Lately I've been thinking about Harpies and Seraphim. Feminine-gendered monsters are endlessly interesting to me, I like reconsidering and reimagining them as omens of good luck or as protectors. Harpies and Seraphim have been occupying my brain as of late.
Image: A harpy in Ulisse Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642
I love Harpies.
Harpies are traditionally thought of as "hags" who screech and taunt their victims. Virgil described Harpies as "Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they (Harpies) are; abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable." Harpies, from Greek mythology, originally seem to have been wind spirits (personifications of the destructive nature of wind). Their name means "snatchers" or "swift robbers" according to some etymologies, and they steal food from their victims while and carry wrong-doers to the Erinyes, the deities of Vengeance (Furies). When a person suddenly disappeared from the earth, it was said that they had been carried off by the Harpies.
In a book which I read many times as a child, the series His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Harpies are given the task of guarding the Underworld. They punish the dead by repeating to them every evil or cruel thing they've ever done. However, they are swayed by the main character who recounts the truth of her life to them, and they cry for the first time and promise to aid her. From then on, they act more so like benevolent psychopomps, bringing the dead through the underworld and listening to the story of their lives.
Seraphim on the other hand, though possessing similar physical traits of a human face and winged body, are quite different in their mythology. Tradition places seraphim in the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy and in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy.
Image: Sketch for a fresco in the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev, by Viktor Vasnetsov
Seraphim are not described as human/bird hybrids - but also, they aren't the angels one would visualize from typical imagery: "Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." (Isaiah 6:1–3) Sometimes these angels are depicted as floating heads with wings erupting from all sides; sometimes, like this sketch by Vasnetsov, a more conventional body is shown.
In the Book of Revelation, the seraphim are described slightly different from the account of Isaiah, stating in the eighth verse, "Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings." There's something quite frightening about this description, it's rather monstrous. However many original descriptions of angels are not so...angelic. For example, Cherubs: super cute round pudgy babies with wings, right? WRONG. The Cherubim order have four faces; human, ox, lion, and an eagle. They also have four conjoined wings covered with eyes (presumably blinking).
This new piece feels like the seraphim/harpies are witnesses, watching. Like Harpies, they will take someone away who's done wrong. Sharp claws and (lots of) sharp eyes. This is still a work in progress, but I'm enjoying the challenge of the wings and spending more time on the underpainting than I usually do.
So many wikipedia links. I grew up in a education-age where wikipedia was completely un-cited and full of vagueness and "facts," with heavy heavy scare quotes. I'm not used to relying on it so heavily!
You can check out my instagram for more images of the different stages this piece is going through