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The Erinyes in Greek Mythology

Updated on May 14, 2016

The Erinyes are an often overlooked grouping of three minor goddesses from Greek mythology. These Greek goddesses were avenging deities, often brought forth when justice was required in the case of a murder, particularly when the murder was committed by a family member.

The Role of the Erinyes

The basic role of the Erinyes related to justice, for in the case of matricide or patricide, the deceased parent could call down the Erinyes upon their murderous child; in the case of filicide, one parent would call for the Erinyes to act upon the other; and with fratricide, the vengeance would be called forth by the parents.

The Erinyes though could also be brought forth when an oath was broken, or when the gods were insulted or injured.

The form of justice enacted by the Erinyes often related to madness or illness brought down upon the murderer, but the three goddesses also had the power to bring famine and disease down upon a land if a murderer was being protected there.

It was possible to placate the Erinyes, but this required special rites to be performed, and a special task to be completed. After Heracles had killed his family, the Greek hero was cleansed of the sins at Delphi, but had to subsequently serve King Eurystheus for a period of time.

Another role of the Erinyes was undertaken in the Underworld, for whilst the three goddesses could cleanse the deceased of their sins, if the Three Judges called for it, they were also the tormentors of those punished in Tartarus, and the keepers of the keys to the prison within.

The Erinyes Tormenting

Orestes Pursued by the Furies
Orestes Pursued by the Furies

The Birth of the Erinyes

It is apt that, according to Hesiod, the birth of the Erinyes came about because of the act of violence of son upon father; for these goddesses of the underworld were born when the blood of the castrated Ouranus fell upon Gaia. This would make the Erinyes siblings to the Meliai, Gigantes, and in a strange way, Aphrodite.

An alternative tradition though also claims that the Erinyes were from an even earlier period of Greek mythology being the offspring of Nyx, the goddess of the night.

It was not common in Greek mythology to name the Erinyes, possibly because using their names might attract their attention, but where names are give, the three Erinyes are called Alecto, the angry one, Megaera, the grudging, and Tisiphone, the avenger.

In Roman mythology, the Erinyes were often referred to as the Furies, and it is the name by which the trio of goddesses are more famously known as.

Aeschylus' Oresteia - The Furies (BBC Radio 3)

A Description of the Erinyes

Traditionally, the Erinyes were depicted as ugly women with large wings emerging from their back, and with their bodies entwined with poisonous snakes. Some in antiquity would ponder whether the Erinyes were known as Erinyes when in the Underworld, but when above ground, would be called Harpies.

The Erinyes though were often also depicted as wearing black, as if mourners at a funeral, but also would carry a whip to torment, as per their basic role.

Clytmenestra and the Erinyes

The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies - John Downman (1750–1824)  - PD-art-100
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies - John Downman (1750–1824) - PD-art-100 | Source

Stories About the Erinyes

The Erinyes should probably be more famous than they actually are, for they three goddesses do appear, if occasionally only briefly, in many of the moat famous stories of Ancient Greece.

In the story of Medea, Circe has to cleanse her niece following her act of fratricide; King Phegeus cleansed Alcmaeon after his matricide; and the Erinyes would devastate Thebes after Oedipus unwittingly killed his father.

The most famous story where the Erinyes appear though, deals with the pursuing of Orestes, as famously told in the Oresteia by Aeschylus.

Orestes and the Erinyes

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies - William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) -PD-art-100
The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies - William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) -PD-art-100 | Source

Orestes and the Erinyes

Orestes was the son of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; when Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War he was killed by his wife. The deceased Agamemnon called forth the Erinyes, and Orestes was forced into killing his mother as revenge for the killing of his father. The deceased Clytemnestra then called forth the Erinyes to bring justice down upon her son.

Tormented by the Erinyes, Orestes travels to Delphi, where Apollo tells Orestes to travel onto Athens and seek out the advice of Athena. Orestes does just that, and all the time the son of Agamemnon is pursued by the Erinyes.

Athena tells Orestes to ask for a trial, to decide the balance of fate between vengeance for the father or vengeance for the mother. In the trial Apollo acts as the defence and the Erinyes act as the prosecution, although the trial is also about the power of the new Olympian gods against the older gods.

Eventually, through the deciding vote of Athena, Orestes is acquitted and is free from torment, but Athena is also forced to placate the Erinyes, who believe that they have now been wronged.

Athens promises that the Erinyes will now be worshipped in Athens, so the goddesses are no longer simply feared, although to gain their acquiescence, Athena also has to threaten the three Erinyes with violence.

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