To read more about the historical differences in physicality and abilities between mermaids and sirens please see part 1 of this ratified research series –> Mermaid, Siren, Harpy, or Banshee? (part 1 of 2)
Harpies are physically similar to sirens although there is some debate on whether the human sections were beautiful or hideous and foul-smelling like the harpies in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts or as Celaeno in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – described as “…a creature with the body of a great bronze bird and a hag’s face…deadly talons…but down her scaly shoulders, mingling with the bright knives of her plumage, there fell hair the color of moonlight, thick and youthful around the hating human face.” Beagle’s story makes a connection between Celaeno and the Greek tale in which Zeus sent harpies to punish King Phineus for revealing a secret gift by stealing and befouling any food set before Phineus before he could eat it. I have a sneaking suspicion that Tamora Pierce’s stormwings, first introduced in The Immortals quartet, were inspired by the harpies that harried King Phineus as they befouled bodies on the battlefield which they also consumed, and their plumage cuts as Celaeno’s did the unicorn in Beagle’s story.
Harpies were originally wind spirits and extensions of the whims of the gods via the weather in Greece. Perhaps in future literature an author will attribute harpies with the ability to affect the weather and generate great gusts of wind with their wings. Another task of the harpy was to snatch up evildoers and deliver them to furies, the deities of vengeance.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Benedict calls Beatrice a “harpy” in the way of an annoying woman (at one point a harpy was also slang for ‘street prostitute’). The original meaning of harpy is “snatcher” from Latin origin and seen from the tale of King Phineus. On a side note there is a very real, gigantic eagle known as a harpy eagle that ranges across Mexico and Argentina. It is the heaviest and most powerful bird of prey and the females, almost twice the size of males, are outranked in size only by the Andean condor. It’s legs are the width of a small child’s and its deadly talons are 5 in (13 cm) – that’s larger than the average grizzly bear claws!
The last figure is of Irish and partly Scottish origin and is known as a shrieking herald of death: the banshee. A banshee is human in form and can change her appearance. While she is most often depicted as a disheveled old hag she can also appear as a beautiful young woman. The wailing originates as a traditional part of mourning in which sometimes professional keeners would be paid to mourn a death. Women who were murdered or died during childbirth could become a banshee. A banshee’s wailing would be heard by someone who’s family member has died no matter where the family member is located. If the person who died was greatly revered or holy then more than one banshee would appear and wail. You can see some of this folklore used in the TV series Lost Girl where the writers also elaborate on the origin and abilities of the banshee. Scottish origins told of banshees whose cries were so piercing they could shatter glass and they could also be seen washing bloodied clothes and armor of those persons who were to die soon.
Irish folklore tells that the first banshee was Irish battle goddess the Morrígan, who is also associated with the Valkyries in Norse mythology who decided who may or may not die during battle. She may be the first banshee because in W.M. Hennessy’s The Ancient Irish Goddess of War she predicts the death of a prominent warrior. The Morrígan would appear as a crow and fly over the battlefield. When her presence was noted by the warriors she could inspire fear or courage depending on whose side they were on. Banshees and valkyries can influence the outcome of a battle simply by appearing and becoming a symbol of imminent death.
That is it! Thank you for hanging out for two consecutive posts after a long spell of no posts. If there are any other comparisons you are curious about let me know, I’m always looking for more topics for future ratified research blogs. If you want to learn more some of the images above actually like to other articles. You may also want to check out the sources I have linked below as they also have sub-links that will let you expand further on the information I provided.
- Atsma, Aaron J. Harpyiai. Theoi Project. 2016 <http://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Harpyiai.html>
- Banshee. Wikipedia. 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banshee>
- Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn: Deluxe Edition. Penguin Group. 2007. p.32-33. p.47
- Harpy. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016 <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Harpy>
- Harpy. Symbolism Wiki. 2016 <http://symbolism.wikia.com/wiki/Harpy>
- Harpy. Wikipedia. 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpy>
- Harpy Eagle. San Diego Zoo – Animals. 2016 <http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/harpy-eagle>
- The Morrígan. Wikipedia. 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Morr%C3%ADgan>
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