DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The ancient Greek myths still hold true today, as is evident to anyone who becomes familiar with them and takes a good look around. I noticed the appearance of Harpies in early Internet forums and in the open publishing precincts of the literary world.
Harpies are variously described in the ancient literature as half-birds, half-maidens, sometimes as carrion-eating vultures with women”s faces – vultures, incidentally, are incredibly beautiful in flight, yet have a loathsome appearance associated with their beneficial function on the ground. Not all classical representations of Harpies are ugly, yet all are invariably weird. Harpies appeared with storms that caused men to disappear from the face of the earth. With much help from poets, they gained the reputation for being terrible, man-hating wind bags whose main endeavor is to blow men away. Wherefore Harpies naturally hate their long-winded competition – inspired authors – and are mortal enemies of great literature.
As wind-spirits, Harpies have also been associated with the ancient conviction that ghosts impregnate mares; in that event, fleet-footed horses are born instead of human-bird creatures – 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!
We find Harpies in poems about the Argonauts. Hesiod reports that the miserable old king Phineus was blinded by bright Helios because Phineus preferred a long life to eyesight. Another account relates that Phineus had two children by Cleopatra, daughter of the North Wind. When Cleopatra died, Phineus 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. In any case, Phineus chose blindness, which angered Helios so much that he sicked the Harpies on him. They snatched up or befouled his food, so that he nearly died of hunger. Well, the Argonauts arrived on the scene and made a deal with Phineus: they would get rid of the Harpies for him, provided that he showed them how to reach their destination – those who cannot see have the gift of prophecy, while those who can see cannot find their way. Phineus gave them a map and told them how to get through the Clashing Rocks. The Argonauts made good their word, killing many Harpies, and banishing others to the Strophades Islands, where they are bound by oath to forever 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 filth 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….”
Mind you, in Vergil’s account the Harpies had been minding their own business on their island and merely retaliated for Aeneas” offensive landing. In any event, the Harpies” oath to stay on their own island apparently did not bind them fast in respect to brilliant authors. I happen to know that the Harpies are flitting all over the literary world today, doing all the damage they can do to brilliant authors. I just encountered one. She is the foster child of a Magpie.
Of course the Magpie family is famous for generating chatterboxes who do not know what they are talking about, hence 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. When frustrated by their own failures, Magpies often attempt to become literary critics in order to feel better about themselves: we find them constantly criticizing other writers on subjects such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, much of which they are rather bad at themselves. Many of the writers they presume to teach have already become chattering critics on their own, without any help at all from the Magpie family. Not much harm is done, however, as the growth of the Magpie family merely provides a mediocre platform for great artists to look down upon and to write occasional caustic commentary on.
Magpies are easily shooed away, but not Harpies. A Harpy perched in the comment facility on the edge of my web nest at an open publishing site. Hers was not a courtesy call – Harpies could care less about common courtesy. I gave her a second chance to be polite, but to no avail. I clicked on the name she left, went to her nest, found myself reading a story about two lesbians in a shower, left a polite comment, and flew back to my nest. I figured this would provide her with an opportunity to behave hospitably. But no, she returned again and again to my territory to harp one critical cliché after another, much of it Magpie chatter learned from her foster mother. But her own nest was an appalling mess, and, despite the flattering comment I had left there, she proceeded to announce to my guests that I was a bad housekeeper. Well, since I could not delete her comments, I could not clean up the mess. Here is a typical comment, insulting not only me but my guests as well since she implied they were too stupid to judge my writing for themselves:
ATTENTION READERS! ATTENTION READERS! This author is LOUSY and does not know what he is talking about. He is a wind bag, a writing machine. Do not bother to subscribe to or to read him.
She did not stop there: that particular aspersion continued for 200 more words, and it became more foul-mouthed as she went along. She was following her mythological instinct as she tried to foul the food I had set out for my guests. What she hated most of all was my free speech. If she had had her way, she would have snatched away my free spirit and smothered, it rather than mothered it like good women I know are wont to do.
Mind you, however, that I did not really mind her behavior after awhile, and I even missed her when she did not come around – I feared she had fallen ill, and would go over to her nest to leave a comment or two. When she showed up yet again and fouled my nest with her droppings, I eventually learned to use them grist for the literary mill. As a matter of fact, her leavings turned out to be pretty good fertilizer. Other Harpies began to show up at my nest, increasing traffic, then decent people flocked in to curse them. I learned to greet them all with a curse – traffic actually thrives on curses! Notwithstanding the derogatory comments left behind, the defamed artist intuitively knows that his underlying works are brilliant. Like the noble statue covered with pigeon droppings in the public square, his works shine beneath the leavings of fleeting flocks of Harpies.
But I must say nothing more on this subject, for if the whole secret got out, the Harpies might get wise and take an oath to never return again to my shining precincts.
THE AENEID, Transl. Patric Dickinson, NY: Mentor, 1961