TEREUS, PROCNE, AND PHILOMELA

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. A. D. Melville. The World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. 134-42. (Book 6, lines 422-674)



Sea-borne bands
Of wild barbarians held [Athens'] walls in fear.
Tereus of Thrace with his relieving force
Had routed them and won a victor's fame;
And, seeing he was strong in wealth and men
And, as it happened, traced his lineage
From Mars himself, Pandion gave his child,
Procne, in marriage, thus to link their lines.
When they were married, Juno was not there
To bless the rite, nor Hymen nor the Graces.
The Furies held the torches, torches seized
From mourners' hands; the Furies made their bed.
An unclean screech-owl like a nightmare sat
Above their chamber on the palace roof.
That bird haunted the couple's union,
That bird haunted their parenthood. Of course
Tereus' and Procne's marriage gave delight
To Thrace, and they too gave the gods their thanks;
And those glad days when that illustrious prince
Married Pandion's child, and when their son,
Itys, was born were named as holidays:
So deep men's true advantage lies concealed.
Now season followed season, as the sun
Led on the years; five autumns glided by,
And Procne coaxed her husband, 'If my love
Finds any favour, give me leave to visit
My sister, or invite my sister here,
Giving my father your sure word that she
Will soon return. To see her once again
Will be a gift most precious.' So her husband
Had his ship launched, and gained by sail and oar
Athens' great port and reached Piraeus' shore.
There King Pandion gave him audience,
And hand clasped hand, their meeting seemed set fair.
He had begun to speak of Procne's plan,
The reason of his visit, and to pledge
Her sister's swift return, when suddenly
In entered Philomela, richly robed
In gorgeous finery, and richer still
Her beauty; such the beauty of the nymphs,
Naiads and Dryads, as we used to hear,
Walking the woodland ways, could one but give
The nymphs such finery, such elegance.
The sight of her set Tereus' heart ablaze
As stubble leaps to flame when set on fire,
Or fodder blazes, stored above the byre.
Her looks deserved his love; but inborn lust
Goaded him too, for men of that rough race
Are warm for wenching: Thracian villainy
Joined flaring with his own. An impulse came
To bribe her retinue, suborn her nurse,
Even assail the girl herself with gifts,
Huge gifts, and pay his kingdom for the price-
Or ravish her and then defend the rape
In bloody war. Nothing he would not do,
Nothing not dare, as passion drove unreined,
A furnace barely in his heart contained.
Now he'll not linger and turns eagerly
To Procne's plan again, and under hers
Forwards his own. Love made him eloquent;
And, if at times he pressed his pleas too far,
Why, Procne wished it so; he even wept,
As if she'd ordered tears. Ye Gods above,
How black the night that blinds our human hearts!
The pains he took for sin appeared to prove
His loyalty; his villainy won praise.
Why, Philomela had the same desire,
And threw her arms around her father's neck,
And begged him, as he wished her happiness,
(Alas for happiness!) to let her go.
As Tereus watched, already in his thoughts
He fondled her, and when he saw her kisses
And how she hugged Pandion, everything
Thrust like a goad, his passion's food and fire.
As she embraced her father, would he were
Himself her father! Nor would his sin be less!
Pandion yields, since both his daughters plead,
And, filled with joy, she thanks him. Hapless girl,
She thinks they both have won a victory,
Though what both won will end in tragedy.
Now the Sun's team, the day's toil nearly done,
Were pounding down the slope that led them home.
A royal banquet was arrayed, with wine
In golden goblets, and anon they lay
Relaxed in slumber. But the Thracian king,
Though he too had retired, was simmering
With thoughts of her, as he recalled her face,
Her hands and gestures, and his mind's eye shaped,
To suit his fancy, charms he'd not yet seen.
He fuelled his own fire, and, as he lay,
The turmoil in his heart drove sleep away.
Daylight had come, and now, as Tereus left,
Pandion wrung him by the hand and gave
His daughter to his trust with many a tear:
'My son, since links of love leave me no choice,
And both have set their hearts (and your heart too,
My son, is set), I give her to your keeping;
And I beseech you by your honour, by the ties
Of family and by the gods above,
To guard her with a father's love and send
Back soon (each waiting day will be so long)
The darling solace of my sombre age.
