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What is a harpy?

In Greek mythology, the Harpies were mainly winged death-spirits, best known for constantly stealing all food from Phineas. The literal meaning of the word seems to be "whirlwinds." The plural of "harpy" is "harpies." The myth of the harpy is closely related to that of the siren. Harpies were originally part fish and part woman, with the description of them being part bird and part woman coming as a later development. In the bird-woman version, they were fierce and filthy monsters who would swoop down on the ships that passed near their putrid nest in order to capture and eat men.

In the tale of Phineas, the harpies served as a means of punishment for Phineas revealing too much with his power of prophesy. Zeus banished him to an island where he was never able to eat despite the presence of a fabulous banquet. The harpies would steal the food before he had a chance to taste it and then befoul what remained. His torture came to an end when Jason and the Argonauts came, bringing with them the sons of Boreas (The North Wind), winged men called the Boreads. The Boreads flew after the harpies and slew one, while the rest fled to their cave in Minoan Crete. The Boreads acted on behalf of the messenger-goddess of the rainbow, Iris, sister to the harpies.

In a similar tradition, they supposedly lived on the Strophades (Strofades), a small group of Greek islands. They were usually seen as the personifications of the destructive nature of wind. The Harpies in this tradition are now thought of as three sisters instead of the original two. Their names were: Aello ("storm swift"), Celaeno ("the dark") also known as Podarge ("fleet-foot") and Ocypete ("the swift wing").

More about the names:
The names of the harpies can be particularly confusing because each one seems to have several alternative names. Below is a listing of all of their aliases, as listed on Wikipedia:

Aello (also Aellopos, Podarge, Podarke, and Nikothoe) was the name of one of the Harpy sisters who would abduct people and torture them on their way to Tartarus. In this form, her name meant, "Storm Swift". Her name could also mean "Whirlwind".

Celaeno was a harpy whom Aeneas encountered at Strophades. She gave him prophecies of his coming journeys. She was one of three sisters, each of whom represented a different aspect of a great storm. Her name means "darkness" or "blackness". She was described as the lover of the west wind, Zephyrus, and with him bore the talking horses of Achilles, Balius and Xanthus. She was also sometimes known as Podarge ("fleet foot").

The harpy Celaeno also appears as a captive of a traveling witch's Midnight Carnival, in the Peter S. Beagle classic fantasy novel, The Last Unicorn.

Podarge ("fleet-foot") is also known as "Celaeno" and was the mother of Balius and Xanthus. Iris is also referred to as Podarge at times.

Ocypete ("swift wing") was also known as Ocypode ("swift foot") or Ocythoe ("swift runner")

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Other versions of the harpy myth portray them in a softer light, casting them in the role of "sorrowful death angels" or "winged death spirits" who lament the dead. They were still often depicted as bare-breasted bird women with disheveled hair and Gorgon-like protruding eyes, traits that stress the monstrous, liminal nature of these partial-human, partial-beast creatures.

The harpy was used as a symbol in heraldry:


Harpies are also frequently used in all forms of fiction, from Shakespeare's The Tempest to modern novels to video games. Some of the images in the Codes section are video game interpretations of the harpy or variations of the myth, such as Castlevania and World of Warcraft.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo! Image Search