Savage Impiety

Savage Impiety

            Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne is undoubtedly one of the more brutal tales in the Metamorphoses. In comparison to the other myths in Ovid’s work, the story is also remarkable in the gods’ absence. Divinities are named and they are prayed to, but they are distant to the characters’ plights. It’s a story, instead, of entirely human passions, broken vows, inverted kinships, and sexual transgressions. These result in utterly bestial horrors–a cycle of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that escalates until all three characters are transformed into birds. Despite this change, the story cannot be resolved; the women, even as birds, do not escape. Tereus, as the hoopoe, pursues them to avenge his son, much as the Furies pursue moral fugitives. Even so, this is no Orestia. Ovid focuses on descriptions of violence–the consequences rather than causes–of the characters’ actions. As such, this serves as a morality lesson, or a warning, against familial impiety.

One explanation for Ovid’s graphic descriptions of mutilation and cannibalism might be found in both his source and his purpose. It is likely that Ovid adapted his account of Tereus’ rape and mutilation of Philomela, and his betrayal to Procne from a tragedy by Sophocles.[1] This play, Tereus, “has survived only in fragments,” so it is difficult to gauge the extent of Ovid’s modifications (Rabillard 99). However, it is likely that Ovid inverted the story’s tragic emphasis. Rather than focusing on the characters’ inner turmoil, as is the case with most Hellenic tragedies, Ovid chose to emphasize the story’s cruelty; for example, Tereus’ “duplicity is a well-established part of his nature, and this aspect of his character is probably taken from Ovid directly from his Sophoclean source, whereas the violence which is also a part of the Thracian’s make-up is probably an Ovidian contribution” (Pfeffer 12). Tereus’ presence in the story is defined not by his internal conflict or introspection, but by his violence. This overt sensationalism prevents the story from being classified as a tragedy; instead, it represents what G. Karl Galinsky calls “the untragic [as] it cannot arouse pity and fear” (132). Ovid’s emphasis on gruesome and sadistic elements, such as the theft of Philomela’s tongue, Itys’ death, and Tereus’ feast, are more likely to invite repulsion than identification with the characters. Consequently, it is melodramatic, rather than tragic, as it describes the horror of uncontrolled human nature. People’s loss of emotional restraint results in disloyalty, and sets forth a cycle of savagery that cannot be ended.

The tale’s themes of excessive emotion and familial impiety overlap; the former initiates the latter and sets forth a cycle of violence. Although the story begins happily enough, it rapidly turns sour. The Athenian king Pandion declares Tereus both “a son as well as an ally” as the Thracian marries Pandion’s daughter, Procne, but the upcoming horror is foreshadowed as the reader learns that none of the gods, specifically those of marriage, bless Tereus and Procne’s union. Instead, it is overseen by the Furies, to whom “blood guilt in the family is [a] particular concern” (Morford and Lenardon 296). The Furies, in fact, are the only supernatural presence in the tale, as they “swung, or, maybe, brandished torches / Snatched from a funeral; the Furies lighted the bridal bed” while an owl hovered above the bedroom (Ovid 6.432-44). Similar ill-omens attend the birth of their son, Itys, which are ignored as the wedding’s omens were ignored. Yet while the small familial unit remains distinct in its triad of roles (father–mother–son), there is no threat to the family structure, hence no threat to its web of loyalties. Once the married father Tereus re-enters Athens and he encounters Philomela, his instantaneous and irrational passions unweave that pattern of relationships and forces all players into previously unassumed roles.

