In Dante’s Inferno, harpies inhabited the tortured wood where suicides have their eternal punishment in the seventh ring of Hell. Fitting, harpies were indeed created for that purpose. They are the agents of punishment, abducting and torturing those condemned by the gods. In legend, King Phineas used his gift of prophecy to betray the great god Zeus. Angry and betrayed, King Phineas was punished with blindness and exile to a single island with a buffet of food to fend for himself. The “hounds of Zeus,” the harpies, as torment, circled and followed Phineas, who stole and befouled his food just as he was about to satiate his hunger.
Harpies are sadistically playful. As in myth, they appear as old women, hunched or stooped, with long, drawn faces and cold eyes. They do not have literal wings, but they are incredibly fast, able to exact incredible bursts of speed for short periods of time. For this reason they isolate and lure in their prey with scenes indicative of a feeble old woman needing help. Just when that feeling sets in, that something is not quite right, that maybe you should run the other way, that is when they hurl themselves forward, clawing and grasping, smothering and stifling, and ultimately, devouring.