The Harpies’ first appearance in Greek literature is incongruously charming. For Hesiod, they are goddesses of the scudding storm clouds, “lovely-haired,” keeping pace “on their swift wings with the blasts of the winds and the birds.” Later the nastier implications of their name “Snatchers” take over. The classical Harpies are monsters, birds with women’s faces, with filthy tempers and filthier habits, shrieking voices, and rapacious claws that snatch and carry off anything or anyone.
As “hounds of Zeus,” they were sent to torment the blind prophet, King Phineus, who had revealed too many of Zeus’ secrets, by snatching away the food from his hands and covering his remaining food with foul droppings. Jason’s Argonauts came to the starving king’s rescue, and the two winged sons of the North Wind chased the Harpies away to the Strophades islands. There they later confronted Aeneas and his followers with taunting prophecies of starvation. As an emblem of grasping greed and shrill malice, the description “harpy” has been applied to politicians, lawyers, and tax collectors but it is now almost always a sexist put-down for an insufficiently self-effacing woman.
“The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,
Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.
Like others for our spoils shall we return;
But not that any one may them revest,
For ’tis not just to have what one casts off.
Here we shall drag them, and along the dismal
Forest our bodies shall suspended be,
Each to the thorn of his molested shade.”
– Dante, Divine Comedy (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation)