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Myth Monday - The King and the Harpies

By May 21, 2012

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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.



Passages on the Harpies
Hyginus (1st century B.C.)

XVIIII Phineus

Phineus Agenoris filius Thrax [ex Cleopatra habuit filios duos. hi a patre novercae crimine excaecati sunt. huic etiam Phineo Apollo augurium dicitur dedisse. hic] deorum consilia cum enunciaret ab love est excaecatus et apposuit ei Harpyias quae Iovis canes esse dicuntur quae escam ab ore eius auferrent. huc cum Argonautae devenissent et eum iter ut demonstraret rogarent, dixit se demonstraturum si eum poena liberarent. Tunc Zetes et Calais Aquilonis venti et Orithyiae filii, qui pennas in capite et in pedibus habuisse dicuntur, Harpyias fugaverunt in insulas Strophadas et Phineum poena liberarunt. Quibus monstravit quomodo symplegadas transirent: ut columbam mitterent in recessu earum, quam petrae cum concurrissent |si contudissent| illi retro refugerent, *.Argonautae beneficio Phinei symplegadas transierunt.
Hygini Fabulae

XIX. Phineus

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.
Homeric Hymns, by Hesiod, Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White (Ehoiai)

Vergil (70 - 19 B.C.)

At length I land upon the Strophades,
Safe from the danger of the stormy seas.
Those isles are compass'd by th' Ionian main,
The dire abode where the foul Harpies reign,
Forc'd by the winged warriors to repair
To their old homes, and leave their costly fare.
Monsters more fierce offended Heav'n ne'er sent
From hell's abyss, for human punishment:
With virgin faces, but with wombs obscene,
Foul paunches, and with ordure still unclean;
With claws for hands, and looks for ever lean.

"We landed at the port, and soon beheld
Fat herds of oxen graze the flow'ry field,
And wanton goats without a keeper stray'd.
With weapons we the welcome prey invade,
Then call the gods for partners of our feast,
And Jove himself, the chief invited guest.
We spread the tables on the greensward ground;
We feed with hunger, and the bowls go round;
When from the mountain-tops, with hideous cry,
And clatt'ring wings, the hungry Harpies fly;
They snatch the meat, defiling all they find,
And, parting, leave a loathsome stench behind.
Close by a hollow rock, again we sit,
New dress the dinner, and the beds refit,
Secure from sight, beneath a pleasing shade,
Where tufted trees a native arbor made.
Again the holy fires on altars burn;
And once again the rav'nous birds return,
Or from the dark recesses where they lie,
Or from another quarter of the sky;
With filthy claws their odious meal repeat,
And mix their loathsome ordures with their meat.
I bid my friends for vengeance then prepare,
And with the hellish nation wage the war.
They, as commanded, for the fight provide,
And in the grass their glitt'ring weapons hide;
Then, when along the crooked shore we hear
Their clatt'ring wings, and saw the foes appear,
Misenus sounds a charge: we take th' alarm,
And our strong hands with swords and bucklers arm.
In this new kind of combat all employ
Their utmost force, the monsters to destroy.
In vain- the fated skin is proof to wounds;
And from their plumes the shining sword rebounds.
At length rebuff'd, they leave their mangled prey,
And their stretch'd pinions to the skies display.
Yet one remain'd- the messenger of Fate:
High on a craggy cliff Celaeno sate,
And thus her dismal errand did relate:
'What! not contented with our oxen slain,
Dare you with Heav'n an impious war maintain,
And drive the Harpies from their native reign?
Heed therefore what I say; and keep in mind
What Jove decrees, what Phoebus has design'd,
And I, the Furies' queen, from both relate-
You seek th' Italian shores, foredoom'd by fate:
Th' Italian shores are granted you to find,
And a safe passage to the port assign'd.
But know, that ere your promis'd walls you build,
My curses shall severely be fulfill'd.
Fierce famine is your lot for this misdeed,
Reduc'd to grind the plates on which you feed.'
She said, and to the neighb'ring forest flew.
Our courage fails us, and our fears renew.
Hopeless to win by war, to pray'rs we fall,
And on th' offended Harpies humbly call,
And whether gods or birds obscene they were,
Our vows for pardon and for peace prefer.
But old Anchises, off'ring sacrifice,
And lifting up to heav'n his hands and eyes,
Ador'd the greater gods: 'Avert,' said he,
'These omens; render vain this prophecy,
And from th' impending curse a pious people free!'

From Aeneid Book III (Dryden Translation)

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus


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