So I've been inspired by this question to ask what would a medieval war against an airborne hominid (let's call them harpies) be like? Basically most of the assumptions about the meerfolk of the linked question hold to harpies:

  1. Technologically primitive
  2. Never discovered fire
  3. Previously very little violence between races
  4. No communication capable between the two.
  5. Magic exists but is strongly discouraged in answers and humans are incapable of manipulating it.
  6. Harpies, can communicate with one another and will plan.

Plus the following:

  1. The harpies can land and are capable of running and walking like humans.
  2. Harpies cannot swim.
  3. Harpies do not have opposible thumbs and have wings instead of arms. However they have clawed feet which they can use to lift things.
  4. Harpies do not form homes or nests, but rather rest on tall items on which they can perch and feel safe.
  5. Harpies really like to drop rocks on people, poop on people, and claw people during combat.

What means would a medieval society have to avoid and retaliate against airborne attacks by the harpies?

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    $\begingroup$ If the tall things are trees, cut them down. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Lots and lots of archers. That keeps the harpies away from you. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ How far can they fly, i..e. what is their range? how is your world structured? Are there places outside of harpies' range (measured from any inaccessible high places?) What do they need? (Do they eat grass, crops, fruits, insects, meat? - Do they need to care for their young?(how long?) Do they drink water from wells? Do they sleep/hibernate/doze? how long can they stay in the air? ... Warfare is completely dependend on the enemy - if you do not care about some of the above points, please say so in the question, otherwise specify. $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ How can a culture which never discovered fire be described as "medieval"? That is sort of like asking what a high-tech war would look like between species which never discovered electricity or computers. Note that none of the current answers really make sense without fire. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Gotta be careful with arrows - every arrow fired up is sure to hit the ground in some manner. If the harpies are straight up and you miss, that arrow will be just as lethal when it turns toward you. $\endgroup$
    – David Rice
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 20:12

9 Answers 9


Actually killing these might not be a problem. Crossbows and bows can both shoot them down, and claws are useless against even fabric gambesons, which basically all soldiers had. However, actually winning a war against these would be nearly impossible. They could fly around and avoid troop concentrations, allowing them to bleed the humans dry over time. If you go after them with a force, they will probably just scatter and raid your supply lines, pick off your sentries, and attack areas you left poorly defended until you leave. They could pick off farmers in their fields, who would usually be unarmed and who are usually some distance away from any help. They could mob small groups of soldiers and kill them through concentration of force. They could attack at night, when it would be almost impossible to shoot them, as the only illumination in medieval times was lamps, candles, and (rarely) torches, and fire only lights up a small area while destroying your night vision outside of that area. If they have access to fire, they can make hit and run attack everywhere, setting homes, castles, and fields on fire. The only way for the humans to win would be to destroy all of the harpies' habitat, but this would be hard, as the teams would be harassed constantly while doing this, and weak medieval states would have a hard time mustering the resources to perform large scale projects like this. Even then, total habitat destruction might not defeat the harpies. They could nest in remote areas, on islands, or simply on the ground. Even if that is uncomfortable, it would not necessarily kill them.

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    $\begingroup$ That is IF they adopt guerilla warfare which historically isn't always the case. but the same can tactically be said for the humans, they could ravage their habitats just as effectively. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ These seem to be rather primitive, and are not attached to specific homes and fields, so it is much harder to pin them down. They can nest anywhere, and can scatter from any of your attacks. They can nest anywhere in the wild, and the wild is huge. Maybe they would fight an open battle once or twice, but they would probably learn to stop doing it after a while. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ They gotta nest somewhere, young aren't movable. Starting forest fires is a human specialty and mountains offer little protection against the elements which even birds need protection from. Plus these guys gotta have some sort of reasonable fixed range. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ They also need to eat something, foraging isn't sufficient for large populations (making humans numerically superior). So either these guys are adept hunters (which humans can easily over hunt to) or they engage in agriculture as well. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ @anon Human young aren't movable. No reason to believe that will necessarily be the case with harpies. You're right that you can't really compete with farmers or nomadic pastoralists using foraging though. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 9:35

Actually, in this case I'm not sure that the harpies would be a real threat. They have the advantage of flight, but there's also several disadvantages;

  • They are very fragile, since hollow bones, little mass,
  • Large wings are a large targets,
  • They are very light,
  • They are incapable of flying with much weight, so any armour is out,
  • Claws are a extremely poor weapon against armored soldiers,
  • They have no hands or fingers. They cannot easily craft or hold weapons.

