To say their name invites disaster. Dogs bark and howl to announce their arrival. The stench of poisonous gas fills the air, and then you see them. With hissing snakes writing on their heads, and large bat wings extending behind them, here are three of the foulest creatures of Greek Mythology - the Erinyes, or more commonly known as the Furies. Yet, despite their horrifying appearance, the Furies are one of the most significant factors in the ancient Greek's decision to abide by a moral code. Created out of the blood in the sea when Cronus castrated his father Uranus, or alternately from Nyx, the Greek deity personifying Night.
Although beliefs vary by sect, Christians follow the ten commandments as a guideline for morality. To break one of these commandments is sin. Depending on the sect, forgiveness can be found, the sinful deed forgotten, or reversed, frequently with humility and admission of guilt.
The Furies, however, were not interested in admission of guilt. Alecto ("unceasing"), Tisiphone ("avenging murder"), and Megaera "grudging" particularly sought out crimes against ones kin, especially when murder was involved. Once the deed had been committed, the Furies punished the evildoer by driving him or her insane, often to the point of suicide. It is said that when they were not punishing kin-murderers on the surface, they dwelt in Tartarus, torturing its residents. However, although they were renowned for being cruel, they were also upholders of justice, and said to be fair. They often interceded on behalf of the law when the crime was that of ethics by protecting beggars and strangers. Due to this, they were often called "The Kindly Ones" in order to avoid invoking their name, and their wrath.
Clearly, the Furies provided great incentive to be kind to women, strangers, and kind alike. Ancient Greeks were taught stories of the Furies, much as children today are told to be good or they will be snatched away by the bogeyman. They are the exemplification of the behavioral concept of avoiding an aversive condition. So if you hear hissing, or the sound of dogs barking, perhaps someone has broken the law, and the Furies are in pursuit.
Painting Above: Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, by Adolphe William Bouguereau