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).

Chaucer and the Internet: Revisiting the House of Fame

internet—“a network of networks” (Wikipedia)

“network: anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections” (Dr. Johnson; johnsonsdictionaryonline.com)

Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as an innovator who made the first translation of one of his contemporary Petrarch’s sonnets into English, and who may have initiated the now-universal association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love.  He may also, in his poetic dream vision The House of Fame, have given us a premonition of the staggering power and potential for misuse of the modern-day internet.  The narrator/protagonist of this poem, named Geoffrey, is taken to visit the goddess Fame by a giant eagle.  Her palace, which he visits first, is impressive but disappointing, as Geoffrey fails to find what he seeks there.  In the final 250 lines of the poem, he is taken to a nearby structure, which critics at least as far back as George Lyman Kittredge[i] have referred to as the House of Rumor. This is the section of the poem that forecasts the internet as we know it today.

Standard Symbol for the Internet and World Wide Web.

The eagle chides Geoffrey on their first meeting for his introverted habit of coming home every night to spend the evening like a hermit (or scholar during pandemic lockdown) with his books. What Geoffrey needs, and what the eagle has been sent by Jupiter to help him acquire, are “tidings” of what is happening in the world outside. The Middle English word “tidinges” is glossed as “news” in the Norton Chaucer.[ii]  The University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary [iii] suggests a variety of other meanings, including “report,” “information” (both specific and general), “message,” “announcement,” “gossip,” and “rumor.”  All of these taken together seem to sum up the variety of things that people today search for on the internet.

The eagle tells Geoffrey that the House of Fame is located at a point equidistant from earth, sky, and sea, so that any spoken word from any of these locations must travel there. In the grand palace of Fame herself, however, Geoffrey does not find any of the “tidings” he seeks. He is then guided to another nearby structure, the so-called House of Rumor. Geoffrey labels it a “house,” and compares it to the labyrinth built by Daedalus in Greco-Roman mythology, but the term “House of Rumor” is never used in the poem. Critics have identified Chaucer’s source for this image with the house of fame described by Ovid in the 12th book of his Metamorphoses; although Ovid does say that thousands of rumors can be found there (“milia rumorum,” line 12:55), the goddess he places in charge is Fama (Fame), not Rumor.[iv]

 The structure itself is sixty miles long, made of twigs.  The twigs are woven together in a way that suggests baskets or cages to the narrator, and he notices thousands of holes throughout the weave. This presumably circular structure, formed of interlocking strands, is eerily like the visual depictions of the internet that are produced when it is imagined as a visible structure. The very name “internet” suggests such an interlocking construction to the mind. Today, we picture the strands in diagrams of the internet as the pathways along which our information travels, but for Chaucer, it is the holes in between the twigs that allow tidings to escape.

‘The House of Rumor’ as depicted by Edward Burne-Jones in The Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by
William Morris, 1896. Image acquired from ARTSTOR.

The entire structure of this house is constantly spinning, so fast that Geoffrey is unable to enter without the eagle’s assistance, and a loud noise issues from it. The noise the house makes as it spins is described first as resembling the sound of a stone flying from a catapult or that of a strong wind, but from inside come other sounds that Chaucer calls “gigges” and “chirkinges” (lines 1942-43), which Eleanor Parker in “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World” links to “tweets” and “Twitter”—after all, the entire house has already been compared to a bird cage.[v]  The twittering sounds are presumably made by the tidings themselves, which Chaucer does seem to imagine like birds in a cage.  In all, we are presented with a bewildering sense of speed and power associated with the house, coupled with the impression that the tidings, while they may be small, have a life and energy all their own.

The only way for Geoffrey to enter the structure is with the help of the eagle, who acts like a modern search engine. When he drops Geoffrey through a window, the structure stops spinning for a moment and allows his entrance. Inside, Geoffrey finds “tidings” of every sort—news about war and peace, work and leisure, life and death, loss and gain, and even about such things as weather and the prices of goods. All the tidings are being shared from person to person among a great crowd of figures that fills the space; Geoffrey had been told earlier by the eagle that these are embodied figures representing the people who first spoke the tidings down on earth. Like a game of “telephone,” the tidings are passed from ear to ear, growing with each repetition, until when each tiding reaches its full size, it flies through a window to spread itself freely—essentially “going viral.” 

Some of the tidings Geoffrey observes are true, and some are false. Both are being spread with equal enthusiasm. We are not told how Geoffrey is able to tell the difference, but within the dream vision, it is apparently obvious. He also notices that, as they try to escape through the spaces between the twigs, sometimes two tidings will become stuck as they squeeze through the same hole, so that he sees many instances in which a true tiding and a false tiding become stuck together and intermingled so that no one henceforth will be able to separate them again. All of this seems to be a very prescient depiction of the way that information both true and false is spread on today’s internet with incredible speed, growing and changing as it is repeated so that it is very difficult to tell whether much of it is true, false, or a blend of both.

Living and working in London as he does, Geoffrey would already be positioned to hear most of the tidings spreading through his world.  The intervention of Jupiter and his giant eagle seems unnecessary just to bring Geoffrey news, and in fact he never gains any concrete tidings within the confines of the poem. The true gift that he is being given may be this, even temporary, ability to discern the difference between true and false tidings, which those who encounter the tidings after they escape the House of Rumor clearly cannot do. Nor, unfortunately, can many users of the internet in our own day.

Chaucer’s poem, which he left unfinished, does not manage to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.  As Geoffrey is walking around listening for tidings, his attention is drawn by a loud noise in the corner where love tidings are shared. Everyone in the structure rushes to this corner, pushing and straining to hear some important announcement. In the last lines of the poem as we have it, a figure appears that Geoffrey says he cannot identify, except that “he seemed for to be/ A man of gret auctoritee” (“great authority,” lines 2157-58). As soon as a “great authority” appears, someone whose word seems to represent true and reliable information, the entire structure of the House of Rumor apparently collapses—or at least, Chaucer has no more to say about it. For hundreds of years, readers have debated Chaucer’s intended identity of this “great authority.” Users of today’s internet likewise seem unable to identify yet still seek an authoritative source of information that would have the power to quell rumor and uncertainty. If our culture could find such a universally recognized source as an alternative to our current twittering, buzzing, rumor-laden communications, many of our cultural conflicts might even vanish, like a dream in a dream vision poem.

Angela Fulk, Ph.D.
Dept. of English
SUNY Buffalo State


[i] Kittredge, George Lyman. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard UP, 1915.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Chaucer. Edited by David Lyman. Norton, 2019. All quotations from Chaucer are taken from this edition.

[iii] Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/>. Accessed 05 May 2021.

[iv] Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Latin Library. thelatinlibrary.com. Accessed 6 May 2021.

[v] Parker, Eleanor. “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World.” History Today. historytoday.com/out-margins/chaucers-post-truth-world. Accessed 6 May 2021.