What is a Harpy in Greek Mythology? - Definition & Origin

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will learn about Harpies in Greek mythology. We will explore their different portrayals, the theories of their origins, and their role in Greek mythology.

What is a Harpy?

The first time I saw a Harpy, a half-bird/half-female creature, was in a video game. But believe it or not, Harpies weren't just created by video game developers for striking video game imagery. They actually have their origins in Greek mythology. So the next time you come across a Harpy in a video game, congratulate yourself for your knowledge of Greek mythology!

Of course, the vengeful Harpies that often appear in video games are not the same as the earliest Harpies in Greek mythology. So what exactly is a Harpy?

Winged Harpies on a Greek vase
Harpies on a Greek vase picture

Harpies: Description and Origin

The word Harpy means ''snatcher.'' Early Greek poets like Hesiod described the Harpies as winged, with maiden heads and youthful ''long hair.'' They were creatures ''who on their swift wings keep pace with the blasts of the winds and the birds; for quick as time they dart along.'' Later writers, however, described the Harpies as hideous monsters with claws and beaks. For example, the Roman poet Virgil said they possessed ''faces haggard with hunger insatiable'' and talons as hands.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante describes Harpies as ''repellent,'' with their ''dire announcements of the coming woe.'' They were said to have ''broad wings, a human face and neck,'' and ''clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies.'' Naturally, in the poet William Blake's illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Harpies appear as hideous half-female vultures.

A rendition of Harpies drawn by William Blake
Blake drawing of Harpies

Originally, Harpies were spirits of the wind, and, while there is not widespread agreement on their origin, many scholars believe that the idea of the Harpy came from the constantly changing winds. For many ancient Greeks, the sky was a place of special significance because it was inaccessible, and therefore revered. The Harpies provided an explanation for the changing winds and, thus, became the personification of storm winds. They were given their half-human and half-birdlike form for the ease of storytelling. Like many supernatural Greek figures, the Harpies simply existed, without any need to explain why or how exactly they came to be.

Other scholars believe that the idea of the Harpy was adopted from bronze cauldrons that came from Urartu, an Iron Age kingdom located in the Armenian highlands. Some cauldrons featured bird monsters with human heads, and the Harpy may have been adopted from this culture, although this theory is often discounted given that in many early stories the Harpies were not monsters.

The Harpies in Greek Mythology

While various Greek writers wrote different things about the Harpies (sometimes with conflicting accounts), several wrote that they were the daughters of Thaumas and Electra. Thaumas was the son of Pontus (the Sea) and Electra was the daughter of Oceanus (the Ocean). Most often, the Greeks wrote about four Harpies: Aello (''storm-wind''), Ocypete (''swift-flying''), Podarge (''fleet-of-foot''), and Celaeno (''the dark'').

So what exactly did these human/bird storm winds snatch up? According to Hesiod, they snatched up the daughters of Pandareus. Pandareus was blessed with being able to eat as much as he wanted without ever having indigestion. But Pandareus didn't have all good luck. After angering Zeus, king of the gods, his daughters Cleothera and Merope were snatched up by the Harpies and made into slaves. Because the Harpies punished people on the gods' behalf, they were often called the ''Hounds of Zeus.''

The Harpies didn't just steal people, they also stole people's food, at least in the most well-known Greek myth that involves them. The Harpies played a starring role in the punishment of King Phineus of Thrace. Phineus angered Zeus, who punished him by giving him lots of food that he could never eat because the Harpies would snatch it up. This changed when the Argonauts, a band of sailors, laid their food on Phineus's table. The Harpies stole the food, but were chased down by the Argonauts, resulting in one Harpy falling in a river and dying, while another (Ocypete, the aptly named ''swift-flying''), got away.

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