The Legendary Three Furies
Believe it or not, the Three Furies aren’t legends because of us. Nope! They are part of a much older legend. One we knew and wanted to name ourselves after. So let me explain to you who the original Furies were.
First, let me just say that it’s complicated. The story is so old and so often retold and revised that not everyone can agree on the origin. In fact, even their parentage is debated. Some stories claim they sprang from the blood of the god of the sky, Uranus, when he was castrated by his son. Doesn’t that sound like an auspicious beginning?
Other stories claim they are the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night. Still others claim they’re the daughters of Nyx and Hades. They weren’t even numbered in the beginning. They were simply the Furies, like the Giants, who were said to have been birthed in the same event and were unnumbered.
What all these origin stories have in common is that they came from the dark, the unknown, or the cosmic, and were strong enough to be considered on the same level as the gods themselves. A lot of times they are seen as higher than the “regular” gods. There are no stories of them as children, teens, or even babes. Yet they are older than most of the Greek gods we know of now.
The Roman writer Maurus Servius Honoratus wrote that collectively, they are called "Eumenides" in hell, "Furiae" on Earth, and "Dirae" in heaven. Since we’re on Earth at the moment, we’ll call them the Furies. The very name of the Furies was feared. People believed you should not say their name, otherwise you would call their attention upon yourself.
Often portrayed as human women, they also had individual names: Alecto, which means “unceasing;” Tisiphone, which means “avenging murder;” and Megaera, which means “grudging.”
Their names help to give you an idea of who they were and what they did. The Furies were living curses. Before Batman, they were the vengeance and the night. Not just regular living embodiments of curses; these were thinking, reasoning women who were older than old and had seen it all. They decided if the person should be punished, ignored, or even benefit from their presence. And they also decided how that should happen. Above all else, the Furies were fair.
Walter Burkert, a scholar of Greek mythology, suggests that they were "an embodiment of the act of self-cursing contained in the oath." Which to me, sounds a bit like karma. That’s how I’ve always seen them.
While in the beginning, the Furies were depicted as regular human females, as time went on this changed. They were described as having wings, hair of snakes, snakes in their hair but not part of it, old hunch-backed crones with snakes following along around them or with snakes crawling over their bodies. Snakes became a running theme in their more recent (fifth century BC) depictions for reasons I personally do not understand.
Was this to make them seem more dangerous? Or as a way to move away from their earlier normality? Perhaps it was because the storytellers were afraid of snakes and wanted to show that. Or maybe they simply wanted to make it seem like women on their own weren’t scary enough and added dangerous, venom-spitting reptiles. They were blatantly compared to the Gorgons, who had hair of snakes. ( the gorgons.) Whatever the reasons, they were entities to be feared, and nothing men added to their story could take that away.
The Furies punished those they decided were deserving of it. There was no court, no hearing, no way to threaten or plead your way out of their tortures. And they had as many forms of punishment as an ancient immortal could think of.
A favorite torture saved for the worst offenders. For example those who killed family members were driven insane. The Fury who meted out the punishment tormented them nonstop for years, or might make it happen in an instant. Regular murderers might develop illness or disease. A nation might suffer from famine or plagues. A thief would lose the use of his hand, or their wallet would develop a hole. A rude host would develop a pest infestation in their stores or their favorite horse would go lame. They were very eye-for-an-eye.
Even death could not save you from a Fury who was especially angry with you. Remember how they had a different name in the underworld/hell? They spent most of their time there, tormenting those who were especially vile. Some legends say they were servants of Hades and Persephone in the underworld and oversaw the torture of criminals consigned to the Dungeons of the Damned. That seems strange to me since the Furies are actually older than Hades, Persephone, and the Underworld.
It wasn’t only the big crimes that they punished humans for, however. They also went after liars, bigots, abusers, con artists, fraudsters, and heretics. Anything that went against the accepted code of conduct for people and society could bring their curse down. A priest who swiped donations, a cop who was bribed, a prostitute who stole, or a john who stole from a prostitute. In modern America, they would be the scourge of diners who didn’t tip, jay walkers that hold up traffic, racists who disrupt peaceful life, and that asshole in the fast lane that is only doing 5mph over the speed limit. They would be the ultimate anti-Karens. And who knows, maybe they are and we just don’t see it.
And don’t think you could call the Furies down on someone when you yourself were the one in the wrong. They would turn on you with a hundred-fold vengeance. Just the act of calling them on someone you had wronged would make you a liar, a perjurer, an attacker, and a heretic, at the very least. Add on to that whatever you had been doing to the person you tried to curse. You could almost guarantee you would be driven insane, at the very least.
The wrath of the Furies could be pacified, some said, with a specific ritual purification followed by an act of atonement. But we promise, we don’t make our authors do that, so long as they turn in their manuscripts in time.