As long as my bad weather lasts, or longer if this topic is interesting enough, I’ll be discussing the ancient gods and goddesses of many cultures who were said to influence the weather. I’ve started my series with the Theoi Meteoroi — the weather gods of Ancient Greece.
I’m continuing with the Tempest-Winds — the Anemoi Thyellai.
Have you ever had your hat blown off your head, papers blown from your hand, or had a sharp gust of wind blow something just beyond your reach? The ancients would say you were visited by the Harpies.
Born to Thaumas (an old proto or first god of the sea) and Elektra (a cloud nymph –more on her next week), there were originally five Harpy sisters: Aellope, Ocypete, Podarge, Celaeno, Nicothoe. In most of the stories I’ve found, these three seem to be the main players: Aellope, Ocypete, and Celaeno, their names meaning Storm swift, The swift wing, and The dark, respectively.
In earlier versions, the Harpies were described as beautiful, winged maidens. Hesiod describes them as maidens with lovely hair, as lovely as their sister Iris the Rainbow. Over time they became women with beautiful faces on vulture bodies. Later, they became ugly winged monsters equipped with sharp hooked talons. It seems to me in the later tellings they were often confused with the Gorgons (more on them later). Comme ci comme ça — like this, like that.
Some myths have them parented by Typhon and Echidna (again I do believe this refers to the Gorgon sisters). Other myths have them as the Hounds of Zeus sent to dispatch whatever he wanted them to with a windy gust.
The most interesting of the Harpy myths concerns Phineus, the king of Thrace. Not only was he king, Phineus was also a prophet. Because he revealed too much of the gods’ plans to mortal men, Zeus blinded him and set Harpies to plague him. Whenever Phineus sat down to eat, the Harpies would swoop down and steal his food, starving him slowly by the day. This story might be the root of why Harpies were said to possess an insatiable hunger. Some versions say whatever crumbs and scraps were left on Phineus’ plate, they were fouled and inedible. To me this suggests the origin of the vulture body. (If threatened, Vultures will vomit their rotten carcass meals like throwing down a smoke bomb.) From here, it’s not hard to see how these beautiful winged maidens became monsters.
When Jason and the Argonauts came on the scene and saw what was happening to poor Phineus, the winged Boreads (those sons of Boreas the North Wind) chased the Harpies away. So pleased that he could finally eat, Phineus shared with Jason and his Argonauts a future glimpse of a successful quest, complete with how to get around certain deadly hazards.
Quick Harpie tidbits:
- Harpies turn up as figures on ancient tombs. This suggests ties to the underworld.
- Harpies were amazingly agile and thus impossible to catch and kill.
- Their name means whirlwind.
- In Dante’s Inferno, he places the harpies in the Wood of Suicides where they screech from the trees.
- Shakespeare made the name Harpy synonymous with relentlessly nagging women in his play Much ado About Nothing.
- The Harpy Eagle is named for the Harpies. Check out their genus and species names — Harpia harpyja.
Tomorrow ~ wrapping up the Anemoi
For 100 days, I’ll post something from my chosen topic: Clichés.
There are 81 entries to come.
Here’s a cliché for today:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Today is Janice Seagraves’ blog day.
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