Gendering the Harpy: Mythology, Medievalism, and Macabre Femininity

I have a fascination with the strange and obscure, and if I find oddities and curiosities during my travels that intersect with my medieval interests, even better. On a recent trip to Italy, I encountered a creature from both Greek mythology and medieval bestiaries at one of the most wonderfully macabre sites I’ve explored.

While on vacation in Rome this summer, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, an underground mausoleum containing an elaborate arrangement of human bones – lots and lots of bones. No one knows who designed the beautiful and haunting configurations comprised from the bones of approximately 3,700 bodies, presumably those belonging to Capuchin monks who sought refuge from religious persecution in France and perished while in Rome.

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, and efforts to describe the intricacies and expanse of the design prove rather futile. Skulls and pelvic bones combine to create sculptures reminiscent of butterflies in the arches of doorways. Vertebra dot and line the ceilings of the chambers like so many fresco tiles. Massive piles of assorted bones have been shaped into seats for carefully posed skeletons. Reviewing his experience, the Marquis de Sade rated the exhibit five stars by modern standards.

Inside one of the chambers of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, Italy, courtesy of the Liturgical Arts Journal.

But the crypt is a 17th-century construction. It’s the museum that contains the medieval bits, and that’s where I noticed an early print book, dated to the 15th or 16th century, that clearly depicted a cockatrice and that the museum had identified as a harpy.[1] To be fair, the label included a question mark, indicating that the curator was unsure as to what kind of creature was on display.

Far less familiar than the harpy, the cockatrice is a legendary creature with a dragon’s body and a rooster’s head. The beast was believed to be hatched from a rooster’s egg incubated by either a serpent or a toad. Its first recorded mention in English appears in a Wycliffite bible dated 1382.[2]

Labeled as a koketrice in this medieval bestiary from England circa 1500, the creature combines a rooster’s head and feet with a dragon’s wings and tail. (Yale Center for British Art, Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, folio 18v).

The cockatrice seems to have become synonymous with the basilisk in medieval bestiaries. [3] Most often, basilisks are depicted as a bird, typically a rooster, with a snake’s take. In some illustrations, the basilisk is all snake in terms of physical characteristics, though often with a crest reminiscent of a rooster’s head. The mythologies of the cockatrice and basilisk also share similar elements. As with the basilisk, it is fatal for a person to look the cockatrice in the eyes. Both creatures’ breath can also cause death according to folklore.

This medieval bestiary dated 1225-50 and produced in England portrays the basilisk as the king of serpents with lesser snakes paying homage. The creature exhibits mostly serpent features but retains the wings, legs, and crown of a cock. (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, folio 93v).

A harpy, in contrast to the cockatrice, has a bird’s body with a human head and no serpent components. When I mentioned the mislabeling to the front desk staff, I was told that a historian had recently visited the museum and indicated the reverse but without additional explanation. I assured them that the rooster-headed serpent was—hands down—a cockatrice. Harpies have bird bodies, human heads, and zero snake parts. As imperatively, harpies are depicted as female.

Illustration of a harpy from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642, via World History Encyclopedia.

According to Greek mythology, harpyiai were winged female spirits thought to be embodied in sharp gusts of wind, and while certainly fearsome, they were not always so bestial. Known as the “hounds of Zeus,” the female entities were sent from Olympus to snatch people or objects from the earth. Sudden disappearances were, as a result, often attributed to the harpies.

In their earliest representations, harpies appeared as winged women, sometimes with the lower bodies of birds. They were vengeful creatures but not hideous in appearance. Writing between 750 and 650 BC, Hesiod describes harpies as winged maidens with beautiful hair, whom he praises for swiftness in flight that exceeds the speed of storms and birds. Homer, writing roughly around the same time, mentions a female harpy but says nothing derogatory about her looks.

