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Harpies: Symbolism, Stories, and Their Place in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, harpies are legendary monsters with the body of a bird and the face of a woman. They were known as the personification of the whirlwinds or storm winds.

The Harpies are sometimes described as the hounds of Zeus and their job was to snatch away things and people from the Earth. They also carried evildoers to the Erinyes (the Furies) to be punished. If someone suddenly disappeared, the Harpies were usually the ones to blame. They were also the explanation for the change in the winds. 

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A harpy
A Harpy Public Domain

Who Were the Harpies?

The Harpies were the offspring of Thaumas, the ancient sea god, and his wife Electra, one of the Oceanids. This made them sisters to Iris, the messenger goddess. In some renditions of the story, they were said to be the daughters of Typhon, the monstrous husband of Echidna.

The exact number of Harpies is in dispute, with various versions existing. Most commonly, it’s believed that there are three Harpies.

However, according to Hesiod, there were two Harpies. One was called Aello (meaning Storm-Wind) and the other Ocypete. In his writings, Homer names only one Harpy as Podarge (meaning Flashing-footed). Several other writers  gave the Harpies names such as Aellopus, Nicothoe, Celaeno and Podarce, with more than one name for each Harpy.

What Do Harpies Look Like?

The Harpies were initially described as ‘maidens’ and may have been considered beautiful to a certain extent. However, they later morphed into ugly creatures with an unsightly appearance. They’re often portrayed as winged women with long talons. They were always hungry and on the lookout for victims.

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What Did the Harpies Do?

The Harpies were wind spirits and were malignant, destructive forces. Nicknamed ‘the swift robbers’, the Harpies stole all manner of things including food, objects and individuals.

The name ‘Harpy’ means snatchers, which is highly appropriate considering the acts they  carried out. They were considered as cruel and vicious creatures, who found pleasure in torturing their victims.

Myths Involving the Harpies

The Harpies are most famous for playing an important role in the tale of the Argonauts who encountered them when they tortured King Phineus.

1- King Phineus and the Harpies

Phineus, the king of Thrace, had been given the gift of prophecy by Zeus, the god of the sky. He decided to use this gift to discover all of Zeus’ secret plans. However, Zeus found him out. Angry at Phineus, he blinded him and placed him on an island abundant with food. Although Phineus had all the food he could ever want, he couldn’t eat anything because every time he sat down to a meal, the Harpies would steal all the food. This was to be his punishment.

Some years later, Jason and his Argonauts, a band of Greek heroes looking for the Golden Fleece, came to the island by chance. Phineus promised them that he would tell them how to travel through the Symplegades if they would drive away the Harpies and they agreed.

The Argonauts lay in wait for Phineus’ next meal and as soon as he sat down to have it, the Harpies swooped down to steal it. At once, the Argonauts sprang up with their weapons and drove the Harpies away from the island.

According to certain sources, the Harpies made the Strophades Islands their new home but other sources say that they were later found in a cave on the island of Crete. This presumes that they were still alive since some versions of the story state that they were killed by the Argonauts.

2- The Harpies and Aeneas

Although the story of King Phineus is the most famous one about the winged goddesses, they also appear in another famous story with Aeneas, a mythical hero of Rome and Troy.

Aeneas landed on the Strophades Islands with his followers on their way to the island of Delos. When they saw all the livestock, they decided to make offerings to the gods and have a banquet. However, as soon as they sat down to enjoy their meal, the Harpies appeared and tore the meal to pieces. They defiled the rest of the food, just like they had done with the food of Phineus.

Aeneas didn’t give up and tried once again to make a sacrifice to the gods and have some of the food as well, but this time, he and his men were ready for the Harpies. As soon as they swooped down for the food, Aeneas and his companions drove them off, but the weapons they used didn’t seem to inflict any harm on the Harpies themselves.

The Harpies had to admit defeat and they left but they were angry because they believed that Aeneas and his men had eaten their food. They cursed Aeneas and his followers to a long period of famine upon reaching their final destination.

3- King Pandareus’ Daughters

Another lesser known myth involving the Harpies involves the daughters of King Pandareus of Miletus. The story began when the king stole Zeus’ bronze dog. When Zeus found out who stole it, he was so angry that he killed both the king and his wife. However, he had mercy on Pandareus’ daughters and decided to let them live. They were raised by Aphrodite until they were ready to be married and then she asked Zeus’ blessing to arrange marriages for them.

While Aphrodite was in Olympus meeting with Zeus, the Harpies stole Pandareus’ daughters away. They handed them to the Furies, and were tortured and forced to work as servants for the rest of their lives to pay for their father’s crimes.

Harpies Greek myth symbolism

The Harpies Offspring

When the Harpies weren’t busy encountering heroes, they were also regarded as the mothers of very swift horses born from the seed of wind gods such as Zephyrus, the god of the west wind or Boreas, the god of the north wind. 

The Harpy Podarge had four known offspring who were famous immortal horses. She had two of her children with Zephyrus – Balius and Xanthus who belonged to the Greek hero Achilles. The other two, Harpagos and Phlogeus who belonged to Dioscuri.


The Harpies in Heraldry and Art

Harpies have often been featured in artwork as peripheral creatures, showing up in murals and on pottery. They’re mostly depicted being driven away by the Argonauts and sometimes as horrific torturers of those who had angered the gods. In the European Renaissance period, they were usually sculpted and were sometimes depicted in hellish landscapes with demons and other monstrous creatures.

During the Middle Ages, Harpies were called ‘virign eagles’ and became increasingly popular in heraldry. They were defined as vultures with a woman’s head and breast with a bloodthirsty reputation.  They became popular especially in East Frisia, and were featured on several coats of arms.

Harpies in Pop Culture and Literature

Harpies have been featured in the works of sevearl great writers. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, they hounded those who committed suicide, and in Shakespeare’s The Tempest Ariel, the spirit is disguised as a Harpy to deliver his master’s message. Peter Beagles ‘The Last Unicorn’, notes the immortality of the winged women.

Harpies are also often employed in video games and other market-directed products, with their violent nature and composite form.

Harpies are a popular symbol for tattoos, and are often incorporated into meaningful designs.

Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861.
Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861. Public Domain

Symbolism of Harpies

The Harpies role as the hounds of Zeus and their task of taking the guilty to be punished by the Erinyes served as a moral reminder to those who were guilty of misdeeds that someone who isn’t virtuous or wanders too far will be punished in the long run.

They also represented dangerous storm winds, which symbolized disruption and destruction. In some contexts, the Harpies can be seen as symbols of obsession, lust and evil.

Some say that these immortal daimones still lurk about seeking to punish those who have either wronged the gods or their neighbors, dragging them to the depths of Tartarus to be tortured for eternity.

Wrapping Up

The Harpies are among the most interesting of mythological Greek characters, similar to the Sirens. Their unique appearance and undesirable attributes make them some of the most intriguing, annoying and disruptive of ancient monsters.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.