That his crimes are motivated by human lusts rather than divine intervention is reinforced by Ovid’s focus “on Tereus’ natural propensity for such a passion and on his desire to satisfy his lust” (Pfeffer 11). Tereus’ proclivity to passion is multiplied as his is a characteristically Thracian “double fire” (Ovid 6.460-2). As a result, he becomes double-faced, for he is blinded to his various loyalties as he plots to take Philomela:

his first impulse was to bribe her guardians,

Corrupt her faithful nurse, or by rich presents,

Even if it cost him all his kingdom, win her,

Or take her, and defend what he had taken

By violent war. (6.463-67)

Not only is Tereus willing to forsake familial vows, which encompass his roles as husband, brother, and son through his alliance with Pandion, but he considers surrendering his people and his own son’s legacy to slake physical desire. Tereus’ passion debases him to bestiality, but he’s capable of masking this with smooth oratory. He convinces Pandion to release his daughter. Pandion assents, but says to Tereus, whom he calls “son,” “I trust her to you. I beg you, by your honor and our kinship, / Protect her with a father’s love [. . . .] (6.499-503). At this point, of course, the reader knows Tereus has lost all sense of honor and duty as he struggles with his self-control; he’s surrendered the stabilizing influence of family, and he’s willing to negate alliances to satiate mere lust: he becomes “Tereus the savage” (6.515).

Moreover, family roles have been conflated and loyalties twisted; not only is Tereus “father” in his role as king, but Pandion, in handing Philomela over to Tereus’ care, also grants him the paternal role. Yet Tereus rejects such fatherly duties. This merges with Tereus’ own desire, while watching Pandion embrace Philomela, that he were “Her father at that moment; and if he were / He would be as wicked a father as he is a husband” (6.482-83). Tereus abandons both roles and complicates all others’ positions with the rape of Philomela. She who was Tereus’ sister becomes “a second-class wife” or concubine (6.543). The raped Philomela not only threatens Procne’s marital role as an unwilling usurper, but, because she holds herself responsible for Tereus’ actions, feels that she has betrayed her sister. Philomela responds by shaming Tereus in reminding him of his broken vows:

Were my father’s orders

Nothing to you, his tears, my sister’s love,

My own virginity, the bonds of marriage? (6.539-41

Tereus’ has effectively shattered his familial arrangements; the rape signifies a “transgression of all bonds, oaths, and unstated but firmly believed rules [and] initiates a radical loss of identity, a terrible confusion of roles [. . . .]” (Klindiest np). Aware of this, Philomela’s declares that she would rather have been murdered than used to break vows; her subsequent threat to tell all–to make known his betrayals–prompts Tereus to cut out her tongue.[2] The scene’s violence, made more horrific by the murmuring amputated tongue, emphasizes not only the extremities that the already bestial Tereus will resort to, but also the previously noted conflation of family roles. Before the tongue was removed, it “made a sound something like Father” (6.561). In this, Philomela calls out not only to Pandion, or possibly to a god, but also to Tereus–the man she was entrusted to, as a daughter to a parent. Rather than inspiring sympathy, this only enflames Tereus. He rapes her again, and he follows this by shutting her up in a woodland hut. In the loss of voice, the imprisonment, and the confusion of roles, Philomela has lost not only agency, but identity as well.

Philomela, body is violated and voice stolen, recedes into the woods; the transition between Tereus’ and Procne’s sections of the story is a brief account of her isolation. During her year in captivity, Philomela weaves her story in purple and white (Ovid doesn’t note if this account is a pictorial or a linguistic representation). The tapestry’s delivery to Procne effectively furthers the conflation of identities and compounds both the familial impiety and the savagery, for in sending her work to Procne, Philomela entrusts Procne with agency to act on her behalf.

The tapestry’s reception provides a counterpoint to Tereus’ irrational passion, but Procne is driven, instead, by fury: “Grief choked her utterance, / Passion her sense of outrage. There was no room / For tears, but for confusion only, and vengeance” (6.583-85 ). There’s no indication that Procne plans revenge against Tereus; at this point she is blinded in her passion, and incapable of reason–an echo of Tereus’ response to Philomela. The timing of her discovery is significant, for it merges with the “festival for Bacchus,” and her personal frenzy is juxtaposed against that of the god’s celebrants.