And you too, Philomela, if you love
Your father, come back soon-it is enough
That your dear sister is so far from home.'
So he adjured them, weeping tenderly,
And kissed his child goodbye, and took their hands
And joined them, his and hers, to seal their pledge
And charged them to remember his fond love
To Procne and his grandson far away.
He scarce could say farewell for sobs and tears,
Such dire forebodings filled his soul with fears.
Once Philomel was on the painted ship
And the oars struck and thrust the land away,
'I've won!' he cried, 'I've won! My dearest wish
Is mine on board with me!' His heart leapt high;
The brute could hardly wait to seize his joys,
And never turned his eyes away from her.
So, when Jove's bird of prey has caught a hare
And in his talons carries it aloft
To his high nest, the captive has no chance
Of flight, the captor gloats over his prize.
The voyage now is done, and now they leave
The weary ship and land on their own shore;
And then the king drags off Pandion's daughter
Up to a cabin in the woods, remote
And hidden away among dark ancient trees,
And there pale, trembling, fearing everything,
Weeping and asking where her sister was,
He locked her, and revealed his own black heart
And ravished her, a virgin, all alone,
Calling and calling to her father, calling to
Her sister, calling, even more, to heaven above.
She shivered like a little frightened lamb,
Mauled by a grizzled wolf and cast aside,
And still unable to believe it's safe;
Or as a dove, with feathers dripping blood,
Still shudders in its fear, still dreads the claws,
The eager claws that clutched it. In a while,
When sense returned, she tore her tumbled hair,
And like a mourner bruised her arms, and cried
With outstretched hands, 'You brute! You cruel brute!
Do you care nothing for the charge, the tears
Of my dear father, for my sister's love,
For my virginity, your marriage vows?
All is confused! I'm made a concubine,
My sister's rival; you're a husband twice,
And Procne ought to be my enemy!
You traitor, why not take, to crown your crimes,
My life as well? Would God you'd taken it
Before you wreaked your wickedness: my ghost
Had then been free from guilt. Yet, if the gods
Are watching, if heaven's power means anything,
Unless my ruin's shared by all the world,
You'll pay my score one day. I'll shed my shame
And shout what you have done. If I've the chance,
I'll walk among the crowds: or, if I'm held
Locked in the woods, my voice shall fill the woods
And move the rocks to pity. This bright sky
Shall hear, and any god that dwells on high!'
In anger at her words and fear no less,
Goaded by both, that brutal despot drew
His dangling sword and seized her by the hair,
And forced her arms behind her back and bound
Them fast; and Philomela, seeing the sword,
Offered her throat and hoped she would have died.
But as she fought, outraged, for words and called
Her father's name continually, he seized
Her tongue with tongs and, with his brutal sword,
Cut it away. The root jerked to and fro;
The tongue lay on the dark soil muttering
And wriggling, as the tail cut off a snake
Wriggles, and, as it died, it tried to reach
Its mistress' feet. Even after that dire deed
Men say (could I believe it), lusting still,
Often on the poor maimed girl he worked his will.
After this bestial business he returns,
Brazen, to Procne. When they meet, she asks
Her husband for her sister, and he groans
As if in grief and tells a lying tale
About her death, with tears to prove it true.
Then Procne snatches off her gleaming robe,
With its wide golden fringe, and clothes herself
In weeds of black and builds a cenotaph,
With offerings to the ghost that is no ghost,
And mourns her darling sister's tragedy.
And right she was to mourn-though differently.
Through all the twelve bright signs of heaven the sun
Had journeyed and a whole long year had passed.
But what could Philomela do? A guard
Closed her escape, the cabin's walls were built
Of solid stone, her speechless lips could tell
No tale of what was done. But there's a fund
Of talent in distress, and misery
Learns cunning. On a clumsy native loom
She wove a clever fabric, working words
In red on a white ground to tell the tale
Of wickedness and, when it was complete,
Entrusted it to a woman and by signs
Asked her to take it to the queen; and she
Took it, as asked, to Procne, unaware
What it contained. The savage monarch's wife
Unrolled the cloth and read the tragic tale
Of her calamity-and said no word
(It seemed a miracle, but anguish locked
Her lips). Her tongue could find no speech to match
Her outraged anger; no room here for tears;
She stormed ahead, confusing right and wrong,
Her whole soul filled with visions of revenge.
