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 goodness—qualities quite different from those usually associated with the Furies.