Harpies: Storm Spirits and Winged Women

Harpies are thought to be some of the most disgusting monsters that have emerged from Greek mythology. Their name meant ‘snatchers’ for their role in taking things away from mortals on behalf of other Greek gods.

If that wasn’t enough of an indication as to the nature of the Harpies, Greek myths paint an even more unpleasant picture: one that tragedians ran with and modern writers emphasize. Even Byzantine writers detailed the abject ugliness of Harpies by highlighting the animalistic qualities of these winged maidens. However, the Harpy of today is vastly different from the Harpy of yesteryear, which in turn is even more estranged from the original Harpy.

Known as the Hounds of Zeus, the Harpies traditionally lived on a group of islands called Strophades, though they are occasionally mentioned to live in a cave on Crete or at a gate of Orcus. Yet, where there was a storm, there was most certainly a Harpy.

What is a Harpy?

To the ancient Greeks, a Harpy was a daimon – a personified spirit – of storm winds. They were a group of minor deities that embodied a force or a condition. With that being said Harpies, as a collective, were wind spirits identified by violent gusts during a storm.

These personified storm winds were responsible for destruction and disappearances; all of which would be certified Zeus-approved. They would steal food in their free time and carry evildoers off to Tartarus while on the clock. Like the whipping winds of a storm, the physical manifestation of the Harpies were vicious, cruel, and violent.

Nowadays, Harpies are thought to be half-bird, half-woman monsters. The image has been impressed upon us for generations now: these bird-women of myth with their human heads and clawed feet. The visage is staunchly different from their inception, where Harpies were nothing more than personified wind spirits.

The earliest physical description of the Harpies comes from Hesiod, who venerated the daimons as beautiful women who surpassed winds and birds in flight. Such an admirable interpretation of the Harpies did not last long.

By the time of the tragedian Aeschylus, the Harpies already had a reputation for being altogether disgusting, savage creatures. The playwright speaks through the character of a priestess of Apollo in his play, Eumenides, to express his disgust: “…not women…Gorgons I call them…yet I cannot compare them to…Gorgons either. Once before I saw some creatures in a painting, carrying off the feast of Phineus; but these are wingless in appearance…they snore with repulsive breaths…drip from their eyes hateful drops; their attire is not fit to bring either before the statues of the gods or into the homes of men.”

Clearly, the Harpies weren’t popular by the time of Classical Greece.

Are All Harpies Female?

It is safe to say that in ancient Greece, all Harpies are thought to be of the female sex. While – as with most mythological figures – their parents varied depending on the source, they were popularly thought to be daughters of Thaumas and Electra. This is established by Hesiod and echoed by Hyginus. Alternatively, Servius believed they were the daughters of Gaia and a sea god – either Pontus or Poseidon.

At any given time, all four Harpies ever mentioned have been female.

For instance, Hesiod mentions two Harpies by name, Aello (Storm Swift) and Ocypete (Swift Wing). Meanwhile, Homer makes note of only one Harpy, Podarge (Swift Foot), who settled down with the god of the west wind, Zephyrus, and had two horse children. The offspring of the west wind and Podarge became the two horses of Achilles.

The Harpies clearly stuck to strict naming conventions until the Roman poet Virgil popped in with the Harpy, Celaeno (The Dark).

Where Did Harpies Originate From?

The Harpies are mythical beasts from Greek mythology, though that doesn’t mean their appearance necessarily is. Some scholars have suggested that the ancient Greeks were inspired by the bronze cauldron art of bird women in ancient Urartu, in the Near East.

On the other hand, other scholars point out that such would imply that Harpies – in original myths – were always bird-women hybrids. Which, as Hesiod can attest, is not at all accurate.

The Harpy in the Middle Ages

The image of the modern Harpy came later in history. Much of what we know of a Harpy’s physical form was cemented in the Middle Ages. While this may be the era made famous by Arthurian legends, where dragons roamed and Fae magic ran rampant, the Harpies of Greek mythology had a place here as well.

The Middle Ages saw a rise in using Harpies on coats-of-arms, called jungfraunadler (the virgin eagle) primarily by Germanic houses. Although the Harpy in its winged human form does appear in select British heraldry, it is far less common than those coats-of-arms from East Frisia.

By choosing a Harpy – with their human heads and raptor bodies – as a charge on heraldry, a profound statement is being made: if we are provoked, expect us to respond fiercely and without mercy.

Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is an epic written by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, in the 14th century. Divided into three pieces (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, respectively), Dante’s Divine Comedy references Harpies in Canto XIII of Inferno:

Here the repellent Harpies make their nests,

Who drove the Trojans from the Strophades…

The winged women reside in a tortured wood in the Seventh Ring of Hell, where Dante believed those who had died from suicide were punished. Not necessarily tormentors of the dead, the Harpies would instead caw incessantly from their nests.

The description Dante gave inspired the poet-painter extraordinaire William Blake, causing him to create the artwork known as “The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides” (1824).

What Do Harpies Represent?

As symbols in Greek mythology, Harpies represent destructive winds and the wrath of the divine, namely Zeus. Their titles as Hounds of Zeus were not taken with a grain of salt, as their actions were a direct reflection of the supreme being’s hostilities.

Additionally, Harpies were often to blame if a person suddenly disappeared, excusing the event as an act of the gods. If not outright eaten by the hunger-driven beasts, the victim would be carried off to Tartarus to be dealt with by the Erinyes (the Furies). The way in which the Harpies respond and react to other gods represents what the Greeks viewed as a natural balance – a supreme order – of things.

Are Harpies Evil?

Harpies were immensely feared creatures. From their frightening appearance to their destructive nature, the Harpies of ancient Greece were viewed to be malevolent forces. By being markedly vicious, cruel, and violent, the Harpies were not friends of the common man.