Traditionally, Maenads are associated with the negation of marriage and the destruction of the home (Seaford 121).[3] Wives desert their families to literally abandon themselves in the woods, “where they resist men [though perhaps not satyrs], become like animals, and perform sacrifice” (Seaford 122). The Bacchanal’s festival is a wrathful resistance to gender norms. Procne becomes Maenadian as, with the other Thracian women, she is “driven / By madness, terrible in rage and anger [. . . .]”. The Bacchanal not only provides an opportunity for emotional release; in donning “the dress of frenzy, trailing vines for head-dress, deer-skin / Down the left side, and a spear over the shoulder” the queen has become animalistic, a warrior of nature. Just as Tereus becomes savage, so does Procne.

This ritualized rejection of family, coupled with the news of Tereus’ own negation of his marriage, perhaps provides the Grecian Procne with a “double fire” of her own. Her participation in the ceremony certainly contextualizes and reinforces the theme of family betrayal; Procne’s loyalty to Tereus is discarded as she rescues her sister in Bacchus‘ name. Yet this release does not accompany an emotional one: Procne, “Burning, could not restrain her wraith” (6.), and imagines what she can do to avenge Philomela–as well as herself–and reassert her place as Tereus’ wife. However, when Procne begins to plan revenge, a note of ambiguity enters the story.

Tellingly, when Itys enters the room and embraces his mother, Procne becomes hesitant–she seems to leave her frenzy behind. Initially, the close identification of Procne’s rage with Bacchic frenzy appears to provoke–if not justify–Procne’s ensuing crime, for her madness is mixed with that of the Thracian women. Moreover, Maenads “are frequently associated [. . .] with violent death, especially with the murder of their own male offspring” (Schlesier 97). However, Maenadian infanticide is typically unintentional–it occurs in the throes of the festival.[4] When a Maenad has the self-awareness to anticipate her actions, she is clearly no longer under the god’s spell. Procne’s self-awareness is evident when, as she’s about slaughter Itys, she suddenly pulls back and reconsiders her intentions. She momentarily steps back and considers her duties as wife, mother, and sister. Procne, like the Maenad, rejects the first two, but she must, ironically, reason herself back into a rage by comparing Itys with Philomela; she also considers whether disgracing Tereus is a greater crime than maintaining devotion to him (6.    ). This reflection–the weighing of injustices and impieties–also evidences that Procne has shed her Maenadian identity; as she murders her son, Procne is resolute and determined whereas previously she was “confused.”

Tereus’ rage when he has finished the “ritual meal,” and he has been presented with Itys’ head, is obviously triggered by the gruesome nature of Procne and Philomela’s crime. Procne, in her actions, has not only robbed Tereus of a son, but of a public legacy. Moreover, he’s not only been, essentially, emasculated, he’s been inversely maternalized, as Ovid “mentions no less than three times [. . .] that Tereus becomes the living tomb of his son (6.651, 655. 665)” (Galinsky 131). Rather than life, Tereus carries death in his belly. He calls on the Furies, for these creatures seek vengeance for especially horrific crimes. Yet instead of granting his revenge, he and the sisters are turned into birds forever to chase and be chased[5]: “Tereus will never catch the sisters, but neither will the women ever cease their flight. Distance may neither collapse nor expand. In such stasis, both order and conflict are preserved, but there is no hope of change“ (Klindiest np). Their collective crimes are so barbaric that there is no place on either Earth or Hades in which the situation can be tolerated or resolved.

One question that remains is what power manifested the metamorphoses: the gods have remained distant throughout. Bacchus is the only god actually identified in the story (as Procne bursts into Philomela’s prison), and the women are identified, however briefly, among his followers. They also exhibit much Maenadian emotional behavior, and, with the exception of Procne’s burst of reason, they perform a typically Maenadian outrage. It’s doubtful that Bacchus might intervene on his (even nominal) followers’ behalf. It must be assumed that the gods experienced a change of heart and decided to stop this cycle. Ultimately, there can be no ending but the transformations: the warning against impiety, and the danger of a never-ending cycle of vengeance, would be undercut, in this “untragic” context, by the death of all three players.

