Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Procne and Philomela

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Shakespeare was also familiar with the story of Tereus and Procne, which is one of the most horrifying and bloody stories to be found in Ovid. Motifs from this story make their way into one of Shakespeare's extremely violent plays: Titus Andronicus. In that play Shakespeare tells the story of Lavinia, who not only had her tongue cut out but her hands chopped off so that she would not be able to reveal the secret of her rape. This is a hyperbolic version of the terrible fate that awaits Procne's sister, Philomela, at the hands of Procne's wicked husband Tereus.

Tereus and Procne

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.

Tereus's passion for Procne's sister Philomela

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. Moreover Philomela wishes his request granted, and resting her forearms on her father's shoulders, coaxing him to let her go to visit her sister, she urges it, in her own interest, and against it.

Tereus gazes at her, and imagining her as already his, watching her kisses, and her arms encircling her father's neck, it all spurs him on, food and fuel to his frenzy. Whenever she embraces her father, he wishes he were that father: though of course his intentions would be no less wicked.

The father is won over by the twin entreaties. The girl is overjoyed, and thanks her father, and thinks, poor wretch, that what will bring sorrow to both sisters is actually a success for both.

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

  • what favor did Procne ask from her husband Tereus?
  • what happened when Tereus saw Philomela?
  • what are Tereus's intentions towards Philomela?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Ovid's Metamorphoses (2000). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. 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 12:52 PM