The Harpies were mythical monsters in Greek mythology that had the form of a bird with a human female face; often agents of punishment they abducted people and tortured them on their way to Hades’ domain, employed by the God as instruments for the punishment of the guilty. They stole food from their victims and would carry evildoers to Erinnyes of the Furies (female goddesses of vengeance and retribution). Their name means snatchers and is thus very appropriate for the acts they carried out. Known as the hounds of Zeus, they were dispatched by the God to snatch away people and things from the earth; sudden and mysterious disappearances were often attributed to them.
They initially were classified as wind spirits, seen as the personifications of destructive winds. Hesiod mentioned two harpies by name; Aello (storm swift) and Ocypete (swift wing) and Virgil called another, Celaeno (darkness). In the Homeric poems, the Harpies are nothing but personified storm winds, and he only named Podarge (felt foot) who was married to the West Wind Zephyrus and gave birth to the two horses of Achilles; Xanthus and Balius.
Hesiod described them as lovely fair locked and winger maidens, the daughters of Thaumas and the Oceanid Electra, who surpassed winds and birds in the speed of flight. Grecian pottery depicted the harpies as beautiful women with wings. However, as early as Aeschylus, in the Eumenides, Harpies are described as ugly creatures with wings and later writers would carry these characteristics so far as to represent them as disgusting, cruel and terrifying monsters that were always ravenously hungry. Sometimes they were thought to be cousins of the Gorgons, three sisters with hair made of horrible venomous snakes and a stone wielding stare, Medusa is the most famous of the three sisters.
They appear as evil forces in Ovid’s story of King Phineus of Thrace, whom Zeus gave the gift of prophecy. Phineus used this gift against the Gods, uncovering their secret plans and was thus punished by an angry Zeus, sentenced to an island, blind and with a buffet of food he could not eat because the Harpies would steal all the food before he was able to indulge and satisfy his hunger. Years later Phineus was rescued by his fate by Jason and the Argonauts, and the winged Boreades drove the Harpies away. The Boreades were twin winged brothers named Calais and Zetes, sons of Boreas and Oreithyia. The goddess Iris commanded that they turn back and not harm the wind-spirits thus the ‘dogs of great Zeus,’ the Harpies, escaped to their cave in Minoan Crete leaving their past residence of the islands called Strophades. In exchange, the exiled King told Jason how to pass the Symplegades Rocks. In this form the Harpies acted as agents of punishment; vicious, cruel and violent.
According to the story of the daughters of Pandareus, the Gods killed King Pandareus and his wife, after the King stole a bronze dog from Zeus. His daughters Cleodora and Merope were spared and raised by several of the Greek goddesses on Mount Olympus, particularly Aphrodite. When the girls reached an age to be married off, Aphrodite went to seek permission from Zeus for the marriages and while she was gone the Harpies came and took the daughters to become servants of the Furies.
The Harpies, like many characters in Greek mythology, evolved over time and different tales, beginning as wind spirits then personified as winged woman and eventually into the monstrous creatures we most recognise today.
Other Interesting Facts:
• Harpies remained vivid mythical beasts throughout the Middle Ages, in Dante’s Inferno Harpies infest a tortured wood in the seventh ring of Hell where the suicides have their punishment
• Roman and Byzantine writers detailed their ugliness and monstrous qualities.
• In the Aeneid, Aeneas encountered the Harpies on the Strophades as they made off with the feast the Trojans were setting, Celaeno cursed them, and the Trojans fled in fear of the mythical beasts
• In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ by Shakespeare, the term Harpy is used metaphorically to refer to a nasty or annoying woman, and though not often used in modern vernacular it is understood that this is what the term currently describes
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