So, to recap: dysfunctional family is dysfunctional for generations up to Orestes, who has just learned that his mother and her lover have killed his father. Filial duty dictates that Orestes avenge his father, but in order to do that he must kill his mother.
Warn you about what?
About what’s going to happen once Orestes kills his mom. Oh yeah, he totally kills his mom. Part of dysfunction is refusing to forgive. You know this. We saw you ranting to your “real” family when you came home from your parents’ place.
So, Orestes offs his mom and his second cousin, otherwise known as his mom’s boy toy, and everything is fine. Everyone who is culpable of everything has been punished.
Let’s return to this picture:
The Furies are chthonic vengeance deities.
Chthonic simply means from the Underworld. It literally means “under the earth,” and it refers to the murky, awful world of the grave. So, the Furies are vengeance demons from the Underworld. That sounds bad.
But, it is so much worse.
Hesiod, a very old Greek poet, writes that the Furies were born from the act of a son killing his father. Before Zeus, there was Kronos, and he castrated his father, Ouranos (Sky), at the behest of his mother Ge (Earth). The drops of blood that fell on Ge impregnated her and she bore the Furies.
The Erinyes are depicted with poisonous snakes in their hair and pitchy black torches in their hands. In their other hands are whips with which they torture their victims. They are garbed in black robes and blood drips from their eyes. Some poets and artists conceived of them as winged, making them the horrifying counterparts to angels.
Ovid, a Roman poet, describes them most terrifyingly:
“The Sorores Genitae Nocte (Night-Born Sisters) [Erinyes], divinities implacable, doom-laden . . . sat, guarding the dungeon’s adamantine doors, and combed the black snakes hanging in their hair . . . Tisiphone, dishevelled as she was, shook her white hair and tossed aside the snakes that masked her face . . . malign Tisiphone seized a torch steeped in blood, put on a robe all red with dripping gore and wound a snake about her waist . . . The baleful Erinys stood . . . stretching her arms entwined with tangled snakes, and shaking out her hair. The snakes, dislodged, gave hissing sounds; some crawled upon her shoulders; some, gliding round her bosom, vomited a slime of venom, flickering their tongues and hissing horribly. Then from her hair she tore out two with a doom-charged aim darted them. Down the breasts of Athamas and Ino, winding, twisting, they exhaled their noisome breath; yet never any wound to see, the fateful fangs affect their minds. Tisiphone brought with her poisons too of magic power: lip-froth of Cerberus, the Echidna’s venom, wild deliriums, blindnesses of the brain, and crime and tears, and maddened lust for murder; all ground up, mixed with fresh blood, boiled in a pan of bronze, and stirred with a green hemlock stick. And while they shuddered there, she poured the poisoned brew, that broth of madness, over both their breasts right down into their hearts. Then round and round she waved her torch, fire following brandished fire . . . She went, and loosed the snake she’d fastened round her waist.”
— Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 451 ff (trans. Melville)
And what do the Furies do? Their very name means “persecutors.” They torment Orestes, following him around, inciting madness. Let’s return to a picture from our first post:
Here you can see them doing what they do best, screaming, poking, prodding, scratching, biting. It’s an apt ancient description of psychosis.
Orestes is tortured until Athena judges him in the first court of law. She decides that vengeance for one’s father is greater than the crime of killing one’s mother and Orestes is, thankfully, freed from his hell on earth.
So, from that tragic tale, one can see hope! The family line’s terrible tragedies are brought to a close just as your family’s terribleness can be extinguished by you with just a little understanding and compassion.
But seriously, when your mom says, for the six millionth time, “Why, oh why, did you not just go to dentistry school like Bev and Greg Henson’s son?” You will not pick up that carving knife because you know what forces will awaken when that blood is spilled.
Two final notes:
- If you find yourself needing to sacrifice to the Furies, to say, get them on someone’s case for you, you must kill a black sheep and pour out a mixture of water and honey called nepahlia.
- Some of you may have noticed that in this series we left out a very important tragic figure, Niobe. Just wait, little evil weevils, till our next post which will be perfect for any proud mothers in your lives.
Megan Miller is (..was?) a classicist with a bent toward the macabre. She received her master’s from Oxford, but now tells as many monster stories as she can to the students in her university courses. To read more Ancient Correspondence, click here.