In Greek mythology, a harpy ("snatcher", from , ἅρπυια, harpūia) was any one of the mainly winged death-spirits best known for constantly stealing all food from Phineas. The literal meaning of the word seems to be "that which snatches" as it comes from the ancient Greek word harpazein (ἅρπάξειν), which means "to snatch".

The harpy could also bring life. A harpy was the mother by the West Wind Zephyros of the horses of Achilles (Iliad xvi. 150). 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". On a vase in the Berlin Museum, 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 tusks.


The harpies were sisters of Iris, daughters of Thaumas and Electra.

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 off the harpies, but without killing any of them, following 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 Rietburg, 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.


  • In Puyo Puyo, Harpy is a singing angel.
  • The three harpies appear in Popeye back in the 1930s.
  • 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 The 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 II, harpies are encountered towards the middle of the game as semi-weak enemies.
  • In William Shakespeare's "The Tempest", the spirit Ariel disguises itself as a harpy to deliver a message of its master, Prospero.
  • 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 film The Last Unicorn, 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.
  • Harpy is Monster in My Pocket #21. In the video game, they appear in threes at the stage 4 construction site.
  • In Warcraft III, the expansion and World of Warcraft the harpies are a fierce and barbarous race living in tribes. See also Harpies at the Warcraft race page.
  • In the Internet game Gladiatus, harpies are killable monsters.
  • In the MMOG EVE Online, the Harpy is an 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 Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, the Harpy is a light helicopter used by the Brotherhood of Nod.
  • In the PC game, Guild Wars Nightfall, the Skree are race of bird-people based on the harpies.
  • 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: Princess of Power, 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 an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys called "Beanstalks and Bad Eggs", three harpies hatch out of golden eggs.
  • In Xena: Warrior Princess, harpies appear in the episode "Mortal Beloved". They guard the castle where Hades is trapped.
  • In Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, harpies were enemies in the Alexandria levels Pharos Temple of Isis & Cleopatra's palace, They could perform two kinds of attacks. They can either fire energy bolts at Lara Croft or attack her with their talons.
  • 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.
  • Fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion generally refer to the vicious, bird-like MP Evas that appear in End of Evangelion as Harpies.
  • In the computer game Cythera, harpies are smallish, 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 Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Tales, and Mana series of video games, harpies are encountered in battle.
  • 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 Shadow Thieves Philonecron chains Mr. Metos to a cliff and sends harpies on him.
  • In the Super Sentai series Mahou Sentai Magiranger and its counterpart from the Power Rangers series Power Rangers: Mystic Force there is a harpy based monster named Hades Beastwoman Peewee Harpy who is known in Mystic Force as Screamer.
  • In the MMORPG LastChaos, harpies are a frequently found enemy in the game world of Dratan.
  • In the RPG/RTS hybrid SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, 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 comic book story "The Golden Fleecing" by Carl Barks, they are called "larkies" instead of harpies (the term harpy was deemed an offensive term for homeless people by the Disney editors).
  • In The Simpsons episode, "War of the Simpsons", by John Swartzwelder, a couple at the marriage retreat are arguing and the husband claims that his wife is "QUEEN OF THE HARPIES!"
  • In Hellboy: Blood and Iron, two harpies are instruments in the summoning of the Greek goddess Hecate.
  • In The Amber Spyglass, harpies are the guardians of the underworld.
  • The Digimon Harpymon is based on a harpy.
  • In The Secret of Platform 13, harpies are sent to retrieve the prince.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the Ooccoo resemble harpies, however with a much more helpful temperament.
  • In the book series Xanth, harpies are often encountered by the characters.
  • In the cartoon series The Batman, the supervillain Maxie Zues refers to his air crafts as Harpies.
  • In the computer game Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, harpies are creatures of Zhon which take control of enemy units.
  • Harpies are only one of the outstanding examples of (Ray Harryhausen} stop-motion animation in the 1963 Columbia film version of Greek myths about Jason and the Argonauts.
  • Harpya is a short Belgian animated film written and directed in 1979 by Raoul Servais, which won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
  • In Harry Potter, Harpies are the mascot of an all female Quidditch team from Holyhead. Ginny Weasley (Potter) plays for this team when she grows up.
  • In the Sega CD game Dark Wizard, lesser harpies are summonable units.
  • In the Mega Man Zero Series of games, there are 4 reploids designed after X. one of them is Sage Harpuia, designed after a Harpy and given the task of cleaning the skies. Though male, he is rather feminine in design.
  • Harpies are recruitable units available to the Dungeon race in Heroes of Might and Magic III.
  • Harpies are low level monsters that can be fought in specific regions of the MMORPG Ragnarok Online.


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)

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