By the end of the classical period, harpies had become monstrous portraits of femininity. They were birds with the heads of maidens, their faces visibly hungry, and had long claws extending from their hands. In the writings of Aeschylus around 500 BC, they are described as disgusting creatures with weeping eyes and foul breath. Virgil, in his Aeneid dated 30-19 BC, refers to them as bird-bodied and female-faced with talons for hands, whose faces reflect insatiable hunger and whose droppings are notably vile. These grotesque portrayals of the harpy—half woman, half monster—are the most well-known from classical mythology.

Harpies depicted as winged women take food from the table of the blind king Phineus on an Athenian vase from 480 BC housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Interestingly, one mythographer did stick a rooster’s head on the otherwise female body of a harpy. Writing in Rome during the 1st century AD, Hyginus describes harpies as having feathered bodies, wings, and cocks’ heads and the arms, bellies, breasts, and genitals of a human woman.[4] Still, there are no serpent parts here to suggest that a medieval image of a cockatrice might instead be a harpy based on Hyginus’s design.

During the Middle Ages, harpies may not have been so distinctly gendered, at least in their encyclopedic cataloguing. Most representations in medieval bestiaries depict the creatures with bird bodies and female faces, but several manuscript illustrations appear androgynous and some even portray the harpy with a beard. The beard, however, may not be indicative of a male beast but instead emphasize the beastliness of the female creature.

Illumination of a harpy with facial feathers reminiscent of a beard from the medieval encyclopedia Der Naturen Bloeme, or The Flower of Nature, written in Middle Dutch and produced in Flanders circa 1350 (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, folio 75r).

Furthermore, Ovid’s retelling of the Jason story in his Metamorphoses specifically mentions the harpies having the faces of virgin women. Written in the 9th century, Ovid’s collection of myths served as a source text for many medieval writers, including Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, and his treatment of the harpies suggests that their association with female monstrosity continued to resonate soundly during the period.

Engraving of the harpies in the Forest of the Suicides in reference to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno by French printmaker Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Turning to the etymology of the term, the first recorded instance of harpy in English actually appears in Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale around 1405.[5] The creatures are not specifically gendered; they are simply mentioned among the monsters defeated by Hercules, at which point the text reads, “He Arpies slow, the crueel bryddes felle” [“He slew the Harpies, the fierce cruel birds”] (2100).[6] Yet one cannot help but see the feminine slippage in the spelling of “bryd,” meaning both “bird” and “bride” in Middle English.[7] Indeed, the term harpy adopts a derogatory connotation in writing by the mid- to late 15th century.[8] The term cockatrice, too, took on a negative meaning specifically with respect to women by the mid-16th century, at which point it referred to a prostitute or a sexually promiscuous woman.[9]

Illumination of a harpy with a female face from the medieval encyclopedia Liber de natura rerum, or Book on the Nature of Things, written in Latin and produced in France during the 13th century (Bibliothéque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320, folio 86r).

While it’s possible that the harpy may have maintained some gender ambiguity during the medieval period, contemporary etymology and ideology has synonymized the harpy with femaleness but also, importantly, with power. The sheer number of times Hillary Clinton was called a “harpy” during her presidential campaign highlights how a powerful woman was characterized as not only threatening but also monstrous while pursuing a position historically deemed male domain.[10]

Harpies in medieval fantasy films are also perched at the intersection of femaleness and power, glorious in their might regardless of how monstrous their bodies may be. The Last Unicorn, a 1982 animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 novel, provides a poignant example. Captured by a traveling circus, the titular character finds herself caged across from a harpy, the only authentic creature of legend in the menagerie apart from the unicorn herself.

In a magnificently ominous scene, the audience hears the harpy before they see her. A low growl grows to a raspy screech as the harpy appears on screen. She appears more bird than human, but her grotesque body is blatantly female with three elongated breasts visible beneath her beard and boar’s tusks. A knotted tree limb cracks from the strength of her talons, and her eyes glow red with rage when her captor approaches her cage. Once freed, she kills the old woman who boasted of keeping a harpy captive when no one else could.