After all, the Harpies were known as the Hounds of Zeus. During violent storms, the supreme deity would send out the daimons to do his bidding. By having such a brutal reputation, it is not at all surprising that the Harpies are assumed to be evil.

Harpies in Greek Mythology

The Harpies play a vital role in Greek mythology despite being infrequently mentioned. Much of their acclaim comes not from lineage or offspring, but their direct actions.

Originally personification of storm winds, the Harpies acted on the correctional instruction of Zeus. If someone got on his nerves, they would have gotten a visit from some pretty gnarly half-women birds. Although a Harpy would be charged with whisking wrongdoers off to dark Tartarus, she would occasionally sneak a bite beforehand.

King Phineus and the Boreads

The first myth is perhaps the most celebrated story involving the Harpies.

Phineus was a Thracian king and prophet in Greek mythology. For revealing mankind’s future freely without the consent of the Greek gods and goddesses, he was blinded. To further rub salt in a wound, Zeus punished King Phineus through his leal hounds: the Harpies.

It was the Harpies’ job to constantly interrupt Phineus’ meals by defiling and stealing his food. Which, because of their ceaseless hunger, they did so with glee.

Eventually, Phineus was saved by none other than Jason and the Argonauts.

The Argo could boast an impressive crew with Orpheus, Heracles, and Peleus (future father of Achilles) amongst the ranks. Also, the Argonauts had Jason; everybody loved Jason. However, they also had the Boreads: the sons of Boreas, the god of the north wind, and brothers-in-law to down-on-his-luck King Phineus.

Despite being fearful of the wrath of the other gods, the Boreads decided to help Phineus get out of his predicament. Why? He told them they were fated to.

So, the next time the Harpies came around, the two wind brothers – Zetes and Calais – took to aerial battle.

Together the Boreads chased off the Harpies until the goddess Iris appeared to tell them to lay off of the wind spirits. As thanks, the blind king told the Argonauts how to safely pass the Symplegades.

In some interpretations, both the Harpies and the Boreads died following the conflict. Others state that the Boreads actually slew the Harpies before returning to the Argonautic expedition.

After the Trojan War

Now, the Trojan War was a bad time for just about everybody involved. Even the aftermath of the fabled conflict was a period of uncertainty and instability. (Odysseus agrees – it was terrible).

For the Harpies, there is no circumstance more fitting for these ugly creatures to rear their heads. Thanks to their destructive nature, they thrived on the discord.

Harpies appear in two tales emerging from the Trojan War of Greek mythology: the story of Pandareus’ daughters and that of Prince Aeneas.

Daughters of Pandareus

This official mention of the Harpies comes straight from the ancient Greek poet, Homer.

As of Book XX of the Odyssey, King Pandareus was a notorious figure. He was favored by Demeter but made the mistake of stealing a golden dog from the temple of Zeus for his good friend, Tantalus. The dog was eventually retrieved by Hermes but not before the King of the Gods was raging mad.

Pandareus eventually fled to Sicily and perished there, leaving behind three young daughters.

Not soon after did Aphrodite take pity on the three sisters and decided to raise them. In this endeavor, she was assisted by Hera, who gifted them beauty and wisdom; Artemis, who gave them stature; and the goddess Athena, who had instructed them in craft. It was a team effort!

So dedicated to the fair youth was Aphrodite that she ascended Mount Olympus to petition Zeus. Neglecting their father’s slight, the goddess hoped to arrange for them happy, blessed marriages. During her absence, “the spirits of the storm snatched away the maidens and gave them to the hateful Erinyes to deal with,” thus removing the young daughters of Pandareus from the mortal realm.

The Harpies and Aeneas

The second myth originating from the Trojan War is from Book III of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid.

Following the trials of Prince Aeneas, a son of Aphrodite, who alongside other Trojans fled the bloodshed of Troy, the Aeneid is a cornerstone of Latin literature. The epic acts as one of the legendary founding stories of Rome and suggests that Romans were descended from those few Trojans that survived the Achaean assault.

In trying to find a settlement for his people, Aeneas encounters numerous roadblocks. However, none were as bad as when a storm on the Ionian Sea blew them to the island of Strophades.

On the island, the Trojans encountered Harpies, displaced themselves from their original home. They slaughtered much of the island’s goats and cows for a feast. The feast led to an attack by the ravenous Harpies.

During the quarrel, Aeneas and the Trojans realize that they weren’t dealing with mere bird women with human arms. From how their blows left the creatures unscathed, the group came to the conclusion that the Harpies were, in fact, gods.

Though, truthfully, their frightful appearance should’ve been a sign of some supernatural attributes.

Alas, by the time realization dawned on Aeneas’ men, it was too late to make any amends. The bird woman Celaeno cursed the Trojans: they would be plagued by hunger, unable to establish their city until they were driven to the point of eating their tables. Upon hearing the curse, the Trojans fled in fear.

What Does It Mean to Be Called a Harpy?

Calling someone a Harpy can be a pretty rude insult, one we can thank Shakespeare for inventing.

Generally, a Harpy is a metaphorical way to refer to a nasty or annoying woman, as established in Much Ado About Nothing. The word has also been used to describe a person – usually a woman – that uses flattery to get close to someone before seemingly ruining their lives (i.e. by their destructive nature).

Are Harpies Real?

Harpies are beings born purely from Greek mythology. As mythical creatures, they do not exist. If such monstrous creatures did live, evidence would have cropped up already.

While there are no Harpies as they are depicted in myth, there is the Harpy eagle. Native to the forests of Mexico and northern Argentina, the Harpy eagle is a notably large bird of prey. Their wingspans reach up to nearly 7 feet and they stand at an average of 3 feet. It is the only bird of the genus Harpia Harpyja, making the raptor in a league of its own.

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