Although it is Bacchanals who are typically associated with domestic destruction, it can be argued that Tereus, driven by lust, is ultimately responsible for the implosion of family (and, subsequently, state) unity. His urge to possess Philomela overwhelms all other considerations and duties. In raping her, he not only shatters bonds with his father-in-law and his wife, but he is also willing to risk betraying his people. Philomela, although a victim, indicates she feels responsible for Tereus’ transgression and envisions herself as usurping Procne’s role. Procne’s actions provide the climax and the ultimate impiety: not only does she betray her husband by releasing her sister, but she rejects her own maternity in sacrificing Itys and feeding him to Tereus–who bears the child‘s remains in his belly. Brutal as Procne‘s actions are, it was Tereus’ unrestrained, all-conquering lust that initiated the family’s destruction. Procne and Philomela made certain that destruction by guaranteeing that Tereus’ line comes to an end. The metamorphoses, of course, while affirming that Tereus’ line has ceased, guarantees, instead, the three figures’ eternal chase. A blood feud, it finds no end, and looks to further devastation rather than peace.


[1]  The myth underwent a number of changes between the time of Homer and that of Ovid. Although it had entered the Latin tradition before Metamorphoses, scholars believe that Sophocles was the poet’s most immediate source (Galinsky 131-2, Pfeffer 8).

[2]  Philomela’s threat includes a promise that “if you shut me here, I will move the very woods and rocks to pity” (6.570-71). This note corresponds with Orphic myth, and partially supports theories that Philomela, with her weaving, is a feminine counterpoint to Orpheus. The respective myths present a “paradigm of poetic knowledge in our civilization [. . . .]” that asserts the primacy of pain to the artist’s skill (Grossman 229-30).

[3]   According to Euripides’ Bacchae, the Thracian Bacchanal was instituted by Bacchus as an act of revenge against his mother’s sister who, jealously, denied Semele’s union with Zeus and, consequently, Bacchus’ divine heritage. (Kraemer 11). Ovid’s account differs in that Pentheus, rather than his mother, is critical of the god’s paternity

[4][4]  Richard Seaford notes that an intentional child-murder falls outside of Maenadian frenzy. Medea, for example, was no Maenad “because she, [like Procne]  horrifically, means to kill her own children” (132).

[5]  Ovid leaves the designation vague, but Philomela has become associated with the nightingale and Procne with the swallow; originally, these were reversed . This is one example of how the myth has evolved over time (Klindiest np). Tereus becomes the hoopoe, a flamboyant bird, which is notorious for its “malodorous nest.” The obvious association betweent he two is that both Tereus and the hoopoe foul their own home.

Works Cited

Galinsky, G. Karl. Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Grossman, Allen. “Orpheus / Philomela: Subjection and Mastery in the Founding   Stories of Poetic Production and in the Logic of Our Practice.”           TriQuarterly. 77 (1989-90): 229-48).

“Hoopoe.” < 2005>. 07 Feb 2005.

Klindiest, Patricia. “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours.” Aug 1996.             <; 7       Feb 2005.

Kraemer, Ross S., Ed. Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebok on     Women‘s Religions in the Greco-Roman World. Philadelphia: Fortress,             1988.

Morford, Mark P. O. and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. 5th ed. White Plains: Longman, 1995.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.

Pfeffer, Wendy. The Change of Philomel: The Nightingale in Medieval      Literature. NY: Peter Lang, 1985.

Rabillard, Sheila. “Threads, Bodies, and Birds: Transformation from Ovidian Narrative to Drama in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale.” Essays in Theater. 17.2 (1999): 99-110.

Seaford, Richard. “Dionysus as Destroyer of the Household: Homer, Tragedy, and the Polis.” Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 115-146.

Schlesier, Renate. “Mixtures as Masks: Maenads as Tragic Models.” Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 89-114.

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