In The Last Unicorn, the titular character recognizes the harpy as Celaeno, the same name given to one of the harpy sisters in the Greek story of Aeneas. The unicorn is freed from her cage under the cover of night, and she then proceeds to free her fellow immortal.

Considering the harpy’s history, it seems a shame to mistake her for any other creature from Greek mythology or medieval bestiaries. She has been such a fraught representation of both femininity and monstrosity, but she has also endured as a symbol of female ferocity. Even as her beauty eroded over the centuries, her power has not waned, and her macabre femininity has never ceased to inspire fear.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] Photos are prohibited in the museum, so I have no physical record of the image. I attempted to contact the Capuchin Museum regarding the object on display to acquire additional information, including the date and location of production, but received no response.

[2] “Cockatrice,” n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] “Basilisk,” The Medieval Bestiary.

[4] Fabulae from The Myths of Hyginus, translated and edited by Mary Grant.

[5] “Harpy,” n., def. 1, Oxford English Dictionary.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk’s Tale, The Canterbury Tales, Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website.

[7] “Brid” and “Brid(e,” n., Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan.

[8] “Harpy,” n., def. 2, Oxford English Dictionary.

[9] “Cockatrice,” n. def. 3, Oxford English Dictionary.

[10] For more on Greek mythology, female monstrosity, and contemporary resonance, I recommend Jess Zimmern’s Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology (Beacon Press 2022).

Glitter and Gore: Skull Cups in Early Britain and Gower’s Confessio Amantis

In preparation for the V International Congress of the John Gower Society in Scotland this summer, I’ve been exploring a twisted little tale from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis known as the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund.” The story sees Albinus, the newly crowned king of Lombardy, married to Rosemund, daughter of the previous king whom Albinus has slain. Despite the couple’s love for each other, Albinus tricks his wife into drinking from a cup that has been fashioned from the skull of her late father.

Painting by Pietro della Vecchia (1602/1603—1678) portraying Rosamund being forced to drink from the skull of her father by her husband, King Alboin, the 6th-century historical figures that inform Gower’s tale. Rosamund was not a willing bride, and Alboin did not disguise the skull from which he ordered her to drink.

Having been so elaborately adorned with precious stones atop a gold pedestal, the vessel no longer resembles a skull, and Albinus bids his bride, “Drink with thi father, Dame.”[1] Rosemund drinks. Albinus then reveals his cruelty, and Rosemund proceeds to have him murdered.

The tale made me wonder about the extent to which skulls have been used as drinking cups and whether the practice existed in the medieval period, perhaps even in Britain. I wondered, too, whether any remnants remained, particularly any as dazzling as the one Albinus debuts to Rosemund’s horror.

Vikings might seem the likely culprits, but Vikings did not, it seems, drink from the skulls of their enemies despite how deeply ingrained the association has become in popular culture. That said, the Poetic Edda contains a reference to cups created from skulls in the story of Wayland the Smith, who seeks vengeance against the king for his violent imprisonment. In the Old Norse narrative, Wayland kills the king’s two young sons and gifts their silver-gilded skulls to him, their eyes gruesomely replaced with glittering jewels.

The Frank’s Casket, a small Anglo-Saxon chest made from whale bone dated to the early 8th century and housed at the British Museum in London, depicts elements from the legend of Wayland the Smith as seen here on the left side of the panel. The figure on the far left is Wayland, whom King Niðhad has enslaved and disabled via the severing of his hamstrings. The headless body of the king’s sons lies at Wayland’s feet, his skull-turned-goblet held by the tongs in Wayland’s hands.  

Early Britons, however, did use skulls as crockery.

