The Erinyes: The Avenging Furies
The Erinyes were among the most fearsome spirits in the entire Greek religion. Among all the gods, monsters, and spirits, these personifications of justice were among the most terrifying.
Spirits of a particularly harsh view of justice, they represented the curses called down upon criminals. Their entire reason for being was to punish and torment those who committed particularly heinous crimes.
Under the GFreek definition of natural law, the crimes that attracted the Erinyes were varied in both their type and severity. They punished murderers, but they also punished perjurers and men who disobeyed their fathers.
In English, we still refer to them today. The Furies, stemming from their Latin name Furiae, continue to bring to mind images of torment and madness brought down on accused criminals.
So what exactly were the Furies and what called them on some criminals? And, more importantly, what could be done to make them leave their victims in peace?
Read on to learn all about the Erinyes, the avenging goddesses of harsh justice!
The Erinyes were three sister goddesses, described as more ancient than any of the Olympians.
According to one myth, they were born from drops of Uranus’s blood that fell to the ground when he was castrated. Another legend claimed that they were the daughters of Nyx, the primordial goddess of the night.
The three Furies lived in a cave in the dark realm of Erebus, leaving only to hunt their victims.
They were depicted as hideous crones, although the extent of their terrible appearance depended on the imagination of the particular author or artist.
Some claimed that they had dogs’ heads, bat wings, or snakes in their hair and wrapped around their waists. They were sometimes described with bodies as black as shadow and bloodshot eyes.
Most writers agreed that the three carried brass-studded scourges in claw-like hands. They beat their victims until they died in agony.
They were not known just for their frightening looks, though. One of their sacred animals was the screech owl, attributed to them because their screaming voices were said to drive their victims mad long before the scourges killed them.
In the earliest Greek myths, recorded from the long oral tradition that existed before the development of narrative writing, the Erinyes were much more simple personifications than they came to be remembered as.
They personified the curses that were called down upon a guilty criminal by both the law and those they had wronged. It was believed that these curses would follow the guilty until the day they died or atoned for their crimes.
Homer imagined that the Erinyes rested in Erebos until a curse yelled at a criminal called them into action. In later writings, the Erinyes themselves became a curse.
The Furies did not target all crimes, though. Some criminals were punished in other ways, while a few seemed to escape retribution altogether.
The three Furies focused on very specific crimes against both men and natural law. Natural law, as the Greeks defined it, were the dictates of the gods and included rules governing hospitality and familial loyalty.
Thus the Erinyes punished murderers, but they also punished those who betrayed their families. Violation of the mores of hospitality could call down the Erinyes, as could the abuse of supplicants by a ruler or priest.
The Erinyes were also particularly concerned with those who violated oaths. A swore oath, particularly one in the name of a god, was a sacred vow and the breaking of it was an offense against the gods themselves.
The Furies would hunt down those who broke these laws until they died, either from their own tortures or by another means. But death did not mean one was free of the fury of the Erinyes.
The sisters were also chthonic deities and played a role in the underworld. Particularly terrible criminals could expect the Erinyes to follow them into the next life to continue their torment.
The Erinyes were particularly known for punishing those who committed crimes against their own families.
Many of those the Erinyes hunted had committed the double crime of murder and family betrayal. The killing of a family member was a particularly heinous crime.
Even when the crime was committed as an act of righteous vengeance, the Furies would punish the killer.
Amphiaraus, for example, made his son Alcmaeon swear to avenge him when he was dying as a result of his wife’s actions. Alcmaeon killed his mother, fulfilling his oath, but was hunted by the Furies for the crime of matricide.
The killing of a parent could result in a particularly heinous punishment. The Furies would not only hunt the guilty party, but the ghosts of the murdered parents would sometimes join them.
In another story the Amazon queen Hippolyte was accidentally killed by her sister Penthesileia while they were hunting together. The Erinyes made no distinction between murder and accidental killing, so Penthesileia was chased until she sought purification from King Priam of Troy.
In cases of murder, particularly matricide and patricide, the Erinyes could punish an entire country. Kingdoms that gave shelter to criminals risked drought, floods, and earthquakes as punishment from the Erinyes.
Murder was not the only familial crime that attracted the Furies, however. Even seemingly minor disrespect or disobedience toward one’s parents was considered a violation of natural law and punishable by the Erinyes.
When the tragic king Oedipus learned that he had married his own mother, he blinded himself in shame. His sons, rather than feeling pity for their father, mocked his suffering as he struggled.
In anger, Oedipus called down the curse of the Erinyes upon them. The goddesses haunted the brothers for the crime of disrespecting their father, even as they continued to torment Oedipus for the murder of his father.
Even such a seemingly minor crime was considered horrible under Greek natural law, which held all men to the standard of respecting their fathers and elders. The Erinyes would not be satisfied until both brothers were dead.
The terrible curse led to a war, dramatized as the Seven Against Thebes. The brothers fought and killed one another, knowing even as they battled that they were under the curse of the Erinyes.
I shudder that the Erinys invoked by the father’s prayer will fulfill the over-wrathful curses that Oidipous spoke in madness. This strife that will destroy his sons drives the Erinys to fulfillment . . . For the compensation is heavy when curses uttered long ago are fulfilled, and once the deadly curse has come into existence, it does not pass away.
-Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes (trans. Weir Smyth)
Oaths were of particular importance in the Greek view of the law. Because they were sworn in the names of the gods, oaths were considered a sacred promise.
Breaking an oath was not a minor offense. It was an insult against whichever god had heard the vow.
The Erinyes hunted those who broke oaths and committed perjury as fiercely as they did any murderer.
Among those punished for violating their oaths were:
- Jason – When he and Medea ran away together, she made him swear a solemn oath that he would not betray her. When he did so many years later, she immediately called the Erinyes down on him as an oath-breaker.
- Paris and Troy – Paris violated the laws of hospitality by abducting his host’s wife, but the rulers of Troy were also guilty of oath-breaking. They initially swore to return Helen to Menelaus when the Greeks arrived but then refused, beginning the Trojan War. When their city fell, the Erinyes oversaw its destruction.
- Eteocles – The prince of Thebes swore to share power with his brother, but when the time came had him exiled instead. The Erinyes had already cursed them for mocking their father, Oedipus, but this additional crime increased the hostility.
The Erinyes featured heavily in the story of Orestes.
The Mycenaean prince was away from home when his father, Agamemnon, returned from the Trojan War. In the ten years he had been gone his wife, Clytemnestra, had taken another lover.
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered both Agamemnon and his captive, Cassandra. Seven years later when Orestes returned from Athens, he learned of his mother’s crimes and killed the pair to avenge his father.
Although Clytemnestra had been a murderer and had violated her marriage vow, Orestes was pursued by the Erinyes for the greater crime of matricide. Even Apollo, who had urged Orestes to commit the crime, was powerless to stop the avenging Furies.
Athena eventually intervened. Because Orestes had been committing an act of righteous vengeance with the murder, she believed he had the right to plead his case.
She ordered a panel of twelve citizens of Athens to be convened to hear the matter. Orestes pled his case while the Erinyes named his crime.
The first jury trial in history ended in a tie. According to the rules laid down by the goddess of wisdom, this meant that the accused criminal should be acquitted of his charges.
The trial of Orestes changed the view of justice, in Athens at least. Instead of being immediately judged by the avenging spirits of curses, the accused now had a right to plead their innocence and outline any mitigating factors in their crimes.
After the trial of Orestes, the Erinyes were renamed Eumenides, or “well-meaning.” It was said that this was to signify not only their placation at justice having been carried out in a good way, but also the value of their work.
In reality, however, the name Eumenides was typically used as an epithet. The Erinyes were so feared that it was considered bad luck to speak their name out loud.
By calling them by a more gentle, respectful name, the people of Greece could avoid having the anger of the avenging Furies directed at them.
Aside from death, the only way to escape the anger of the Furies was to be purified and cleansed of your crimes.
Before she called down her own curse upon him, Jason and Medea were being hunted by the Erinyes for the murder of her brother. They sought shelter with her aunt, the sorceress Circe, who prepared the rites to purify them.
To appease the Erinyes, Circe had to appease Zeus. As the lord of all justice, he had the power to forgive crimes and call off the attacking spirits.
Circe sacrificed a suckling pig and poured out libations. As she prayed for him to listen to the repentant sinners, she burned offerings of meat, cakes, and other good foods.
Sometimes, purification required more than just the forgiveness of a god.
When Heracles killed his family in a fit of madness brought on by Hera, he sought purification at a temple of Apollo. He did not know, however, that the priest of the temple was acting on Hera’s orders.
In addition to the ritual purification, Heracles was ordered into ten years of servitude, during which he undertook his famous labors. The tasks he performed were part of his effort to atone for his sins and stave off the torment of the Erinyes.
Alcmaeon was ordered to not only be cleansed by a river god, but also to found a new city in that god’s honor. Even after being tried by a jury and cleansed by Apollo, Orestes was ordered to find his missing sister, Iphigenia and retrieve a stolen statue of Artemis from her captors.
Purification could be even be performed after death. When a soul was pardoned of their crimes by the judges of the underworld, the Erinyes themselves would perform the ritualistic purification to give the soul an afterlife free of torment.
The Erinyes were spirits of vengeance in Greek mythology. They lived in the dark realm of Erebus and were called out when a curse was laid upon a criminal.
The Erinyes, often called the Furies in English, were most concerned with punishing those who violated natural law. As defined by the Greeks, natural laws were mandates of the gods that covered everything from filial piety to keeping oaths.
The Erinyes famously punished murderers, particularly those who had killed a family member. Those guilt of matricide or fratricide could be tormented by the ghosts of their dead parents as well as the Furies themselves.
Greek law made no distinction between degrees of murder or manslaughter. A killer could be punished even if the death was accidental, done in the name of justice, or ordered by another god.
The Furies also punished those who broke their oaths. Oaths sworn to the gods were sacred, and their violation was an insult against the god.
The Erinyes were sometimes called the Eumenides after Athena established the precedent of trial by jury to ensure justice.
This name, meaning the well-meaning or kindly ones, was said to recognize the inherent good done by justice and the Erinyes. In truth, it was often used as an epithet to avoid angering the vengeful spirits by even saying their names.
It was possible to be purified and atone for one’s sins, but the process was often long and laborious. The criminal would have to be forgiven by another god and prove their contrition before the Erinyes removed their curse.
Otherwise, the only way to end the curses of the Furies was through death. Even then, however, it was possible that their torment would continue in the afterlife.