Goddesses of Vengeance
The Erinyes, or Furies, are daimones who punish mortals for crimes against the natural order, especially deaths caused by a blood relative, whether intentional or accidental. The Erinyes are the products of such a crime, the slaying of Ouranos by Kronos, and represent the ongoing guilt felt by Gaia for her part in planning the murder of her son/husband by a weapon she placed into the hands of her son/grandson.
As primitive spirits predating the reign of Zeus, the Erinyes are able to cross through multiple realms and can be called on to punish family transgressions even among the gods.
From the throne of Olympus, they carry out punishments against those who anger Zeus, while in the depths of the Underworld, they maintain a dungeon of eternal torture for notorious criminals in the afterlife.
The singular of Erinyes is Erinys, though they travel in packs of three and are rarely encountered alone. Members of the trio are addressed as Megaira (Grudge), Alekto (Relentlessness), and Tisiphone (Retribution), which may be their proper names or the roles they each play within the triad (i.e., one to name the charges for which a mortal is being punished, one to locate the proper victim, and one to execute the charge. Quintus of Smyrna names one as Tilphousia (Fierce-Faced), a physical description common to them all.
Parentage of the Erinyes
The Erinyes were said by Hesiod to have been created from the blood of Ouranos, spilled upon the Earth when the king of the cosmos was slain and deposed by his son, Kronos
Aeschylus, Virgil, and Ovid named the Erinyes as daughters of Nyx, while sources as far-ranging as the pre-Homeric Orphic hymns to Roman-era poet Statius named them as daughters of Hades and Persephone.
To reconcile these sources, we can speculate that the Erinyes were created from the spilled blood of Ouranos upon Gaia, and taken in by Nyx, who raised them and served as their surrogate mother. When the Olympians came to power, and Hades took charge of the chthonic realms with Persephone as his queen, the Erinyes were given a place of honor in the Underworld hierarchy as honorary princesses of the realm.
Offspring of the Erinyes
Quintus of Smyrna writes of the Erinys Tilphousia who is the mother, by Boreas, of the four horses who pull Ares's war chariot: Aethon (Red Fire), Phlogius (Flame), Conabus (Tumult), and Phobus (Panic).
These would have been far from the only horses of divine parentage, showing the high regard the Ancient Greeks had for animals who excelled in their performance.
The Erinyes in the Underworld
The Erinyes are responsible for inflicting tortures in the afterlife upon mortals who committed infamous crimes during their lives.
They maintain quarters by the River Styx, from which they can witness the judging of fresh arrivals and take charge of those who are to be punished. Deeper within the Underworld realm, they maintain a dungeon in which villainous souls are stored and subjected to tortures.
The Erinyes in the Mortal World
In the Heroic Age, the Erinyes inflicted guilty mortals with punishments ranging from a sense of guilt to madness, to illness, to an early and brutal death. At shrines to the Erinyes, the victims of crime would pray for vengeful harms to come upon their oppressors and persecutors.
Erinyes on the hunt can sometimes be seen by their intended victims, allowing the mortals a chance to flee for a time, like mice being played with by a trio of immortal cats who will inevitably catch them in the end. Erinyes can not be seen by other mortals than their intended prey.
For minor offenses, rituals of prayer and sacrifice can sometimes delay or dispel the Erinyes before their judgment is carried out. To avoid punishment by the Erinyes for crimes of bloodshed, the absolution of a king or divinity is required.
Erinyes in the Legal System
In Attic tradition, the Erinyes struck a deal with Athena to spare the life of an intended victim, Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In exchange for allowing Orestes a proper trial by argument and evidence, the Erinyes became the patrons of the Athenian legal system, and were thereafter known as the Eumenides, or "kindly ones."
Under the old system, crime victims would pray to the Erinyes to enact vengeance on their behalf. But under the new system, grievances of crime victims would be brought before human courts, which would invoke the Erinyes to inspire just sentences against all who were proven to deserve them.
Depictions of the Erinyes
In artwork, a trio of Erinyes are depicted as black-clad winged women carrying torches with snakes entwining their arms or hair.
Erinyes in the Theogony
Hesiod describes the Erinyes as the result of individual drops of Ouranous's blood, shed by Kronos upon the skin of Gaia. At the same time, and in the same manner, the Curetes and Meliae also sprang into existence.
Erinyes in General Mythology
Among many mythological appearances of the Erinyes is their role in the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
To earn Jason his escape from Colchis, Medea kills her brother, Apsyrtos, and casts his chopped-up remains into the sea. This act conjures up the Erinyes, who chase Medea and the Argo to the island of Aeaea, where Medea's aunt, Circe, provides the absolution that blunts the punishment of the divine hunters. The Erinyes allow Medea to live but cause great tragedy later in her life.
Erinyes in the Theban Cycle
Some sources specifically credit the Erinyes with brining a plague to Thebes to punish Oedipus for unknowingly killing his own father and marrying his own mother. Motivated to resolve the plague, Oedipus uncovers damning evidence of his own guilt.
When King Oedipus learns of his infamous crimes, he finds himself mocked by his own sons/half-brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who are more interested in vying with each other for power than with assisting in an unfolding family crisis. As Oedipus exits Thebes for a self-imposed exile, he calls a curse down on the two boys, which is imposed by the Erinyes. Not only are the two brothers driven to destroy each other, but the Erinyes impose their curse on the next generation of Thebans as well, and the entire kingdom falls as a result.
Erinyes in the Epic Cycle
In the Iliad
of Homer, Iris convinces Poseidon to stand down in his support for the Trojans with the threat that the Erinyes could be invoked to enforce the will of an older brother over a younger one. It would seem from this that in any dispute of birth-order among the sons of Kronos, it was the Erinyes who had the final say.
In the Posthomerica
of Quintus of Smyrna, the Erinyes hound the Amazon queen, Penthesileia, after she accidentally kills her sister during a hunting accident. She flees to Troy in the hope that King Priam will be able to absolve her pollution in exchange for the valiant deed of killing Achilles and winning the war against the Achaeans. In this, she fails.
Erinyes in Attic Tragedy
by Aeschylus prominently features the Erinyes and depicts their pursuit of Orestes after his murder of Clytemnestra. This work is set directly after the Trojan War and is based on one of the Epic stories of returning heroes. At the end of the Eumenides
, at the encouragement of Athena, the Erinyes transform themselves from goddesses of vengeance into the patrons of a new civilized legal system of justice.
Erinyes in the Mythoverse
The Erinyes appear in And Then, An Amazon
, a modern retelling of Posthomerica
While the original version used the Erinyes as a plot device to bring Penthesileia into the service of King Priam, the retelling keeps them as a motivating force that externalizes Penthesileia's ongoing feelings of guilt, and her drive to move past the guilt through service to others.
Even within the safety of Troy, Penthesileia hears the Erinyes howling at any moment she thinks of her fallen sister. On the battlefield, they reappear to torment her as she fights. And in the end, a resolution between Penthesileia and her divine tormentors is required.
The continued presence of Erinyes clarifies that this story is more than just a contest between two warriors, but about struggles that each confronts within themselves.