The winged Boreads rescuing Phineus from Harpies. Attic red-figure column-krater c. 460 B.C. Louvre
PD Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen
If you see a picture of a bird-body with a woman's upper half, you may not be sure whether you're looking at a Siren or a Harpy. Generally, if beautiful, you might assume it was one of those female creatures who lured willing sailors to their death in the Odyssey; if hideous and causing anguish, probably one of the horrible creatures who stole or defiled the food the blind King Phineus wanted to eat. This is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at them, but you may run into trouble. It is not based on the early ancient Greek myths.
Greco-Roman myth has many instances of duplication. One of the basic ones is the similar stories of a gigantomachy and a titanomachy, both fights between the gods of Mt. Olympus and giant creatures who predate mankind. The Harpies (Harpuai, Thuellai) also appear to be duplicated. Not only are they confused with the sometimes bird-bodied sirens, but also with the Hesperides who guarded precious apples. When Hercules needed directions to the Hesperides, he had to preform a feat first. In today's story of King Phineus, the heroes who help him out are also in search of directions to their next adventure. Harpies are also credited with guarding Tartaros. By the time the Romans were writing about them, they had crystalized into the bird-clawed defilers.
The story commonly goes that Phineus was gifted with prophetic skills, but failed to render due honor to the gods or blinded his sons. Either way, he was stricken blind and punished with the presence of divinely sent Harpies, the god's dogs (in this case, the god was, perhaps, the sun god/titan Helios) who stole or defiled his food. Probably facing imminent death by starvation, the king was saved by the Argonauts. It wasn't just any Argonauts. Nor was it the ubiquitous Theseus and Hercules. In this case, it was the pair known as the Boreades, sons of Boreas, the North Wind, specifically, Zetes and Calais. Boreas' sons inherited the wings that winds require to fly through the air. Zetes and Calais flew away after the Harpies, possibly killing them, causing them to fall and be killed, or themselves dying in the process. Relieved of his punishment, Phineus was still blind, but then Jason, schooled in such things by the centaur Chiron, cured the blindness.
This was not the first instance of conflict between the Boreades and Harpies. Earlier, stormy Harpies accompanied the harmful South wind who was at odds with the kindly North winds god Boreas. The Harpies were associated with harm, evil, and death. Why the North wind was considered beneficent may puzzle those of us plagued with biting cold each winter, but it is possible the myth started in Cyrene, in Libya, in northern Africa, where north winds would have been far kinder; the wind blowing from the southern desert far more devastating. The two sets of winds are at odds and often art shows the Boreades pursuing the Harpies. There is a tradition that one set must kill the other in order to survive.
Sometimes sisters (the number varies) of the rainbow goddess Iris, Harpies were storm and wind spirits (daemones), and female, but not birds. Their parents may have been Thaumas and Electra, Oceanus and Gaia, or Boreas and an unnamed mother. They had wings and long hair by which the Boreades could grab them. They may have carried off bodies to death and served as servants of the wingless Erinyes. By the time of the Roman story tellers, the Harpies had bird bodies. Sometimes they had a lean and hungry look to complement vulture-like talons.
Below the references and related articles are some of passages from ancient authors on the the story of Phineus and the Harpies.
- Early Greek Myth, by Timothy Ganz
- "The Argonauts Krater in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki," by Eurydice Kefalidou; American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 112, No. 4 (Oct., 2008), pp. 617-624.
- American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 9, 1894
- "Harpies in Greek Art," by Cecil Smith; The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 13 (1892 - 1893), pp. 103-114.
|Passages on the Harpies|
|Hyginus (1st century B.C.)|
Phineus, a Thracian, son of Agenor, had two sons by Cleopatra. Because of their stepmother's charges, these two were blinded by their father. Now to this Phineus, Apollo is said to have given the gift of prophecy. But he, since he revealed the deliberations of the gods, was blinded by Jove, and Jove set over him the Harpies, who are called the hounds of Jove, to take the food from his lips. When the Argonauts came there and asked him to show them the way, he said he would show them if they would free him from the punishment. Then Zetes and Calais, sons of the North Wind and Orithyia, who are said to have had wings on head and feet, drove the Harpies to the Strophades Islands, and freed Phineus from the punishment. He showed them how to pass the Symplegades by sending out a dove; when the rocks rushed together, in their rebound . . . [they would pass through if the dove went through, and they exerted all their strength in rowing. But if she perished,] they should turn back. By the help of Phienus the Argonauts passed the Symplegades.
|Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D. 17)||Hesiod (fl. c. 700 B.C.)|
|The Argonauts now stemm'd the foaming tide,
And to Arcadia's shore their course applied;
Where sightless Phineus spent his age in grief,
But Boreas' sons engage in his relief;
And those unwelcome guests, the odious race
Of Harpies, from the monarch's table chase.
With Jason then they greater toils sustain,
And Phasis' slimy banks at last they gain.
Here boldly they demand the golden prize
Of Scythia's king, who sternly thus replies-
'That mighty labours they must overcome,
Or sail their Argo thence unfreighted home.'
Ovid Metamorphoses VII Public Domain
Zetes and Calais, sons of Boreas, who were amongst the Argonauts, delivered Phineus from the Harpies. The Strophades ("Islands of Turning") are here supposed to have been so called because the sons of Boreas were there turned back by Iris from pursuing the Harpies.
|Vergil (70 - 19 B.C.)|
At length I land upon the Strophades,
"We landed at the port, and soon beheld
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