The Harpy: Destructive Spirits of Greek Mythology
The harpies are remembered among the most fearsome monsters in Greek mythology.
Hybrids between human women and terrible birds, the harpies could snatch property and even humans away in an instant.
They fought against some of the greatest heroes of Greek legend and were described over and over as being terrifying, repulsive, and cruel.
But where the harpies really monsters?
Read on to find out why the harpies might not have been as evil as you might think.
Many Greek writers gave accounts of the harpies that detailed the physical features of the monsters.
Like several monsters of the ancient world, the image of the harpy changed over time. They gradually became more frightening and monstrous.
Hesiod, one of the earliest writers whose works survive, described them as winged women who were notable for their beautiful hair and the speed at which they could fly.
Less than two hundred years later, though, Aeschylus gave a much more menacing description.
His harpies were so hideous that they were described as resembling Gorgons more closely than women. The speaker directly compared the creatures he saw to vase paintings of the harpies and claimed that the artists were completely wrong.
They were wingless and their bodies were entirely black. Their eyes dripped and they snored while they slept, while their clothes looked filthy and ragged.
Roman writers, perhaps basing their words off of other images, gave them the bodies of birds with massive, tearing talons.
Some said that they had both hawk-like wings and human arms, and that while their bodies resembled birds they still had features of the female form.
The harpies’ faces were pale with hunger and Virgil described them as a cross between humans and vultures.
While the written descriptions of the harpies grew increasingly grotesque, their portrayal in art was much less monstrous. By and large they were shown in vase painting as typical women in the standard dress at the time with a set of wings.
In some images they had distorted or disproportionate faces, but many harpies in part were nearly indistinguishable from other female beings that were shown with wings like certain nymphs.Another defining trademark of a harpy was its putrid stench. They were said to leave a disgusting foul smell in their wake wherever they went. Click To Tweet
The harpies actually served a job for Zeus, in his role as the keeper of the law. They snatched up those who had done wrong to deliver them to the Erinyes for punishment, making it seem as though the person they hunted had simply vanished.
Sometimes, the harpies did not have instructions to take the person to the Erinyes. Instead, they carried them directly to Tartarus, torturing them on the way.
When they weren’t rounding up the wicked, though, the harpies sometimes dulled their insatiable hunger by stealing food and valuables from humans. When something went missing without a trace in the Greek world, especially food, it was commonly thought that the harpies might be to blame.
They were also to blame for the sudden disappearances of humans. When someone vanished for no reason, one possible explanation was that they had been snatched away by the Harpies.
The monsters had such a reputation for stealing away both people and items that it is reflected in their name. Harpy comes from the Greek word for “snatcher.”
In their role as the couriers of the wicked, the Harpies served both Zeus and Hades. Another of the jobs ascribed to them was as guardians at the underworld’s gates.
Virgil named them among the many monsters that stood watch beside the doors to the underworld.
Like most of the monsters in Greek mythology, the harpies were symbolic of a real world danger.
Unlike the deadly threat of Charybdis’s whirlpool or Lamia’s stolen children, the harpies represented a rather mundane phenomenon.
As a monster, the harpy was the embodiment of storm winds.
Specifically, they were the daimones, or spirits, of sudden gusts and sharp blasts of wind. They moved at high speed and seemed to come out of nowhere, just like the winds they represented.
They could certainly be dangerous when worked into a frenzy, but often the biggest issue was the noise and disorder they left behind. With enough fury behind them, though, they could displace belongings and even people.
As a part of a storm, each harpy was ultimately a servant of Zeus. Despite their wild nature, they did the bidding of the god of thunder and followed his commands.
The most well-known story of the harpies occurs as part of the larger tale of Jason and the Argonauts.
The story began with King Phineus of Thrace. The gods had blessed him with prophetic powers, but the king showed no respect for his gift.
When Phineus began telling his people about the secret plans of the gods, Zeus resolved to punish him. He took away the man’s eyesight but extended his lifespan, dooming him to be a lonely and nearly helpless old man.
This wasn’t enough, however. Zeus then stranded the blind man on an island.
In the center of the island was a huge table covered in every delicious food the king could dream of. He never got to eat a bite, though, because as soon as he sat down to eat or even approached the table a band of harpies would appear to steal every crumb of the feast.
Often the harpies devoured the food themselves. Sometimes, though, they only dropped it in a stinking liquid so that it was entirely unfit to eat.
Phineus was constantly plagued by hunger. The harpies left him only just enough scraps to survive so that his torment could continue.
He eventually had hope for salvation when Jason and the crew of his ship, the Argonauts, landed on his isolated island.
The king knew the waters of the area well, and promised Jason he would direct them in the best route to take in order to complete their quest. All he asked in return was that the visitors kill the harpies for him.
It would not be easy, though. A prophesy he knew had told him that the harpies could only be driven off by two sons of Boreas, the North Wind.
If the wind’s sons could not kill the harpies, however, they would die instead.
As it happened, two of the Boreades were on the ship with Jason. His crew members Zetes and Calais were sons of the god of the North Wind.
They volunteered to help, even though the prophecy said that their own lives would be in danger. The other men weren’t as eager.
The Argonauts were also hesitant to help someone who was being punished by the harpies. Such torments were directed by Zeus because the person had committed a serious crime.
Phineus assured the men that they would not incur the wrath of the gods if they helped him. He swore an oath that Zeus would not turn against Jason and his crew.
Reassured by this, the Argonauts hurried into action. The younger crew members began to prepare a meal from the scraps the harpies had left behind, while Zetes and Calais stood ready with their swords.
And Phineus had scarcely taken the first morsel up when, with as little warning as a whirlwind or a lightning flash, they dropped from the clouds proclaiming their desire for food with raucous cries. The young lords saw them coming and raised the alarm. Yet they had hardly done so before the Harpyiai had devoured the whole meal and were on the wing once more, far out at sea. All they left was an intolerable stench.
-Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2. 179 – 434 (trans. Rieu)
The Boreades could fly as well, though, and they took off after the harpies. Even with the gift of indefatigable strength given to them by Zeus, they found it almost impossible to keep up with the monsters.
There was no consensus as to how the battle between the harpies and the sons of Boreas ended. In one version, the gods interfered.
They were beginning to make headway, though, and had very nearly caught the harpies when the action above the island caught the attention of the goddess Iris.
She rushed to the site with a grave warning for the young heroes. The harpies were the servants of Zeus, and killing them would bring the full might of the god’s wrath down upon the brothers and their crew mates.
They had her word, though, that if they stopped their pursuit and let the harpies leave, the monsters would never again bother King Phineus.
They let the monsters fly away.
In another version of the story, Iris did not intervene. The brothers continued to fight the harpies until both monsters fell from the sky.
They both happened to land in water, though, and were not killed by the impact. They escaped with their lives.
The brothers had fallen after them, though, and were not so lucky in how they landed. In fulfilment of the prophecy, they had died when the harpies escaped.
Still a third version existed in which both the harpies and the Boraedes were killed.
In all three versions, however, Phineus was freed of his torment. He told Jason how to navigate past the Simpleglades, or Clashing Rocks, a set of dangerous rocks in the Bosphorus that smashed together whenever a ship tried to get through them.
According to Seneca, however, Phineus has gotten only a temporary reprieve. In his telling of the journey of Hercules (Heracles) to the underworld, he claimed that the hero saw Phineus being tortured again by the harpies after his death.
Virgil later took the story and expanded it to fit into his stories about Romen’s founding father, Aeneas.
In the Aeneid, the hero made his way toward Italy after the Trojan War. He had many adventures along the way, similar to the earlier stories of Odysseus.
His ship landed in a place that was noted as being near the island when Phineus had been tormented. Virgil was very familiar with the Greek story of Jason.
There, the crew of the ship found several cattle and goats, although there was no sign of any other people in the island. They butchered some and settled in for a feast on the beach after giving the appropriate sacrifices to the gods.
In a matter of moments, the harpies set upon them. The men were overwhelmed by the noise of their screeching and the stench that came off them.
The harpies tore into the men’s food. As with Phineus, whatever they didn’t take was left filthy and with a terrible smell clinging to it.
The men of the crew tried to fight back, but the harpies dodged every attack before flying away. They were simply too fast for the men to hit with their swords.
Only one stayed behind, identified by Virgil as Celaeno. She perched on a rock above the beach to address the men.
She warned them that it would be foolish to go to war with her and her sisters over the few cows the men had killed. The island belonged to the harpies and the cattle were theirs, which made the men who killed and cooked them the thieves.
The harpy then went on to make a prophecy which she claimed had been passed own to her from Apollo and Zeus. Because they had attacked the harpies on their own lands and stolen from them, the men would face a terrible famine aboard their ship before they reached the shores of Italy.
The men vowed that they would not fight again. Instead, they would seek security through prayers to the gods and hope for their protection.
There was confusion among the ancient sources regarding the parentage of the harpies.
Some said that they were daughters of the dreadful giant Typhon. Others made them offspring of the Oceanid Electra.
A few even claimed that the monsters were fathered by one of the gods of Olympus, probably Poseidon.
The harpies themselves were named in the stories about them with much more consistency than their parents. They were:
- Aello – Her name meant “storm wind.”
- Aellopus – Her name translates to “storm foot.”
- Nicothoe – This meant “racing victor.”
- Podarge – This name is translated to “flashing foot.”
- Podarce – Her name meant “fleet-footed.”
- Calaeno – A name meaning “the black one.”
Most of the harpies were given names that referenced the winds and the speed with which they moved.
In most myths, though, little was done to distinguish between individual harpies. Whether they attacked two at a time, as they did against the Argonauts, or en masse like they did in Virgil, the harpies were seen as a group.
Some of the harpies eventually had children of their own.
Podarge had two children with Zephyrus, the West Wind. The winds often took the forms of horses, and her sons were born as foals who possessed amazing speed.
Hermes eventually gave the horses as gifts to the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux.
Harpies remained popular well after the Greek era, even when other figures from classical mythology fell out of style.
While many of the myths faded into obscurity during the middle ages, the image of the harpy remained popular.
Bizarre hybrid animals and fantasy beasts were a popular motif in medieval art. Taken from both earlier mythologies and the imaginations of individual writers and illustrators, these grotesques appear often in medieval manuscripts, architectural details, and drawings.
Like the Greeks, people of the middle ages often claimed that such fantastical animals actually existed in other, far away, parts of the world. They were usually fierce or disturbing, like the harpies, reflecting their culture’s fear of the unknown.
In this context, the harpy fit in with other images from the time.The middle ages also saw the use of the harpy, or a figure very like one, in heraldry. An eagle with the head of a woman was widely used in Germany. Click To Tweet
Dante envisioned the creatures in his vivid description of Hell. His harpies were taken directly from the Greek stories, but he placed them and other mythological monsters in the context of the Christian Hell.
Dante’s harpies inhabited a forest in the Seventh Circle of Hell where they eternally tormented those who had committed suicide.
The harpy even makes an appearance in the works of William Shakespeare. In The Tempest, the spirit Ariel disguises itself as a harpy to deliver a message from Prospero.
The harpy continues to be popular in works that take inspiration from mythology.
Both DC and Marvel comics, for example, feature multiple female characters named after the monsters.
In The Witcher books and video games, harpies are one of the many creatures of legend the hero must fight against. The God of War series, which is more directly based off the mythologies of Greece and other European cultures, also has harpies as a frequently encountered flying enemy.
Many works also conflate the harpies with their close kin, the Sirens. In modern role playing games, for example, harpies sometimes possess the power to hypnotise or charm people in addition to dealing damage from their talons.
In film they’ve appeared mostly in movies based on Greek mythology, but in television they’ve been included on shows ranging from the fantasy series Charmed to the satirical The Simpsons.
While the word “harpy” originally referred to the creature’s ability to snatch away both people and possessions, today it has a very different meaning.
The monsters’ harassment and shrieking voice has made their name synonymous with someone, particularly a woman, who is shrill, demanding, or rude.
This use of the creatures’ name as an insult is not a modern invention. It first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as an insult directed toward the sharp-tongued character Beatrice.
The word also has a modern usage that refers more to the harpy’s form than its behavior. A species of raptor found in the rain forests of Central and South American is named the harpy eagle.
The animal gained its name primarily from its enormous size. With a wingspan of up to seven feet, the massive animals look large enough to be nearly human when perched in a tree.The harpy eagle is the national bird of Panama. Click To Tweet
Harpies are generally classified among the monsters of ancient Greek mythology.
They certainly fit the usual criteria. With a grotesque appearance, frightening behavior, and the threats they posed to humans the harpies seemed to fit in alongside other hybrid creatures and vicious monsters.
Unlike most of them, however, the harpies served a function for the gods.
As the god of law, Zeus was responsible for the punishment of those people that broke his sacred laws.
To do this, he relied on several assistants. The harpies, like the Eirenyes, existed to punish those who Zeus deemed wicked.
The story of the Argonauts’ fight against the harpies illustrates the unusual position the bird-women occupied. The men hesitate to fight them not because of the difficulty, but because going against them might anger Zeus.
I some versions of the story, the gods even intervene to prevent the harpies from being killed.
This was not a consideration with true monsters that answered to none of the gods.
The harpies looked monstrous and displayed monstrous behaviors. But in their role as the servants of Zeus and enforcers of justice, they did not serve the function of monsters.
Remembered as some of the most frightening and violent creatures in mythology, the harpies still do not quite fit the criteria for truly being called monsters.