►Greek Mythology: “The Harpies, Winged Bird Monsters”:
In Greek Mythology, a harpy was a female monster in the form of a bird with a human face.
They were the spirits of sudden, sharp gusts of wind.
They were known as the hounds of Zeus and were sent by him to snatch away people and things from the earth.
The harpies were also they were agents of punishment who abducted people and tortured them on their way to Hades’ domains. Like the Erinyes, the harpies were employed by the gods as instruments for the punishment of the guilty.
They seem originally to have been wind spirits. Their name means “snatchers”.
Aeschylus in The “Eumenides” (Third part of “The Oresteia”) referred to them as ugly winged bird-women.
But before that, Hesiod in “Theogony” called them “two lovely-haired” creatures. He said that the harpies were winged maidens, who surpassed winds and birds in the rapidity of their flight. He also mentioned that they were the daughters of Thaumas by the Oceanid Electra. Hesiod‘s two Harpies were named Aello (storm swift) and Ocypete (The swift wing).
Virgil in (“The Aeneid” 3.209) added a third one, Celaeno (the dark).
According to Virgil, Aeneas encountered harpies, as they repeatedly made off with the feast the Trojans were setting. The harpies also cursed them, saying the Trojans will be so hungry they will have eaten their own tables before reaching the end of their journey to Italy.
On the other hand, Homer (“The Iliad” 16.148) made reference to only to one harpy, named Podarge (“fleet-foot”). She was married to wind Zephyrus, and gave birth to the two horses of Achilles.
According to roman poet Ovid, (“Metamorphoses”. Book XIII), Zeus punished King Phineus of Trace because he had the gift of prophecy and once gave away the gods’ secret plan. The King of the Gods blinded King Phineus and put him on an island, and whenever a meal was placed before him, they darted down from the air and carried it off; later writers added, that they either devoured the food themselves, or that they dirtied it by dropping upon it some stinking substance, so as to render it unfit to be eaten.
According to Virgil (“Argonautica”. Book II) when Jason and the Argonauts came to visit, the winged Boreads gave chase, and pursued the Harpies to the Strophades Islands, where the goddess Iris, the personfication of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, commanded them to turn back and leave the storm-spirits unharmed.
•In Dante‘s “Divina Commedia” (Inferno XIII) the harpies tortured the sinners, who had their punishment in the seventh ring of Hell.
•Later on, William Blake found inspired in Dante’s description in his pencil, ink and watercolour “The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides” (1824 /1827. Tate Gallery, London).
•In Shakespeare‘s “Much Ado about nothing”, Benedick spots the sharp-tongued Beatrice approaching and exclaims to the Prince Don Pedro that he would do an assortment of arduous tasks for him “rather than hold three words conference with this harpy”. Here, the term “harpy” is used metaphorically to refer to a nasty or annoying woman.
•During the Middle Ages, the harpy, often called the Jungfrauenadler or “virgin eagle”, became a popular charge in Heraldy, particulalrly in Nuremberg, Rietburg and Liechtenstein.
►William Blake’s painting “The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides”, inspired by Dante’s “Divina Commedia”:
•Description: Dante encounters the souls of those who have committed suicide and been transformed into trees as punishment for having relinquished their bodies. According to Lavater the tree has no physiognomy, so the figures are also stripped of any individuality. Harpies, mythological birds with the heads of women, feed upon them.
Blake gives his Harpies beaks rather than noses, thereby emphasising their bestiality. The squat shape of the Harpies and their large feet are reminiscent of owls, birds described by Lavater as particularly ‘stupid’ (contrary to modern associations of the bird with wisdom).
“Here the repellent harpies make their nests,
Who drove the Trojans from the Strophades
With dire announcements of the coming woe.
They have broad wings, with razor sharp talons and a human neck and face,
Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw
Their lamentations in the eerie trees”
(Dante’s “Divina Commedia”
(Inferno XIII, Seventh ring of Hell).-
►Gallery: “The Harpies”: