HARPIES AND MAGPIES
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The ancient Greek myths still hold true today. This is evident to anyone who becomes familiar with those myths and takes a good look around. For instance, I have recently noticed the appearance of Harpies in the open publishing precincts of the literary world.
Harpies are variously described in the ancient literature. They are half-birds and half-maidens, sometimes depicted as carrion-eating vultures with women’s faces. Although the representations of Harpies are not always ugly, they are invariably weird.
Harpies were associated in ancient times with storms that caused men to disappear from the face of the earth; that is, they are terrible man-hating wind bags whose main endeavor is to blow men away. No doubt Harpies especially hate their long-winded competition, inspired authors, and are therefore mortal enemies of great literature. As wind-spirits, Harpies have also been associated with the ancient belief that ghosts impregnate mares; fleet-footed horses are born instead of human-bird creatures. No doubt Harpies use their equine offspring to spread their mischief throughout the world.
Yes, spreading mischief is the main occupation of Harpies. Their very name implies “snatchers”. They instinctively endeavor to steal the spirit of men, to suck the breath out of them, to leave them for dead.
The most famous mention of the Harpies is given in the story of the Argonauts, concerning the old blind and miserable king Phineus. Hesiod said Phineus was blinded by Helios because Phineus preferred a long life to eyesight. Another account has it that Phineus had two children by Cleopatra, daughter of the North Wind when she died, he remarried, and his new wife put him up to blinding her new stepchildren. As punishment for that deed, Zeus gave him the choice between death and blindness. Phineus chose blindness, which angered Helios so much that he punished him further by sending him the Harpies. The Harpies in turn snatched or befouled his food so that he nearly died of hunger. The Argonauts arrived and made a deal with him: they would get rid of the Harpies providing he showed them how to reach their goal (those who cannot see often have the gift of prophecy, while those who can see cannot find their way). Phineus gave them an outline and told them how to get through the Clashing Rocks. The Harpies were then killed or banished to the Strophades islands where they are bound by oath to remain. Vergil relates the encounter of Aeneas and his crew with the Harpies there.
It was on the shores of the Strophades first I landed The Strophades–as the Greeks call them–are islands In the great Ionian sea and there the appalling Celaeno And the rest of the Harpies have lived since the house of Phineus Was closed against them and they were driven by fear From the tables where they had gorged themselves in the past. No more disgusting monster nor plague more cruel Nor agent of heaven’s anger more dire than these Was ever thrust up from the Stygian waters. They were birds with the features of young girls, their droppings Were utterly nauseous, their hands had talons, Their faces eternally pinched and pale with hunger. Here we made landfall and when we entered the harbor We saw rich herds of cattle everywhere At graze about the plains and goats at pasture With none to guard them, so we rushed upon them Weapons in hand, and called upon the gods, Even great Jove himself, to share our plunder. Then we spread seats along the curving shore And addressed ourselves to a delicious banquet. But suddenly with a horrifying swoop Down from the mountain eyries stooped the Harpies With a great clattering of wings and ripped The feast in fragments and fouled everything With their filthy contact–they stank revoltingly, And screeched appallingly–So once again We set our tables, moved our altars and kindled Their fires in a deep recess hidden beneath An overhang of rock and hedged in by trees But once again, from a different quarter of sky, The raucous flock swooped down from their hidden lairs And fluttered around their prey with their hooked claws And fouled the feast with their mouths. Then I commanded My comrades to take up arms: we must wage war On the loathsome tribe. Obedient to my order They unsheathed their swords, hiding them in the grass, And covered up their shields. Then, when the sound Of their swooping wings was heard along the shore Mineus blew a trumpet blast from his lookout High on a rock. My comrades charged and engaged In a new form of battle–trying to wound These disgusting birds of the sea. But however hard They struck they could not even mark their feathers Nor inflict wounds on their backs–they simply escaped By soaring quickly into the sky and leaving Half-eaten food and a trail of filty behind. But one of them, Celaeno, perched on a spur Of rock, and spoke–a prophetess of woe. ‘You have slaughtered our cattle, you have felled our bullocks– Do you mean to make war to justify your deeds, True kindred of Laomedon? To make war And drive us Harpies, blameless as we are From our ancestral home? Listen to me! Take heed of my words and fix them in your minds! The prophecy the Almighty Father Jove Imparted to Phoebus Apollo and he, Apollo, Imparted it to me, chief of the Harpies, And now it is mine to impart the words to you, Your course is set for Italy. Summon the winds, They shall obey, to Italy you shall go, You shall be granted entry to a harbor. But you shall not put one stone upon another To encircle your fated city with its walls Before the utmost pangs of ravenous hunger Force you to gnaw at and wolf your very tables In payment of your brutal assault upon us!’ So saying she flew off and swiftly fled Into the wood. My comrades’ blood went cold With sudden dread. They had no more heart to fight But bid me sue for peace with prayer and vows– Whether these creatures were goddesses indeed Or vile and disgusting birds….”
