In Greek mythology, harpies were female wind spirits, associated with the underworld and the flight of the soul from the body. They had the ability to summon winds, causing storms on land and whirlpools at sea, and were believed to be responsible for sudden, unexpected deaths.

( back to hybrid creatures...)


The Harpies (the 'Snatchers') were winged genii, daughters of Thaumas and Electra, the Oceanid (Table 32). They belonged to the pre-Olympian divine generation. There were usually said to be two of them: Aello (also called Nicothoe) and Ocypete; but a third, Celaeno, was sometimes mentioned too. Their names revealed their nature: Aello - wind-squall; Ocypete - fast flier; Celaeno - obscure (like the sky covered with storm-clouds). They were depicted with women's heads and sharp claws. They are said to have lived in the islands of the Strophades, in the Aegean Sea; later, Virgil placed them at the Gates of the Underworld with all the other monsters.

The Harpies carried off children and souls. They are sometimes depicted on tombs, carrying the soul of the deceased in their claws. The legend in which they figured most prominently was that of the king PHINEUS. A curse had been placed on him, and everything that was put before him was snatched away from him by the Harpies, especially his food; and what they could not carry off, they soiled. When the Argonauts arrived, Phineus begged them to rid him of the Harpies. The Boreades, Zetes and Calais, chased these demons away. It was predicted that the Harpies could die only if they were caught by the sons of Boreas; conversely, the latter would die if they failed to catch the Harpies.

During the chase the first Harpy fell into a river in the Peloponnese, which was known thereafter as the Harpys; the other one reached the Echinades Islands, which were known thenceforth as the Strophades or Islands of Return. At that point, Iris appeared before Calais and Zetes and forbade them to kill the Harpies, who were Zeus' servants. In exchange for their lives, the Harpies promised to leave Phineus in peace from then on and hid themselves in a cave in Crete. An obscure tradition says that Boreas' two sons perished during their pursuit of the Harpies, but this is unsubstantiated.

The Harpies also figured in the legend of PANDAREOS. They were said to have coupled with the wing-god Zephyrus, and given birth to two pairs of horses: Xanthus and Balius, the two divine horses of Achilles, which went as swiftly as the wind; and Phlogeus and Harpagus, the horses of the Dioscuri.


Har"py (?), n.; pl. Harpies (#). [F. harpie, L. harpyia, Gr. , from the root of to snatch, to seize. Gf. Rapacious.]

1. Gr. Myth.

A fabulous winged monster, ravenous and filthy, having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture, with long claws, and the face pale with hunger. Some writers mention two, others three.

Both table and provisions vanished guite. With sound of harpies' wings and talons heard. Milton.


One who is rapacious or ravenous; an extortioner.

The harpies about all pocket the pool. Goldsmith.

3. Zool. (a)

The European moor buzzard or marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus).


A large and powerful, double-crested, short-winged American eagle (Thrasaetus harpyia). It ranges from Texas to Brazil.

Harpy bat Zool. (a) An East Indian fruit bat of the genus Harpyia (esp. H. cerphalotes), having prominent, tubular nostrils. (b) A small, insectivorous Indian bat (Harpiocephalus harpia).

Harpy fly Zool., the house fly.


© Webster 1913.

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