The Furies: Goddesses of Vengeance or Justice?

The Furies, in Greek mythology, were female deities associated with vengeance and retribution. Also known as the Erinyes or Eumenides, they were often depicted as three sisters: Alecto (unceasing), Megaera (grudging), and Tisiphone (vengeful destruction). The Furies were born from the blood of the primordial god Uranus when he was castrated by his son Cronus and his blood fell onto the earth.

The Furies play a big role in making the underworld a truly frightening place to reside in. What they are like and how they evolved over time is truly a fascinating piece of Greek mythology.

Who Were the Furies and What Was Their Purpose?

The Furies were believed to be the three ancient Greek goddesses of vengeance. They were fearsome entities that lived in the underworld where the Furies carried out punishments for mortals. More specifically, they aimed their punishments directly at the mortals that broke the moral and legal codes of the time.

So, in short, they punished anyone who went against the code of the three deities. The Furies were mostly interested in people that had murdered a family member, trying to specifically protect the parents and the oldest siblings.

This was of course not just by incident. The three sisters were born out of a family fight. A preference to punish the people that harmed their family is therefore pretty easily justified.

The moment that the three goddesses identified a mortal human that broke their oath, they would assess the right punishment for the crime. Indeed, it could come in many different forms. For example, they made people sick or temporarily mad.

While cruel, their punishments were generally seen as fair retributions for the crimes that were committed. Especially in later times, this would become more obvious.

Who is Known as the Furies?

Although we have talked about three sisters that are known as the Furies, the actual number is usually left indeterminate. But, it is certain that there are at least three. This is based on the works of the ancient poet Virgil.

The Greek poet was not just a poet, he was also a researcher. In his poetry, he processed his own research and sources. Through this, he was able to pin down the Furies to at least three: Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera.

The three appeared in Virgil’s work Aeneid. Each of the three deities would curse their subject with the very thing they embodied.

Alecto was known as the sister that cursed people with ‘endless anger’. The second sister, Tisiphone, was known to curse the sinners with ‘vengeful destruction’. The last sister, Megaera, was feared for her ability to curse people with ‘jealous rage’.

Maiden Goddesses

The three sisters together were known as three maiden goddesses. Many Greek goddesses were actually referred to like that. A maiden is a word that is associated with unmarried, youthful, excited, carefree women, somewhat erotic. The Furies are very well-known maidens, but Persephone is by far the most well-known.

Other Names for the Furies

The three women that are known as the Furies are also known by some other names. Over the years, the dialect, language use, and society of the ancient Greeks changed quite a lot. Therefore, many people and sources use different names for the Furies in modern times.

Erinyes 

Before they were called the Furies, they were mostly known as the Erinyes. Indeed, Erinyes is a more ancient name to refer to the Furies. The two names are nowadays used interchangeably. The name Erinyes is believed to be derived from Greek or Arcadian, an ancient Greek dialect.

When we look at classical Greek, the name Erinyes is believed to be derived from the words erinô or ereunaô. Both of them signify something like ‘I hunt up’ or ‘persecute.’ In the Arcadian dialect, it is believed to be based on erinô. This stands for ‘I am angry’.

Eumenides

Another name that is used to refer to the Furies is Eumenides. As opposed to Erinyes, Eumenides is a name that would only be used to refer to the Furies at a later point. Eumenides signifies ‘the well-meaning’, the ‘kindly ones’, or ‘soothed goddesses’.

But, it has a reason. Being called the Furies didn’t really relate to the zeitgeist of ancient Greece at a certain point in time. We will discuss the exact details of how they became known as Eumenides in one of the following paragraphs. For now, it suffices to say that the change of the name was to signify a societal change.

The change, in short, was that Greek society came to believe in a judicial system based on fairness rather than vengeance. So, since the names Furies or Erinyes would still refer to vengeance, a change in name was needed for the deities to stay viable.

The easiest way to do it was to just name the three goddesses by their actual names. But then again, people were afraid to call the three sisters by their actual names because of the potential consequences. In a trial, the Greek goddess of war and the home, Athena, settled for Eumenides. Still, calling the sisters Eumenides was just part of the agreement.