The Harpies had been minding their own business in Vergil’s account of them, and merely retaliated for Aeneas’ offensive landing. Nevertheless, the Harpies’ oath to stay on their own island apparently did not bind them fast in respect to brilliant authors. I happen to know the Harpies are flitting all over the world today doing the most damage they can. I just encountered one. She is the foster child of a Magpie.
The Magpie family is famous, of course, for generating chatterboxes who do not know what they are talking about; therefore they fill the world up with their blather. Magpies are relatively harmless, however, and many of them become fine authors. After all, one has to start somewhere, and practice makes perfect.
Some Magpies, when frustrated by their own failures, try to become literary critics in order to feel better about themselves by dictating lessons to other writers, many of whom become or are already chattering critics themselves. Nonetheless, not much harm is done, as the growth of the Magpie family merely provides a mediocre platform for great artists to look down upon and to make occasional exalted comments about. After all, only an imbecile would be taken in by the critical clichés being constantly harped by Magpies.
Take for instance, the cliché against polysyllabic words. There was once a time when every speaker knew that his spoken syllables ran together, and that the punctuations of the written language are conventions that, unfortunately in many cases, do not express the continuous aspect of natural expression. Indeed, in ancient Greece, the writing itself was not punctuated the following sort of sentences might appear, to be easily understood by the pupil:
Or, take the plain language cliche that favors people who do not want to look up rarely used words in dictionaries. If the critical magpie bothered to look up more words, she might eventually find out that she is a member of, figuratively speaking, a psitaceous family.
Two anecdotes are due here. One, I am reminded of a man whose Hawaiian name is nearly a yard long. Two, I remember how ecstatic I was when, while I was writing a brilliant essay about the loss of parliamentary hereditary privileges by the Lords, I encountered the first opportunity in my life to use the word antidisestablishmentarianism!
But away with the Magpies! I brought them up because one of them adopted a Harpy whom I recently observed perched in the comment facility on the edge of my own website nest at now defunct Themestream.com. It was not a courtesy call, for Harpies know nothing about courtesy; I gave her a chance to be courteous, to no avail; I visited her nest politely, affording her an opportunity to be hospitable, again to no avail. Instead, she returns again and again to my territory to harp critical clichés learned from the Magpie family. Her own nest is a mess but she wants to tell my guests that I am a bad housekeeper, which is to say she thinks my guests are imbeciles She address herself to my readers in the comment boxes:
“Attention Readers, this author is lousy and does not know what he is talking about. He is a wind bag, a word machine. Do not bother to subscribe to or to read him.”
She does not stop there: the aspersion is at least 200 words long. She is following her mythological instinct as she tries to foul the food I have set out for myself and my guests. What she hates most of all is my free speech. If she had her way, she would snatch away my free spirit and smother it rather than mother it.
I do not really mind because although she would foul my nest with her droppings, I simply use them as more grist for the literary mill; her leavings are in fact pretty good fertilizer. Besides, there are two ways of dealing with Harpies, short of hailing the Argonauts:
One: every time they visit, greet them with a curse. The disadvantage of this method is that Harpies actually thrive on curses, so one must have just the right formula (I shall consult with a good witch on that subject).
Two: the advantage of the disadvantage of the first solution is that traffic increases dramatically when the Harpy keeps coming back to abuse authors, drawing the whole flock of Harpies. Sometimes a thousand might be recruited to come back to an author’s nest to work their mischief. Money per click can be made off the trafficking in abuse. Fame or infamy makes a fortune in this kaliyuga–shit sells, does it not?
Increased traffic and monetary rewards are appreciated even more when the defamed artist knows his underlying works are actually brilliant, profound, and sophisticated and also virtuous according to the radical, classic standards of Liberty. Like the noble statue covered with pigeon droppings in the public square, his works stand stalwart in their heroic poses under the leavings of the fleeting flocks of Harpies.
Alas, if that secret got out, the Harpies might get wise and take an oath to never return again to those shining precincts.
I must leave off here, for birds are singing on my lanai as I speak. I want to feed them right away, for I remember how the Argonauts got through the Clashing Rocks.
Quoted: THE AENEID, Transl. Patric Dickinson, NY: Mentor, 1961