Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Harpies in Myth and Film

Harpy, derived from the Greek word harpazein which means “to snatch.”

Harpies are terrifying monsters from Greco-Roman mythology who possess the torso (head and breasts) of a woman and the body (wings, legs and tail) of a bird, typically a vulture. Natives of the islands of Strophades (or Salmydessus) in eastern Thrace the Harpies feed upon human flesh.

The most famous myth to involve these femme fatales was that of King Phineus of Thrace who possessed the gift of prophecy. So great was Phineus’ gift that he was able to divine all the plans of the gods, a fact which greatly displeased the fickle Olympian deities. As punishment Zeus struck Phineus blind and placed him on the Harpies’ island. Zeus then laid out a great banquet for Phineus; however every time the blind prophet tried to take a piece of food the Harpies would swoop down and snatch it up.

Eventually the seafaring hero Jason, who had use of Phineus’ gift, came to the island and slew the Harpies. The most famous adaptation of this myth is undoubtedly the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts directed by Don Chaffey and with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. While Jason is a brilliant film in every way, Harryhausen’s depiction of the Harpies leaves something to be desired in that they look more like archetypal bat-winged demons than bird women.

A much better example of a cinematic Harpy can be seen in the surreal 1979 Belgian short film Harpya which is itself an adaptation of the Phineus myth. Written and directed by Raoul Servais, it stars Will Spoor, Fran Waller Zeper and Sjoert Schwibethus. Harpya won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Source: Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (2000) by Carol Rose.

Special Thanks: To Riki for showing me Harpya.

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