The whole agreement, albeit a purely arbitrary distinction, was divided into three parts. When the three goddesses were in heaven they would be called Dirae. When they were conceived as being on earth, they would adopt the name Furiae. And when they resided in the underworld, they would be referred to as Eumenides.

The Life and Epitome of the Furies 

As inhabitants of the underworld, the three sisters are believed to personify a curse that could torture people or kill them. In some stories, they are also described as the personification of the ghost of those who had been murdered. Like many other Greek gods and goddesses, they first appeared in the Iliad: a classic in ancient Greek literature.

The Birth and Family of the Furies

The Furies weren’t just born as regular human beings are. Many of the figures in Greek mythology have quite unorthodox births, and the birth of the Furies was no different.

Their birth was described in Theogony, a classic Greek literary work that was published by Hesiod. It describes a chronology of all the Greek gods and was published in the eighth century.

In the story, the primordial deity Uranus angered the other primordial deity, Gaia: Mother Earth. The two are known as a foundational part of Greek religion and mythology, starting the story of the Titans and later the Olympian gods. Because they are the foundational pieces, they were believed to have given birth to many sons and daughters.

An Angry Gaia

But, why was Gaia angry? Well, Uranus decided to imprison her children: Cyclopses, one-eyed beings with enormous strength, and the Hecatoncheires, gigantic creatures with fifty heads and one hundred arms of great strength.

So, Gaia ordered one of their other sons, a Titan by the name of Cronus, to fight his father. During the fight, Cronus managed to castrate his father and threw his genitals into the sea.

The Birth of the Furies

After the genitals of our Titan were thrown into the sea, the blood that spilled from it eventually reached the shores. Indeed, it was led back to mother earth: Gaia. The interaction between the blood of Uranus and the body of Gaia created the three Furies.

But, the magical moment didn’t stop there. The foam that was created by the genitals also birthed Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

The origin and all-pervading distinction between love (Aphrodite) and hate (the Furies) might be what is described in the fight between Uranus and Gaia.

Worshiping the Furies

The Furies were worshiped predominantly in, Athens, where they had several sanctuaries. While most sources identify three Furies, there were only two statues in the Athenian sanctuaries that were subject to worship. It is not really clear why this is the case.

The Furies also had a worship structure in Athens known as a grotto. A grotto is basically a cave, either artificial or natural, which is used for worshiping purposes.

Other than that, there were several events in which people could adore the three deities. One of them was through a festival which was named after them: Eumenideia. Also, many other sanctuaries existed near Colonis, Megalopolis, Asopus, and Ceryneia: all important places in ancient Greece.

The Furies in Popular Culture

From literature and paintings to poetry and theater: the Furies were often described, depicted, and adored. How the Furies were portrayed in popular culture is a large part of their significance in ancient and modern times.

The first appearance of the ancient goddesses was in Homer’s Iliad. It tells the story of the Trojan War, something that is believed to be a significant occurrence in Greek history. In Iliad, they are described as figures who ‘take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath’.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Another ancient Greek that used the Furies in his work goes by the name of Aeschylus. Why the Furies are nowadays also known as Euminides is largely due to his work. Aeschylus mentioned them in a trilogy of plays, as a whole called Oresteia. The first play is called Agamemnon, the second is called The Libation Bearers, and the third is called The Eumenides.

As a whole, the trilogy details the story of Orestes, who kills his mother Clytemnestra out of revenge. He does so because she killed her husband and Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. The central question of the trilogy is what the right punishment is for the killing that was conducted by Orestes. The most relevant part of the trilogy for our story is, as expected, The Eumenides.

In the last part of the trilogy, Aeschylus does not just try to tell an entertaining story. He actually tries to describe a shift in the judicial system of ancient Greece. As indicated before, the reference to Eumenides, rather than the Furies, signals a shift in a judicial system based on fairness as opposed to vengeance.

The Furies Signify a Societal Shift

Like many art pieces, Oresteia tries to capture the zeitgeist in a clever and accessible way. But, how could it possibly signify a shift in the judicial system of Greece? 

Aeschylus tried to capture the societal shift that he identified by detailing the very way of dealing with injustice: from vengeance to fairness. Since the Furies were known to signify vengeance, proposing a name change that was accompanied by a new story would be the most accurate.

