The History and Significance of the Furies

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The Furies, from the Roman name Furiae, were the avenging Greek goddesses from Greek mythology and were more commonly known as the Erinyes (‘The Angry Ones’). Their names were Tisiphone, Megaera and Alecto and they dwelled in the Underworld where they were the attendants of the gods Hades and Persephone.

There are several versions as to whom they are the children of; according to Hesiod’s Thegony, they were born from the blood of Ouranos that fell on Gaia; in Aeschylus’ Eumenides they were they children of the goddess Nyx; and in the Orphic Hymns they were the children of Hades and Persephone.

In art, the Furies were commonly depicted as fearsome women – often dressed in black clocks soaked in blood, wielding whips, sometimes made of scorpions, holding flaming torches and sometimes shown with snakes for hair.

We can see the picture that the ancient Greeks painted of these goddesses. In the play Oresteia, Apollo states to the Furies, “Hence get you gone, out of my house…. It does not befit such as you to draw near it. Your dwelling is where heads are struck off, and eyes gouged out; where the manhood of the young is maimed in the destruction of the seed; where nails are torn off and men are stoned to death; where is the piteous moaning of those that are impaled” (Grene, p.6).

Like with many ancient Greek deities, the Furies had a duel role; not only were they the avenging goddesses, ruthless and pitiless to mortals who had wrongly shed blood, but they played good spirits in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In the Orestia, Orestes was persecuted for the murder of his mother in revenge for her killing his father.

The Furies are persecuting Orestes as he had just performed matricide. If Orestes can be purified of matricide by Apollo, the envoy of the New Gods, then the Furies as Old Gods have lost their authority. This authority embraced all homicides committed among people of kindred blood. As a result, the Furies hunt Orestes to the death, because son is connected to mother in blood, while they remain unconcerned to the murder of Agamemnon by his wife because this pair is not blood related.

The trial then involves the argument of Old Gods against the New, under the chairmanship of Athena, the “establishment of a change in the possibility of purification, the pleading of a new importance of male over female because the male is the only true parent of the child and to him the child’s duty is owed, and finally the setting up of a human jury to determine the facts and significance in cases of murder, rather than to have the whole matter decided by the automatic claims of kindred bloodguiltiness” (Grene, p.13).

It was after the trail when Orestes was acquitted of matricide, then Athena shows turns them into god spirits, renaming them the Eumeniades (‘The Soothed Ones’) by acknowledging the legitimacy of their claims and giving them a place of honour.

It is believed by some scholars that the Furies neither anarchic, primitive spirits of violence nor servants of Zeus, but Zeus’ unseen collaborators as guardians and enforcers of those laws that are an essential part of the cosmic order that the father of gods and men administers (Bacon, p.50).

Greek mythology has always held a moralistic message for their ancient audiences, and even today, this message still holds. The Furies are integral goddesses to this message and allow us to view the world in the same light that the ancient Greeks saw it themselves.

Bibliography:

Bacon, Helen H. (2001) The Furies’ Homecoming, Classical Philology, The University of Chicago Press.

Grene, David (1983) Aeschylus: Myth, Religion and Poetry, History of Religions, The University of Chicago Press.

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