Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

In ancient literature weaving was a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it also became associated with the female voice within texts. Denied a voice in ancient literature women are portrayed as using a weave to tell their story. Perhaps the most interesting example of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

After the latest series of Game of Thrones there has been a lot of debate about sexual violence in the media. The Metamorphoses shows us that graphic violence, particularly against women, has been a part of popular culture for a very long time. This is perhaps the most explicit story of Ovid’s epic. The tyrant Tereus has married Procne, the daughter of the King of Athens, and after five years away from home Procne asks her husband to bring her sister Philomena over for a visit. However when Tereus sees Philomena he is maddened by his desire for her. He kidnaps her and rapes her, and when she threatens to reveal his crime he cuts out her tongue. He then keeps her hidden away in a forest and pretends that she has been killed. Philomena however weaves her story and through a servant manages to send the message to her sister. On receiving her sister’s weave Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to Tereus hidden in his dinner.

The rape is described in a truly horrific way, and the portrayal of Philomena is desperate:

The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
and cut it with his sword —The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor.

It is all about total control of the male over the female. By silencing Philomela, Tereus rips her version of events out of history. When he returns to Procne and tells an elaborate lie about the death of her sister, his male voice overrides and rewrites the female one.

However, Philomena overcomes this tyranny and is able to express herself through a specifically female medium. She sends a tapestry to her sister on which she has weaved her violation. Interestingly, when Procne receives her sister’s message she too is silent:

The wife of that inhuman tyrant took
the cloth, and after she unwrapped it saw
and understood the mournful record sent.
She pondered it in silence and her tongue
could find no words to utter her despair;—
her grief and frenzy were too great for tears.

Women are silenced by the deeds of men. But their vengeance is no less dreadful. Procne knows that the best way to avenge her sister is to kill her husband’s son. Ovid intensifies our pity for this boy by depicting him at his most tender, “cunningly” using his mother’s love to change her mind:

But when the tender child came up to her,
and called her “mother”, put his little arms
around her neck, and when he smiled and kissed
her often, gracious in his cunning ways,—
again the instinct of true motherhood
pulsed in her veins, and moved to pity, she
began to weep in spite of her resolve.

But another look at the mutilated sister decides her and the deed is done. Ovid appears to delight in the gore of this story, and yet the description of Philomena does not disguise the horror of what has been done to her. Is Ovid here simply pandering to the lascivious and violent tastes of his Roman audience? Or is he consciously displaying the terrifying danger of such texts that appeal to our base instincts for cruelty? Should we credit him for his sympathetic treatment of the subjugated female? Or is he to be blamed for perpetuating a cultural pattern of exploiting and silencing women? Furthermore what are we to make of the mother murdering her child? Women here are shown to be just as violent as men, and it is this horrific murder that stays with us once the story is finished.

These are extremely complex questions and ones that I have no real solution to. What is clear is that Ovid is playing with the tension between the male and female voice. The elaborate lies of Tereus and the clever poetry of Ovid are in tension with the hidden narrative of Philomela’s weave and Procne’s silent response to this message. And yet the female message is no less effective for this, and it ultimately overthrows the controlling male tyrant.

Joplin is a feminist critic who writes about the role of weaving in her article “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours”. She argues that Philomela’s loom represents an assertion of the female will to survive, in spite of everything that threatens to silence it, including the male literary tradition. Personally I do not think there is any clean or positive message to be taken from such a horrific story, and this is perhaps reflected in the end to Ovid’s tale. As Tereus rushes to murder his wife and her sister the three are transformed into birds. Procne is transformed into a swallow, the red feathers on her chest a brand for the murder she committed. But Tereus is transformed into a large bird of prey with a sharp beak, the Hoopoe. Rather than any resolution the three are doomed to an endless chase, the male forever hunting his prey.

Joplin, P.C. “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Rape and Representation (1991).
Segal, C. “Philomela’s Web and the Pleasures of the Text” in Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature (1994).

Translation by Brookes Moore (1922)
Cover photo is “Speak Up” by Kyle Thompson Photography


One thought on “Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

  1. Pingback: Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze | a classical blog

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