In 1987, researchers discovered cups crafted from human skulls in a cave in Somerset, England. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and a three-year-old child, were re-examined in 2011 and dated to 14,700 BP. As reported in The Guardian, “Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.”[2]

Markings on the bones suggest that the bodies were butchered for meat before the heads were severed, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the skulls served as trophies for those who repurposed them. Rather than being enemies, they may have died of natural causes, and it’s possible those who survived them intentionally preserved their skulls as a way of honoring them in death. But it is also possible that the skulls belonged to enemies according to Dr. Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who stated that “in ‘nine out of 10’ societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating the enemy.”[3]

One of the skull cups recovered from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England. Photo credit: Natural History Museum

Whatever the circumstances, the cups were by no means haphazardly made, and the physical evidence, including engraving on the bones, appears to be ritualistic, rather than simply cannibalistic. Based on research by scientist Dr. Silvia Bello, the Natural History Museum in London explains, “The painstaking preparation of the skull-cups suggests that they were prepared for a special purpose rather than just for nutrition. After all, it would have been much quicker and easier to just smash the skull the access the fatty brain inside.”[4] The craftmanship, therefore, is deliberate and thorough, even if the goblets themselves are not as glamorous as the one depicted in Gower’s tale.   

At nearly 15,000 years old, the cups found in Gough’s Cave obviously predate the medieval period, but Wales, in fact, retains a skull cup originating in the Middle Ages, as it was made from the remains of a 6th-century monk and bishop known as Saint Teilo. Set in silver atop a silver stand, the cup now sealed behind glass at Llandaf Cathedral was once used for healing purposes, apparently as recently as the 1940s. The water from Saint Teilo’s well, also located in Wales, was said to be most effective against chest ailments, especially when drunk from Saint Teilo’s skull and even more so if distributed to the sick by the hands of the skull’s keeper. Like other saintly relics, the cup is attributed with healing properties, largely separating it from the gore associated with dismemberment.

Close up of the features of Saint Teilo’s skull cup, housed at Llfandaf Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales. Photo credit: Holy and Healing Wells via Bill Walden-Jones. 

Returning to the skull cup from which Rosemund drinks, I have yet to render my verdict on the vessel’s meaning but see it as a vehicle signifying both consumption and catharsis not unlike these others from early Britain. After drinking from the body of her father, Rosemund releases her rage in retaliation against her husband’s tyranny, embodying the conqueror and effectively ending Albinus’s reign.

Emily McLemore, Ph.D.
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


[1] John Gower, Confessio Amantis, The Project Gutenberg eBook of Confessio Amantis, line 2551, 11 Aug 2022.

[2] Ian Sample, Cheddar cave dwellers ate their dead and turned their skulls into cups, The Guardian, 16 Feb 2011.

[3] Michael Balter, Ancient Britons Used Skulls as Cups, Science, 16 Feb 2011.

[4] Lisa Hendry, The Cannibals of Gough’s Cave, Natural History Museum, accessed 23 May 2023.  

By the Bones of Saint Cuthbert: Books, Embroidery, and Bodily Incorruption

When the Vikings invaded the northeastern coast of Britain in 793, they raided the monastery at Lindisfarne. The monks fled – and they carried with them the remains of Saint Cuthbert.

His coffin not only contained a corpse but also material relics, the Saint Cuthbert Gospel among them. The book so well preserved in his coffin has been recognized as a marvel among medieval manuscripts, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels, which the monks also saved from destruction by the Danes. Much like these extraordinary books, the embroidery that survived alongside Saint Cuthbert’s body is remarkable for its rarity.

The Lindisfarne Gospels has, as the British Library says, “long been acclaimed as the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.” Created circa 700, the elaborately decorated manuscript contains the four Gospels, which recount the life of Christ, as well as other associated texts. Photo of the front cover of the Lindisfarne Gospels, courtesy of the British Library.

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was born in 634 and spent his life as a monk, bishop, and hermit in the Kingdom of Northumbria. When he died in 687, he was buried at Lindisfarne. As the Venerable Bede recounts the story, Saint Cuthbert’s coffin was opened again 11 years later with the intention of removing his bones to a reliquary, but his body was found to be perfectly preserved.

From Bede’s “Life of Saint Cuthbert,” British Library MS 39943, dated 1180.

