Few creatures of ancient myth were described as being more grotesque than the Furies, also known as (or associated with) the Erinyes. According to legend, the Furies consisted of three vengeful goddesses named Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone. One of the more prominent myths of their birth claimed that the Furies were mothered by the primordial earth goddess, Gaia; she was allegedly impregnated by the dripping blood of Uranus, who was murdered by his own son, Cronus.
Generally, the Furies were supposed to be servants of the underworld, at the heed of its king and queen—Hades and Persephone. Yet, they also seemed to have been open to contracts handed down to them by other gods and goddesses. For example, Virgil wrote in The Aeneid that Juno (the Roman equivalent of the goddess, Hera) sent Alecto to spread rage and madness in Italy, in order to bring about a war between the native Italians and the Trojan refugees that landed there after being displaced by the Trojan War. Besides doing the bidding of the gods, the Furies were also bounty hunters that tracked down and punished those who transgressed the gods or universal laws, especially crimes against one’s own family.
The characteristics and abilities of the Furies were an interesting mixture of powers that could be found in other mythological beings. Like harpies, the Furies often were depicted as ferocious female creatures with wings. Like gorgons, the hair of the Furies was made up of coiling snakes. For weapons, the Furies carried whips, but they also had the supernatural ability to instill madness and rage in their enemies. Other aspects of their appearance could change based on the imagination of the commentator. Sometimes they wore robes, and at other times they dressed in shorter cloth garments. Similarly, their eyes could at times seem to be on fire, but at other times they could be described as having eyes that dripped blood.
Once the Furies were on the trail of prey, they were persistent and unforgiving huntresses. According to legend, the Furies could sometimes be appeased by rituals of purification or shows of atonement. Another option that required less work, but more luck, was to gain the sympathy of one of the gods—in the case of Orestes, Athena successfully ordered the Furies to end their hunt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (The Furies visit Tereus and Procne during their wedding night (cropped), by Crispijn van de Passe and Johannes Posthius in the early 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).