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Alternate Names


Appears In

Hesiod's Theogony, Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid


Daughters of Thaumas and Electra

Character Overview

Greek mythology contains two accounts of the Harpies. In both cases, the Harpies were female creatures who caused mischief and torment wherever they went. Though most often pictured as grotesque birdlike creatures, they were originally considered to be the embodiment of storm winds.

In the older myth, the Harpies were spirits of the wind who snatched people and caused things to disappear. On one occasion, they seized the daughters of Pandareos (pronounced pan-DAHR-ee-ohs), king of the city of Miletus (pronounced mye-LEE-tuhs), and took them off to be the servants of female spirits known as the Furies. Sometimes considered cousins of the Gorgons (pronounced GOR-guhnz, female monsters with snakes for hair), the four Harpies were named Aello (pronounced EE-oh, “hurricane”), Celaeno (pronounced suh-LEE-noh, “dark one”), Ocypete (pronounced ah-si-PEE-tee, “swift”), and Podarge (pronounced poh-DAHR-jee, “racer”).

The later myth describes the Harpies as hideous birds with the faces of women. In the legend of Jason and the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts), they terrorized Phineus (pronounced FIN-ee-us), the king of Thrace, by blinding him and stealing his food. Phineus promised to tell the Argonauts their future if they would drive away the Harpies.

In Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid , the Harpies torment the hero Aeneas (i-NEE-uhs) and his companions, making it impossible for them to eat. Celaeno tells Aeneas that he and his followers will not return home until they become hungry enough to eat their tables.

Harpies in Context

Like the Gorgons, the Harpies of later myth reflect an ancient Greek and Roman view of what are considered the worst characteristics for a woman to display. Aside from their ugly appearance and foul smell, they prevent Phineus and Aeneas from enjoying their meals by stealing the food away. This is in direct contrast to the traditional role of women as domestic providers. In addition, the Harpies are shown to be impossible to satisfy; no matter how much food is laid out, they never stop taking it before the men can eat. This is a reversal of the expected behavior of an ancient Greek woman during a meal, who is expected to eat in moderation and only after others have been served.

Key Themes and Symbols

Harpies are often seen as a force of disruption or withholding in ancient myths. As a disruptive or destructive force, they symbolize the dangerous properties of storm winds. In later myths, they are shown to be the tormentors of those who deserve punishment for revealing too much of the gods' plans to humans, specifically Phineus.

Harpies in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Early depictions of the Harpies show them as beautiful winged women. It was not until later that Harpies were seen as hideous-faced women with the lower bodies of birds. This grotesque portrayal of the Harpies reached its height during the Middle Ages. Harpies can be found in Dante's Inferno, where they torture those who have committed suicide. Harpies also appear in William Shakespeare's play The Tempest, as well as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of novels. The term “harpy” is often used in modern times to describe a woman who is seen as nagging or controlling. The American Harpy Eagle, one of the largest living species of eagle in the world, takes its name from the mythological creatures.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Harpies appear in many video games as enemies the player must fight against. The Sony PlayStation game Suikoden II is one example. Find at least two more examples of Harpies appearing in different video games, and compare them. Do all three versions of Harpies have the same characteristics? Why do you think these mythical figures are so popular in this form?

SEE ALSO Aeneas; Aeneid, The; Argonauts; Furies; Gorgons; Greek Mythology; Jason