I haven't done a myth for a while, but from my perspective the purpose of the tremendous work of mythic material we've been deeded from Greco-Roman culture is quite the same as that of the alchemical "fairy tales" I interpret; wisdom. Loads and loads of it. Wisdom about the experiences, the development, the psyches of human beings. The ancient learning transmitted through these Greco-Roman myths is complex as hell, lemme tell ya. So addressing the symbolism can be a bit daunting; the internet helps the relative amateur tremendously. The stories are so interwoven as to represent the great intelligent, archetypal web of creation. If you can't deal with webs, if you have to stay in the linear experience, you're not embracing the wisdom the stories depict. In this, the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously said. The complexity of the Greco-Roman mythic tradition reflects the complexity of the multivalent nature of human creative powers, which reflects the infinitely complex nature of the divine creative powers and therefore of Creation...
The harpy does come to those in my culture from the Greek tradition; where else it shows up I do not know, but likely it does. It's a monster or unnatural being, variously detailed in classical literature. The harpy is always personified as part bird, part woman, with grasping talons, but it's also known as a wind storm, basically. From the simple fact of its negatively aspected monstrosity we know that we're talking about a phenomenon which goes against the natural world; the beautiful harpy Patricia depicted above could be viewed as the harpy redeemed, for this lovely creature is no longer black and foul, starved and filthy, as are those in the myths. From the alchemical standpoint, it's simple to diagnose what's unnatural here; the combination of the feminine and the air element, for the feminine elements are earth and water. It's possible for air and the feminine to partner beautifully, of course, but then we would have a happy story; in the Greek harpy myths we have some elemental imbalance or incorrect use of the elements.
We think of the harpy as bad; colloquially it's a "grasping, unpleasant woman", as an online dictionary puts it. The grasping is in the raptor's talons. All traits have their advantages and disadvantages, and these vary according to the situation and how the trait is embodied. Alchemical wisdom is learning how and when any given element and its traits should be applied in order to cocreate more harmoniously, joyously, freely; in order to be and act in such a way as to operate with ever expanding consciousness, in order to work for the "higher good", for want of a better term. Suffering, the harpy's unpleasantness, serves us alchemical beings, for it is meant as the lead we will cocreate gold with.
So these stories inform us, over and over, not only what to do but very frequently what not to do. The results of the characters' experiences are informing us of why that way of using the elements doesn't work, of the elemental disadvantage. The word "harpy" means "snatcher". From that we can conclude that the harpy's unpleasantness is partly due to her greed, her unthinking inability to let go of something. She uses the ability to strongly grasp, symbolized in her talons, unwisely, inconsiderately, and therefore creates and recreates suffering and disharmony. She cannot restrain herself when wiser ones would.
People with strong air element in the form of intellectual ability are very often idealistic; they grasp theoretical realms quickly and hold tightly to them, since they believe strongly in them. They believe strongly in them because air element people have the ability to make the ethereal "real". Ideas feel solid to them somehow, "things" they have grasped. They use air element information to keep their beliefs pumped up; this is one way to view the whole scientific research thing, as well as most of the media based information. We are early on trained to trust media based information, the written word, etc. (masculine air element), often in lieu of our experiential knowing (feminine earth element). Idealism is the backbone of heroism as colloquially understood in my society, and the next post on Achilles's horses will address heroism's challenges.
Hesiod mentioned an important detail when he said the harpies have beautiful hair. Hair, unless it's symbolically tied specifically with sun or some other light (halos usually) refers to the intellectual mind, to more or less mundane thoughts, not expansive, cosmic mind.
That our harpies (their number varies in accounts) developed some unpleasant ways of using their soaring, sharp-taloned eagle-hawk powers is described not only by the designation as storm clouds and wind-swift snatchers, but in the most well known story of their lives, a story that's relatively simple, good cause for its popularity in the complex web of Greek myth. A king of Thrace named Phineus was blessed by Apollo with prophetic powers. However, since that means knowing Zeus's plans, or the unfoldment of Creation (Apollo bestows his prophetic grace due to being Zeus's son), and Phineus was indiscriminately disclosing to mortals, Zeus got pissed. He called a curse upon the king, the second such it seems, for he also blinded this guy (another story, not going there). The second curse being, that when folks would bring special foods in exchange for prophecies (or just when the guy sits down to eat in general), the harpies (one, two, or three depending on the account) would descend, snatch his food, and whatever was left was repulsive to him. Apparently they pooped on it. So he was starving. The vase painting below shows that these female figures were not always so bird-like; if one did not know the story, it might be thought they were angels! But the Greeks didn't have angels then.
