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).

Leaving the Beaten Path with Dr. Andrea Robiglio

In the latest episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages,” Ben and Will sit down with Dr. Andrea Robiglio, professor of History of Philosophy at KU Leuven. We spoke about the wide world of pre-modern philosophy and the ways in which the field of philosophy is at heart a “vain struggle to define something.” We also discussed the works of Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom illustrate the surprising truth that the many of the conceptual practices we take to be modern have deep roots in medieval philosophy and theology.

Dr. Andrea Robiglio, professor of History of Philosophy at KU Leuven

During our conversation with Dr. Robiglio this month, the sheer range and interdisciplinarity of the professor’s work was staggering. “Interdisciplinary” is something of a buzzword in Medieval Studies at the moment, and it can sometimes result in superficial or imprecise research. But Dr. Robiglio does far more than merely gesture to neighboring fields in his work. He weaves together intensely close readings a la literary studies, in-depth historical analysis, and, of course, precise philosophical insights. We moved from recent historical fiction to early 20th century scholars, from Dante to Umberto Eco and back. His research is a trove of the riches that can be found when one takes a holistic view, pursuing different threads and weaving them together. It seemed natural to us, then, to title this episode “Leaving the Beaten Path.” He may have been more comfortable calling himself a “Pre-modern Philosopher,” but it was clear to us that his integration of Latin and vernacular(s) texts, from a whole host of authors and composers, into an analytical approach that is as ready to embrace the secular as the religious makes him a formidable medievalist.

A recurring theme in our conversation was that of modernity in philosophy. We tend to think of our postmodern world, with its proliferating multiplicities, as a response to the grand theories of modernism. It is a response, we tell ourselves, to modernism’s tendency towards teleology, structures, and hierarchy. But in so many ways, postmodernism is a medieval phenomenon. The Middle Ages, at least in Western Europe, grew among the ruins of the centralized, systematized Roman Empire. Medieval society tended towards localisation, a tangled web of nodes each representing conflicting groups and interests. For Robiglio, it seems that figures like Dante and Thomas Aquinas also resist hierarchy in their writing and draw on a wide range of sometimes conflicting sources. Aquinas was willing to push back against the hegemony of religious thinking and introduce secular philosophy into his work. Perhaps to the point that the distinctions between the two categories start to blur. It’s a remarkably postmodern kind of thinking. As people say, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

The Medievalism of Dorothy L. Sayers

The cover of the biography of Sayers written by her student and friend, Barbara Reynolds (Amazon.com).

            On October 14, 1920, the words, “domina, magistra” were spoken by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University at the first ever graduation day for women. The grammatically feminine gender of these Latin words marked a major twentieth-century transition for university education. Among this first group of women was Dorothy L. Sayers. She was awarded a first-class MA degree in modern languages, a degree that she had earned in its entirety at Somerville College, Oxford University five years before but could not receive at the time merely because she was female. While her degree was in modern languages, at the time, and especially under the influence of the medievalist at Somerville College, Mildred Pope, an undergraduate degree in modern languages would have contained quite a bit of medieval studies, and this influence can be seen throughout her varied career. Whether Dorothy was writing advertisment campaigns for Guiness Beer (she did the Toucan campaign) or Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels or radio dramas on the Life of Christ for the BBC or translating the Song of Roland and Dante’s Commedia, the Middle Ages seems to never be far from her mind.

The first female graduates from Somerville College, Oxford University (https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/about/a-brief-history-of-somerville/degrees-for-women/).

