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Erinyes: The Vengeful Goddesses of Ancient Greece

Erinyes: The Vengeful Goddesses of Ancient Greece

The Erinyes, also known as the Furies or the Eumenides, were female chthonic deities of vengeance in ancient Greek religion and mythology. They punished crimes against the natural order, especially those committed by family members against each other. They were feared and respected by both mortals and gods, as they could not be bribed or swayed by any appeal.

The Erinyes were usually depicted as three maiden goddesses with snakes for hair, dog’s heads, coal black bodies, bat’s wings, and blood-shot eyes. In their hands they carried brass-studded scourges, and their victims died in torment. The Erinyes were commonly associated with night and darkness.

The origin of the Erinyes is uncertain, but according to some sources they emerged from the blood of Uranus when he was castrated by his son Cronus. According to other sources, they were born from Nyx (Night), or from a union between air and mother Earth. Their names were Alecto (the unceasing), Megaera (the grudging), and Tisiphone (the avenging).

The Erinyes were invoked by curses and oaths, and they pursued their targets relentlessly until they were appeased by proper atonement. They could also be summoned by prayers or offerings from those who sought justice. The Erinyes had a special role in the trial of Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father Agamemnon. The Erinyes demanded his death, but Athena intervened and established a jury of Athenian citizens to decide his fate. The vote was tied, and Athena cast the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, thus acquitting him and appeasing the Erinyes. She also renamed them the Eumenides (the kindly ones) and gave them a place of honor in Athens.

The Erinyes were revered as guardians of the natural order and the moral law. They represented the ancient concept of nemesis, or divine retribution for wrongdoing. They also symbolized the bond between blood relatives and the importance of family loyalty. The Erinyes were not evil, but rather stern and impartial agents of justice.

The Erinyes in Art and Literature

The Erinyes were a popular subject in ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, especially in the context of tragic drama. They were often depicted as winged women with snakes for hair, carrying torches or whips. They appeared in scenes of mythological violence, such as the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, the pursuit of Orestes by the Erinyes, or the madness of Heracles caused by Hera. The Erinyes also featured in vase paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and coins.

In literature, the Erinyes were most famously portrayed by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of plays called the Oresteia, which dealt with the cycle of bloodshed in the house of Atreus. The Erinyes appeared in the second and third plays, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. In The Libation Bearers, they haunted Orestes after he killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father Agamemnon. In The Eumenides, they pursued him to Athens, where he sought refuge at the temple of Athena. Athena then arranged a trial for Orestes before a jury of Athenian citizens, with Apollo as his defender and the Erinyes as his accusers. The jury was evenly split, and Athena cast the deciding vote in favor of Orestes. She then persuaded the Erinyes to accept her verdict and become benevolent guardians of Athens under the name of Eumenides.

Sophocles and Euripides also wrote plays about Orestes and the Erinyes, but with different variations and interpretations. Sophocles’ Electra focused on the reunion of Orestes and his sister Electra before they killed their mother Clytemnestra. The Erinyes appeared only briefly at the end of the play, when they drove Orestes mad with guilt. Euripides’ Orestes depicted the aftermath of Clytemnestra’s murder, when Orestes and Electra were threatened by their uncle Menelaus and his wife Helen. The Erinyes tormented Orestes throughout the play, until he was rescued by Apollo and Athena.

The Erinyes also appeared in other works of literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dante’s Inferno. They were usually invoked as agents of divine wrath or justice, or as symbols of moral order or disorder.


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