Harpies, a question of gender

Visitors to the outdoor restaurant of the Sydney Botanic Gardens used to risk the frightening visitation of egrets, large white birds who would suddenly land on your table and steal your food, with a great flapping of white wings and jumping of long black legs. Did something similar inspire the ancient image of the harpies, variously described in Greek and Roman mythology as winds and as punishing agents of Zeus, half woman and half eagle? King Phineus of Thrace revealed the secrets of the gods, and consequently, every time he sat down to eat, harpies would fly in through a window, grab his food and leave behind their own signs of presence; in this story they were ultimately dealt with by the (all-male) Argonauts. The idea of the ‘harpy’ gives an indication of how the mind finds terror in the relationship between the human and the animal. For Dante they were broad-winged, with claws, and great feathered bellies, with human faces:


Quivi le brutte Arpie lor nidi fanno,

che cacciar de le Strofade i Troiani

con tristo annunzio di futuro danno.

Ali hanno late, e colli e visi umani,

piè con artigli, e pennuto ‘l gran ventre;

fanno lamenti in su li alberi strani.

Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto 13


Other representations, such as an Athenian red-figure hydria from the fifth century BCE, in the J Paul Getty Museum, add rather beautiful wings to standard images of young Athenian women. Classical mythology overwhelmingly identified them as female.




Gustave Doré’s commercially successful version of Dante placed images of the clearly female harpies in thousands of Victorian drawing-rooms, fixing an image of rapacious creatures with women’s faces. But the word was also in use without female connotations: Johnson pointed out that Shakespeare had used the word to mean ‘a ravenous wretch; an extortioner’, and Chambers’s Etymological Dictionary (1867) offers the definition ‘a hideous rapacious monster, half bird and half woman; a species of eagle; an extortioner’. By the early twentieth century Sidney Woodhouse’s Vocabulary of the Attic language (1910) defined ‘Harpy’ only as ‘extortioner’, reflecting the etymology from the word meaning ‘to grab’. In 1906 Canon Horsley, one-time chaplain of HM Prison at Clerkenwell, published a booklet, widely publicized, against the evils of betting, entitled The Harpenden Harpies, Harpenden having then a well-known racecourse.


The OED offers five citations for the word in the sense of ‘A rapacious, plundering, or grasping person; one that preys upon others’, but none later than 1884; of the last two, both 19th century, one is from Thackeray (‘Was it my mother-in-law, the grasping, odious, abandoned, brazen harpy?), and the other describes ‘legal “harpies”’. The Great Exhibition was plagued by ‘persons pretending to be “connected with the press” (a very vague term)’ (Southern Reporter, 12 June 1862), who were using these supposed connections to get free food and samples; blagging, effectively, except that they also took bribes to write up products and displays without having ‘the power of getting one line into any newspaper in the kingdom’.


More in keeping with what might be expected is the story of Harriet Paul, a laundress, accused of being a pickpocket, whose case was reported in the Islington daily Gazette and North London Tribune, 6 December 1904, under the headline ‘Harpies of the Night’ (note the plural). A more genteel harpy was described in The Saturday Review, quoted in The Western Daily Press, 21 March 1871, in an article against ‘Handsome Harpies’, unmarried women for whom ‘home and its endearments are as a tale told by an idiot’ (a clear echo of Macbeth there), and for whom ‘flirting has become her business … flirtation has become self-supporting, not to say lucrative. He who flirts must pay’. This ‘harpy’ ‘has solved the difficult problem of living at the rate of ten thousand a year on the income of one’. But The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, 12 June 1909, reported on ‘Moneylending Harpies’ who charged the poor interest at 2 shillings in the pound per week: ‘the slum moneylender is usually a woman’, but the report went on to note that the report of the district secretary of the London City Mission stated that ‘at the present time in hundreds of factories such ravenous harpies are to be found, both male and female, who prey upon their fellow creatures …’


We need then to be careful with considerations of gender when the word crops up in texts from and about the First World War.


‘Food harpies’ were in evidence throughout the conflict: traders in Australia who were refusing to sell 140,000 bags of wheat at government-fixed prices saw the lot confiscated by the State Government in a crackdown on price-gambling, and were labelled as ‘food harpies’ by The Northern Whig, 18 September 1914. The Yorkshire Evening Post 20 March 1917, reported on ‘Food Harpies’, in an article which defined three groups, sensible and economical buyers, who bought bulk quantities to save money, ‘plumbers or day women “who were working in the house and saw with their own eyes”’, which the paper likened to ‘the eye-witnesses who, according to a thousand tongues, saw the Russians pass through England’, and panic-buyers; these last were the ‘food harpies’, ‘people who are proved to have bought inordinately’.


