Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Top Ten: Depictions of the Harpies

Greek mythology is filled with storied horrors of punishment. Ixion spins eternally on his infernal wheel for his attempted rape of Zeus' Queen. The Furies pursue in relentless furor the accursed breakers of oaths. None, however, seems so terrifying to me as the attack of the Harpies, creatures half-woman, half-bird. They are the snatchers. What could be more frightening than the sudden rush of wings blotting out the sky and thrashing up the dust as they swoop in on their helpless terrestrial prey. (I've always thought them ideal for an operatic treatment, envisioning a dark, sinister counterpart to the grand, swooping wings Handel bestowed upon Gabriel in his Messiah.) The Harpies prey always upon man's ancient fear of being snatched away by forces beyond his control, an origin we find in Hesiod and Homer's identification of them with the winds.

There is often much confusion between them and the Sirens, likewise described as parts woman and bird, but while the Sirens seduced, the Harpies pursued with violence. Here are my top ten depictions, ancient and modern.

10. Aeneas and the Harpies, by François Perrier, 1646-1647

One of the twelve founders of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Perrier captures the terror of the sudden onrush of the wicked creatures. The white, muscular lines of the men all push against the curved shield at which the Harpies tug. In opposition we see one of Aeneas' followers tries to grab it from the sky, revealing the creature's meaty leg. Even a felled Harpy on the ground gnaws at the hand of his captor, who prepares to run it through. Amidst the attack to the right and the wailing women to the left, Aeneas stands front-and-center, unflappable. His sword is not even drawn and he does not even look at the beasts, but rather pauses to comfort a woman. Amid the glorious battle and intricate web of Perrier's lines, Aeneas stands firm.

9. Hell XIII, by William Blake, 1800s

Best known today for his poetry, William Blake captured in one of his last watercolors the vile squalor of the Harpies, whom he depicts here perched atop the trees of the underworld in a scene from Dante, whose cues you sense throughout the picture. Here we feel not the rush of the creatures, but their sad, sinister brooding. You can almost hear their sickly coo, an announcement of doom (con tristo annunzio) and see how their overstuffed plumpness and claws curved round the tree limbs (piè con artigli, e pennuto ’l gran ventre) suggests the ease of their next meal: the trees themselves. Inside the trees lie the bodies of the suicides, prey for the endless rending of the Harpies.

8. Landscape with the Expulsion of the Harpies

by Paolo Fiammingo c. 1590

Unlike Perrier, Fiammingo has centered the action not around Aeneas's encounter with the Harpies, but that of the sons of Boreas. The two demigods, among the Argonauts on their journey east for the Golden Fleece, chase away the Harpies for the blind Thracian King Phineas, whom the dread beasts torment by perpetually fouling his food. Here we see Calais and Zetes, winged sons of the North Wind, pursuing the creatures–here dragon-like–into the background. The action is neatly framed by the peripheral foliage, and so we peer in as if through a scope, eagerly hoping to glimpse the heroic struggle as it recedes from sight. The faintly-visible harbor, minuscule human characters, and the lone nude pointing toward the action, all emphasize the superhuman forces of the lofty battle, beyond the human influence.

7.  Phineas and the Sons of Boreas, by Sebastiano Ricci, c.1695

Ricci's action is brilliant but all in potentio: look how the Harpies cower even as Calais and Zetes merely draw their swords. Our eyes are neatly led through the action from the swords to the blind Phineas to the shrieking Harpies, who here seem not to bring their zephyrous destruction but rather to be blown away by the billowing wings of the Boreades.

6. Phineas and the Harpies, Greek Hydria, c. 480 BC

Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, the genius of the scene on this Attic water jar is the vivid sense of suspension. The Harpies, stealing the food of Phineas, really do seem born aloft by their vast wings. Look at the intricate interlacing of their vast wings and the delicate way their feet pause, hovering in midair.

5. Aeneas and His Companions Combat the Harpies

From of a set of twenty prints after the paintings by Ludovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci in the Palazzo Fava, Bologna, 1663

In another scene of Aeneas' men fighting off the Harpies, here the contrast is the rippling shadows of the muscular men and the fleshy Harpies, whose fleshy thighs dissipate into wispy tentacles. My favorite detail is their diseased, pock-marked wings, from which you can almost smell their fouling, fetid odor.

4. The Harpies Attack the Suicides, Gustave Doré, 1866

The most recent work of our list, Doré's wood engraving is perhaps the ideal medium for Dante's scene of the suicides trapped in the trees of the Harpies' haunted, infernal grove. All of the gnarled branches and roots are as indistinguishable from the human limbs as the feathery wings of the Harpies are from the bark of the trees. Even the dolorous faces of the dead match the dread expressions of the Harpies as they haunt the dusky miasma of the glen.

3. Reliefs of the "Harpy Tomb," c. 480-70 BC

This relief adorns a tomb at Xanthos, the ancient capital of Lycia. Scholars have speculated on whether the creatures depicted are Harpies or Sirens, but assuming the former I think the depiction is splendid. First, the contrast of scale is remarkable, and the beasts are terrifying in their vastness.
Second, the position of the captured is as a child held to the breast, cradled in arms, a suggestion belied by the vile nature of the creatures. Finally, how much more terrifying a thought is it to be carried away rather than simply maimed or even killed? To what terrible tortures will the take you?The contrast of the bird claw over the human foot is a splendid detail.

2. The Boreades and the Harpies, Kylix, c. 550BC

Here again the Boreades fight the Harpies–the second figures drawn at a slight remove in the background–but what energy and vigor here. We see the airborne action caught mid-flight: look at that powerful line across the image, of the sword parallel to their arms grasping the necks of the birds. The contrast is simple and ingenious: the snatchers have been snatched.

1. Harpy, Greek Amphora

The vigorous energy of this simple depiction is my favorite, with its tortuous contrast suggesting the frenzy of the snatching, hybrid beasts. Each motion is opposed with contrapuntal precision and variation. The arms and legs are alternated on the x axis, and the wings, the right larger and so closer, on the z, all seeming to whirl around that bold vertical slash of light across her dark dress. The sharp, light, tapered lines of the wings, all pointed inward, seem to bear her aloft.

Bonus: Ray Harryhausen's Harpies

From Jason and The Argonauts, 1963

Ray Harryhausen's lovingly, painstakingly arranged stop-motion characters are the cornerstone of special effects. Yes, it his Harpy looks like a purple dragon-woman with devil's horns, but there is an authenticity to the stop-motion craft that brought the ancient Harpies to their frenzied, winged flight.

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