Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Book 6: Tereus, Procne and Philomela

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

There is now a complicated transition from the "Niobe" cycle of stories to the next story. As Ovid explains, there was great mourning for Niobe's dead children. Niobe's brother Pelops mourned for his dead sister (Ovid goes into a digression about Pelops's own interesting life), and all the cities and regions of Greece joined in the mourning for the dead princes and princesses who were the children of Niobe. The only city that did not mourn was Athens because Athens was at war. A barbarian general named Tereus rescued the city so, in gratitude, the king of Athens gave his daughter Procne to Tereus to be his wife. After Procne and Tereus had a baby, Procne asked to see her sister Philomela. Tereus went to fetch the woman from Athens, and fell madly in love with her. Terrible things are going to happen as a result.

From such tales as these the company turns immediately to the present, and mourns the loss of Amphion and his children. The mother [Niobe] was blamed, though even then one man, her brother Pelops, is said to have wept for her and, after taking off his tunic, to have shown the ivory, of his left shoulder. This was of flesh, and the same colour as his right shoulder, at the time of his birth. Later, when he had been cut in pieces, by his father, it is said that the gods fitted his limbs together again. They found the pieces, but one was lost, between the upper arm and the neck. Ivory was used in place of the missing part, and by means of that Pelops was made whole.

The princes, of countries to the southwest, near neighbours of Thebes, gathered, and the cities related to Thebes urged their kings to go and offer sympathy. Argos and Sparta, and Peloponnesian Mycenae, Calydon not yet cursed for rejecting Diana, fertile Orchomenos, and Corinth famous for bronze; warlike Messene, Patrae, and low-lying Cleonae, Nelean Pylos, and Troezen not yet ruled by Pittheus; and whichever of the other cities were southwest of the Isthmus, lying between its two seas, or seen to the northeast of the Isthmus, lying between its two seas. But who can believe this? Athens, alone, did nothing. War prevented them doing so. A Barbarian army had crossed the sea and brought terror to the walls of the city of Mopsopius. Tereus of Thrace routed these Barbarians, with his army of auxiliaries, and won a great name by his victory.

Since Tereus was a master of men and riches, and happened to trace his descent from mighty Mars himself, Pandion, king of Athens, made them allies, by giving him his daughter Procne in marriage. Neither Juno, who attends on brides, nor Hymen, nor the three Graces, was there. The Eumenides, the Furies, held torches snatched from a funeral. The Eumenides, the Furies, prepared their marriage bed, and the unholy screech owl brooded over their house, and sat on the roof of their chamber. By this bird-omen, Procne and Tereus were joined. By this bird-omen, they were made parents. Thrace of course rejoiced with them, and they themselves gave thanks to the gods, and the day when Pandion's daughter married her illustrious king, and the day on which Itys their son was born, they commanded to be celebrated as festivals: so, always, our real advantages escape us.

Now, Titan, the sun, had guided the turning year through five autumns when Procne said, coaxingly to her husband, 'If any thanks are due me, either send me to see my sister, or let my sister come here. You can promise my father she will return after a brief stay. It would be worth a great deal to me, if you allowed me to see Philomela.' Tereus ordered his ship to sea, and with sail and oar reached the harbour of Cecrops, and landed on the shore of Piraeus. As soon as he gained access to his father-in-law, right hand was joined to right hand, and they began by wishing each other favourable omens.

Tereus had started to tell of the reason for his visit, his wife's request, and promise a speedy return if she were sent back with him, when, see, Philomela entered, dressed in rich robes, and richer beauty, walking as we are used to being told the naiads and dryads of the deep woods do, if only one were to give them like her culture and dress. Seeing the girl, Tereus took fire, just as if someone touched a flame to corn stubble, or burned the leaves, or hay stored in a loft. Her beauty was worthy of it, but he was driven by his natural passion, and the inclination of the people of his region is towards lust: he burnt with his own vice and his nation's. His impulse was to erode her attendants care, and her nurse's loyalty, even seduce the girl herself with rich gifts, to the extent of his kingdom, or rape her and defend the rape in savage war. There was nothing he would not dare, possessed by unbridled desire, nor could he contain the flame in his heart.

Now he suffered from impatience, and eagerly returned to Procne's request, pursuing his own wishes as hers. Desire made him eloquent, and whenever he petitioned more strongly than was seemly, he would make out that Procne wished it so. He even embellished his speeches with tears, as though she had commissioned him to do that too. You gods, what secret darknesses human hearts hide! Due to his efforts, Tereus is viewed as faithful, in his deceit, and is praised for his crime.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what were the bad omens at the wedding of Procne and Tereus?
  • why did Procne send Tereus to see her father in Athens?
  • how did Tereus react when he saw Procne's sister Philomela?

Source: Ovid's Metamorphoses. English translation by A.S.Kline. 2000. "This work MAY be FREELY reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any NON-COMMERCIAL purpose." Website: Ovid and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM