Definition of the Furies (Erinyes)
Who were the Furies of Ancient mythology? The meaning and definition of Furies are as follows: Definition of Furies: The Furies were the goddesses of Vengeance and Retribution also referred to as the “infernal goddesses”. According to Greek Mythology they were the daughters of Nyx the ancient dark goddess. The Furies were described as horrible winged women, often draped in black, with serpent hair and eyes that dripped with blood. The Furies personified conscience and punished crimes. The Furies or Dirae (meaning the 'Dread Ones') typically had the effect of driving their victims insane, hence their Latin name “Furor”. The Furies was the collective name given to these terrifying goddesses in Roman mythology and corresponded to the Erinyes in Greek Mythology. The names of the Furies were Megaera, Tisiphone and Alecto.
Picture of the Furies: Megaera, Tisiphone and Alecto
The Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies, the three infernal goddesses of vengeance and retribution personified conscience and punished crimes and each also had specific traits that they were associated with:
- Megaera was described as the 'jealous one'
- Tisiphone was described as the 'blood avenger'
- Alecto was described as 'unceasing in pursuit'
The Furies (Erinyes) were virgin goddesses, but they were not beautiful or innocent like other goddesses. Their appearance was frightful, they were horribly ugly, hideous, merciless, full of blood lust and madness. They carried a whip of vipers. The writer Ovid, in Metamorphoses, describes the Furies with Tisiphone wearing "a robe all red with dripping gore and wound a snake about her waist". The snakes that were entwined in her hair were described as "The snakes, dislodged, gave hissing sounds; some crawled upon her shoulders; some, gliding round her bosom, vomited a slime of venom, flickering their tongues and hissing horribly."
The Furies (Erinyes) and Hades
People, not surprisingly, were terrified of Hades the god of the Underworld, and believed it brought bad fortune to even mention the god by name. He was referred to as 'Prince of Darkness' or Aidoneus meaning the “Unseen One” for fear of attracting his attention. The same applied to the Furies and the many who feared to speak their name called them by euphemisms such as Eumenides meaning the “Kind Ones”. The main responsibility of Hades was to ensure that the punishments of the dead decreed by the gods were carried out. However, such tortures and punishments were usually inflicted by the Furies (Erinyes). Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment was ascribed the responsibility of keeping the Furies in check.
"They [the Furies] sat a-kembing foul black snakes from off their filthy hair before the dungeon door,
the place where caitiffs punished were"
Note1: A Caitiff was a despicable, wicked and cowardly prisoner.
Note 2: Kemb means to comb
The Role of the Furies (Erinyes)
The Furies were thought to dwell in Tartarus, a dark abyss, below the Underground - the equivalent of Hell. Their role was to apply their tortures to the damned souls there. The Furies acted as agents of the Fates (Moirai), exacting the punishments decreed by the gods and were also associated with the Keres, the 'Death Spirits'. When called upon to act, the Furies ascended to earth to pursue the wicked and unpunished criminals. The Furies were relentless, unceasing in pursuit, and hounded their victims until they died in a "furor" of madness or torment.
Picture of Three Furies (Erinyes): Megaera, Tisiphone and Alecto
'The Furies' by Aeschylus
In classical literature Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.) describes their role in his work 'The Furies'
"Of Justice are we ministers, and whosoe'er of men may stand lifting a pure unsullied hand, that man no doom of ours incurs, and walks thro' all his mortal path untouched by woe, unharmed by wrath. But if, as yonder man, he hath blood on the hands he strives to hide, we stand avengers at his side, decreeing, thou hast wronged the dead: we are doom's witnesses to thee. The price of blood his hands have shed, we wring from him: in life, in death, hard at his side are we!".
In response to a question from Athena the the chorus of Furies answers:
"We are the children of eternal Night, and Furies in the underworld are called...
We chase from home the murderers of men"
(Aeschylus, The Furies Part II)