Derived from Greek mythology the harpies first appeared as a pair of winged, female spirits sent to torment the blind seer Phineas by seizing1 or befouling his food. When the Argonauts arrived to rescue Phineas and drove them away, the harpies retired to a cave in Crete where they continued to make a nuisance of themselves, abducting and tormenting the souls of the dead.
They were later seen - this time with a third member on the team - on the Strophades Islands where they acted to drive away the refugee Trojans under Aeneas by reverting to their old food raiding habits.
Harpies were also encountered by Dante, loitering in the Wood of the Suicides in the seventh circle of Hell, as depicted in Inferno. No number is specified, and it may be that there were always a large number of infernally based harpies, of whom specific teams were sent out on missions. Alternatively the wretched things may have been breeding.
Similarities exist between the Harpies and The Furies (three or so sisters with divinely ordained duties to punish), and with the Stymphalian birds (nasty, food destroying avian predators of supernatural provinence) and they are often conflated with the sirens (winged, clawed females with a tendency to annoy), thus gaining an entrancing singing ability.
Early Greek sources tend to depict the harpies as beautiful - and Hesiod calls them "lovely-haired"2, whilst later sources (such as Aeschylus) have them as ugly, an idea reinforced by later Roman depictions. Mythopoetically, this would suit creatures that steal or crap on food (since ugly-equals-evil), but we should note that Aeschylus is actually referring to the Furies - and in any case, the two beautiful harpies may have been unusual examples of the species3, or may simply have become old and ugly. In any case, most modern depictions have them as filthy, evil and ugly.
Subsequently "harpy" has become a byword for a spiteful, quarrelsome and vicious tongued woman - especially one who is less than attractive.
The Harpy was a rare but significant charge in medieval heraldry where it may have been intended to symbolise ferocity, a vengeful nature or severity in justice.
For fantasy use, a harpy may be a form of demon or devil (suiting their supernatural origins and frequent role), a single gender species or perhaps one with bizarre sexual dimorphism of some kind. If the siren-like enticing ability is included, they may even mate with their hapless victims.
Game and Story Use
- Subversion is entirely possible, with beautiful harpies as creatures of implacable justice as well as or instead of the foul persecutors of the innocent.
- Or not so innocent - Phineas was the victim of the Greek deities being arseholes, but there's no reason that someone punished by supernatural nuisances need be a nice person. OR that the PCs won't still need to rescue them.
- Greek myths being what they are, we are probably best not speculating what the flying Argonauts did to these (apparently attractive) bird women to drive them off … but it seems they were never the same afterwards.
- Having the harpy in your coat-of-arms might be interesting. It might be an insult from the armorial college towards a female armiger … or not.