All things considered, I imagine even a farmer with a pitchfork would be more than a match for a harpy. Humans have the advantage of mass, strength and weaponry.

A single harpy would be prey to even a common hunter. Sooner or later, the harpies need to rest, and humans are really good at tracking creatures to their nests and waiting for them.

Harpies would only become threats when they gather in large swarms. Imagine a cloud of harpies ravaging the countryside, but even then they would fall to an organised force of armoured bowmen.

Overall, I'm not too worried about harpies dropping stones. There's a limit to how much weight they could carry, they won't be able to do it quickly, and dropping rocks is clumsy and avoidable. Any half-decent archer could just shoot them down.

The harpies would be well-suited for guerrilla tactics, but quickly every farmers field would start hanging up harpy corpses to dissuade attacks. Harpies would probably be considered scavengers or nuisances rather than serious threats.

Methods to fight against them;

  • Place a standing bounty on every harpy claw. Make sure that every citizen is armed with a bow and arrow to loose whenever a harpy roosts,
  • Employ teams of professional hunters to hound harpies in the wilderness, constantly thinning their numbers,
  • Be constantly ready to deploy squads of mounted archers whenever harpies populations get too heavy.
  • Find out whatever the harpies like to eat, and then hunt that creature to oblivion.
  • Poisoned traps seem like a good idea.
  • In fact, is there a disease that affects harpies and not humans? There likely is, somewhere. If so, use it. Perhaps find a bunch of sickly harpies and catapult their diseased flesh over harpy roosts.

Methods to defend against harpies;

  • Have farmers keep their livestock in barns instead of open fields. This is perhaps the most important. Harpies will prey on your sheep and cows, so offer coin to allow farmers to build large, protected barns instead. Maybe they'll invent battery farming by doing so.
  • Place poisoned spikes onto everything. Literally everything.
  • If the harpies like to roost onto tall places, then how about glue traps to keep them there? I'm not sure any strong enough adhesive existed in medieval times, but they could maybe develop some.
  • Restrict the places harpies can hide. Start chopping down all of the trees outside of towns and cities.
  • Barbed wire aerial walls?
  • Place a curfew that forbids citizens from leaving populated areas alone. They must travel in groups of three to defend against harpies.
  • Like any physically disadvantaged predator, the harpies would be prone towards targeting babies and children. Make sure that parents constantly supervise their children - maybe even introduce creche centres to protect the children while their parents are at work.
  • At some point, harpies presumably need to mate and lay eggs. During that season, the humans declare a mass festival - Egg Smash Month.

The humans would struggle to win against the harpies, but they sure could drive them out of human lands. The harpies would likely flock to some mountain peaks to get away.

However, this depends on an important question - do the harpies have any aerial weaponry? Can they hold a shooting weapon that can be fired from the air? I doubt that they would be able to reload a bow and arrow with their legs, but perhaps a crossbow that they load on the ground and then shoot in the sky?

That could be dangerous. A hail of arrows from two hundred feet would do some damage.

Mind, I'd still favour humans to win. If the harpies do have weaponry, they need to have infrastructure to maintain it. If the harpies have an army, they need a mass roosting point to assemble and organise their forces, they need some sort of buildings on the ground to support themselves. That would be the first place the humans would burn.

The problems would arise if the harpies start becoming creative too. What happens if the harpies start dropping diseased carcasses into human towns, or poisoning human fields?

