Our most common depictions of harpies show a figure with a female face and large, birdlike wings. The harpies’ bodies vary in their proportion of human to avian qualities: most have talons and tail feathers. Some have longer, humanoid legs while others have short, birdlike legs.
But when we think about women with wings, we might just as quickly picture an angel as a harpy.
So what is it about harpies that makes them monsters? If this is familiar territory for you, then you know that very likely, we’ll find the answer in what is un-feminine, or a manipulation of the feminine, about harpies.
I love female monsters. My favorite Disney characters growing up were Darth Vader, Ursula, and, best of all, Maleficent. I love how powerful they are. How they know what they want.
As I’ve gotten older, my fascination with female monsters, and the monstrous feminine, has only grown.
For my novels, one of my favorite forms of research is to dive into the lore around female monsters and create something new. In my D&D games, hags are always powerful and always beautiful, though they’re not always young.
Classically, harpies were wind spirits, and some of the earliest texts even describe them as beautiful. But as the myths go on, we see harpies described as ugly with horrifying visages. Worst of all, they’re ravenous.
(In patriarchal societies, women, of course, aren’t supposed to have and satisfy their desires. Therefore, what’s most monstrous about harpies—their ugliness and, worse, their hunger—is what’s least “feminine.”)
As the harpies’ role in Green mythology changed, the stories depicted them as vicious, violent, and cruel.
In one of their best-known myths, Zeus gives King Phineas of Thrace the gift of prophesy. However, Phineas uses this gift to share the plans of the gods with humanity. As punishment, Zeus blinds him and banishes him to an island where there’s a banquet of plentiful food. However, Phineas can never eat the food because the harpies arrive and devour everything before he can reach it.
You’ll also find some interesting depictions of harpies on Wikipedia!
To Harp On
My sister called while I was in the middle of writing this post, and much to my own delight, I said “I don’t want to harp on about…” during our conversation.
Ooh! I thought, Is this phrase related to harpies?
Enter the Alkonost
I wanted to bring in more lady monsters for Amber Queen, the third novel in my epic fantasy series Age of Azuria. And harpies were a perfect fit for what I was looking for!
But as I looked further into other names for and legends about harpies, I came across the Alkonost, a legend I’d never heard of before!
The Alkonost is from Slavic mythology and, like the harpy, she has a woman’s head and a bird’s body. In the lore, she’s closely connected with the Sirin, another half-woman, half-bird figure whose lore was inspired by Greek myths of the sirens. And similar to sirens, who lure men to their deaths with the beauty of their voices, the Alkonost’s song was said to be so beautiful that those who heard it forgot everything they knew.
Now this was a legend I was excited to play with.
I didn’t find as much about the Alkonost as I did the harpies, but I’ll update this post as I find more. You can read more about the Alkonost on Wikipedia here.
Harpies in Azuria
From what I found, both the Alkonost and the Sirin are individual figures as opposed to a creature type, so I stuck with “harpy” for the world of Azuria. However, I wanted the harpies to have magical voices, like the Alkonost, but I also wanted them to have more agency over the emotional reactions they could inspire in their targets.
In Azuria, harpies are birdlike fae with gemstone-colored wings and the head, shoulders, and chest of their fae ancestors. Most harpies in a flock are female, with only a few males born each year. Called the “sirens of the sky,” the harpies’ magical song conjures emotion-tied memories of those who cross into their territory. They might trigger a creature’s sense of fear, for example, if they wanted to warn off an intruder, or arouse a creature’s sense of goodwill and comradery if they were looking for allies in a particular region.
Harpies are part of the vast family of adaptive fae, a broad category that includes centaurs, satyrs, renards, and nymphs.
In Amber Queen, Persephonie and Rennear encounter the Windsong Harpies, a flock that has lived in the Old Bastion Highlands since the collapse of Eldura. They hide away in the mountains, eliminating roaming scouts and werewolves sent by the Andel-ce Hevran Empire to protect their roost.
If you’re not afraid of spoilers, you can read the excerpt from Amber Queen below!
Amber Queen Excerpt
Cawing cries and the flurry of wings erupted from the back of the cave….
From the edges of the village, giant birds on gem-colored wings flapped toward her and Rennear.
Persephonie gasped as the creatures drew closer. They bore female heads with pursed lips—no, small beaks in a range of pinks and purples. Their large eyes and pointed ears resembled those who had descended from the fae, more elven in size. They wore their flowing locks tied back, the strands of their hair complementing the colors of their feathers.
“Harpies,” Persephonie said under her breath. She clasped her hand around the dagger in her waistband and called her magic to her fingertips. The legends told different tales about the true nature of the creatures who swarmed around them. Their echoing calls rumbled into the recesses of the cavern. The ash around Persephonie’s feet quaked.
A harpy with violet-hued hair and amethyst wings landed on the ruins in front of Persephonie and Rennear. She screeched long and loud as the sisters of her flock landed. Her magenta eyes flickered over Persephonie and Rennear. “Whooo arrre youuu,” she sang.
Persephonie’s pulse quickened as the cadence of the harpy’s voice rippled over her. That afternoon in the woods flashed before her eyes, the rush of wind as Datha pulled her free from the slashing grasp of the slathering werewolf.”AMber Queen by Beth Ball
Interested in folklore and mythology? Find out more about the legends surrounding elm trees here.
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