front of this man slept a startling company of women lying all upon
the chairs. Or not women, I think I call them rather gorgons, only not gorgons
either, since their shape is not the same. I saw some creatures painted in a
picture once, who tore the food from Phineus, only these had no wings, that
could be seen; they are black and utterly repulsive, and they snore with breath
that drives one back. From their eyes drips the foul ooze, and their dress is
such as is not right to wear in the presence of the gods' statues, nor even into
any human house. "
--The Eumenides, Aeschylus
The Furies are perhaps the most terrifying specters of the ancient world. They are three sisters whose purpose in the world is purely vengeance. They were called the Dirae, the Furies, by the Ancient Greeks. They were called the Erinyes. But they were also called the Eumenides which means "The Kindly Ones."
The picture to the left is of Orestes. His mother killed his father, Agamemnon, famous for the Trojan war and immortalized in the Iliad. Orestes was honor bound to avenge the death of his father, and so struck down his own mother, Clytemnestra. The picture shows the body of his mother falling as Orestes flees with the goddesses pursuing him with their full wrath.
The Kindly Ones are not to be taken lightly. Once they have been summoned they cannot be put back down. Fortunately, they will only avenge specific crimes. And even more fortunately, they only answer requests for vengeance which are performed according to the old traditions and which have validity. Of course the risk you take is this: if you call on them falsely, you might find them torturing you. The more honest you are in the act of summoning them, the more kindly they treat you. It is important to remember they will not stop just because the summoner changes their mind. They only stop when THEY are satisfied that justice has been done.
even the sun will transgress his orbit but the Erinyes, the ministers of
justice, overtake him."
They are first and foremost the protector of women, and will ruthlessly avenge the crimes of rape and murder committed against women. However, they will avenge the same crimes committed against gay men, who in many instances suffer these crimes in the same way women do. They avenge all crimes committed against family. When a father molests his child, the Furies can be called to punish him. If a man rapes his wife, they will get him. If a mother kills her own children, they will be there.
Tisiphone (tis-if-oh-nee) is the "blood avenger," the punisher of murder and crimes against family. Alecto's name means "unceasing anger." Megaera (mah-ger-ah) is called the "jealous one," is especially peeved about adultery.
Once they have been summoned they will persecute their victim until they either commit suicide or go insane. They do not let up, and they do not go home. They are the ultimate court, and the ultimate punishers. People persecuted by the Furies often lost everything, and would be so tormented in their dreams that they would dread to go to sleep for fear of the pain and suffering that awaited them. They could bring sickness, madness, and even physical torture to their victims.
Orestes, after years of being tormented day in and day out, losing his family, his kingdom, his wealth, begged the goddess Athena to stop the Furies from persecuting him further. Athena convinced them that Orestes had suffered enough for his crime, and that he had repented of it. The Dirae then went to him not as the terrifying Erinyes, but as the beautiful Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, and they replaced his misfortune with blessing and his nightmares with sweet dreams.
They are called the Kindly Ones as both a mark of respect for their awful power, and to denote that they are Just, and will cease to torment their victim if they have repented of their crime.
"The Erinyes were the punishers of sinners, called 'those who walk in darkness.' Weeping tears of blood and hissing with hair of vipers, they would descend like a storm. As long as there was sin in the world, they could not be banished."
(The above image is "Orestes Pursued by the Furies" by Adolphe William Bouguereau, 1862.)