If the harpies are intelligent enough, the very best way to win a war against them would be to make peace. Come to some armistice agreement, assign separate territories and try to make a long-lasting peace. Hopefully it could be mutually beneficial - the humans could craft tools and shelter for the harpies, the harpies could act as scouts and hunters. In the long run, a war between both races is just going to get nasty.

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    $\begingroup$ This. A human would be so dense in comparison that one punch or unarmed strike would likely be enough to shatter a harpy's wing or worse. $\endgroup$
    – Korthalion
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ well thought out answer, there are so many good points here $\endgroup$
    – BKlassen
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 19:02

A Phalanx armed with spears would be capable of defending and attacking harpy assaults.


Bird Shot catapults (lots of little rocks instead of one big one)

A ballista or cannon if they are wealthy medieval society.

Catapulted nets to ensnare flying opponents.

Fireworks (like the ancient Chinese) to burn wings

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    $\begingroup$ +1 to fireworks. It arrived in Europe late in the Medieval era. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ The concept of Flak rounds wouldn't be such a stretch but ill humor the notion of medieval obsolescence $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ Fireworks would be a good idea...but the op says they haven't discovered fire. $\endgroup$
    – Sensoray
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ I thought that meant the harpies had no fire. You cant have a "medieval" society without fire. Heck it would be pre neolithic without fire. Like you cant have metal working without fire. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @anon you're correct $\endgroup$
    – tox123
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:17

Passive defence has historically been preferred over active defence

The disadvantages of archers and ballistas is that when under attack:

  • If it is a surprise you are at a drastic disadvantage in an air attack situation
  • It must be from a defensible position
  • A command and control structure must be in place (if it is a surprise, your men will be scattered and communication difficult)
  • Adequate training and resources is needed to create and maintain such a force - this is very draining against a mobile attack force
  • The force needs to be where the attack is, keeping in mind your medieval society could cover a lot of ground

Historically people tend to prefer passive defence structures especially as you do not know when or where an attack may occur. If a constant threat of an attack is from the sky, I would expect reasonable medieval people to do the following:

  • Have an early warning system, a network of lookout towers or a way in which enemy movements can be monitored, and communication of that information to decision makers
  • Live underground, in caves, in rocky outcrops or the side of valleys which have concentrated points of attack which you can control more readily
  • If you cannot control your entry point, you make it. Such as if you are in a forest, you erect nets over your villages and around them to have only a couple of entry points to control
  • The ability to, when mobile or in a surprise attack, retreat to a defensible position, such as underground covered trenches, which the enemy cannot enter or manipulate (without opposing digits, it makes it hard to open locks and doors)
  • Keep in mind your economically sensitive and reliant areas need also protection as the war drags on, such as trade, crops and livestock. For these areas I would expect a roaming active defence, such as small mobile (horseback) forces, or numerous towers and ranged weapons - but at this point you would steadily lose the war without dealing with the source of the problem.

As is always the case in conflict, the source needs to be addressed. If it is territorial, perhaps it is best to not encroach on their territory, or provide them with another. If it is a clash of population, and an outbreak of harpies, perhaps an analysis of where they get their food, and affecting their food supplies and therefore resources, and where they nest.


a scorpio was a piece of Roman technology that worked like a large man sized crossbow. they could probably be adapted to fire nets or some kind of projectile. when shooting birds hunters use a kind of ammo called bird shot which is a casing full of small pellets that spread out after firing giving a higher chance of hitting a fast moving target. maybe some kind of crossbow/catapult/balista adapted to fire a medieval equivalent. smoke screens would also limit the harpies ability to flyou as they wouldn't be able to see where they're going or possibly even suffocate them.


Horse archers

All those answer about bows and ballista assume that harpies have bird-like intelligence. If they have near-human intelligence and are just descent flyers, they would drop their rocks from 1000m high. Inefficient but totally safe.

But most likely those half humanoid creatures are poor flyers. After any attack, just chase them down until they have to take a rest. A horse can follow a slow flying bird and a competent bowman would easily hit a large creature resting on top a a tree.

