Your Weekend Creature Comforts: Harpies
Hello my fellow creature-loving comrades, hope you enjoyed last week’s first edition of “Creature Comforts”, and as promised your weekend is now officially more enhanced with this second publication of Your Weekend Creature Comforts. Now I know a lot of you are waiting for the inevitable Star Wars creature editions that someone like me is sure to write, but sadly you are just going to have to wait a little longer and keep coming back for more. They are sure to come, but I have had a specific creature on my mind recently thanks to a recent book I read, which I will leave for the “favorite conclusion” later on.
The stellar creature featured this weekend is the harpy. This miscreant has been around for a long time in human mythology, and it’s unique portrayal in one of my new favorite book series inspired me to research and uncover all that I could for your reading pleasure.
Now most of us are familiar with the harpy from Greek mythology, where it was most commonly portrayed as a winged spirit creature, initially with the head and upper torso of a beautiful woman and the lower body and wings of an eagle. The Greek word for harpy specifically is a derivative of the word meaning “To snatch”, which is because they are known for stealing things. And sadly for women the term “harpy” has more recently been used to describe nasty or annoying women, but we can blame Shakespeare for that. Also with later times the beautiful female attributes were transformed in to uglier hags.
One of the first stories featuring harpies was of the prophet Phineus who was punished by Zeus for his fortune-telling capabilities by blinding him and marooning him on an island where a buffet of food would arrive every day but a group of harpies would steal the food out from under him every time he was just about to take a bite. You might recognize this story as it is a key part of Jason and the Argonauts, which was made for your viewing pleasure in the amazing 1963 film. Claymation was definitely at its best in this action-packed flick that I loved watching on Sunday afternoons as a child. I know our CGI-trained eyes might find this a little tough to watch now, but for those of you who love classic stories it’s worth a weekend watch.
While stealing meals from soldiers and innocents might have given harpies a bad rap, they really became known as harbingers of torture when they took up residence in Tartarus, a place in the underworld reserved for those who would have to suffer the worst punishments of the after life. There the harpies stole actual people instead of possessions, and once stolen they tormented and caused excruciating suffering to those on their way to Tartarus. This is probably more of the harpies that we conjure from our minds when they are mentioned. This version of the harpies have also been used again and again in literature, including in Dante’s Inferno where they infested the woods and brought terrible agony to those who had committed suicide. More recently the harpy played a similar role in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, where the main characters have to travel through a wasteland of cliffs covered with harpies to get to the land of the dead and rescue those sent there inappropriately. This series is a must read for those of you fantasy/sci-fi loving folks.
Other more modern references to harpies occur in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Last Unicorn, and The Last Unicorn. Those looking for a videogame version of this monster should check out the game The Witcher and World of War Craft.
But now we come to my favorite part of the post, where I get to write about my favorite portrayal of the species in the spotlight. My personal favorite demon-fighter is not from The Mortal Instruments or movies like Constantine, but from a series set from my most recent hometown of Boston known as the Deadtown Novels by Nancy Holzner. The main character, Victory Vaughn, is a demon-fighting shape-shifter. Most of her demon-fighting is without much glory, and is actually just straight-forward dream demon destructions that take Vicky a couple minutes to defeat and brings in her weekly salary. One of the more common demons she fights are harpies, which in this version are a winged beast with a heinous woman’s face and extra sharp talons and fangs to better rip and shred the victim’s intestines out over and over again during all their sleeping hours. Most of the time they are conjured by simple sorcerers for a fee in order to inflict revenge for someone. And Vicky can slay them in the blink of an eye most nights. So why is this my favorite depiction of the harpy? Because at the height of the novel, when Vicky and her 12-year old niece have been kidnapped by a mad scientist wanting to experiment on them because of their shape-shifter blood, Vicky seems at the end of her options to rescue them being that they are surrounded by over a dozen guards with guns and tranquilizers. Which is when all her hate and anger for the mad-scientist surfaces, and in a moment of pure emotion she shifts in to a magical being for the first time ever. Vicky normally shifts in to animals that she has experience with, but with all the malicious feelings towards her captors she suddenly shifts in to a harpy as it is the first thing that comes to mind and the only thing that adequately embodies the pain and suffering she wants to inflict on them. As a harpy she is immune to normal weapons (only iron weapons kill demons) and she easily overpowers the group of guards and the scientist. She is able to hold on to her inner soul at the same time and stays cognizant enough to remember to pick up her niece and fly her back to safety at her sister’s house. There is more to the story after that while Vicky spends all 12 hours she can as a harpy, but it is by far the most unique and powerful depiction of the harpy I have ever seen. It was afterall my inspiration for this post, and I strongly recommend the Deadtown Novels to anyone that loves a good shape-shifting, demon-slaying, vampire and werewolf entertaining story.
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Posted on September 7, 2013, in Creature Comforts, Geekology and tagged creature comforts, Demons, Greek mythology, harpies, harpy, shape-shifters, Tartarus, torture. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.