            Perhaps my favorite example from the Lord Peter mystery series occurs merely in her early characterization of Lord Peter in Whose Body? (1923). Dorothy Sayers admitted later than one of her motivations for writing Lord Peter, besides the need to earn money, was a certain kind of wish fulfillment during her own economically uncertain times. She imagines a character who has the means to live a life that she can only dream about. And what does Lord Peter do? He has his man, Bunter secure the purchase of rare books from an auction house while he follows up on a lead for his murder investigation:

“Thanks. I am going to Battersea at once. I want you to attend the sale for me. Don’t lose time—I don’t want to miss the Folio Dante* nor the de Voragine—here you are—see? ‘Golden Legend’—Wynkyn de Worde, 1493—got that?—and, I say, make a special effort for the Caxton folio of the ‘Four Sons of Aymon’—it’s the 1489 folio and unique. Look! I’ve marked the lots I want, and put my outside offer against each. Do your best for me. I shall be back to dinner.”

She even gives a footnote:

Aldine 8vo. of 1502, the Naples folio of 1477—”edizione rarissima,” according to Colomb. This copy has no history, and Mr. Parker’s private belief is that its present owner conveyed it away by stealth from somewhere or other. Lord Peter’s own account is that he “picked it up in a little place in the hills,” when making a walking-tour through Italy.

Notice that this isn’t an example of high-level scholarly influence. It is about the formation of her loves and passions soon after leaving Oxford. When she could fantasize about doing anything with money, she fantasizes about having enough money to buy expensive incunabula of Dante and de Voragine!

            In addition to writing mystery novels, one of Dorothy Sayers’ earliest jobs after graduation was working at an advertising firm, the one for which she developed the Guiness Beer campaign. It appears from a paper given years later at a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that medieval studies may have given her a unique perspective on the advertising industry. She gave this paper almost twenty years after personally working in advertising (and writing Murder Must Advertise based upon her experience) but only a few years after the end of World War II, when the powers of propaganda in the modern world were first beginning to be fully recognized. With these experiences in mind, she writes:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of or unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechancial fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?…Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by water-tight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experience great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between, let us say, algebra and detective fiction…between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Sayers suggests that the susceptibility of modern people to advertising and propaganda may be the result modern education. She even goes so far as to suggest that a return to the medieval trivium might be the best antidote! While realizing her proposal might be laughable, Sayers suggests that the issue is that “modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholars as he goes along” whereas “medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” The medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was not really a series of “subjects” but rather a way to train students in the verbal arts, enabling them to then apply those arts to whatever subject they studied. Without this kind of medieval training, the modern person is enslaved to those with the ability to spin words most effectively.

            These examples from Whose Body? and “The Lost Tools of Learning” give only a taste of the way Sayers’ undergraduate education in medieval studies shaped her later work. More could be written about resemblances between medieval mystery plays and Sayers’ 12-part BBC radio drama on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King (and the way her medieval approach caused major controversy in 1942), not to mention her more serious scholarly pursuits translating The Divine Comedy (1949/1955)and The Song of Roland (1957). More could also be said on her remarks on medieval female brewsters in “Are Women Human?” (1947). What becomes clear, however, when one looks at her varied career is the impact of medieval studies upon the whole. The seeds of medieval studies sown at Oxford seem to have born fruit in her distinctively twentieth-century, modern life, one of the only times in history that a female graduate from Oxford University could be an advertiser, mystery novelist, radio dramatist, amateur educational theorist, and independent scholar.

First editions of Dorothy Sayer’s medieval works (abebooks.com).


Lesley-Anne Williams
PhD in Medieval Studies (2011)
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Selected Bibliography

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Classics, 1950.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Classics, 1955.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. Twenty-Seventh Printing edition. Harmondsworth Eng.; Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1962.

Moulton, Mo. The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. First edition. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Lost Tools of Learning. Louisville, Kentucky: GLH Publishing, 2016.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition. Edited by Kathryn Wehr. Annotated edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Song of Roland. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1957.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Three for Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body? Clouds of Witness. Unnatural Death. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Whyte, Brendan. “Munster’s Monster Meets Dorothy’s Dragon: Lord Peter Wimsey Consults the Cartography of the ‘Cosmographia.’” Globe (Melbourne), no. 91 (2022): 61–74.