The Furies in Greek Mythology: Symbols, Names & Story

Instructor: Bailey Cavender

Bailey teaches High School English, has taught history, and has a master's degree in Anthropology/Historical Archaeology.

The Furies, or Erinyes, were the Greek goddesses of vengeance and justice. Hags with snakes in their hair, these goddesses brought justice to anyone who deserved it, particularly hated children who disrespected their parents.

The Furies in Greek Mythology

From The Odyssey to Pandora and her box, the stories of Greek mythology remain a major part of Western culture. From monsters to heroes, Greek mythology offers a wide variety of fascinating characters, and few are more fascinating than the Furies.

The Furies, also called The Erinyes, were three goddesses who lived in the Underworld, the Greek realm of the dead. They were the goddesses of vengeance and were sent out to bring justice to people who committed crimes. According to mythology, they focused on punishing children who disrespected or murdered their parents, people who lied, killers, and people who sinned against the gods. However, any lawbreaking was open for punishment by the Furies.

Their Symbols

The Furies are described looking like hags. As they were said to have snakes in their hair and wrapped around their arms, they are often symbolically associated with snakes. Furthermore, they are associated with blood, as it was said to drip from their eyes. Wearing all black and carrying whips, these three goddesses of vengeance and justice also had bat wings. Together, this gave them a very intimidating look.

The Names of the Furies

Although the traditional name for the Furies is the Erinyes (strife), the Greeks did not like to say this name. Instead, they chose to call the Furies names such as Eumenides (kindly), or Semnai (August), perhaps as a way to placate the angry Furies. While some sources say that there may be more, most myths have three Furies. These three goddesses are Alecto (anger), Megaera (jealousy), and Tisiphone (avenger). Each of the Furies has a different role or a different crime that she hated the most, and this was illustrated by her name.

Their Story

There are several different versions about the creation of the Furies. In one story, the Furies are born from the blood of Uranus, the ancient god of the sky, and Gaea, or mother Earth, after Uranus's death. In other stories, they are the children of Gaea and Darkness. Yet another story says that they are the daughters of Nyx, the female goddess of night.

Some legends say that they were curses come to life because they were charged with ascending to earth and punishing the wicked. The Furies were also what is called chthonic, which means that they are related to the earth and the Underworld. When they were not punishing people on earth, they were working to torture the unfortunate in the Underworld. They served Hades (god of the underworld) and Persephone (goddess of spring and queen of the underworld).

Although they also appear in the Iliad as spirits who make sure things are following the laws of nature, they are not major players in a story until later. The first major appearance of the Furies in written mythology occurs in a trilogy by Aeschylus, a writer of tragedies. This trilogy was the Oresteia, and tells the story of King Agamemnon and his family after the Trojan War. Agamemnon had been determined to avenge his brother's honor after his sister-in-law, Helen, ran away to Troy with Prince Paris. However, the Greek military faced some issues getting to Troy, mainly because Agamemnon had offended a goddess. To appease her wrath, he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods.

When Agamemnon returns home after the war, his wife Clytemnestra is still angry about this sacrifice. She and her lover kill him for the death of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra, however, is then killed by her son Orestes out of revenge for Agamemnon. Clytemnestra's ghost appeals to the Furies to avenge her. Since murdering a parent is one of the worst crimes possible, the Furies chase Orestes to Athens. Here, Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, convinces them to let Orestes go.

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