AskDefine | Define harpy

Dictionary Definition



1 a malicious fierce-tempered woman [syn: vixen, hellcat]
2 (Greek mythology) vicious winged monster; often depicted as a bird with the head of a woman
3 any of various fruit bats of the genus Nyctimene distinguished by nostrils drawn out into diverging tubes [syn: harpy bat, tube-nosed bat, tube-nosed fruit bat]
4 large black-and-white crested eagle of tropical America [syn: harpy eagle, Harpia harpyja]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A fabulous winged monster, ravenous and filthy, having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture.
  2. A shrewish woman


See also

Extensive Definition

In Greek mythology, the Harpies ("snatchers", from Latin: Harpyia, Greek: Άρπυια, Harpuia, pl. Άρπυιαι, Harpuiai) were mainly winged death-spirits (Harrison 1903, p 176ff), best known for constantly stealing all food from Phineas. The literal meaning of the word seems to be "that which grabs" as it comes from the ancient Greek word αρπάξ which means to grab.
The Harpy could also bring life. A Harpy was the mother by the West Wind Zephyros of the horses of Achilles (Iliad xvi. 160). In this context Jane Harrison adduced the notion in Virgil's Georgics that mares became gravid by the wind alone, marvelous to say (iii.274).
Though Hesiod (Theogony) calls them two "lovely-haired" creatures, Harpies as beautiful winged bird-women are a late development, in parallel with the transformation of the "Siren, a creature malign though seductive in Homer, but gradually softened by the Athenian imagination into a sorrowful death angel" (Harrison p 177). On a vase in the Berlin Museum (Harrison, fig 19), a harpy has a small figure of a hero in each claw, but her head is recognizably a Gorgon, with goggling eyes, protruding tongue and fangs.


The Harpies were sisters of Iris, daughters of Typhon and Echidna.
Phineas, a king of Thrace, had the gift of prophecy. Zeus, angry that Phineas revealed too much, punished him by putting him on an island with a buffet of food which he could never eat. The Harpies always arrived and stole the food out of his hands right before he could satisfy his hunger, and befouled the remains. This continued until the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts. The Boreads, sons of Boreas, the North Wind, who also could fly, succeeded in driving the Harpies and killing one of them, as a request from Iris, who promised that Phineas would not be bothered by the Harpies again, and "the dogs of great Zeus" returned to their "cave in Minoan Crete". Thankful for their help, Phineas told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades. (Argonautica, book II; Ovid XIII, 710; Virgil III, 211, 245).
In this form they were agents of punishment who abducted people and tortured them on their way to Tartarus. They were vicious, cruel and violent. They lived on Strophades. They were usually seen as the personifications of the destructive nature of wind. The Harpies in this tradition, now thought of as three sisters instead of the original two, were: Aello ("storm swift"), Celaeno ("the dark") — also known as Podarge ("fleet-foot") — and Ocypete ("the swift wing").
Aeneas encountered Harpies on the Strophades as they repeatedly made off with the feast the Trojans were setting. Celaeno cursed them, saying the Trojans will be so hungry they will eat their tables before they reach the end of their journey. The Trojans fled in fear. Harpies remained vivid in the Middle Ages. In his Inferno, XIII, Dante envisages the tortured wood infested with harpies, where the suicides have their punishment in the second ring:
Here the repellent Harpies make their nests,
Who drove the Trojans from the Strophades With dire announcements of the coming woe. They have broad wings, a human neck and face,
Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw Their lamentations in the eerie trees.


In the Middle Ages, the harpy, often called the "virgin eagle", became a popular charge in heraldry, particularly in East Frisia, seen on, among others, the coats-of-arms of Reitburg, Liechtenstein, and the Cirksenas.

Theories of origin

R.D. Barnett suggests in "Ancient Oriental Influences on Archaic Greece" — an essay in The Aegean and the Near East, Saul S. Weinberg, ed. (Locust Valley, N.Y.,1956) — that the Harpies were originally adapted from the ornaments on bronze cauldrons from Urartu:
These made such an impression in Greece that they seem to have given rise to the siren type in archaic Greek art, and as they appeared to flutter at the rim of such noble cooking vessels, apparently gave rise to the familiar Greek legend of Phineus and the Harpies, who are thus depicted in Greek art. The very name of Phineus, the victim of their persecutions, may be nothing but a corruption of the name of a king of Urartu, Ishpuinish or Ushpina (ca. 820 B.C.), who was perhaps associated by the Greek merchants with these vessels.
Other scholars point out that this theory is based upon the idea that the Harpies were bird monsters with human heads, which was not true in the original myths.
In their winged human form, the Harpies are no different from a large number of Greek divinities and as such would not need a special explanation for how they came to be. The later bird composite form is considered by most authors to have been a confusion with an early depiction of the Sirens as bird women.

