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5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

One of the best things about the Greek mythological pantheon is that it contains gods who ruled before the Olympians but have passed into obscurity…as well as weird outsiders who hardly seem to belong in the story at all. Some of these deities were once central to things but have been broken, defeated and deposed (like Cronus), whereas others are otherworldly and cling to the darkest most shadowy edges of mythical realm (like Nyx, the goddess of primeval night). I bring this up to introduce the Erinyes, the goddesses of savage unending vengeance, who are sometimes known in English by the heavy-metal name “the Furies”.

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

The Erinyes are mentioned in the oldest surviving Greek texts which we can translate. They punished the most terrible criminals who had violated the fundamental moral order of ancient Greece (a slave society where murder was a part of everyday life). Those who felt the endless wrath of the furies were guilty of crimes such as violating oaths, abusing guests, committing incest, or murdering kinfolk. The Erinyes’ dwelled in the underworld, but if a malefactor brought their wrath upon himself, they would pursue him across the land, the seas, and beyond till they could rip him apart. Death brought no release from their tortures–since they carried their victims’ spirits to the depths of Tartarus to punish forever with snakes, flails, burning brands, and brass-studded whips. The Erinyes took the form of horrible angels: they had huge dark wings and the bodies of twisted hags (although occasionally they could take on a terrible beauty). Some poets asserted there were three furies—Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone–but in other sources they seem numberless and lacking individuality.

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab's Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Erinyes show up in the most horrible myths of murder, savagery, and everything gone appallingly wrong. They therefore make appearances in some great works of literature and art…like The Eumenides, the final play of the Oresteia. In fact the name The Euminides (meaning “the kindly ones”) refers to the dreadful Erinyes—for like Hades (or Voldemort) it was thought unwise to refer to them except via euphemism. There are different versions of how the ancient goddesses came into being. According to Hesiod they were born when the Titan Cronus castrated his father the sky god Uranus, and threw his genitalia into the sea (an event which also precipitated the birth of Aphrodite). Other poets, however assert that they are even older and descend directly from the outsider goddess Nyx, who predates the other gods.

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

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