Harpies were mainly winged death-spirits, half bird and half woman, best known for constantly stealing all food from Phineas of Thrace. The literal meaning of the word seems to be "that which grabs" as it comes from the ancient Greek word "ἁρπάζω" (harpaxo) which means "I grab". Harpies could also bring life. The four harpies are Aello, Celaeno, Ocypete and Podarge. They were the children of Thaumas and Electra. Their other sisters were Iris and Arke.

A harpy was the mother by the West Wind Zephyrus of the horses of Achilles. Hesiod (in his Theogony) calls them two "lovely-haired" creatures. Harpies as beautiful winged bird-women are a late development, in parallel with the transformation of the Siren, a creature malign though seductive, but gradually softened by the Athenian imagination into a sorrowful death angel. On a vase in the Berlin Museum, a harpy has a small figure of a hero in each claw, but her head is recognizably a Gorgon, with goggling eyes, protruding tongue and fangs.

They appear also in the Aeneid by Virgil.