisms for the names of deities serves many purposes throughout ancient religions.
In Sophocles’s play, Oedipus at Colonus, it is significant that he comes to his final resting place in the grove dedicated to the Erinyes. It shows that he has paid his penance for his blood crime, as well as come to integrate the balancing powers to his early over-reliance upon Apollo, the god of the individual, the sun, and reason. He is asked to make an offering to the Erinyes and complies, having made his peace.