Explore highlights
Stonepaste cup in the shape of a harpy


Length: 12.700 cm

ME OA 1965.10-11.1

Room 34: The Islamic world

    Stonepaste cup in the shape of a harpy

    From Iran
    Late 12th or early 13th century AD

    A harpy is a mythical bird with the head of a woman. It features in many contexts and traditions as a creature with magical powers and otherworldly associations. Human-headed birds represent heavenly musicians in Uighur Turkish illustrations of Buddhist stories. The sirens of Homer's Odyssey were also musically gifted, though more sinister: they used their sweet singing to lure sailors to their deaths. In the legends of Alexander the Great, the hero consults similar creatures, who are renowned for their wisdom. The creatures are also depicted on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Saljuq tombs in Anatolia, representing the soul-birds who carry the deceased into the afterworld, like the harpies of classical mythology. Harpies also appear as gargoyles on the walls of cities and palaces in Saljuq Anatolia, as symbols against evil. The human-headed bird is also used in Islamic astrological iconography, as a symbol for the planet Mercury. Harpies also feature in Islamic art as decorative devices with generally positive connotations, as do other mythical beasts such as griffins and sphinxes.

    There is an ancient precedent for ceramic vessels in the shape of human-headed birds, such as a clay perfume-container from seventh- or sixth-century BC Corinth, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The associations of perfume are consistent with the seductive reputation of the siren.

    E. Atil, Ceramics from the world of Isl (Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., 1973)

    J. Cherry, Mythical beasts-3 (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

    E. Baer, Sphinxes and harpies in Mediev (The Israel Oriental Society, Jerusalem, 1965)


    Browse or search over 4,000 highlights from the Museum collection

    On display: Room 34: The Islamic world

    Shop Online

    Islamic art, design and craft, £14.99

    Islamic art, design and craft, £14.99