Illustration by Will Hobbs
Generally when we say harpy, we’re referring to, as Random House Dictionary states, “a scolding, nagging, bad-tempered woman; shrew, or a greedy, predatory person.” Perhaps it’s that innate fear or repulsion that leads to so much trouble when trying to learn about the mythological creature the harpy.
Let’s start with appearance, one source tells me that harpies started out as beautiful goddesses but over time were morphed into nasty creatures, and then others say they started out down right hideous, but have been toned down to the creatures we generally think of when considering the harpy. Therefore, what are we looking at here? Obviously it varies based on artistic interpretation, but at the most basic it’s a woman who from the torso down is bird and has wings large enough to carry her in flight. Sometimes the face is less human in appearance, with bulging eyes and tusks, other times the face is the only human component and the body is entirely bird. (For the record, for me the harpy will always look like the harpy from the movie “The Last Unicorn”.)
Everyone seems to agree that in Greek mythology the harpies were the daughters of Thaumas and Electra. Of course, how many were there? A few sources say two to three: Aello and Octpete, with Celaeno as a later addition. One source goes so far as to say three to four: Aello, Octpete, Celaeno, and a possible extra to make four! No matter the number, harpies make appearances throughout Greek myth, generally harassing, stealing, or killing anything they feel like.
In the Middle Ages an image of a harpy was used on coats-of-arms. It was referred to as the “virgin eagle”. I have many exciting theories on why the harpy was a virgin, all of them would be inappropriate for me to say, and many of which you can guess for yourself.
In an interesting, and more all age appropriate side note, the largest raptor found in North and South America is the Harpy Eagle. Yup, named after the mythological creature. It’s certainly cuter than any version of the mythological harpy I can imagine. On the other hand, it still totally gives me the creeps.