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Harpies: Winged Women of Greek mythology

Updated on August 21, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The stories of Greek mythology that survive into the current day focus on the exploits of heroes and gods, equally as important though were the monsters and other creatures that were thought to inhabit the world.

The Harpy is one of the most recognisable of monstrous creatures of Greek mythology, although the imagery conjured up in the mind today may bear little resemblance to the original concept. Today Harpies are normally depicted as bird like creatures with bird bodies and the heads of old women; in antiquity though these same creatures were normally said to be beautiful winged women.

Harpies in the Infernal Woods

Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861 PD-art-100
Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861 PD-art-100 | Source

Birth of the Harpies

The Harpies were generally considered to be the offspring of the river god Thaumas and the Oceanid Elektra, and therefore were the sisters to the rainbow goddess Iris.

There was some debate in antiquity about how many Harpies there were, as whilst Hesiod would name but two, other sources would add a third sister. It was common in Greek mythology to have three sisters, with the famous groupings of Fates, Gorgons and Graeae.

Where three Harpies are thought to exist, the sisters are named as; Ocypete, known as the Swift Wing; Celaeno, the Dark One; and Aello, Storm Swift.

As to their appearance, in antiquity the three Harpies were thought of as beautiful maidens. The more modern imagery of relative ugliness is a development of mediaeval writers, the likes of Dante, who seemingly got their mythology mixed up, as the incorporated the appearance of the Sirens into that of the Harpies.

Role of the Harpies

With their parentage it would also make sense that the Harpies were regarded as water monsters, but they were more likely to be the personification of the gusts of wind.

The Harpies were therefore regarded as the “hounds of Zeus” and were responsible for the sudden disappearance of people from the face of the earth.

These Harpies were also said to be the transporters of those destined for eternal imprisonment in Tartarus, and were responsible for the torturing of those individuals on their journey and upon their arrival in the underworld.

Harpy

Сергей Панасенко-Михалкин CC-BY-SA-3.0
Сергей Панасенко-Михалкин CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

Phineas and the Harpies

It is for their role as torturers that the Harpies are most famous today, although the torturing did not occur in the underworld, but took place in Thrace.

Phineas was a king of Thrace, and was said by some to be the son of Poseidon. Phineas had been blessed with the gift of prophecy, but unfortunately, it was not a gift that sat well with mortals. Phineas would reveal far more than was good for mankind, and this caused Zeus’ anger to grow.

Zeus arranged for Phineas to be punished for his indiscretion, and so everyday, the Thracian king would sit in front of a great feast, but before he could eat anything, the food would be stolen away by the Harpies, and the king would then be harassed by the winged-women.

The Harpies and the Argonauts

Phineas’ punishment continued for many years, but eventually the Argo arrived on the shores near to the feast table, and Jason and the other Argonauts disembarked. Jason was in need of advice about how to navigate between the clashing rocks, and Phineas was the only one could tell him how to continue.

The next time Phineas sat down to eat two of the Argonauts, Zetes and Cailas took to the air. Zetes and Cailas, were collectively known as the Boreads, and were the sons of the North Wind, Boreas. The Boreads successfully drove off the Harpies, although they were not harmed, as Iris had already requested such from Jason. Subsequently the Harpies would not torture Phineas again, and the king was able to aide Jason in his quest.

The Persecution of the Harpies

Erasmus Quellinus II(II) (1607–1678)  PD-art-100
Erasmus Quellinus II(II) (1607–1678) PD-art-100 | Source

Daughters of Pandareus

Despite recognition in ancient sources of the existence of the Harpies, the winged women appeared in relatively few stories. Aside from that of Jason and the Argonauts, the Harpies are most famous for the tale of Pandareus and his daughters.

Pandareus unwisely stole a bronze dog from Zeus’ Cretan temple, and as punishment he and his wife were turned to stone. Two of Pandareus’ daughters, Cleothera and Merope were taken into the care of various Olympian goddesses, and were protected by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. One of age, Aphrodite went to Zeus to arrange for their marriages, but the Harpies in the meantime came down and swept away the two sisters to become attendants to the Erinyes (Furies).

Aeneas and his Companions Fighting the Harpies

François Perrier (1594–1649)  PD-art-100
François Perrier (1594–1649) PD-art-100 | Source

Home of the Harpies

Traditionally the Harpies were associated with the realm of Hades, but they were not said to reside there, but merely worked there. In ancient texts, the Harpies were thought to reside upon the Strophades, two of the Greek islands amongst the Ionian Islands.

It was on the Strophades that the Harpies were encountered by his Aeneas and his band of refugees from Troy. In the Aeneid, Aeneas and his companions were threatened by the Harpies as they sought to feed upon the cattle found on the islands, and were forced to leave the home of the Harpies.

Offspring of the Harpies

Little was said about what the Harpies did upon Strophades, but Homer would suggest that the horses that Achilles used at Troy, Balius and Xanthus, were the offspring of a Harpy and the West Wind, Zephyros. It is though not clear which of the Harpies Homer was referring to as the mother of the mythical horses.

In Greek mythology though, the Harpies showed that swift punishment could be expected for those who angered the gods.

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