From this inability to wisely handle information we know it's a story about wisdom development, specifically about air element, a masculine element. As for the food stealing, well, most of us in my culture know about that condition all too well. Let's say that, just as Phineus is using illumination without wisdom and respect, without the eagle's far sightedness, so the harpies use thought. Imagine both Phineus and harpy as parts of your own psyche, your own experience. The food, laid out on a table, represents earth element, our ability to enjoy life, to be fed by our experiences, to open up and let life in and enjoy doing so, to digest experience in the psyche, to take what we need and leave the rest. When we digest our experiences in a healthy way, we are able to live lives full of meaning. For instance we might be overusing intellectual, thought-based input excessively, ignoring our own experience, as in contemporary reliance on media.
When we unwisely revere thought, beliefs, ideals, information, and let it take us for a ride all the time, we will end up like Phineus- starved of earth element, of abundance. This is part of the monstrosity of the harpies; feminine earth element (notice the loaf of bread in the harpy's hand, the Sacred Mother's provenance), that which grounds us, which allows us to experience abundance and plenty, which keeps us en-joying life (medieval harpies are sometimes depicted with nice fat breasts; = earth mother), is thwarted by this clinging to air element orientation. The mind is let run amok, and the intellectual mind's specialty is judgment, finding something "wrong", finding problems to solve, figuring out how to avoid threats to survival, etc. Intellect is not meant primarily to help us enjoy life- though we can certainly train it to do so! Our minds will be grateful, I'm sure, for any relief from obsessively, neurotically performing competitive, lack-oriented, divide and survive tasks!
My culture's mode of conditioning has created an empire full of folks who have been "taken by the wind". My country is full of folks who are caught up in a whirlwind of fear and anger in regards to "the world", the embodied experience, in their beliefs around earth element. They watch the news, for example, often while eating dinner, that little whirlwind of often negative thoughts, and when the whirlwind is gone, life looks like shit; the harpy storm cloud hovers over their heads and they're looking for the sleeping pills or the whiskey. The harpies, when they leave the table with Phineus's food, foul it with their excrement; according to Virgil's Aeneid,"abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable." Our inner Phineus has the experience more or less of "Life stinks, my life stinks. It's a bummer, a struggle. People are not to be trusted. What's the use. Why was I born.", etc. ad infinitum We are ungrateful, and therefore not experiencing abundance (the food). We are conditioned to cling tightly to the negative information due to our conditioning, to our self created identifications as being realistic, compassionate, caring people, as being informed and smart and cautious and more. While all that may be true, air element wisdom tells us that information is really just that, nothing more. We take it in, digest it, extract what's useful to us, what properly feeds our life, and ignore (eject) the rest. Otherwise we are caught in the whirlwind, in the harpies' shit storm.
Phineus, because he is being tortured by his thoughts, is their servant. He can't enjoy his life; he's got the hell-in-a-handbasket syndrome. Notice that Virgil mentions the harpies are starving; in their experience of lack, of never enough, and of failure to thrive he equates the king and the monster. Our ideas and beliefs and ideals take on a very grasping, mortal caste, when we don't see the eagle's air element big picture. Whenever life looks good, some idea swoops in and takes away our joy. When we meet someone we think is cool, we soon find something wrong with him. If we get a compliment, we start thinking whether we deserve it, start comparison shopping, and find that we will always fall short- as, then, will others. Our belief systems wind up in the mind's judgmental storm that promotes negative emotion- anger, futility, fear, and depression. The harpies are associated with the Erinyes or Furies, embodied vengeance, grudging behavior. Living in the land of the Erinyes we are cut off from the Great Mother's loving breast, where intellectual thought and judgment's not needed. The Great Mother's breast or lap is the state of being where, despite appearances, there is no mortality; there we are secure, for the ever-creative spirals and cycles of life and death are what we believe most important. It is this wisdom we gain when we embody earth element, the eagle's ability to grasp some prey on land or water.
The ability to release our attachments in general is depicted in the tarot VII, The Chariot, which features horses. The horse as powerful soul animal was referenced in the interp of Iron John a few posts back, and the harpies have an association with air element Horse as well, though all horses are not air element. Podarge, one of the harpies, impregnated by the West Wind, bore two horses. These two horses, Balios and Xanthus, were gifted to the Greek flawed or tragic hero Achilles. We'll get into that next post, but the point here is that Podarge ("Flashing-footed") is a psychic aspect which is wedded to, one with, the wind (air element again).
After telling us what not to do (using air element indiscriminately, shall we say), the myth informs us of the cure, as it often does; Phineus is rescued by Jason and the Argonauts, those spiritual seeker-super heroes featured in a 2000 Hallmark miniseries. Like Hercules, Perseus, and other Greek heroes, Jason's assigned tasks; first one is retrieving a golden ram's fleece for the power hungry King Pelias, who isn't satisfied with the fleece and assigns other tasks. Sound familiar? It will be if you've read fairy tale interps here! The king and his tasks, usually assigned to some guy who wishes to marry his daughter, are featured in Iron John, the last fairy tale interpreted here, as well as countless more such stories.