‘Turf harpies’ appeared again in 1916 (Sunderland Daily Echo, 9 September), before the Shoreditch Tribunal investigating the use of bribes for docker’s jobs; Brick Lane appeared to be a focus for dealing in ‘dockers’ badges’: a tribunal member was quoted as saying ‘it is quite an excursion to get in at Brick Lane Station early in the morning to go to the Surrey Commercial [dock]. It is just like a race train to Epsom, with the crowds of young fellows, the bookmakers, their clerks and the punters’. All male, note; harpies might be male, female, or both. The Globe 13 October 1915 warned against social clubs that were ‘the resort of every kind of swindler and harpy, and on the other hand they are resorted to by a number of young men, some of them serving in His Majesty’s forces, who either from folly or form inexperience fail, to recognize the real character of those with whom they are dealing there.’ The Illustrated Police News for 1 March 1917 under the headline ‘Harpies on Soldiers’ carried the subheading ‘Women who Prey on Service men “Get It Hot”’. However, the defendants, who were convicted of stealing £16 from an Australian soldier, were a man and two women. The court recommended that the area of their activities, Waterloo Road, should be patrolled by the Women Police Service.


On 6 February 1917 The Times published a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle, a verbal blast which could have sat easily with Doré’s illustration: ‘Is it not possible in any way to hold in check the vile women who at present prey upon and poison our soldiers in London? A friend of mine who is a Special Constable in a harlot-haunted distrct has described to me how these harpies carry off the lonely soldiers to their rooms, make them drunk often with the vile liquor which they keep there, and finally inoculate them, as likely as not, with one or other of those diseases which, thanks to the agitation of well-meaning fools, have had fee trade granted to them amongst us.’ Conan Doyle was particularly incensed that the country had closed the museums but kept open the brothels, so that ‘the lad from over the seas who has for the first and perhaps for the last time in his life a few clear days in the great centre of his race’, might get VD but not the chance to see the Portland Vase. At a meeting the following week in support of the Motor Transport Volunteers, a group of little over 100 drivers who conveyed soldiers from station to station or lodging in London, Lt Gen Francis Lloyd also pointed out the danger to drunk soldiers from ‘the harpies who waited for [them].’


‘Harpies and Crooks’ were apparently out to get officers’ bounties from them immediately after the Armistice (The Globe 10 December 1918), with a clear implication in this report that the crooks were men, and the harpies women; The Daily Mail was reported as saying that there were ‘gangs of West End harpies and sharps who are already making arrangements to fleece them [the officers, who were apparently going to receive payments of £1-500]’.


The term continued to be applied to both sexes between the wars. The Devon and Exeter Gazette reported on ‘hotel harpies’ (12 December 1927), who stole jewels from hotel rooms in the South of France, while in 1925 the Birmingham Gazette reported on a gang of three blackmailers, two women and two man (31 January 1925), who were described in their trial as ‘fiends and harpies’. In 1929 ‘harpies’ were using the guise of the tourist guide to fleece visitors to the capital (Aberdeen Press and Journal 5 September 1929).

TGW:IWT soldiers with Xmas toys, harpies

In 1938, writing in the serialised The Great War; I was there Lt Col Rowland Fielding contrasted his feelings about the soldiers going on leave and his condemnation of those who preyed on them. Fielding does not use the word ‘harpies’, but the caption to the photo does: ‘these lads have escaped the harpies he mentions’. During the Second World War, the term persisted: ‘Harpies will prey on you’ shouted the Daily Herald, 29 March 1940, as the Grimsby town health committee published a letter to seamen visiting the town, ‘warning them against “a certain number of harpies” who may “fasten on them”’ (Nottingham Evening Post), a grim note, with the authority of etymology behind it. Was there perhaps some association with the sea, some curious association with the sirens who attacked Odysseus? In 1934 the Daily Mail (8 March) had reported on harpies preying on ‘sailormen’ in Hull, and the Liverpool Daily Post 4 August 1943 reported on seamen as victims of harpies ‘who want to get their coupons from them’.


The image of the evil woman preying on the young inexperienced soldier is strong, and has something of the familiarity of folklore; it is easy to see how the usage from the end of the First World War might be revived in 1939. But, from the evidence of these dictionaries, ‘harpy’ did not become exclusively attached to women till after the Second World War – and in 1941 The Daily Mail (11 March) was reporting on ‘Air Raid Harpies Who Rob Homeless’.

Nuttall's harpy 1926

Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary, 1926

H C Wyld harpy

H C Wyld’s Universal Dictionary of the English Language, 1936

harpy Chambers

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1972

Collins harpy

Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2007


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