Aeschylus tells the change in his society by describing how, or if, Orestes is punished for the killing of his mother. While in earlier times a sinner would be directly punished by the accusers, in The Eumenides Orestes is allowed a trial to see what is the right punishment.

He is put on trial for the killing of his mother after Apollo at Delphi, home of the famed Oracle, advised Orestes to plead to Athena, so that he would avoid the vengeance of the Furies.

READ MORE: The Oracle of Delphi: The Ancient Greek Fortuneteller

Athena indicated that she would hold a trial with a jury consisting of several inhabitants of Athens. This way, it was not only her or the Furies who decided Orestes’ punishment, it was a greater representation of society. Only through this, it was believed, the crime of Orestes could be assessed properly.

So, he stands accused of murder, with the Furies as the ones that accuse him of the deed. In this setting, Aeschylus signifies Apollo as a sort of defense attorney for Orestes. Athena, on the other hand, functions as a judge. All actors together embody fairness through trials over standalone judgment and punishment.

In the end, however, the jury has a hard time coming to a consensus on the topic. Actually, the jury of Atheaneans is evenly split at the end of the trial. Athena, therefore, has the final, tie-breaking vote. She decides to make Orestes a free man because of the events that motivate him to conduct the murder.

Euripides and Sophocles

Two other important instances in which the Furies are described are in Euripides’ version of the story that was just described above. He also mentions them in his work Orestes and Electra. Other than that, the furies also appear in Sophocles’ plays Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.

In the works of Euripides, the Furies are depicted as torturers. Although it might still signify some changes in society, the Greek poet didn’t give a very significant role to the three goddesses when compared to their role in the plays of Aeschylus.

Also, the Furies appear in a play that was written by Sophocles. His work Oedipus at Colonus is based on the story that would later become known as one of the foundational pieces of modern psychology: Oedipus Rex. So, the Furies don’t only signify a sociological value, the deities also carry a psychological value.

In Sophocles’ story, Oedipus kills his mother, who was also his wife. When Oedipus received the prophecy that he would eventually kill his father and marry his mother, he was also told that he would be buried in the land sacred to the Furies. Yet another affirmation of the Furies’ preference for family affairs.

Orphic Hymns

Another significant appearance of the Furies can be seen in a famous bundle of poems that dates back to the second or third century A.D. All the poems are based on the beliefs of Orphism, a cult that claimed descent from the teaching of Orpheus. Although nowadays a cult might have negative connotations, back in the day it was a synonym for a religious philosophy.

Orpheus was a mythical hero with superhuman musical skills. The collection of poems is called the Orphic Hymns. The 68th poem in the Orphic Hymns is dedicated to the Furies. This, too, indicates their significance in Greek mythology and the overall belief of the Greeks.

The Appearance of the Furies

How the deities known as the Furies looked is somewhat contested. Indeed, the Greeks had a hard time reaching a consensus on how they should be depicted and perceived.

Early descriptions of the Furies made it clear that anyone who caught a glimpse of them could tell exactly what they were in for. While somewhat harsh, the Furies weren’t perceived as the prettiest of them all. They were believed to be covered in all black; epitomizing darkness. Also, they were believed to have an awful head with blood dripping from their sunken eyes.

However, in later works and depictions, the Furies were softened down a bit. The work of Aeschylus played a big part in this since he was one of the first to describe them as the goddesses of justice rather than vengeance. Since the tendency of the times became softer, the depiction of the accusers of the underworld became softer too.

Snakes 

A big part of the representation of the Furies was their reliance on snakes. An example of their relationship with snakes is seen in a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The painting is based on the story as described by Aeschylus and shows Orestes being pursued by the Furies.

The snakes are wounded around the head of the Furies, at least in the painting by Bouguereau. Because of this, sometimes the Furies are also linked to the story of Medusa.

Other than that, one of the most visual descriptions of the Furies is in a story called Metamorphoses.

In Metamorphoses, the deities are described as having white hair, carrying blood-soaked torches. The torches were so bloody that the blood spilled all over their robes. The snakes that they wore were described as living, venom-spitting entities, some crawling over their bodies and some being tangled in their hair.

READ MORE: Snake Gods and Goddesses

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