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Two Furies, from an ancient vase.


In Greek mythology the Erinýes (Ἐρινύες, pl. of Ἐρινύς, Erinýs; lit. "the angry ones") or Eumenídes (Εὐμενίδες, pl. of Εὐμενίς; lit. "the gracious ones") or Furies in Roman mythology were female, chthonic deities of vengeance or supernatural personifications of the anger of the dead. They represent regeneration and the potency of creation, which both consumes and empowers. A formulaic oath in the Iliad (iii.278ff; xix.260ff) 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".

When the mighty Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the sea, the Erinyes emerged from the drops of blood, while Aphrodite was born from the seafoam. According to a variant account, they issued from an even more primordial level—from Nyx, "Night". Their number is usually left indeterminate. Virgil, probably working from an Alexandrianmarker source, recognized three: Alecto ("unceasing," who appeared in Virgil's Aeneid), Megaera ("grudging"), and Tisiphone ("avenging murder"). Dante followed Virgil in depicting the same three-charactered triptych of Erinyes; in Canto IX of the Inferno they confront the poets at the gates of the city of Dis. The heads of the Erinyes, whom the two poets met in Canto IV, were wreathed with serpent (compare Gorgon) and their eyes dripped with blood, rendering their appearance rather horrific. Sometimes they had the wings of a bat or bird and the body of a dog.

According to a legend recounted in Bulfinch's Mythology, the Furies played a central role in avenging the tragic death of playwright Ibycus. When two thieves attacked Ibycus on his way to a festival in the Isthmus of Corinthmarker, the poet, realizing his imminent death, appealed to a flock of cranes flying overhead to take up his cause. Later, the murderers attended a theatrical performance in which the "Eumenides," presented as a chorus of Gorgon-like monsters, called out for torment to consume the hearts of the guilty. At that moment, a flock of cranes unexpectedly appeared, causing one of the guilty men to cry out Ibycus' name to his accomplice, thus revealing their identities to the audience.

Bulfinch records the song as follows:
Happy the man who keeps his heart pure from

Guilt and crime!

Him we avengers touch not;

He treads the path of life secure from us.

But woe! Woe!

To him who has done the deed of secret murder.

We, the fearful daughters of Night,

Fasten ourselves upon his whole being.

Thinks he by flight to escape us?

We fly still faster in pursuit,

Twine our snakes around his feet,

And bring him to the ground,

Unwearied we pursue;

No pity checks our courage;

Still on and on, to the end of life

We give him no peace nor rest.

See also



References

  1. Burkert 1985, p. 198



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