The Harpy, A Feminist Retelling

The Harpy, A Feminist Retelling

Now available as a framed print

The Harpy
The Harpy (Close Up)

Recently, I came across some delightful old etchings depicting harpies that I found inspiring. These mythological figures of ancient Greece with the head of a woman and the body of a bird were so appealing to me, but then... wait a minute...

Weren’t the Harpies BAD?

I skimmed my memory and then the internet to try to clarify this apparent contradiction.

At one time, the Harpies were depicted as beautiful, swift creatures who personified the winds. Over time, the descriptions became more and more monstrous.  It was said that they stole food -- or pooped on it to ruin it.

"Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they are; abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable"
(The Aeneid, Virgil)

And then the thought came to me that this is just the kind of thing that an abuser would make up. And that history is written by the victors, but so is myth, religion, aesthetics, science… There’s also the Siren – Half-bird, half-woman creature of Greek mythology, who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing voices.

The word harpy became a derogatory term for a very unpleasant female person.
Gimme a frickin’ break.

Last year I read the novel Circe, by Madeline Miller, which re-imagines the story of Circe (“the witch”) from her own perspective rather than as a minor character in Odysseus’ journey.

It’s a wonderfully empathetic look at what it’s like being punished by the patriarchy in ways subtle and overt for not sufficiently hiding your strength and power. It's also about being misunderstood and under-appreciated in a neurotic family dynamic and, as time goes on, romantic relationships.

Ultimately it's a celebration of what it can look like to live through all that and thrive on the other side with an even greater sense of your power and who you are deep down in your bones. One really savors her coming into her own.

So when I came across that image of the lovely Harpy, I felt a sense of wonder about the possibility of her being vilified for being strong and different: How the “official” story of who you are can be so wrong. If you've freed yourself from an oppressor, they probably aren't going to tell stories about you being a nice, young lady -- but you will be free.

I thought I would paint the Harpy, not as a monster, but as someone who is comfortable in her skin and thriving in her sublime world. 

I love this Harpy,
with her crown of flowers, feeling at home, enjoying the view from her high perch, camouflaged in the beauty of her surroundings.

It’s easy to imagine her summoning the power of her natural strength if she needs to right some wrong, defend her boundaries, or thwart injustice with her sharp talons.  

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember, but I’d never thought about the Harpies like this before a few days ago. I’m curious to consider what other thoughts and practices might shift for me examining them from this perspective, asking:

  How might this be different if it wasn’t created and enforced by an oppressor with an agenda?


The Harpy by Anne-Louise Ewen