The Furies (Erinyes)

The Furies are the three chthonic female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology. They are also called Erinyes (Erinys) which means “the avengers” in Greek language. The counterpart of the Furies is “Dirae” in Roman mythology.

There are several myths regarding the birth and parentage of the Furies. The most common belief is that they were born simultaneously with Aphrodite. In Hesiod’s work named Theogony, it is stated that the Furies were born out of Uranus’ blood while Aphrodite was being born from sea foam when Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, and threw his genitals into the sea. In line with this version of the myth regarding their birth, Erinyes preceded the Olympian Gods.

According to another myth, they were born out of the union between the air and the sea while it is stated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid that they were the daughters of Nyx (the Night). In some old Greek hymns and in Statius’ Thebaid they were told to be the daughters of Hades and Persephone, to whom they served in the kingdom of underworld.

The names of Erinyes were Alecto (the angry one), Tisiphone (the avenger) and Megaera (the grudging one).

Erinyes listened to the complaints and callings of victims in the world when these people cursed the wrongdoers. People who murdered their mothers or fathers were especially important for Erinyes since they were born out of a child’s wrongdoing to his father (castration of Uranus by Cronus). That is why calls made by a parent upon the wrongdoing of his or her child were considered to be the strongest calls made to Erinyes.

furies, erinyes
Virgil Pointing Out the Erinyes by Gustave Dore

They punished people who committed crimes against gods, crimes of disrespect and perjury and people who broke their oaths, however, homicide was always the most significant crime in the eyes of the Furies requiring the cruelest punishment. They turned murderer into mad people or gave them diseases. It was told in the myths that the curse of the Furies could be lifted by means of some purification ritual and fulfilling some specific tasks to be given to atone for the crimes that were committed.

Erinyes served Hades and Persephone in the underworld. When souls of the dead came to the kingdom of Hades, they were firstly were judged by 3 judges. After that Erinyes purified the souls that were deemed to be good people by these judges and allowed their passage. The souls that were deemed to be wicked, on the other hand, were sent to the Dungeons of the Damned in Tartarus to be subjected to torture, which was also overseen by Erinyes.

Physical description of the Furies varied in the accounts, yet, they were mostly depicted as ugly women with serpents in their hair and arms wearing black robes with whips in their hands. According to some accounts, they also had wings of a bat (or a bird).  It was also told that they had burning breaths and poisonous blood came out of their eyes.