February 02, 2009

#01-214: Fates, Furies, and Harpies

a naked young man with a horrified look on his face covers his ears as a trio of shrieking women harass him, and a fourth woman falls back with a knife in her chest
Orestes is pursued by the Furies

Note: Meet three trios of "weird sisters" (long before Macbeth) that play important roles in the lives of all humans.

Get Ready: Do you believe in fate?

Let's continue looking at characters from the Greek myths, part of our look at the //Great Books of Western culture.

Today we'll meet three groups of three sisters: the Fates, the Furies, and the Harpies.

The Fates control the destiny of humans, and even the Greek gods were subject to their power. Their name in Greek (Moirae) means the ones who set out each person's destiny.

When we talk of people's futures, we sometimes use the singular word "fate:" "His fate was not a pleasant one." We might also capitalize it, turning it into a force: "All men are subject to Fate." But sometimes it's used in the plural: "Let's see what the Fates have in store." In this case we are not referring to general forms of destiny; we are referring to the Moirae.

The Fates appeared as old women, each holding a tool:

  • Clotho ("the spinner") held a spindle for spinning the thread of each person's life;
  • Lachesis ("the disposer of lots" or "the allotter") held a measuring rod to measure the length of each life; and
  • Atropos ("without turning" or "inevitable") held scissors to cut the thread of life at the end.


The Romans called the next trio of sisters Furiae--The Furies. The Greeks called them the Erinyes (the Angry Ones) or--to make them happy--the Eumenides (the Gracious Ones).

They represented vengeance, especially the anger of dead souls. Often they were seen as horrible-looking women, with snakes for hair, blood dripping from their eyes, the wings of a bat, and the body of a dog.

Today we still talk of someone's "fury" when he or she is extremely angry, and we may even say of someone whose anger is extreme that they're "in a fury," another way of saying "in the grip (or under the control) of a Fury."

Their names were:

  • Alecto ("the one with unceasing anger"), who punishes humans for moral crimes;
  • Megaera ("the jealous one"), who punishes humans for oath-breaking and infidelity; and
  • Tisiphone ("the one who avenges murder"), who--well--avenged crimes of murder.


Finally, we have the Harpies, which looked like winged women and, like the Furies, had snakes for hair. "Harpy" means "snatcher," and one job of the harpies is to snatch the spirit out of someone, bringing death.

Their names were:

  • Aello ("one who carries something away like a sudden storm");
  • Ocypete ("swift-flying"); and
  • Celaeno ("the dark" or "hidden").

Fulgentius, a late Roman scholar, explained their names like this: As the Harpies snatch away a life, first they grab it like a storm (Aello); second, carry it away like a swift-flying bird (Ocypete); and finally hide it in a dark place (Celaeno). Creepy, huh?


So there you have nine more sisters, a bit scarier than the Muses we met in Lesson #01-213. In Lesson #01-215: Meet the Titans.


Read more:

Practice: Match the "sister" to something about her below.

  1. Aello
  2. Alecto
  3. Atropos
  4. Celaeno
  5. Clotho
  6. Lachesis
  7. Megaera
  8. Ocypete
  9. Tisiphone

  1. the Fate who spins the thread of our lives
  2. the Fate who determines our "lot in life"
  3. the Fate whose name indicates that death is inevitable
  4. the Fury who punishes for crimes of morality
  5. the Fury who punishes broken promises, including marriage vows
  6. the Fury who gets revenge on murderers
  7. the Harpy whose name means "storm"
  8. the Harpy who can fly fast
  9. the Harpy who hides dead spirits in the dark

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 2, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. d; 3. c; 4. i; 5. a; 6. b; 7. e; 8. h; 9. f