Perrier, Francois , Aeneas and his Companions Fighting the Harpies (1646
HARPIES AND MAGPIES
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The ancient Greek myths still hold true today. For example, witness the droppings Harpies leave on the Internet, especially in the comment boxes of brilliant bloggers. Harpies are variously described in the ancient literature as half-birds, half-maidens, sometimes as carrion-eating vultures with women's faces—they are often hysterical men wearing masks.
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Vultures themselves 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 windbags 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.
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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. Indeed, spreading mischief is the main occupation of Harpies. Their very name connotes "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 Phineas was blinded by bright Helios because Phineas preferred a long life to eyesight. Another account relates that Phineas had two children by Cleopatra, daughter of the North Wind. When Cleopatra died, Phineas 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, Phineas 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 Phineas: 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. Phineas 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 Strofades 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 Phineas Was closed against them and they were driven by fear From the tables where they had gorged themselves in the past.
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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
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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
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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...."
In Vergil's account, the Harpies were minding their own business on their island, and they merely retaliated for Aeneas'' offensive landing.
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However that may be, 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 once 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
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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 that 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 a while. I even missed her when she did not come around. I feared she had fallen ill, so I went 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, and then decent people flocked in to curse the harpies. 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. I would say more about literary harpies, but if the whole secret got out, they might get wise and take an oath to never return again to my shining precincts.
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Source Quoted: THE AENEID, Transl. Patric Dickinson, NY: Mentor, 1961
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