Vergil's Aeneid, Books 2-3

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Harpies

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 850 words.

When the winds die down, Aeneas and the Trojans land at the Strophades islands in the Ionian Sea, to the west of mainland Greece (see map). The Strophades islands are inhabited by creatures called "Harpies", from the Greek verb harpazo, meaning "snatch or seize." Aeneas leaves the Strophades behind and then heads west to a city called Buthrotum, located on the western coast of Greece, in what is today Albania. There are extensive ruins of the city that can still be seen today.

Free of the waves I'm welcomed first by the shores
of the Strophades, the Clashing Islands. The Strophades
are fixed now in the great Ionian Sea, but are called
by the Greek name. There dread Celaeno and the rest
of the Harpies live, since Phineus's house was denied them,
and they left his tables where they fed, in fear.

No worse monsters than these, no crueller plague,
ever rose from the waters of Styx, at the gods' anger.
These birds have the faces of virgin girls,
foulest excrement flowing from their bellies,
clawed hands, and faces always thin with hunger.

Now when, arriving here, we enter port,
we see fat herds of cattle scattered over the plains,
and flocks of goats, unguarded, in the meadows.
We rush at them with our swords, calling on Jove himself
and the gods to join us in our plunder: then we build
seats on the curving beach, and feast on the rich meats.

But suddenly the Harpies arrive, in a fearsome swoop
from the hills, flapping their wings with a huge noise,
snatching at the food, and fouling everything with their
filthy touch: then there's a deadly shriek amongst the foul stench.

We set out the tables again, and relight the altar fires,
in a deep recess under an overhanging rock,
closed off by trees and trembling shadows:
again from another part of the sky, some hidden lair,
the noisy crowd hovers, with taloned feet around their prey,
polluting the food with their mouths. Then I order my friends
to take up their weapons and make war on that dreadful race.
They do exactly that, obeying orders, placing hidden swords
in the grass, and burying their shields out of sight.

Then when the birds swoop, screaming, along the curved beach,
Misenus, from his high lookout, gives the signal on hollow bronze.
My friends charge, and, in a new kind of battle, attempt
to wound these foul ocean birds with their swords.
But they don't register the blows to their plumage, or the wounds
to their backs, they flee quickly, soaring beneath the heavens,
leaving behind half-eaten food, and the traces of their filth.

Only Celaeno, ominous prophetess, settles on a high cliff,
and bursts out with this sound from her breast:
"Are you ready to bring war to us, sons of Laomedon, is it war,
for the cows you killed, the bullocks you slaughtered,
driving the innocent Harpies from their father's country?
Take these words of mine to your hearts then, and set them there.

"I, the eldest of the Furies, reveal to you what the all-powerful
Father prophesied to Apollo, and Phoebus Apollo to me.
Italy is the path you take, and, invoking the winds,
you shall go to Italy, and enter her harbours freely:
but you will not surround the city granted you with walls
until dire hunger, and the sin of striking at us, force you
to consume your very tables with devouring jaws."

She spoke, and fled back to the forest borne by her wings.
But my companions' chill blood froze with sudden fear:
their courage dropped, and they told me to beg for peace,
with vows and prayers, forgoing weapons,
no matter if these were goddesses or fatal, vile birds.

And my father Anchises, with outstretched hands, on the shore,
called to the great gods and declared the due sacrifice:
"Gods, avert these threats, gods, prevent these acts,
and, in peace, protect the virtuous!" Then he ordered us
to haul in the cables from the shore, unfurl and spread the sails.
South winds stretched the canvas: we coursed over foaming seas,
wherever the winds and the helmsman dictated our course.

Now wooded Zacynthus appeared amongst the waves,
Dulichium, Same and Neritos's steep cliffs.
We ran past Laertes's kingdom, Ithacas's reefs,
and cursed the land that reared cruel Ulysses.
Soon the cloudy heights of Mount Leucata were revealed,
as well, and Apollo's headland, feared by sailors.
We headed wearily for it, and approached the little town:
the anchor was thrown from the prow, the stern rested on the beach.

So, beyond hope, achieving land at last, we purify
ourselves for Jove, and light offerings on the altars,
and celebrate Trojan games on the shore of Actium.
My naked companions, slippery with oil,
indulge in the wrestling-bouts of their homeland:
it's good to have slipped past so many Greek cities
and held our course in flight through the midst of the enemy.

Meanwhile the sun rolls through the long year
and icy winter stirs the waves with northerly gales:
I fix a shield of hollow bronze, once carried by mighty Abas,
on the entrance pillars, and mark the event with a verse:


then I order them to man the benches and leave harbour:
in rivalry, my friends strike the sea and sweep the waves.
We soon leave behind the windblown heights of Phaeacia,
pass the shores of Epirus, enter Chaonia's harbour
and approach the lofty city of Buthrotum.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what do the Harpies look like? what do they do?
  • what happened when Aeneas and his men attacked the Harpies?
  • what kind of curse did the harpy Celaeno put on Aeneas?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Vergil's Aeneid (2002). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Vergil's Aeneid freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM