The Harpy

by Ellie Wriglesworth

A Harpy is, a ‘bird of prey with a woman’s head and breasts, a large break, hooked nails, a vile odour and an insatiable appetite’.[1] In Greek and Roman mythology Harpies are rapacious monsters that do the Gods’ bidding. They are said to have carried children off to the Underworld, abducted those that had angered the Gods, and played a key role in enacting vengeance against them. In the Greek myth depicting the punishment of King Phineus of Thrace, the Harpies are especially nasty. Having angered Zeus, Phineus is condemned to be continually presented with food but unable to eat it - either because the Harpies ate it themselves, or because they pooed all over it. Nice.

Harpies are undeniably monstrous, because they are women that undermine and threaten patriarchal and phallocentric ideology; they are terrifying and disgusting because they do not conform to stereotypes of femininity. They are ‘grasping, unpleasant women’ and ‘repulsively greedy’. They take what is not theirs, and (literally) shit on men from above.

Barbara Creed argues that ‘All human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrifying, abject’.[2] Society dictates that women who step out of bounds – ‘who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or insufficiently sexy […] are monstrous’ and must be contained or destroyed.[3]

A woman with sexual agency is largely vilified by society because a woman who exerts autonomous control over her body is subversive and powerful. Indeed, the female body has been continually fractured, distorted and erased because of the threat it supposedly poses to male power.

The myth of the vagina dentata, despite its absurdity, is indicative of the exaggerated fear felt towards female bodies. According to the myth, women ‘have teeth in their vaginas and […] the woman must be tamed or the teeth somehow removed […] before intercourse can safely take place’.[4] (So fellas, if you don’t want your dick bitten off, chain your gal to the kitchen sink… but obviously, don’t.) Women and monsters have a lot in common (even if we ignore the teeth-gnashing genitalia). They are both outcasts; alienated, derided and feared by society. They are biological freaks with bodies that transgress and fluctuate, and they are both threats to male power.  

The Harpy represents the “horrors” of unrestrained female agency, sexuality and ambition. She is too loud and too demanding, claiming ownership of anything she can dig her talons into or greedily consume. For us, the Harpy represents how female power can be distorted, undermined and made to seem unnatural by a patriarchal discourse that seeks to perpetuate women’s oppression. Instead of being repulsed by the Harpy, we can see the Harpy as an autonomous woman who refuses to be silenced and is unapologetic for the space she takes up in the world. She stands in direct opposition to the feminine ideal – the destructive narrative that tells women to erase themselves in order to make themselves palatable to the male gaze. By reclaiming Harpy, as both word and symbol, we hope to take away its power as an insult and shift society’s paradigm of the ideal woman.

Harpy Magazine was created as a platform for women and non-binary people, so their voices could be heard and appreciated. After one year, our aim to promote diverse voices, support creative engagement, and create an accessible and inclusive online community is stronger than ever. So let’s keep harping on about the things that matter and take pride in being shrieking, grasping, greedy feminists.

Photo by Dun.can

[1] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, (London: Routledge, 1993), p.144

[2] Barbara Creed, p.2

[3] Jess Zimmermann, ‘The Monstrous Female Ambition of the Harpy’ on Catapult Magazine, https://catapult.co/stories/role-monsters-harpy-women-ambition

[4] Barbara Creed, p.2

#PodcastPick - The Adam Buxton Podcast: Episode 85

#PodcastPick - The Adam Buxton Podcast: Episode 85