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Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books for Kids

Meet the Monsters – Harpies

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Meet the Monsters is a web series providing background on the mythological creatures featured in MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES.

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HARPIES

Today in Meet the Monsters, we’re going to meet harpies. A harpy is a terrifying creature that has the head and body of a woman and the wings and legs of an eagle. Many people know of harpies as death spirits—cruel torturers of those who angered the Greek god Zeus and savage abusers of souls on their way to the underworld. For more than 2,000 years, many have thought of harpies as ugly, old, and nasty. In Dante’s Inferno, harpies even infest the seventh ring of Hell.


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Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861

HarpyReliefBut human-headed birds aren’t always so simple. More than 5,500 years ago, stories began to be told about the Sumerian goddess of war and love, Inanna (who was later also known as Ishtar). She was frequently depicted in carvings as a harpy-like woman with wings. Inanna/Ishtar was a force to be reckoned with; when the goddess visited the underworld, she demanded that the gatekeeper open the door or she would unleash a plague of zombies!

The Burney Relief, which is almost 2,000 years old, shows a figure that may be Inanna/Ishtar.

Some harpies are actually good spirits. A 700 year-old tomb in Turkey is covered with intricate carvings of harpies and other fantastical beasts; the harpies on her tomb were “soul-birds” who would protect against evil while carrying her soul to the underworld. The harpy also appeared as a guardian in Islamic art from across Syria, Egypt, and Muslim Spain. There is even a tale that Alexander the Great sought out a wise harpy to ask for advice!

karyobinga  Kalavinka

Another kindly harpy figure is a Buddhist creature called the kalavinka. It is associated with paradise and music, and is said to sing beautifully. They were frequently featured in the art of the empire of Western Xia, until it was wiped out by the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan.

So what do you think? If you saw a harpy, would you say “hi?” Or run away screaming?

Harpies appear in THE ARGONAUTICA (Jason and the Argonauts) by Apollonius Rhodius, THE AENEID by Virgil, THE DIVINE COMEDY by Dante, THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare, THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle, and MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES by Henry Herz.

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A harpy in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642

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Greater coat of arms of the city of Nuremberg, Germany

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Author: Henry Herz

Children's book author

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