The temple of Apollon at Delphi in the pearly light of dawn. The Pythia, oracle priestess of the god, enters the temple to commence morning prayers.
Seconds later she runs out, screaming. Looking in through the open door we can see an exhausted and terrified young man, dripping blood. He is seated upon the omphalos, the huge boulder within the sanctuary that is the sacred navel of the world. He holds a bloody sword and an olive branch wreathed in white wool.
He is surrounded by women, sleeping on benches.
And oh, such women. Rustling, murmuring, heaving like a herd of seals in their black rags and tattered feathers. Even in their slumber they incite mindless terror.
Thus opens The Eumenides, the third play in the trilogy of the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Orestes has made it to the temple of Apollon to seek sanctuary from the terrible Erinyes, or Furies, who are seeking vengeance for his murder of his own mother. But if he dares move from the omphalos, they will be upon him.
Legend has it that brave warriors screamed and fainted when the skene door opened to show the Furies surrounding the hapless Orestes. Pregnant women miscarried on the spot (belying the conventional wisdom that women weren’t allowed into the theaters).
It was a sensation.
Hyperbole, most likely, but it underscores the fear with which the ancient Greeks regarded the Erinyes, ancient goddesses of justice and retribution. The punishments are terrible. Orestes was right to shelter in the only place that might give him sanctuary from their vengeance. Madness, disease, starvation, and agony are just a few of the weapons in their arsenal. In some ancient depictions they just look like winged women, but in most they are ghastly, with snakes entwined in their hair and coiled around their waists, carrying whips, with the faces of hags. In later works they’re said to serve Hades and Persephone by torturing criminals for eternity in a prequel to the Christian Hell.
If the attention of these goddesses seems extreme, consider what it must have been like to live in a society with no police force, jail, or rehabilitation systems. Travelers could die if not given shelter, but who today would unlock the door and welcome an unexpected stranger to their hearth? Without ironclad taboos against foul play, endless clan vengeance was the only recourse (and indeed, that is at the heart of Aeschylus’s trilogy.) Fear of divine retribution was all that kept citizens of a nefarious bent from preying upon the more generous of the population.
Their parentage differs according to source, but most consider them born of the drops of blood that fell to the earth when Kronus castrated his father Ouranos. They are more ancient than the Olympians, and while some say they bring about the will of Zeus, a more likely explanation is that the god of Law rarely has cause to interfere with the punishments meted out by these goddesses. They number at least three: Alekto, or Anger; Magaera, or Jealousy; Tisiphone, or Avenger. Crimes against the natural order are the ones most likely to get their attention—violence against family members, particularly the elderly or very young; murder, especially within a family (killing in battle is exempt); hubris, or disrespect toward the gods; violation of xenia, the ancient law of reciprocal hospitality.
Orestes is the only recorded victim who escaped their wrath, and it took a gigantic societal shift for it to happen. After a trial with the Erinyes as prosecutors, Apollon as defense attorney and Athena as judge, the court system takes over judgment in these cases. The Furies are forced to accept being relegated to protective spirits, propitiated in a temple built for them in Athens and being re-named the Eumenides, or Kindly Ones. Clearly this is an effort to keep them pacified, like referring to meddlesome fae as the Good Folk.
Theseus, that bold-faced buccaneer, gets rescued from being stuck to a stone chair and whipped endlessly by the Furies when Herakles comes along and yanks him free. He leaves behind the skin of his buttocks, later healed by a skin graft from a sheep. His descendants are said to keep warm in winter from wearing the wool grown on the arse of their esteemed ancestor.
But if you’re not lucky enough to have a mighty hero, or in Orestes’s case a god or two, in your court, you’re going to have to rely on purification and atonement. Herakles himself learned this lesson after murdering his wife and children, then suffering madness at the hands of the Erinyes. His purification ritual was so intense that it became the basis for the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries, which provide appropriate cleansing for the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, which require stringent ritual purity. The Argonautika describes rites used by the witch Circe to free a murderer from torment by the Erinyes, and other sources tell how one can use the blood of a piglet or a nice fat steer or, more reliably, the intercession of Apollon. But atonement of some sort is always required. No free rides when it comes to the Erinyes.
Voices in the wind. They shriek and gibber. Fear knots in the pit of your stomach. They are coming.
Search your mind. Have you violated the ancient laws? Have you disrespected your parents or abused the elderly? Committed murder? Have you behaved improperly toward a supplicant of your favor? Worst of all, have you violated xenia?
If so, beware. The goddesses who govern curses that haunt any of these types of criminality will pursue you relentlessly, to madness, death, and beyond.
Better start running.