In the year 700 BCE, Hesiod wrote a tale of two young maidens named Aello (rainstorm) and Okypete (swift flier), with long flowing hair, delicately formed faces, and feathered wings that gleamed in the sun, who was born to Thaumas, a son of the earth goddess, Gaia, and an Oceanid, Electra. Some years later, Homer, in 750 BCE, wrote of them as terrible wind spirits who carried people away and named them the Hounds of Zeus. In the epic story, The Odyssey, Homer writes of another harpy- Podarge (Lightfoot). Last but not to be counted out, Virgil 70 BCE named a fourth harpy, Celaeno (storm cloud). And while Hesiod describes them as beautiful, magical creatures, Homer and Virgil regale us with descriptions of monsters with the head of women and the bodies of large raptures.
So when did the harpies first appear in Greek myth? In my opinion, Homer was the one who wrote of them during the Trojan War circa 1200 BCE. The name Harpy was synonymous with the word "snatchers." The Thracian King, Phineus, was cursed by the harpies for allying with the Trojans (Jason and the Argonauts)... punishment, the predators starved the King, stealing his food and blinding him. King Pandareus broke a treaty between the Trojans and Greeks and was killed. For his betrayal, the harpies were sent and captured his daughters, sending them to the Furies as servants.
Disclaimer: These are only my thoughts and opinions from the point of view of a history amateur, myth-lover, and fictional writer...
So where could the idea of these terrifying hybrid bird women come from... I started with the timeline of what was happening during the late Bronze Age era and, more specifically, the years of the Trojan War. That puts us right around the year 1200 BCE. If you're unfamiliar with the Trojan War, I'll give you the highlighted version here. Paris, a son of the King Priam of Troy (located on the west coast of today's Turkey), makes off (willingly or unwillingly) with the Spartan Queen, Helen, wife of King Menelaus. Insulted and brewing for an all-out war and an excuse to raid Trojan lands, King Menelaus and his brother King Agamemnon, rallied much of the Greek kingdoms to attack Troy. Christopher Marlowe famously wrote Helen of Troy, the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships. My guess -- King Menelaus saw an excuse to invade the rich lands around the black sea and further west for those two coveted resources, copper and tin. With his brother by his side, Menelaus rallied his allies throughout the Greek archipelago.
One of the kingdoms who answered this call was King Idomeneus of Crete. I mention him precisely because of the Minoan civilization that flourished then. The Minoans were renowned for their maritime advantage throughout the Mediterranean. Crete was also there. Zeus was said to have been born and hidden from his father, Cronus.
The Minoans were also known for their matriarchal religious system, where women were depicted as prominent ruling-class figures. From frescos, painted wall scenes on palace walls, pottery, and statues, the women of Crete were highlighted as goddesses, priestesses, and on thrones as rulers, so why not smiths, warriors, and sailors?
This brings me to the connection of Harpies. What if the real harpies were ships crewed by both men and women? There were four known harpies, all with names that describe the quickness and brutality of the four boats. It brings a new point of view to Hesiod's beautiful maidens Aello and Okypete; perhaps these ships were famous for long voyages, bringing goods back to Greece from faraway lands, then turning the trading ships into battleships during the war. An excellent example of this is the late bronze age shipwreck called the Uluburun wreck off the coast of Turkey.
With these four ships in mind, it gives me a different point of view when I reread stories such as King Phineus. The story tells of the harpies stealing and spoiling his food. A warship could disrupt the inflow of food and other supplies. King Phineus was an ally to Troy, after all.
The same for their reputation for kidnapping people and holding hostages of their enemies. Another ally to Troy, King Pandareus' was punished and murdered, and his daughters were brought to the furies (Cretan high priestesses, maybe?). They were put into servitude along with countless others.
The nickname of the Harpies - The Hounds of Zeus is particularly interesting to me. The earliest known mention of Zeus date back to the late bronze age at the same time as the Trojan War. Then, hundreds of years later, Hesiod writes of Zeus, King of the gods. In my opinion, what if the mighty god-king was nothing more than a minor Cretan prince, little more than a thug, waiting for a time to usurp power in Crete and all of Greece? What better way than sending out ships fitted out for war and doing his bidding? Especially when, in history, as the trojan war whines down and thousands of warriors and people are displaced by war, we see the first uprises of the mysterious raider called The Sea People—a transitional point of civilization and the end of the bronze age.
I'm curious about what you think. Could the harpies have been based on real people and ships during the trojan war? Let me know!
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