Goddess Groups: The Furies

While the Greeks typically regarded and approached their gods as individuals, there were some who could also be addressed in the aggregate–as a group. One such group was the Furies.

The Furies were goddesses of justice and retribution who concerned themselves in particular with those who had escaped justice and punishment for their crimes. Although they seem generally to have been called on as a group, they were also said to number three: Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera.

It was not unusual for the ancients to refer to dangerous or capricious deities–gods whose power could be turned on the petitioner if not properly approached or propitiated–by euphemistic names, and the Furies were no exception. As goddesses of retribution and wrath, they were honored with great care, and known by several different names.

In myth the goddesses are most often known as the Erinyes or Furies, where they are called on to punish those who have committed the most dreadful crimes. Their anger was directed especially toward murderers, and most especially toward those who had murdered their parents; they were also known for punishing perjurers and oath-breakers.

The goddesses were also known as the Eumenides or Kindly Ones. In Euripides’ Orestes, this was done in order to keep the goddesses (who were of course alert for any mention of their name) from noticing the speaker, but it would also have been a wise and politic move for those who asked their favor in delivering justice to those who had wronged them.

Finally, in both myth and cult, the goddesses were known as the Semnai Theai or Honored Goddesses; their mythic journey to this new status is described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. There was in fact a temple to the Semnai in Athens.

The goddesses received offerings appropriate to their status as chthonic deities, such as honeyed water or honey-cakes; similarly, offerings of meat were burnt in their entirety.

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