The Harpies in Greek Mythology

The Harpies of Greek mythology are complex and multifaceted creatures, whose evolution from benign wind spirits to terrifying agents of punishment reflects broader themes in Greek thought and culture.

To Thaumandas, the son of Pontus and Earth, and the Oceanid Electra were born three daughters, Iris and the two winged Harpies, Aello and Ocypeti, sometimes she is also called a a third Harpy, Kelaino, and a fourth, Podargi.

Their names also reveal their nature: the first is the storm, the second is swift or swift-footed, the third is dark, like the darkness of the sky before a storm breaks out, the fourth is swift-footed. They are women with wings or birds with a woman’s head and clawed claws. Like the winged spirits that they are they seize souls, personified in the images of children, and carry them in their claws—so they depict them on the tombs.

The Harpies have been depicted in various texts as agents of punishment, symbols of the uncontrollable elements, and personifications of the destructive aspects of nature. This article explores the origins, representations, and cultural significance of the Harpies, analyzing their evolution from early mythological sources to their depiction in classical literature and art.

The term “Harpies” derives from the Greek word “Harpyiai,” meaning “snatchers” or “swift robbers.” This etymology reflects their primary function in myth: to seize and carry away. The earliest references to the Harpies can be found in Hesiod’s “Theogony,” where they are depicted as daughters of Thaumas and the Oceanid Electra. Hesiod describes them as beautiful winged maidens who can fly swiftly through the air, a portrayal that contrasts with later, more malevolent depictions.

The Harpies’ role and characterization evolved significantly over time. In early myths, they were not inherently malevolent but rather personifications of the destructive winds. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” for instance, they are mentioned briefly in the context of powerful winds. However, their image darkens in later myths and literature.

A significant evolution in their depiction occurs in the story of King Phineus, as recounted in Apollonius of Rhodes’ “Argonautica” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” In this myth, the Harpies are transformed into vicious tormentors who defile Phineus’ food, leaving him perpetually hungry. This depiction emphasizes their role as agents of divine punishment, sent by Zeus to exact retribution.

The Harpies also appear in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where they torment the Trojans during their journey to Italy. In this narrative, they are described as loathsome creatures with a hideous appearance and a foul stench, further solidifying their association with death and decay.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance

The Harpies embody several layers of symbolism. Primarily, they represent the destructive power of nature, particularly the winds and storms that could devastate ancient Greek societies. Their ability to snatch and carry away reflects the sudden and often uncontrollable nature of these natural forces.

Furthermore, the Harpies serve as symbols of divine retribution. Their role in the punishment of Phineus highlights the theme of divine justice, a common motif in Greek mythology. By defiling his food and leaving him in a state of perpetual torment, the Harpies enact a form of poetic justice that underscores the moral order maintained by the gods.

In a broader cultural context, the Harpies’ transformation from wind spirits to malevolent creatures reflects a shift in how ancient Greeks perceived and mythologized their environment. Initially seen as neutral or even beneficial forces, the winds (and by extension, the Harpies) came to be viewed with fear and suspicion as society’s relationship with nature became more complex and fraught with anxiety.

Artistic Depictions

harpiesThe Harpies have been depicted in various forms of ancient art, from vase paintings to relief sculptures. Early representations often show them as beautiful winged maidens, in line with Hesiod’s descriptions.

However, as their mythological role darkened, so too did their artistic portrayals. Later depictions emphasize their monstrous aspects, highlighting their bird-like bodies and grotesque features.

One notable example is the “Harpy Tomb” in Xanthos, Lycia, dating to the 5th century BCE. The reliefs on this tomb show winged women carrying away souls, a visual representation of the Harpies’ role as agents of death and the afterlife.

Harpies and Pandareus

The Harpies also play a role in the myth of Pandareus. When Rhea gave birth to Zeus, fearing his fate, lest his father Cronus devour him as he did with their other children, she left the newborn Zeus in a cave in Crete with a goat by his side feeding him with milk her and with a golden dog guarding them.

After Zeus’s victory over Saturn, the goat, Amalthea is given her name, became a constellation and the dog was appointed to guard the sanctuary of Zeus in Crete. This dog was stolen by Pandareus, son of Meropa, and taken to Mount Sipylus in Lydia.

There he asked Tantalus to watch over him. When at some point he returned and asked for the dog, Tantalus denied having given it to him. And Zeus turned Pandareus into a rock for the theft, and Tantalus he sunk into the earth and placed the mountain Sipylus over him, punishing him for his perjury.

Another version has Hermes claiming the dog on behalf of Zeus and Tantalus perjuring the god himself. But Hermes found the dog and killed Tantalus. Afraid of Tantalus’ punishment, Pandareos fled with his wife and daughters first to Athens and then to Sicily. He was killed by Zeus, as well as his wife, while their unprotected daughters provoked the pity of the gods, especially the goddesses who took them in and took care of them.

Aphrodite brought them food, Hera endowed them with beauty and wisdom, Artemis with elegance, Athena made them skilled embroiderers. When Aphrodite ascended to heaven to ask Zeus for suitable husbands for the daughters, the Harpies took the opportunity to seize them and make them slaves of the Erinyes in the Underworld.

Penelope, at some point in her despair over the situation that prevailed in Odysseus’ palace in the presence of the suitors, begged to die like the Pandarides, that is, to be seized by the Harpies and made a slave of the Erinyes

Podargi and Zephyros

The marriage of the harpy Podargis with the wind god Zephyrus is also mythologized, from whom she gave birth to the divine horses Xantho and Valio, swift as the wind, (Homer) and Phlogeo and Harpagus (Stesichorus); the former were the horses of Achilles, the latter of the Dioscuri.