If your city is surrounded by high cliffs, that’s though luck. But otherwise, you can trim the landscape near your cities to forbid any safe landing. Build guard towers on the hills, spike on top of a lone pike etc…

Even better if you have garrisoned horse archers in guard towers surrounding the territory. You could easily force the harpie to fly 50km before they can land. Real bird can do that. But not even all of them.


Humans are going to win due to superior intelligence unless there are TONS of harpies - enough to just constantly buzz around and no matter how many you kill, more keep coming. Let's assume very deadly harpies: they are smart enough to be dropping fist-sized rocks from 1km high and can fly for 1000 km at constant 20m/s flying speed.

So, you can't catch them, can't shoot at them, can't anything, and they are fast enough to hunt and run.

Yet, I believe humans would adapt even to such insane threat. Not all settlements can be saved. Fields would be ravaged and no food = dead humans. But even such crazy harpies in sizeable numbers wouldn't be able to stop people living near sea, where these rocks would be unable to stop fishing and gathering seafood. Add thick roof against these rocks and enough archers + pikes, and harpies cannot do much damage.

Medieval humans would be never able to completely win and eradicate the threat - there is just too much ground to cover at 1k km harpy range - but people would be able to live semi-reasonable life and sooner or later discover weapons with long enough range to reach these harpies. Then farming and whatnot becomes possible too.

Obviously, weaker 100 km range, 100m high, 10m/s harpies would be easy enough to counter with medieval tech too. Put guard towers far enough to deploy archers + whatnot to protect fields. Use horse archers to hunt these harpies back to their homes.

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    $\begingroup$ "humans would adapt" +1. Just regular humans; there's no need to become militant. Humans have hunted to, at the very least near, extinction every animalistic threat they've ever encountered. If this isn't about dragons then whatever. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 0:35

Train harpies to kill 'wild' harpies.

You say that 'no communication possible between the two [harpies and humans]', but it doesn't take much to give simple commands. Catch a harpy in a net, cage it, and start rudimentary training, starting with making sure it understands that obedience equals food. Treat it like a smart animal. It'll get the principle quickly.

Then train it to kill other harpies. If you've trained it well, it'll perform for you. You'll make good equipment for it, so it'll have a one on one edge.

Once you've gone through trial and error, and maybe a number of failed harpy training attempts, you'll be able to expand your program. Sell your trained harpies to farmers, to help them with harpy defense. Pretty soon, every farm in the kingdom is going to have one, and the wild harpies will have trouble finding food sources. Don't worry hunting down the wild harpies to extinction yourself--this would ruin your business.

  • $\begingroup$ How do you prevent trained harpies from killing each other? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ @PreetKukreti part of the training would be trying to make sure they don't. This could be advanced training worth a premium to customers who want to use the trained harpies in 'packs'. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 13:34

I agree with Madlozoz. A war with harpies implies they're intelligent. Elsewise, they'd just be a nuisance, like hawks or airborne wolves, not an organized menace. What's more, without intelligence, why would they attack humans? Sheep or cattle would be far easier targets if they just needed food.

I also don't think humans would have a decisive advantage overall. In full-out combat, soldiers would probably be more effective. Like Madlozoz said, though, flyers could drop rocks, and even small rocks could be devastating if dropped from high enough.

If you look at their civilizations, humans would likely have more resources (farms, castles, etc), but would also have much more vulnerable infrastructure. Flyers could easily drop burning material onto crop fields or villages or dead animals into wells, or scatter livestock and hamper farmers during critical points in the growing season, and humans are very dependant on reliable food production. They could also attack territories far faster than marching soldiers could meet them. Plus, the terror factor of being able to drop out of nowhere would make them hell on the local population.

On the other hand, as has been mentioned, flyers would probably be weak and awkward on land, and so would likely have difficulty developing mines or farms. They would probably be more of a hunter gatherer society. If so, their resources would be primitive, but they wouldn't have much to defend either, especially since they would probably prefer to live in areas humans found hard to access, such as cliffs or caves, making them hard to really attack.

So in the end, I think humans would have the upper hand overall, but they'd still have a hell of a time defending their territory, much less winning a decisive war.


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