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What To Call a Harpy

A breakdown of how the mythical creature has captured our imaginations for centuries


As near-immortal, half-human bird women, it would be easy to call them mutant beasts. The ancients surely did, eyeing those sharp teeth and talons. Yet wings on any creature are deemed lovely. And if we’re talking chimeras, consider the pig hearts now beating in human chests. What is a monster, really?



Aeschylus’s harpies shat upon the plate of the vile soothsayer Phineas every time he sat down to eat. He went hungry, and, having blinded his sons to please his new wife, deserved it. Those old Greeks couldn’t fathom how a woman could be so outrageous, and dubbed them ugly and vicious. 


Harpies have seen some things in their long lives. When it comes to bestowing judgement, there’s nothing like the ability to fly overhead and literally take in the bigger picture. Ever fearless, they have been known to ferry evildoers to the very feet of the Erinyes, those ancient goddesses of vengeance. 



Like their vulture sisters, like all good carrion crunchers, see how they can clean a bone? See how they prevent pestilence with their scavenging, how they keep the land pristine?


Flying high, harpies fulfill our dreams of being taken up by the wind. The tug of gravity, the ability to ignore it. But do they revel, every time, in the thrill of tumble and soar? No, they must forget after each flight, or they’d never spend another minute on earth, grounded by their fierce claws.



Spend time with a pair of modern, glamorous, harpy social workers in Svoboda’s new speculative novel Roxy and Coco

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Terese Svoboda, author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction, biography, memoir, and translation, including Roxy and Coco, her eighth novel, about two contemporary harpies who do social work and sometimes drop child abusers over cliffs, and short story collection The Long Swim