Also called Eumenides, and by the Romans Furiae or Dirae, were originally nothing but a personification of curses pronounced upon a guilty criminal. The name Erinys (Ἐρινύς), which is the more ancient one, was derived by the Greeks from the ἐρίνω (erinō) or ἐρευνάω (ereunaō), "I hunt up or persecute," or from the Arcadian word ἐρινύω (erinyō), "I am angry"; so that the Erinyes were either the angry goddesses, or the goddesses who hunt up or search after the criminal.1
The name Eumenides, which signifies "the well-meaning," or "soothed goddesses," is a mere euphemism, because people dreaded to call these fearful goddesses by their real name, and it was said to have been first given them after the acquittal of Orestes by the court of the Areopagus, when the anger of the Erinyes had become soothed.2 It was by a similar euphemism that at Athens the Erinyes were called σεμναἲ Δεαὶ (semnai Deai), or the venerable goddesses.3 Servius4 makes a distinction, according to which they bore the name Dirae, when they were conceived as being in heaven by the throne of Zeus, Furiae, when conceived as being on earth, and Eumenides, as beings of the lower world; but this seems to be a purely arbitrary distinction.
In the sense of curse or curses, the word Erinys or Erinyes is often used in the Homeric poems,5 and Aeschylus6 calls the Eumenides Ἀραί (Arai), that is, curses. According to the Homeric notion, the Erinyes, whom the poet conceives as distinct beings, are reckoned among those who inhabit Erebus, where they rest until some curse pronounced upon a criminal calls them to life and activity.7 The crimes which they punish are disobedience towards parents, violation of the respect due to old age, perjury, murder, violation of the law of hospitality, and improper conduct towards suppliants.8 The notion which is the foundation of the belief in the Eumenides seems to be, that a parent's curse takes from him upon whom it is pronounced all peace of mind, destroys the happiness of his family. and prevents his being blessed with children.9
As the Erinyes not only punished crimes after death, but during life on earth, they were conceived also as goddesses of fate, who, together with Zeus and the Moirae or Parcae, led such men as were doomed to suffer into misery and misfortunes.10 In the same capacity they also prevented man from obtaining too much knowledge of the future.11 Homer does not mention any particular names of the Erinyes, nor does he seem to know of any definite number. Hesiod, who is likewise silent upon these points, calls the Erinyes the daughters of Gaea, who conceived them in the drops of blood that fell upon her from the body of Uranus.12 Epimenides called them the daughters of Cronus and Euonyme, and sisters of the Moirae;13 Aeschylus14 calls them the daughters of Nyx; and Sophocles15 of Scotos (Darkness) and Gaeae.16
The Greek tragedians, with whom, as in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, the number of these goddesses is not limited to a few,17 no particular name of any one Erinys is yet mentioned, but they appear in the same capacity, and as the avengers of the same crimes, as before. They are sometimes identified with the Poenae, though their sphere of action is wider than that of the Poenae. From their hunting up and persecuting the cursed criminal, Aeschylus18 calls them κύνες (kynes) or κυνηγέτιδες (kynēgetides). No prayer, no sacrifice, and no tears can move them, or protect the object of their persecution;19 and when they fear lest the criminal should escape them, they call in the assistance of Dike, with whom they are closely connected, the maintenance of strict justice being their only object.20
The Erinyes were more ancient divinities than the Olympian gods, and were therefore not under the rule of Zeus, though they honored and esteemed him;21 and they dwelt in the deep darkness of Tartarus, dreaded by gods and men. Their appearance is described by Aeschylus as Gorgo-like, their bodies covered with black, serpents twined in their hair, and blood dripping from their eyes; Euripides and other later poets describe them as winged beings.22 The appearance they have in Aeschylus was more or less retained by the poets of later times; but they gradually assumed the character of goddesses who punished crimes after death, and seldom appeared on earth.
The sacrifices which were offered to them consisted of black sheep and nephalia, i.e. a drink of honey mixed with water.25 Among the things sacred to them we hear of white turtledoves, and the narcissus.26 They were worshiped at Athens, where they had a sanctuary and a grotto near the Areopagus: their statues, however, had nothing formidable,27 and a festival Eumenideia was there celebrated in their honor. Another sanctuary, with a grove which no one was allowed to enter, existed at Colonus.28 Under the name of Maniai (Μανίαι), they were worshiped at Megalopolis.29 They were also worshiped on the Asopus and at Ceryneia.30
On the stage and in works of art, their fearful appearance was greatly softened down, for they were represented as maidens of a grave and solemn mien, in the richly adorned attire of huntresses, with a band of serpents around their heads, and serpents or torches in their hands. A sculpted head of a sleeping Erinys (Hellenistic, second century BCE) can be found in Rome.
- Aeschylus. Eumenides, 499; Pindar. Olympian Odes ii, 45; Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 18.
- Sophocles. Oedipus Colonus, 128; Scholiast on Oedipus Colonus, 42; Suidas, s.v. Εὐμενιδες.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 28.6.
- on Virgil's Aeneid, iv, 609.
- Iliad ix, 454; xxi, 412; Odyssey xii, 280.
- Libation Bearers, 406.
- Iliad ix 571; Odyssey xv, 234.
- Homer. Iliad ix, 454; xv, 204; xix, 259; Odyssey ii, 136; xvii, 475.
- Herodotus. Histories iv, 149; Aeschylus. Eumenides, 835.
- Homer. Iliad xix, 87; Odyssey xv, 234.
- Iliad xix, 418.
- Theogony, 185; comp. Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 1.4.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 406; Scholiast on Sophocles' Oedipus Colonus, 42.
- Eumenides, 321.
- Oedipus Colonus, 40, 106.
- Comp. some other genealogies in Hyginus' Fabulae, 1; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid vii, 327; Orphic Hymn 69, 2.
- Dyer, in the Classic Museum, Vol. 1, 281-298; comp. Euripides. Iphigeneia in Tauris, 970; Virgil. Aeneid iv, 469.
- Eumenides, 23; Libation Bearers, 1055.
- Aeschylus. Agamemnon, 69; Eumenides, 384.
- Aeschylus. Eumenides, 511, 786; Orphic. Argonautica, 350; Plutarch. De Exilio, 11.
- Eumenides, 918, 1002.
- Orestes, 317; Iphigeneia in Tauris, 290; Virgil. Aeneid xii, 848; Orphic Hymn 68, 5.
- Orphic Hymn 68; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 406; Virgil. Aeneid xii, 845.
- Scholiast on Oedipus Colonus, 42.
- Scholiast, l.c.; Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 11.4; Aeschylus. Eumenides, 107.
- Aelian. History of Animals x, 33; Eustathius on Homer, p. 87.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 28.6.
- Sophocles. Oedipus Colonus, 37.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 34.1.
- ibid. ii, 11.4; vii, 25.4.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.