-by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff
The Furies were born of the blood of Ouranos, god of the sky, husband to the goddess Gaea. Gaea had borne multiple children, all monstrous – the twelve Titans, the three hundred armed giants the Hekatonkheires, and the Cyclopes. Ouranos hated his children, the Hekatonkheires, and had them imprisoned, in some versions, pushing the Hekatonkheires back into Gaea’s womb as they are born, to Gaea’s fury and despair. Gaea called upon her children to help her, but only Cronus, one of the Titans, answered her. He set a trap for his father, and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea. The froth and foam caused by the testicles landing in the ocean gave birth to the goddess Aphrodite. From the specks of blood that fell upon the earth were born more monstrous children. The Giants, the ash-tree nymphs called the Meliae, and the avenging Furies called the Eryines were born from the spilt blood. Cronus then came to rule in his father’s place, until he too was deposed for his cruelty by his own son Zeus. During his rule, he re-imprisoned the Hekatonkheires and Cyclopes, but could not contain his new monstrous brethren. The Furies were left to walk upon the earth, punishing mortals who broke oaths and laws.
The Erinyes are normally three: Tisiphone, Megaera, and Alecto, fierce women with snakes for hair. They pursue oath breakers and evildoers on earth, although Virgil places them in Hades punishing evildoers.
The Furies weave their way in and out of multiple Greek myths. In the story of Eurydice and Orpheus, when Eurydice has died, the bereaved poet Orpheus sang for his dead wife. His singing and love for his wife was so moving, that “…for the first time…the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears.” 177, Bullfinch. However, their most important appearance is in Aeschylus’s trilogy of the Orestia. The dramas deal with the family of King Agamemnon, who is slain in the first play after retuning home from the Trojan War; only to find his wife Clytemnestra has usurped him. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon as vengeance for his sacrificing of their daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, in order to get favorable winds to sail to Troy for war. The second play involves their son Orestes being bid by the Oracle of Apollo to avenge his father. Orestes complies, only to be hounded by the Furies for his crime of matricide. The Furies follow him, fearsome women crying for vengeance and justice, until Orestes goes to Athens to seek aid from Athena. Athena presides over a jury that will determine Orestes’ fate, Apollo is Orestes defense, and the furies are his accusers. The court case revolves around Orestes’s supposed rightful killing of his mother, for her (perhaps rightful) killing of his father (Iphigenia’s case is left absent at this point). The Furies continue to call for his blood for the heinous crime of matricide, while Apollo defends him on the grounds that he was merely avenging the death of his father – stressing patrilineal bonds between father and son, while matrilineal bonds between mother and daughter, and mother and son, are completely forgotten. At the end of the trial, the jury is evenly split, and Athena becomes the deciding vote. Her vote is one of the many instances where Athena’s allegiances lie with men, and not with women (similar to her cursing of Medusa), chalked up to the fact that she was born of Zeus, a man, and no woman (except her forgotten mother swallowed by Zeus who gave birth to her inside his brow, but, you know, details). After Athena acquits Orestes, the Furies threaten to terrorize the entire town of Athens, to which Athena responds by letting them know she has access to Zeus’ thunderbolts. Cowed by the threat, the Erinyes are led by Athena into their new roles as protectors of justice, rather than seeker of vengeance. In some cases, the transformed Furies take up residence/are imprisoned beneath the acropolis, where they sit at looms weaving, taught in the craft of Athena. The Furies come to an end, not when sin is eradicated on earth, but after being tamed by Athena.
However, there is the theory that many myths had two versions – the one told by men and the one told by women, and that the versions we have are all generally the men’s. The difference in the versions is typically the character’s motivations. Athena’s taming or demotion of the Furies can then perhaps be viewed in a different light. A second aspect of the trial is whom the jury is really siding with – the fairly new gods Athena and Apollo, or the older figures of the Furies, who existed before the Pantheon. The jury ties, meaning that only half the population is still loyal to the older deities. Athena’s offer of a new role is potentially her saving the Furies – she sees that they will soon be forgotten and abandoned, and offers them a way to live on – new roles of justice, as the Athenians and the Greeks at large “civilize” themselves and follow justice rather than vengeance. Athena can then be read differently, not a figure who is totally subsumed by a patriarchy that has gotten rid of its need for mothers, but instead a figure who remembers her mother Metis, consumed by Zeus and forgotten by all. She remembers this older figure, this older goddess of craftiness and knowledge, and recognizes something similar in the Furies, and so offers them a chance to transform and save themselves, rather than pass into obscurity like her own mother. Within this counter-reading there is the possibility to restore justice to mothers as well, not just fathers and sons. Athena does not help Clytemnestra, but instead those who seek vengeance for her murder, and keeps them from joining a Pantheon of forgotten and abandoned gods. This version would be slightly more in keeping with the idea of abandoning vengeance for justice – Athena enacts justice for the forgotten women – Iphigenia, Metis, and Clytemnestra – abandoned mothers and daughters, by installing the Furies as protectors of Athens, rather than letting them fall as well, and perhaps hoping that their devotion to punishing matricide will continue to inform their justice in Athens.
As an aside – The Furies also appear in what I thoroughly believe to be the best Wonder Woman story, The Hiketeia, written by Greg Rucka. Wonder Woman takes in a fugitive who invokes a Greek oath of protection, and the Furies appear to keep her to fulfilling that oath. Should she fail to protect the Dany – who murdered the men who raped and killed her sisters- Wonder Woman will be torn apart by the Furies. Unfortunately Batman, in his black and white version of justice, is seeking the young girl to arrest her, and views her crime not as an attempt at justice, but merely an act of vengeance. Wonder Woman, bound by the Furies and her own moral code, which accounts for more than the law’s version of Justice, then has to pit herself against him to protect Dany. The story is heartbreaking, and an excellent character portrait of not just Batman and Wonder Woman, but also the Furies, and of the interplay between justice and vengeance, as well as ancient history and the present.