Erinyes – Furies (2018)
Erinyes – Furies – In ancient Greek religion and mythology, the Erinyes, also known as Furies, were female chthonic deities of vengeance; they were sometimes referred to as “infernal goddesses.” A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath”. Walter Burkert (a German scholar of Greek mythology and cult) suggests they are “an embodiment of the act of self-cursing contained in the oath”.
They correspond to the Dirae in Roman mythology, and some suppose that they are called Furies in hell, Harpies on earth, and Dirae in heaven. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, when the Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the sea, the Erinyes, as well as the Meliae, emerged from the drops of blood when it fell on the earth (Gaia), while Aphrodite was born from the crests of seafoam. According to variant accounts, they emerged from an even more primordial level—from Nyx, “Night”, or from a union between air and mother earth.
Their number is usually left indeterminate. Virgil, probably working from an Alexandrian source, recognized three: Alecto or Alekto (“endless”), Megaera (“jealous rage”), and Tisiphone or Tilphousia (“vengeful destruction”), all of whom appear in the Aeneid. Dante Alighieri followed Virgil in depicting the same three-character triptych of Erinyes; in Canto IX of the Inferno, they confront the poets at the gates of the city of Dis. Whilst the Erinyes were usually described as three maiden goddesses, the Erinys Telphousia was usually a by-name for the wrathful goddess Demeter, who was worshipped under the title of Erinys in the Arkadian town of Thelpousa.
The wrath of the Erinyes manifests itself in a number of ways. The most severe of these is the tormenting madness inflicted upon a patricide or matricide. Murderers might suffer illness or disease, and a nation harboring such a criminal, could suffer dearth, and with it hunger and disease. The wrath of the Erinyes could only be placated with the rite ritual purification and the completion of some task assigned for atonement.
The goddesses were also servants of Haides and Persephone in the underworld where they oversaw the torture of criminals consigned to the Dungeons of the Damned. The Erinyes were similar to if not the same as the Poinai (Poenae) (Retaliations), Arai (Arae) (Curses), Praxidikai (Praxidicae) (Exacters of Justice) and Maniai (Maniae) (Madnesses). They were depicted as ugly, winged women with hair, arms and waists entwined with poisonous serpents. The sisters wielded whips and were clothed either in the long black robes of mourners, or the short-length skirts and boots of huntress- maidens.
Punishers of wrong-doing in general, the Furies were considered protectors of the rights of senior family members, especially mothers, fathers, and elder siblings. A famous example is their pursuit of Orestes after he killed his mother Clytemnestra. The Furies would carry out punishments according to curses given by such members. Outside the family, the Furies protected such social outcasts as beggars. They acted, too, as the guarantors of oaths and the punishers of those who swore false oaths. The dark nature of their task led them to be closely associated with Hades, the Greek Underworld, where they escorted the wicked to their torments. The writer of Greek tragedy Aeschylus, for example, refers to the Furies as the daughters of Night.
The Furies may go back to prehistoric times in Greece as the word ‘Erinys’ appears in Linear B and she was long-identified with Demeter, the agricultural goddess, in Arcadia, and with Potnia, the ancient ‘Mistress’ goddess, in Boeotia. Their earliest mention in literature is in the work of Hesiod and Homer.
In Theogony Hesiod describes their birth but, with later sources, he does not specify their number. When the blood from the castrated Uranus hit the earth, from there sprang the Erinyes – Furies. They are, therefore, the daughters of Earth and Sky. Immediately, then, there is a connection with family arguments for Uranus was attacked by his son, the titan Cronus. In Hesiod’s Works & Days we are told that the Furies attended the birth of Oath, whose mother was Strife.
In Homer’s Iliad the Erinyes – Furies can prevent an individual from using their reason and so lead them to unusual and stupid acts. The example here is of Agamemnon who unwisely stole the prize of Achilles and so upset the hero that he withdrew from the Trojan War. In Book 15 of the Iliad, we are reminded that they favor the eldest sibling when Iris reminds Poseidon of the folly of going against his older brother Zeus. Homer also mentions that they live in Erebos, or darkness, and have no pity in their hearts. In the Odyssey, Homer describes them as the ‘Avenging Furies’ and they curse Melampus, king of Argos, with temporary madness.
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