Furies

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Furies

Nationality/Culture

Greek/Roman

Pronunciation

FYOO-reez

Alternate Names

Erinyes

Appears In

Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Aeneid

Lineage

Born from the blood of Uranus

Character Overview

In Greek and Roman mythology , the Furies were female spirits of justice and vengeance. They were also called the Erinyes (pronounced ee-RIN-ee-eez; angry ones). Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad. When not punishing wrongdoers on earth, they lived in the underworld , or land of the dead, and tortured the damned.

According to some stories, the Furies were sisters born from the blood of Uranus (pronounced YOOR-uh-nuhs), the ancient god of the sky, when he was wounded by his son Cronus (pronounced KROH-nuhs). In other stories, they were the children of Nyx (pronounced NIKS), goddess of night. In either case, their ancient origin set them apart from the other deities or gods in Greek and Roman mythology.

Most tales mention three Furies: Alecto (pronounced uh-LEK-toh; endless), Tisiphone (pronounced ti-SIF-uh-nee; punishment), and Megaera (pronounced muh-JEER-uh; jealous rage). Usually imagined as monstrous, foul-smelling hags, the sisters had bats' wings, coal-black skin, and hair entwined with serpents. They carried torches, whips, and cups of venom with which to torment wrongdoers. The Furies could also appear as storm clouds or swarms of insects.

Major Myths

The Furies appear in many myths and ancient literary works. They have a prominent role in Eumenides (pronounced yoo-MEN-uh-deez), a play written by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuh-luhs). This play tells of the Furies' pursuit of Orestes (pronounced aw-RES-teez), who had killed his mother, Clytemnestra (pronounced klye-tem-NES-truh), in revenge for her part in murdering his father, King Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) of Mycenae (pronounced mye-SEE-nee).

In Eumenides, Orestes' act was depicted as just, and the god Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) protected him in his sacred shrine at Delphi (pronounced DEL-fye). But the Furies still demanded justice. Finally, the gods persuaded the Furies to allow Orestes to be tried by the Areopagus (pronounced ar-ee-OP-uh-guhs), an ancient court in the city of Athens. The goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh), the protector goddess of Athens, cast the deciding ballot.

Athena then calmed the anger of the Furies, who became known afterward as the Eumenides (soothed ones) or Semnai Theai (pronounced SEM-nay THEE-eye; honorable goddesses). Now welcomed in Athens and given a home there, they helped protect the city and its citizens from harm. The Furies also had shrines dedicated to them in other parts of Greece. In some places, the Furies were linked with the three Graces , goddess sisters who represented beauty, charm, and goodness—qualities quite different from those usually associated with the Furies.

The Furies in Context

The need for maintaining order among the public was important in ancient Greece and Rome. Before the rise of complex laws and codes, the Furies represented the power needed to maintain order. As these ancient societies developed their own methods of justice, the Furies became associated primarily with punishing those who broke “natural laws”: laws considered to be outside the scope of the normal justice system, such as killing a family member. Such a crime was considered so awful that no human method of punishment could be sufficient for it.

Although the Furies seemed terrifying and sought vengeance, they were not considered deliberately evil. On the contrary, they represented justice and were seen as defenders of moral and legal order. They punished the wicked and guilty without pity, but the good and innocent had little to fear from them.

Key Themes and Symbols

The Furies are symbols of the power of a guilty conscience. It is significant that they do not physically punish wrongdoers: they hound them into madness. This suggests that the Furies' power is within the mind of the guilty party.

The Furies in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Furies appeared in many Greek dramas, especially those concerning Orestes and Electra. Perhaps the most famous artistic depiction of the Furies is the 1862 painting The Remorse of Orestes by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The characters were the subject of a poem by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle titled Les Erinnyes, written in 1872. The Furies also appeared as characters in Jean-Paul Sartre's 1943 play The Flies, a retelling of the myth of Electra. More recendy, the trio appeared as recurring characters in the adventure television series Xena: Warrior Princess, and in a storyline of Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Literature is filled with characters who are tormented by their conscience after committing a crime or wrong of some sort. Some notable examples include William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, and Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Think of some more examples of characters in books or films whose punishment for past crimes comes mainly from their own conscience. Do you think such a punishment is sufficient? Is it more or less suitable than a traditional punishment, like a jail sentence? Can you think of fictional characters who commit crimes and feel no pangs of conscience at all?

SEE ALSO Graces; Uranus

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Furies

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies were female spirits of justice and vengeance. They were also called the Erinyes (angry ones). Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad. When not punishing wrongdoers on earth, they lived in the underworld and tortured the damned.

According to some stories, the Furies were sisters born from the blood of Uranus, the primeval god of the sky, when he was wounded by his son Cronus*. In other stories, they were the children of Nyx (night). In either case, their primeval origin set them apart from the other deities of the Greek and Roman pantheons.

Most tales mention three Furies: Allecto (endless), Tisiphone (punishment), and Megaera (jealous rage). Usually imagined as monstrous, foul-smelling hags, the sisters had bats' wings, coal-black skin, and hair entwined with serpents. They carried torches, whips, and cups of venom with which to torment wrongdoers. The Furies could also appear as storm clouds or swarms of insects.

underworld land of the dead

deity god or goddess

pantheon aft the gods of a particular culture

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Although the Furies seemed terrifying and sought vengeance, they were not considered deliberately evil. On the contrary, they represented justice and were seen as defenders of moral and legal order. They punished the wicked and guilty without pity but the good and innocent had little to fear from them.

The Furies appear in many myths and ancient literary works. They have a prominent role in Eumenides, a play written by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. This play tells of the Furies' pursuit of Orestes, who had killed his mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her part in murdering his father, King Agamemnon* of Mycenae.

In Eumenides, Orestes' act was depicted as just, and the god Apollo* protected him in his sacred shrine at Delphi*. But the Furies still demanded justice. Finally, the gods persuaded the Furies to allow Orestes to be tried by the Areopagus, an ancient court in the city of Athens. The goddess Athena*, the patron of Athens, cast the deciding ballot.

Athena then calmed the anger of the Furies, who became known afterward as the Eumenides (soothed ones) or Semnai Theai (honorable goddesses). Now welcomed in Athens and given a home there, they helped protect the city and its citizens from harm. The Furies also had shrines dedicated to them in other parts of Greece. In some places, the Furies were linked with the three Graces, goddess sisters who represented beauty, charm, and goodnessqualities quite different from those usually associated with the Furies.

See also Graces; Orestes; Uranus.

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

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Furies (Erthyes and Eumenides) In Greek mythology, three hideous goddesses of vengeance whose main task was to torment those guilty of social crimes.