The Remorse of Orestes (1862). W-A. Bougereau. Public domain.
In Greek mythology the Erinyes, which means the ‘angry ones’, are also known as the Eumenides or the Furies or the Furiae in Roman mythology. The Errinyes are also known as the Dirae, or ‘the terrible’, ‘in Rome and Semnae meaning ‘revered goddesses’. As the Eumenides or ‘Solemn Ones’ they are the ‘kindly ones’ or ‘gracious ones’, who were also called the ‘Benignant Ones’. Other names for the Erinyes include the Erinues, the Errunys, and the Maniai or ‘the madnesses’. In the mythology of ancient Rome the Furies were the supernatural personifications of the angry dead. As the Potniae they are ‘the awful ones’, and the Praxidikae are ‘the justdoers’.
They are chthonic goddesses of vengeance and justice, whose powers encompass exacting retribution for wrongs and blood-guilt, as well as trespasses against the social order. They pursued and hunted down those who wrongly shed the blood of mothers and parents. In addition they represented the potency of creation and regeneration. They were known in Norse mythology as the Waelcyrge. In early times their number varies but eventually became settled at three.
Three in number their names are Megaera meaning ‘envious anger’, Tisiphone, or Tiphousa, which means ‘voice of revenge’, and Alecto or Allekto which means ‘vengeance’ or ‘never-ending’. In these roles Tisiphone was the avenger of murder, Meagaera was called ‘the grim’ or ‘grudging’, and Alecto was the unwearied persecutor. As avenging deities they were attendants to Persephone and Hades and, for as long as wrongdoing and outrages against custom occurred, they could not be destroyed. However, even though they can be pitiless in life and death these deities are not wantonly malignant.
They were born of the blood of mutilated Uranus, killed by Cronos, and Gaia or, in some sources of Archeron or Tartarus or Nyx , (as daughters of Night), or Earth and Darkness, others say Cronus and Eurynome. For Hesiod they sprang from Gaia (Earth) who was made pregnant by the blood spilled by Uranus. The Erinyes are believed to have emerged from the discarded genitalia of Uranus in the sea.
They go about as solemnly dressed maidens in the attire of huntresses, wearing head-gear of writing snakes with torches, scourges, sickles and whips. Reputedly of a grave demeanour they also have the wings of bats and the heads of dogs. The popular mythic image of the Erinyes is that of ugly crones with hair of entwined serpents wearing girdles of vipers. The image portrayed by Dante following Virgil is of creatures whose eyes drip with blood and of a horrible appearance.
Originally represented as black clad females of odious aspect this portrayal eventually fell away and they became beautiful and serious maiden deities. The repulsive black attire with snakes but wingless appearance arose from the stage play Eumenides (Aeschylus) who were called the ‘Daughters of the Night’. It was Pausanias who referred to the Furies, not as hags, but as ‘august matrons’. The Furies drove their victims insane which explains their Latin name furor.
The Eumenides is a name for the Erinyes in their gracious and benign role and which means ‘the kind ones’. Moreover, they were also the hereditary college of priestesses from the clan of the Hesychids. As the ‘well minded goddesses’ it was the remit of the Eumenides to aid the received perception of morality, as well as to punish remissions of faith and duty, plus all crimes against parent. They pursued Orestes, bat-winged and god-headed, from their dwelling deep in a pit of Erebus.
Orestes was the son of Agamemnon who killed his mother called Clytemnestra to avenge the murder of his father. Whilst Agamemnon was at the Trojan War she sent Orestes abroad whilst she continued her affair with Aegisthus. It was after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had killed Agamemnon that Orestes returned home to Argos. Orestes thereupon killed his mother and her paramour in revenge. The gods Apollo and Zeus could find no excuse for Orestes crime of matricide. The Erinyes (Furies) were sent in pursuit of Orestes in compliance with the command of Apollo.
The Murder of Agamemnon (1817). Pierre-Narcissse Guerin. Public domain.
Orestes was scourged by the Furies the instant he carried out the matricide. It was the Furies, as priestesses and goddesses of the dead, that involved them in the relentless pursuit of Orestes. They officiated in domestic crimes, disobedience to parents, and especially the heinous crime of matricide. Eventually Orestes was acquitted and after the verdict the anger of the Furies was abated by their becoming the ‘soothed goddesses’ known as the Eumenides. It was Athena who interposed to present the Eumenides in a more positive and beneficent trio.
Orestes pursued by the Erinyes (1852). Karl Rahl. Public domain.
These chthonic deities were worshipped at Athens as ‘venerable’ goddesses where solemn groves are dedicated to them at Colonos. The shrines to these priestesses are surrounded by funereal trees of black poplar (which is sacred to Demeter), the yew and alder. The Semnai Theai, the ‘venerable ones’, were goddesses of the earth who were identified with the Furies and came from Colonos and Athens. As the Furies they lived in Tartarus, from where they judged on complaints of insolence, and tortured the souls of the damned. It is at the behest of Nemesis, as his enforcers, that they appear on Earth in pursuit of wrong-doers and criminals.
The Eumenides also had a chthonic function involving the goddess Hecate. The Erinyes or the Furies lived at the entrance to the Underworld. The Furies were also priestesses to Hecate in her role as the triple Goddess of the Crossroads. Other priestesses of Hecate were Medea and Circe. In popular imagination the Erinyes and the Furies have come to predominate as powers of death, whose role personifies curses. When those departed, who are guilty of unpunished earthly crimes, arrive in the Underworld as shades, they are pursued with fury and speed. The Triple dog-headed goddess Hecate, whose trinity comprises also Demeter and Persephone, is the three phases of the moon, as well as the green, then ripe, and then harvested grain.
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