In Greek Mythology, what Were the Stymphalian Birds?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Stymphalian birds were a crew of tough customers belonging to Ares, the Greek god of war. These birds were apparently extremely vicious and unpleasant, and they were ultimately eradicated from Greece by the hero Hercules, as part of his 12 labors, a series of challenging tasks which he undertook as an act of atonement. Fortunately for the Greeks, Hercules managed to successfully permanently rout the birds, and they have not returned since.

A sculpture of Hercules, who dealt with the Stymphalian birds.
A sculpture of Hercules, who dealt with the Stymphalian birds.

Several things made the Stymphalian birds rather distinctive. The first was their sharp metal feathers, which could be hurled by the birds like spears. The birds also had heavy brass claws, and poisonous poop. They also had a predilection for human flesh, although most legends said that they would settle for livestock such as cattle in a pinch. To say the least, it would seem that Ares had unusual taste in pets.

Athena lent Hercules a pair of symbols that startled the Stymphalian birds.
Athena lent Hercules a pair of symbols that startled the Stymphalian birds.

According to some stories, the Stymphalian birds attacked the Argonauts during their travels in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason. Despite being interrupted by a series of travails, the Argonauts ultimately succeeded in their task, restoring Jason to his place on the throne.

The birds pop up most frequently in stories about the labors of Hercules. According to legend, they migrated from their usual home to Lake Stymphalia, where they set up camp in the marshes and dense woods of the region. Something about the environment must have been favorable to the birds, because they quickly began breeding and terrorizing the region. The Stymphalian birds destroyed homes and gardens, attacked livestock, and went after humans when they could catch them.

Their reign of terror was brought to an end by Hercules, who was ordered to defeat the Stymphalian birds as his sixth task. Upon reaching the site of the colony, Hercules realized that this task would be extremely difficult, as he could not walk in the marshes near the lake, and the forest that the birds roosted in was so dense that it was pitch black, making it impossible to hunt. The goddess Athena took pity on Hercules, lending him a pair of cymbals which he could use to spook the birds into flight, allowing him to shoot them.

According to most legends, Hercules did not manage to slay all of the Stymphalian birds, but he killed enough of them to spur the birds to migrate. Ultimately, the surviving birds returned to their master Ares, who was undoubtedly delighted to see them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Hercules falls short of a true hero, because he was never willing to sacrifice himself to save people. He was simply doing it to regain his holiness after having killed his children. In the story of Christ, a child of God willingly gets killed by God in order to save the other children of God.


It is understandable that the Greeks would associate Ares (Mars) with these birds, because war necessarily brought carrion birds along for the disposal of the dead. These birds came to be a thing of fear after a battle was over, and so preservation of the fallen rose to be an important post-battle custom. Nobody wants to hear that their loved one has died, and have insult added to injury by finding that they have also been devoured by birds.


Flesh-eating birds are mentioned in mythologies all over the world as signs of death and war. In Gilgamesh, the gods are said to "buzz around the sacrifice" like flies, devouring the flesh offered to them. Such an image of deities behaving like voracious insects is disconcerting. In routing these birds, Hercules was effectively fulfilling the role of a hero, saving people from dark forces which spelled their doom. To have a deity who does not want to devour you, but instead wants to save you, is a very encouraging thought. Hence the hero-image.


I've always found this labor to be anti-climatic. I mean if these birds were so terrifying, and there were so many of them that they were destroying homes and livestock, how could one man (even Hercules) have brought them down with arrows and a set of cymbals?

Sure the cymbals would have scared them into flight, and then Hercules would have killed a number of them (cause he's Hercules) but if they were man-eaters and fierce they would have oriented on him and attacked as a flock.

If they were such fierce creatures that Ares liked them, they wouldn't have turned tail and fled after he killed some of them.

Not like any proof otherwise is ever going to come to light, but it's always something that has irked me as being contradictory.

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