Certain configurations of Being web themselves into the material fabric of identity with such
a tight weave that every tear screams and every scream produces apparent entities whose
existence is the life of the violation from which they rose. Thus the underworld produces
"furies"—the Erinyes—when the web of kinship is violated by illicit consanguinities or
homicide. There is a logic of kinship that can be made to feel like that fabric itself, so that
when things occur that defy that logic, monstrosities issue that would tear the fabric once
again, as if to tear again were the only path to healing. Justice is indistinct from revenge.
The goal of both is the quiescence of the screech howl and the recovery of the
innocence of Being without Apparency.
The most familiar appearance of the Furies in Greek literature is in the plays of Aeschylus,
the Oresteia trilogy. Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to be murdered by Aegisthus,
his wife Clytemnestra's lover. But his son Orestes survives and eventually avenges his father's
death by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The Erinyes associated with Clytemnestra
haunt her son, causing periodic episodes of raging madness. These furies were spawned by
the infraction of matricide.
In Aeschylus, the Erinyes are transformed by Athena into beneficent
daemons, the Eumenides, "the kindly ones," whose provenance is the system of
Athenian jurisprudence: the office of justice has been transferred from the
kinship system to the state. A shrine to the Eumenides was erected at Colonos, and a sacred
precinct dedicated to them there. But even in their transformed state they were terrible
beings. One did not enter their precinct, and their location at Colonos placed
them in proximity to an entrance to the underworld—the site where Oedipus
went to die and where, according to Sophocles, he was welcomed by Persephone
herself and Chthonion Zeus, a figure indistinct from Hades.
We can think of the Erinyes as "identity enforcers," their grip on one's
being is of a piece with the inalienable quality of identity. The obsession with
identity is of course a social affair. Revenge is not merely a psychological
demand internal to the offended party. It is a demand transmitted along the
circuitry established by kinship and driven by that which is due and what honor
and duty require. Forgiveness is not simply a personal matter. A mother cannot
forgive the slaughter of her children, nor a child that of her parent. The
unnegotiable demand for revenge is part of one's patrimony, and a part that can
neither be easily renounced nor bartered away. The Furies personify this inheritance,
and the furies, the Erinyes, are connected with the psychic space of the underworld.
The Furies show most profoundly how identity is caught up in the social nexus and how,
therefore, if their efficacy beyond the grave is to be relieved, a social institution
must somehow be involved in the transaction. But at the same time, they show
how unrelenting the demands of identity can be, and how potent the secret that
might have the power to dissolve its ontological sway.