Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Fiendish Harpies

The harpy is a creature from Greek mythology that is shrouded somewhat in a mystery about their appearance. In some of the oldest depictions, the harpies and sirens were much alike - women with enormous wings. Later renderings show them as having the bodies of eagles or vultures and only the head remained female. Some variations even show harpies as having bird bodies and the heads and chest o women, exposing naked breasts.

Some images show beautiful faces and some horrifically ugly. Regardless, the all displayed a twisted sense of cruelty and no moral compass to speak of.

Regardless of their appearance, these were some nasty customers.

The story of Phineas

The most well know tale is that of Phineas, King of Thrace. Phineas had the gift of foresight, but Zeus (the lord of the Olympian gods) believed that Phineas revealed too much information. In punishment, Zeus blinded the man and put him on an island. The island held an incredible banquette of food that renewed itself each day.

That doesn’t sound all bad - vengeful god takes away one thing, but gives another, right? Umm... not quite. Every time Phineas tries to eat from the banquette, the harpies show up. They snatch the food right out of his hands before he ever has a chance to eat. In addition to such torture, the harpies then spoil the rest of the food as part of Phineas’ punishment.

This goes on for some time until the Greek hero Jason arrives on the island. Through his efforts, the harpies are run of to never bother Phineas again. In appreciation, Phineas uses his gifts warn Jason about the Symplegades, or clashing rocks, and how to pass them during the hero’s voyage.

This story shows not only the cruelty of the harpy, but from a fiction writing standpoint, we see the intricacy of one subplot impacting another in the grand scheme of things.

Other writings
  • There are many other stories of the harpies in Green myth, but most are fleeting cameo roles.
  • They tortured souls traveling to the vile planes of Tartarus (the Greek version of Hell - for lack of a better term).
  • They tortured the Trojans by stealing their food and starving their men.
  • In Dente’s depiction of Hell, harpies victimized the souls of those who committed suicide in the second ring of the inferno.
  • Surprisingly, there are a few cases, though not many, of harpies found on medieval coats-of-arms.
So, there you have it. The harpy - malevolence at its finest.

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