Monday, December 3, 2012

A Cunning Array Of Stunts


My last post about gargoyles reminded me of Raoul Servais' Harpya (1979).

In this short film, a man falls in love with a bird-woman and takes her home with him, only to become a victim of her ravenous appetite. It's both hilarious and super creepy.

Just take those squidgy shoes off, man. Seriously.

Watching this again made me think about how many grotesque frescoes involve women with wings. When you look, they all do.

As the figure below illustrates in extremis, female grotesque bodies are often reduced to three key features - head, breasts, and wings.

These are not harpies in the traditional sense, though.

Harpies have their origins in Greek mythology. As E. M. Berens explains in A Hand-book of Mythology (1894):

The Harpies, who, like the Furies, were employed by the gods as instruments for the punishment of the guilty, were three female divinities, daughters of Thaumas and Electra, called Aello, Ocypete, and Cel├Žno.

They were represented with the head of a fair-haired maiden and the body of a vulture, and were perpetually devoured by the pangs of insatiable hunger, which caused them to torment their victims by robbing them of their food; this they either devoured with great gluttony, or defiled in such a manner as to render it unfit to be eaten.

Their wonderfully rapid flight far surpassed that of birds, or even of the winds themselves. If any mortal suddenly and unaccountably disappeared, the Harpies were believed to have carried him off. Thus they were supposed to have borne away the daughters of King Pandareos to act as servants to the Erinyes.

The Harpies would appear to be personifications of sudden tempests, which, with ruthless violence, sweep over whole districts, carrying off or injuring all before them.


Most contemporary representations of the harpy follow this early model, depicting the winged woman as a dangerous, hungry force of nature.

Some are scarier than others...

'Harpy' has also become a more general term for women who behave in an unacceptable manner towards men, who take too much and give too little, who 'harp on' about things.

As the Urban Dictionary's most popular definition puts it, a harpy is:
A word to describe a women [sic] who draws a man into her grasp by pleasing the victims biggest desire only to destroy all that makes him what he is.
A woman with an unbearable, shrewish, pain in the ass nature. In other words, a bitch or a harridan, especially a somewhat unappealing one.


In her book The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo suggests that women who fly offer a model of deviance that constitutes a potentially transgressive "grotesque" performance. She is particularly interested in female circus performers, acrobats and pilots, whose activities transcend the imagined limits of the female body and mind.

[Stephanie Smith, human cannonball (2005). Via]

Russo wonders if "instances of aerial leaps and falls may suggest an alternative to the notion of liberation as upward mobility and flight forward," while simultaneously warning that "they end badly" (30). The woman who performs daring stunts, who throws herself off the edges of things and defies gravity, will often crash back down to earth.

I like the idea that stunts and falling are a function of agency, rather than a sign of its failure. As Russo points out, "freedom is often uncritically conceived as limitless space, transcendence, newness, individualism, and upward mobility of various kinds" (50). In contrast, falling involves "a reversal of the usual metaphors." It is downward mobility - a rough, even deadly encounter with limits and universals. Yet it results from attempts to go beyond safe zones, to risk unsanctioned moves and try new shapes. I fancy it is this spirit that infects the winged grotesques, with their ridiculous and impossible bodies.

Perhaps not such a bad thing, then, to be a harpy.

Although eating someone's parrot is going too far. Don't do it, ladies.

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