Under the duress of Danish attack, it was more than 100 years before the monks laid Saint Cuthbert to rest in Durham, where they settled in 995. Several artifacts accompanied Saint Cuthbert as he traveled posthumously around the English countryside, and the book and embroidery are very special for their survival.

The Saint Cuthbert Gospel was discovered when the coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and like the body of its patron, the book remained incredibly well preserved. Dated to the early 8th century, it is the earliest European book to retain an original, intact binding.[1] The covers are made from goatskin that has been dyed red and decorated; the tooled leather is stretched over wooden boards, most likely birch. It is a pocket-sized book measuring 5.4 by 3.6 inches, and the manuscript contains the Gospel of Saint John.

Housed at the British Library in London, the Saint Cuthbert Gospel can sometimes be seen on display in the Treasures of the British Library exhibition, sometimes alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels. Photo of the front cover of the Saint Cuthbert Gospel, courtesy of the British Library.

The British Library’s description of the binding beautifully correlates the book’s cover with its content. On its front cover, “the central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing the text, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, from St. John’s Gospel 15:5.”[2] On the back cover appears “rectangular borders containing a geometric, step-pattern double-armed cross, recalling John’s central role in the Crucifixion narrative.”[3]

Back cover of the Saint Cuthbert Gospel, courtesy of the British Library.

The other relics were discovered much later when Saint Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827. In addition to the saint’s body, Canon James Raine found a pectoral cross, a portable altar, an ivory comb, and a set of embroidered vestments.[4] The vestments, or religious robes, date between 909 and 916 and are the earliest pieces of embroidery that survive from the medieval period in England.

Only a few pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery survive at all, and these pieces are unique among the extant examples in that they feature full-length human figures. The vestments include a stole decorated with figures of Old Testament prophets and Apostles, as well as a maniple, a girdle, and bracelets. They are made from Byzantine silk with silk and gold thread decoration. According to inscriptions on the fabric, the vestments were commissioned by Queen Aelfflaed for the Bishop of Winchester and produced between 909 and 916. Her stepson, King Athelstan, who ruled England from 927 to 939, placed them in Saint Cuthbert’s tomb when he visited the shrine in 934.

The style of embroidery called Opus Anglicanum, or English Work, was used on clothing, hangings, and other textiles, often created with silk and gold or silver-gilt threads stitched on linen or velvet backgrounds. Between the late 12th and mid-14th centuries, these luxury goods were in great demand across Europe. Often they were procured as diplomatic gifts, and they were very expensive. They were produced for both secular and ecclesiastical use, but most of the surviving examples were designed for liturgical use like those found alongside Saint Cuthbert.

Although English embroidery was renowned for its beauty during the medieval period, the majority has been lost to neglect or destroyed for the extraction of precious metals or stones, such as pearls and other jewels mentioned in inventory descriptions. Fragments, however, can be found in museums, and one of the most substantial collections of Opus Anglicanum can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Embroidered in the Opus Anglicanum style, the Butler-Bowdon Cope is a ceremonial cloak that was created circa 1330-50 for use in church services and processions. The embroidery incorporates gold, silver, and colored silks, as well as freshwater seed pearls and glass beads, and depicts events from the life of the Virgin Mary. Photo of the Butler-Bowdon Cope, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The vestments recovered from Saint Cuthbert’s tomb can be seen on display at Durham Cathedral, where visitors can view the entire Treasures of Saint Cuthbert collection. The oak coffin made to cradle the saint’s body when he was found incorrupt in 698 also resides among the relics, its own fragmented body a reminder of what arduous travels medieval artifacts endure to remain with us in our own time.

Emily McLemore, Ph.D.
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


[1]St Cuthbert Gospel,” British Library.

[2]St Cuthbert Gospel,” British Library.

[3]St Cuthbert Gospel,” British Library.

[4]The treasures of Saint Cuthbert,” Durham Cathedral.