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).

Working in the Archives – The Vatican Secret Archives

This post continues an ongoing special series of the Notre Dame Medieval Studies Research Blog called “Working in the Archives.” This series focuses on practical knowledge for accessing archives across Europe and North Africa, for making each archival visit a productive one, and for enhancing the quality of life of the researcher during the visit.

This entry in the series will discuss how to navigate a trip to one of the most famous archives in the world: the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), or the Vatican Secret Archives.

Below, I will discuss what is needed to make an archival visit to the ASV productive. I take each archive in turn, explaining how to get to both archives from the various modes of transit in Rome (bus, metro, walking), what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and other essential information needed for a successful research trip.

How to Get There (ASV) Cortile del Belvedere – 00120 Città del Vaticano

Public transit is the most affordable way to get around Rome and to the Vatican unless staying near the archive. A bus will get you the closest to the ASV, with buses 32, 81, and 590 dropping off at the Piazza del Risorgimento, the stop nearest the Porta Sant’Anna, the entry to Vatican City on its eastern side. If you would like to take the metro, the nearest metro stop is the A-line stop, Ottaviano. There are three metro lines in Rome, with lines A and B intersecting at Roma Termini, Rome’s train station, and lines A and C connecting at stop San Giovanni. A weekly public transit ticket (7 calendar days) costs 24 euros. I found this method the most convenient, as the ticket allows access to both buses and the metro.

The ASV website does not say by which gate a researcher to the archive is supposed to enter. As mentioned just above, the gate is the Porta Sant’Anna, which is the gate by which cars enter the Vatican. Once at the gate, you must pass through multiple lines of security, beginning with the Swiss Guard watching the gate. Prepare yourself for an awkward first exchange, as you will not have your research card your first time entering the archive. You must collect it at the archive itself. Do not expect the guard to know English and be ready with a few prepared sentences or a piece of paper explaining the situation. After the first visit, it is a much less stressful experience.

After you pass through security, head up the Via Sant’Anna into the Belvedere Courtyard, then take a right. The ASV overlooks the adjacent courtyard, the Cortile della Bibliotecha sitting next to the Sistine Salon.

What You Need to Access the Archive

Of all the archives I have personally visited, accessing the Vatican Secret Archives is certainly the most complicated. Before visiting the archive, one must first fill out an application online: http://www.archiviosegretovaticano.va/content/archiviosegretovaticano/en/consultazione/admission-request.html. Before filling out the application, the researcher must have a detailed research plan—what holdings one plans to consult and the length and dates of the planned visit to the archive must be known before approval is granted. The application itself contains a Collection Index by which you can identify the desired collection, however, for those not confident in their Italian, navigating it will perhaps be difficult. I would recommend consulting Francis X. Blouin’s Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See as a supplement to the application process.[1] Finally, an affiliation with a university and a letter of introduction are also both required.

The approval process for access for an ASV card takes less than a week, and in my experience, was handled and approved on the same day.

Some Important Details of the ASV

After your research plan and topic have been approved, the ASV will prepare your card for pickup from the archival reception counter. The ASV does not send you your research card in the mail! You must first go to the archive to get the card, and subsequent visits pass much more smoothly. Additionally, while it is always nice to dress professionally while conducting archival research, there is an actual dress code for researchers in the Secret Archives and its subsidiaries. Dress clothes are required, and I personally wore a blazer, although it is not specifically mandated.

Be prepared for several barriers to effective archival research when working at the Vatican Secret Archives. First, you cannot take photos in the Secret Archive. While unsurprising considering the nature of the material, the ASV also does not allow consultation of more than 5 archival items per day (3 in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon). Furthermore, photocopies of archival material, digital or print, are extremely expensive. The archive charges a flat fee of 8 euros to scan any archival item. On top of this flat fee, the archive charges 2 euros per page for the first hundred pages scanned. After the first hundred pages, however, they cost .80 cents.  So, were I to request a single scanned page, it would cost me 10 euros. Two pages would cost me 12 euros, and so on. Scanning a page from two different archival units would cost 20 euros.

If applying for grants to research at the ASV, I strongly encourage you to factor in this cost into your grant applications.

As a final note, the ASV closes at the end of June and reopens in September, leaving no room for scholars or researchers planning to visit in the later summer months. This information is readily available, but it is still an important thing to consider in planning your trip.

Quality of Life

One of the nicest parts of conducting research in Rome is the abundance of good food and good coffee to be found almost anywhere in the center of the city. There are many little coffee shops and restaurants right next to the Porta Sant’Anna, although they are expensive and crowded. If you don’t mind a little walk, there are cheaper (but still good!) restaurants and coffee shops south of the Vatican, along the Via Aurelia and the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri.

Regarding places to stay, Air B&B and the like can be quite expensive in the center of Rome and near the Vatican, especially if you are traveling alone. A financially sensible alternative is to stay in one of the many monasteries located near the Vatican. Many of these are populated with practicing monks and nuns, providing a much different experience than a normal hotel or B&B. I stayed in the Santa Emilia De Vialar, about a 20-minute walk from the Vatican gates.

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

[1] Francis X. Blouin, Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).