Harpies in fiction

The familiar figures of harpies, with their composite form and violent nature, are much employed in video games and other products of market-directed culture.
  • Harpies appear in Dante's Divine Comedy, in Canto XIII of the Inferno, where they hound suicides. They also appear, clearly in reference to Dante, in The Amber Spyglass, the third book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, when Lyra and Will journey to the land of the dead to rescue Lyra's friend Roger. The harpies have their traditional Greek role of escorting the spirits of the dead in Pullman's book, and Lyra persuades them to help guide the dead out of limbo/hell to peace.
  • Harpies appear in Anne Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy, where they are Demon-dead women who have died violently at the hands of a man. The queen of the Harpies, Titiana, resides in Hell with her coven and her death-hounds who torture and feed on the men who forced them to their premature deaths.
  • In the Playstation video game Suikoden 2, harpies are encountered towards the middle of the game as semi-weak enemies.
  • In many fantasy role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and Fighting Fantasy, Harpies are relatives - or maybe even the same species under another name - of the Sirens, and consequently possess the ability to hypnotize their victims by singing.
  • In The Last Unicorn (film), a Harpy, captured by Mommy Fortuna, resembles a giant vulture with 3 breasts of a woman. The Harpy's name is Celaeno(spelled Celeno in this work), "The Darkness", a lesser known harpy of Greek mythology. The Film is based on the novel The Last Unicorn by award winning fantasy author Peter S. Beagle, which features a more traditional harpy.
  • A Harpy guards the area above the volcano in the 8-bit computer game Magicland Dizzy.
  • In the Internet game Gladiatus harpies are killable monsters.
  • In the MMOG EVE Online, the Harpy is a so-called Assault Frigate for the Caldari race, designed as a very powerful long range railgun platform with strong defenses.
  • In the TV show Charmed Harpies are powerful female demons. The ones seen have dark skin and are dressed in black with long black talon like finger nails. They have super-strength and can shoot small energy blasts from their hands.
  • In the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game, there is a set of attractive harpy monsters known as "Harpie Lady", which originated from Mai Valentine's deck in the manga and anime.
  • In Spirited Away, Yubaba owns a harpy which is later turned into a hummingbird.
  • In God of War, the Harpies are a small, frequently encountered enemy, and servants of Ares.
  • In the Castlevania series of games (most notably Symphony of the Night and later installments following that games formula) Harpies often appear as enemies, usually in the Clock Tower area of the game.
  • In the Serious Sam series of PC and console games the Scythian Witch-Harpy appears throughout various stages of the game as a standard airborne enemy creature that slash and have a projectile attack.
  • In the PC game, King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! King Graham encounters harpies on an island en route to Mordack's castle, Graham escapes being eaten by them when he plays a lyre (hence the reason why they are called "harp-ies"), the creatures change their minds and instead fight over the instrument.
  • In the animated series She-Ra, Harpies are an evil race of beings who live in a dark area of Etheria called Talon Mountain. They are led by a Harpy named Hunga.
  • In Xena: Warrior Princess, Harpies appear in the episode "Mortal Beloved". They guard the castle where Hades is trapped.
  • In Vampire The Masquerade Harpies are the keepers of the Social Order in the sect known as the Camarilla. They are the rumor mongers, and keep track of status. They rival Elders in social power.
  • In the computer game Cythera, harpies are smallist, greyish white, manta-ray-like magical creatures that have the ability to make the MPC lose control.
  • In the MMORPG RuneScape, harpies are found as Harpie Bug Swarms, a Slayer monster found on the island of Karamja.
  • In The Adventures of Sinbad TV Series, Harpies are frequent monsters that appear throughout the series. Some usually are under the employment of the evil sorcerer Turok and his daughter Rumina.
  • In the MMORPG LastChaos, harpies are a frequently found enemy in the game world of Dratan.
  • In the RPG/RTS hybrid Spellforce 2, harpies are enemy flying units.
  • In the Walt Disney film Fantasia, harpies are among the demons featured in the segment, A Night on Bald Mountain.
  • In the book series Xanth harpys are often encountered by the characters
  • In the cartoon series The Batman, the supervillain Maxie Zues refers to his air crafts as Harpies.

Harpies in reality

The American Harpy Eagle is a real bird named after the mythological animal.
The term is often used metaphorically to refer to a nasty or annoying woman. In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick spots the sharped-tongued Beatrice approaching, and exclaims to the Prince, Don Pedro, that he would rather do an assortment of arduous tasks for him, "-rather than hold three words conference with this harpy!" In the 2005 movie Sahara, the character Al Giordino states, 'Wasn't there some point where he stood back and said, "Bob, don't take that job! Bob, don't marry that harpy!" You know?' In another example, Ann Coulter created a controversy when she referred to some widows of 9/11 attack victims (Jersey Girls) as "harpies."


See also

  • Sirens (for comparable dire bird-women in Greek mythology)
  • Tantalus (for another Greek character punished with never being allowed to quench his hunger or thirst)
harpy in Bosnian: Harpija
harpy in Breton: Harpied
harpy in Bulgarian: Харпия (митология)
harpy in Catalan: Harpia
harpy in Czech: Harpyje
harpy in German: Harpyie (Mythologie)
harpy in Modern Greek (1453-): Άρπυιες
harpy in Spanish: Arpía
harpy in Esperanto: Harpio
harpy in French: Harpies
harpy in Galician: Harpía
harpy in Korean: 하피 (신화)
harpy in Croatian: Harpija
harpy in Indonesian: Harpy
harpy in Italian: Arpia
harpy in Hebrew: הרפיה (מיתולוגיה)
harpy in Lithuanian: Harpijos (mitologija)
harpy in Dutch: Harpij (mythologie)
harpy in Japanese: ハルピュイア
harpy in Polish: Harpia (mitologia)
harpy in Portuguese: Harpia (mitologia)
harpy in Romanian: Harpie
harpy in Russian: Гарпии
harpy in Slovenian: Harpije
harpy in Serbo-Croatian: Harpija
harpy in Finnish: Harpyijat
harpy in Swedish: Harpyja
harpy in Thai: ฮาร์ปี้
harpy in Turkish: Harpia
harpy in Ukrainian: Гарпії
harpy in Chinese: 鸟身女妖

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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