As leader of the gods Zeus was in charge of issuing justice to those that needed to be punished in the Greek society. The harpies became known as the hounds of Zeus, because they were given the task of locating these wrongdoers and bringing them to face their punishments. The word harpy comes from the Greek word meaning snatcher, and they were given free rein to take those who needed to be taught a lesson. The harpies would transport many of them to the Erinyes, who lived in the Underworld and would issue out the appropriate punishment.
These snatchers were described as having the wings and body of a large bird, as well as human faces and crooked, sharp claws in order to catch their prey. The earliest depictions by Greek artists portray them as beautiful winged maidens, while many of the later writers made them seem foul and loathsome and possessing shrivelled, hideous faces. The term harpy is still used to refer to a particularly mean woman who insists on being a torment to others.
Even though it is noted that there were more harpies the three most well-known were Aello (storm), Celaeno (black cloud) and Ocypete (swift wing), who were the daughters of Electra (the Princess of Argos). As can be guessed from the meanings of their names, Electra’s daughters were said to have the power to command the weather and would cause wind storms, rough seas and general bad weather whenever they saw fit.
There are different ways in which Zeus would seek his vengeance, and when King Phineas betrayed the gods by revealing their secret plan the harpies were given the task of tormenting him. While he resided on the island of Stophades there was constantly a buffet of food in front of him, and they would snatch away the pieces while he was trying to eat and taint anything they couldn’t consume themselves. In this way Phineas’ hunger would never be satiated. The king was eventually rescued from this terrible existence by the Argonauts, after he promised to reveal to them the path their journey would take.
The harpies were not only associated with punishment and justice but also with unexplainable bad luck. They would appear unexpectedly and destroy people’s hopes and dreams, just like the storms that they were able to command. Harpies appear on many Greek tombs which shows that they had a strong connection with the Underworld, where they would carry the souls of their victims.
Even though the harpies were greatly feared and seen as hideous, unfair monsters, they have also been depicted as strong women who brought about fear in men and the injustices that they may cause. The idea that they were beautiful maidens who eventually changed into old hags, shows that whenever something is greatly feared it will always be thought of as ugly even if this wasn’t the original opinion.