○ King Phineus and the Harpies


There once lived a king named Phineus,
Whom Zeus found quite ignominious,
So he sent forth spirits
To test the king's limits
Truly, the gods are fastidious!

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     In Greek mythology, Phineus was a prophet and the ruler of the northeastern region of Greece known as Thrace. Gifted with remarkable foresight, he unfortunately earns the scorn of Zeus, king of all the gods on Mt. Olympus. After he begins prophesying too accurately and revealing divine truths to mere mortals, Zeus' wrath can no longer be contained.


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Phineus was skilled in prophecy,
But showed men things they oughtn't see.
Well, this angered King Zeus,
And his wrath he loosed,
And what follows is what came to be...

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     As punishment, Zeus blinds the king of Thrace and leaves him on an island. On the island is a buffet brimming with delicious food and drink, none of which is there for Phineus' pleasure. Harpies were the spirits of short, violent blasts of wind, and were often blamed for the sudden disappearances of people or belongings. Known as the "hounds of Zeus," the king of the gods often dispatched them when someone or something needed removing from the earth. In this case, it is not Phineus whom they seek to snatch away, but something else entirely...


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At least he did not lack for food,
But Zeus had sent a terrible brood.
For before each bite,
They would quickly take flight
And snatch it before it was chewed!

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     It was Zeus' will that Phineus never enjoy so much as a piece of bread during this everlasting feast, for each time he would sit down to eat, the harpies would rob him of his meal in some cruel fashion or another before he could savor even the tiniest morsel. Sometimes they would swoop in and steal his plate altogether, while other times the fearsome bird-women would leave the plate in an act of deception, replacing its formerly delicious contents with some foul, unpalatable scraps, cawing and shrieking all the while.


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Unto the poor, blinded king of Thrace,
With broad wings, human neck and face,
They flew swiftly and cawed
Leaving Phineus awed
Unable to give meaningful chase.

To his Court came spirits of the wind,
Sharp and sudden gusts—no man's friend.
Harpies, as they are known,
Make men reap what they've sown,
And little can be done to defend.

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     Phineus' punishment lasts until Jason and the Argonauts come ashore on his island. Although he cannot see his saviors, he knows who they are—his gift of prophecy had not been diminished by Zeus' wrath—and he tells them of his torment. Upon hearing his story, two of the Argonauts, sons of Boreas, the North Wind, take flight and chase the harpies away. They vehemently pursue the wicked creatures until Iris, divine messenger, tells them to break off their chase lest they kill the harpies and anger the gods. Grateful, Phineus foretells the results of the Argonauts' labors and imparts some advice on how to reach Colchis safely. This advice ultimately saves their lives and allows them to meet with their next challenge waiting for them across the Black Sea—the bronze bulls of King Aeetes.
    
Harpies in the Infernal Wood. From Inferno XIII by Gustave Doré, 1861. Source.










King Phineus and the harpies. Athenian red-figure hydria, c. 5th century BC. Source.










A harpy in Ulisse Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia, 1642. Source.