The cosmic golden ram is an ancient enlightenment/spiritual power symbol, a sort of Holy Grail, and Jason's story likely goes back into prehistory. So the answer is to shift air element orientation from the "small mind", the intellect and its ideas and judgments, into the cosmic, spiritual realms of soul and destiny, of authentic, creative experience. In fact Jason, who, like the Iron John protagonist has feminine help all the way through his adventures, fulfills the tasks which feature fire, conflict, and a sleepless dragon guarding the fleece, with the aid of Medea- a mythic witch, sorceress, alchemist, magician, or what have you. She gave him alchemical instruction, just as the wild man Iron John gave the protagonist in that story alchemical training. The tasks in these stories are meant to represent experiences any human might face on their mortal wisdom path, for we are all of us alchemical beings by birth.
In the bit about the harpies, Jason either kills them or, more appropriately for my interpretation of Phineus's lack of wisdom, the sons of Boreas, the North Wind, chase them away, never to return. The north is, in the northern hemisphere and/or European tradition anyway, the direction of wisdom. Interesting, right? Boreas, sometimes depicted with ice on his beard, brings winter- both the dark and still, contemplative time of year in temperate climates, as well as the wintry season of human life- old age and its wisdom. So this metaphor says that wisdom dispels the harpies' troubling experiences of lack, of depression, of hell-in-a-handbasket.
The hero tradition works on two levels; the mundane and the sacred. Achilles's tragedy is that he could not remove himself from the mundane, possessive, egoic orientation of hero; so we'll look at that when we look at his horses. It's a beautiful story, with horses that speak and cry. Meanwhile, here's one of my favorite songs about winter, in honor of the North Wind. We're already in Boreas's grip here in the U. P.; time to get contemplative...By the way, though if you search for images of winds online, you'll find all sorts of feminine figures, from the Western alchemical perspective that's incorrect. The winds would all be masculine- if there are indeed shoulds to be concerned about. Don't want to get my inner harpies alerted...
Here is one of my very favorite winter songs, from Thea Gimore's Strange Communion album;
She talks about letting go, too, the thing the harpies aren't hip to; as we self inquire we let go of that which is broken, which no longer serves us. One air element trap is when we believe we do know something, when we believe in and therefore reify thoughts, thus Thea's "and still not know". Using air element properly, we hold thoughts lightly; they are always true-not true. Even if they seemingly speak truth, and all will hold some, it's still wise to hold them in this light manner. Thus we honor the infinite nature of Creation. Thoughts are able to serve us best when we do so; we stay open to the next, more expanded level of illumination. We are not stuck, and can renew ("Brand new start"), open to a new perspective on anything, whether dazzling like drunken angels, or humble like the smell of pine and nursery rhymes. The next expanded version is always going to be at least as great as the last thing. We move slowly away from believing only in small mind, towards cosmic mind.
Like Jason, those who are sky writing are spiritual aspirants, working with air element in ways that enlighten, inhabiting the world like drunken angels. She gives us the ultimate earth element lesson at the end;
"sometimes the beauty in this world comes from just not knowing
Feeling instead Feeling instead Feeling instead... "
Like our buddy Phineus, we tired and weary ones, trying so hard to stay ahead of the game, to stay on top using our intellects, our problem solving, our reason, can ground, slow down, and feel instead. She's not talking about emotions; she's talking about the feeling sense which is earth element's gift, which is our feedback for experiential knowing. Emotions can be part of the feeling sense, but feeling sense is actually much more subtle and tremendously diverse; it is the ability to tap into countless states of being (not all at once of course), into how they feel energetically, and sometimes the feeling states come with images, sometimes not. It's the earth element, creative flow of being, a way of knowing that many artists are open to.
Drunken Angel Lyrics
Winter tells its truth to anyone who'll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low
And I will sit and wonder over everything I've written
And still not know
The smell of pine and nursery rhymes is rising
There are some things that are broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky writing
Shine your light
'Cause there's a drunken angel
Dances to my heart Singin' lonely days
Brand new start, Brand new start
And now is the time I will raise my eyes and be honest
And look out across the plane of another tired and reckless year
And give thanks for the love and the wonder that was hurled upon us
And you, my dear
And a drunken angel Danced into my heart
Singin' lonely days, Brand new start, Brand new start
You can hear the howl of wings, you can feel it when the wine is flowing
And the tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads
And baby, sometimes the beauty in this world comes from just not knowing
Feeling instead Feeling instead Feeling instead
Until the next harpy posting- hope you find some space to listen to Boreas's winter wisdom this season!