In Greek mythology the Erinyes (//; Ἐρῑνύες [ῠ], pl. of Ἐρῑνύς [ῡ], Erinys; literally "the avengers" from Greek ἐρίνειν "pursue, persecute" [sometimes referred to as "infernal goddesses" (Greek χθόνιαι θεαί)]) were female chthonic deities of vengeance. A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as "those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath". Burkert suggests they are "an embodiment of the act of self-cursing contained in the oath". They correspond to the Furies or Dirae in Roman mythology.
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 sea foam. 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 ("unnameable"), Megaera ("grudging"), and Tisiphone ("vengeful destruction"), all of whom appear in the Aeneid. Dante 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.
The Erinyes live in Erebus and are more ancient deities than any of the Olympians. Their task is to hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants - and to punish such crimes by hounding culprits relentlessly. The Erinyes are crones and, depending upon authors, described as having snakes for hair, dog's heads, coal black bodies, bat's wings, and blood-shot eyes. In their hands they carry brass-studded scourges, and their victims die in torment.
It is also worth mentioning that modern Tuvans, a Turkic people, call their shamanic protector spirit érénï, a cognate term for the ancient Hellenic erinnyes, which were dark "fury" spirits who punished and pursued sinners.
Erinyes in ancient Greek literature
Tantalizing myth fragments deal with the Erinyes that date to the earliest records we have of ancient Greek culture. By Classical times, when the myths ceased to evolve, the antiquity of themes involving the Erinyes may be found in poems and plays alike. One of the most frequently repeated examples of ancient Greek literature featuring the Erinyes is found in examples that focus upon the Orestes myth.
Featured in ancient Greek literature, from poems to plays, the Erinyes form the Chorus and play a major role in the conclusion of Aeschylus's dramatic trilogy the Oresteia. In the first play, Agamemnon, King Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War, where he is slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, who wants vengeance for her daughter Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by Agamemnon in order to obtain favorable winds to sail to Troy. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, their son Orestes has reached manhood and has been commanded by Apollo’s oracle to avenge his father‘s murder at his mother’s hand. Returning home and revealing himself to his sister Electra, Orestes pretends to be a messenger bringing the news of his own death to Clytemnestra. He then slays his mother and her lover Aegisthus.
Although Orestes’ actions were what Apollo had commanded him to do, Orestes has still committed matricide, a grave sacrilege. Because of this, he is pursued and tormented by the terrible Erinyes, who demand yet further blood vengeance. At Delphi, Orestes has been told by Apollo that he should go to Athens to seek the aid of the goddess Athena. In Athens, Athena arranges for Orestes to be tried by a jury of Athenian citizens, with her presiding. The Erinyes appear as Orestes’ accusers, while Apollo speaks in his defense. The trial becomes a debate about the necessity of blood vengeance, the honor that is due to a mother compared to that due to a father, and the respect that must be paid to ancient deities such as the Erinyes compared to the newer generation of Apollo and Athena. The jury vote is evenly split. Athena participates in the vote and chooses for acquittal. Athena declares Orestes acquitted because of the rules she established for the trial. Despite the verdict, the Erinyes threaten to torment all inhabitants of Athens and to poison the surrounding countryside. Athena, however, offers the ancient goddesses a new role, as protectors of justice, rather than vengeance, and of the city. She persuades them to break the cycle of blood for blood (except in the case of war, which is fought for glory, not vengeance). While promising that the goddesses will receive due honor from the Athenians and Athena, she also reminds them that she possesses the key to the storehouse where Zeus keeps the thunderbolts that defeated the other older deities. This mixture of bribes and veiled threats satisfies the Erinyes, who are then led by Athena in a procession to their new abode. In the play, the "Furies" are thereafter addressed as "Semnai" (Venerable Ones), as they will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city's prosperity.
In Euripides' Orestes the Erinyes are called, the Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες, pl. of Εὐμενίς; literally "the gracious ones", but also translated as "Kindly Ones"). This is because it was considered unwise to mention them by name (for fear of attracting their attention), the ironic name is similar to how Hades, god of the dead is styled Pluton, or Pluto, "the Rich One'. Using euphemisms for the names of deities serves many purposes throughout ancient religions.
In Sophocles's play, Oedipus at Colonus, it is significant that he comes to his final resting place in the grove dedicated to the Erinyes. It shows that he has paid his penance for his blood crime, as well as come to integrate the balancing powers to his early over-reliance upon Apollo, the god of the individual, the sun, and reason. He is asked to make an offering to the Erinyes and complies, having made his peace.[original research?]
Modern references and literature
The Erinyes persist as a theme that appears in modern literature as well as the subject of scholarly pursuits of mythology and ancient Greek culture. The Orestes theme becomes an important subject to scholars such as James Frazer and Robert Graves. In The Greek Myths Graves translates and interprets the legends and myth fragments about Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Orestes, as suggesting a ritual killing of a "king" (Agamemnon) in very early religious ceremonies that were suppressed when patriarchy replaced the matriarchies of very ancient Greece. Graves asserts that the sacrilege for which the Erinyes pursued Orestes was the killing of his mother, who represented matriarchy. He explains that worship of Athena was retained as a cult because it was too strong to be suppressed, but she was recast as a child of Zeus in new myths, even given the previously incomprehensible role of justifying what would have been a horrific crime against the old religious customs. Graves, and many other mythographers, were influenced by The Golden Bough of James Frazer, and since it was published many myths have been reinterpreted to reveal clues to ancient religious practices that were kept as secret rituals.
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- Burkert 1985, p. 198
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- Aeschylus Eumenides 321
- Lycophron 432
- Virgil Aeneid 6.250
- Ovid Metamorphoses 4.453
- Graves, Robert (1960). The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books. pp. 33–34. ISBN 9780140171990.
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- Hesiod, Theogony Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. 1914. Lines 176-206. Online Text: Perseus Project. Tufts University.
- Homer, Iliad xiv.274–9; xix.259f.
- Virgil, Aeneid vii, 324, 341, 415, 476.
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