It was the time of Bacchus' festival,
Kept by the Thracian women each three years.
Night knows their sacraments; at night the peaks
Of Rhodope resound with ringing bronze;
At night the queen, arrayed to celebrate
The rites, went forth with frenzy's weaponry.
Vines wreathed her head, a light spear lay upon
Her shoulder and a deerskin draped her side.
Wild with her troop of women through the woods
She rushed, a sight of terror, frenzied by
The grief that maddened her, the image of
A real Bacchanal. At last she reached
The lonely hut and, screaming Bacchic cries,
Broke down the door, burst in and seized her sister,
Garbed her in Bacchic gear and hid her face,
Concealed in ivy leaves, and brought the girl
Back, in a daze, inside her palace wall.
Then Philomela, when she realized
That she had reached that house of wickedness,
Shuddered in horror and turned deathly pale.
And Procne, in a private place, removed
The emblems of the revels and revealed
Her sister's face, a face of misery
And shame, and took her in her arms. But she,
Convinced that she had wronged her, could not bear
To meet her eyes and, gazing on the ground,
She made her hands speak for her voice, to swear
By all the gods in heaven that her disgrace
Was forced on her. Then Procne, in a flame
Of anger uncontrolled, sweeping aside
Her sister's tears, 'This is no time for tears,
But for the sword', she cried, 'or what may be
Mightier than the sword. For any crime
I'm ready, Philomel! I'll set on fire
These royal roofs and bury in the blaze
That scheming fiend. I'll gouge his wicked eyes!
I'll pluck his tongue out, cut away those parts
That stole your honour, through a thousand wounds
I'll sluice his guilty soul! Some mighty deed
I'll dare, I'll do, though what that deed shall be,
Is still unsure.' As Procne spoke, her son,
Itys, approached-she knew what she could do!
Looking at him with ruthless eyes, she said
'You're like, so like your father!' and she planned
In silent rage a deed of tragedy.
Yet as the boy came close and greeted her
And hugged her, as she stooped, in his small arms,
And mingled kisses with sweet childish words
Of love, her mother's heart was touched, her rage
Stood checked and broken, and, despite herself
Her eyes were wet with tears that forced their way.
But then she felt her will was faltering-
She loved him well, too well-and turned again
To Philomel, and gazing at them both
In turn, 'Why, why', she cried, 'can one of them
Speak words of love and the other has no tongue
To speak at all? Why, when he calls me mother,
Does she not call me sister? See, just see,
Whom you have married, you, Pandion's daughter!
Will you betray your birth? For such a husband,
For Tereus, love and loyalty are crimes!'
Then-with no pause-she pounced on Itys, like
A tigress pouncing on a suckling fawn
In the dark jungle where the Ganges glides,
And dragged him to a distant lonely part
Of the great house. He saw his fate and cried
'Mother! Mother!' and tried to throw his arms
Around her neck. She struck him with a knife
Below the ribs, and never even looked
Away; one wound sufficed to seal his fate.
And Philomela slit his throat. Alive,
And breathing still, they carved and jointed him,
And cooked the parts; some bubbled in a pan,
Some hissed on spits; the closet swam with blood.
Then to the banquet Procne called her husband,
Unwitting, unsuspecting, and dismissed
The courtiers and servants: on this day,
So she pretended, at her father's court,
This holy day, the husband dines alone.
So, seated high on his ancestral throne,
King Tereus dines and, dining, swallows down
Flesh of his flesh, and calls, so dark the night
That blinds him, 'Bring young Itys here to me!'
Oh joy! She cannot hide her cruel joy,
And, bursting to announce her deed of doom,
'You have him here', she cries, 'inside!' and he
Looks round, asks where he is, and, as he asks
And calls again, in rushes Philomel,
Just as she is, that frantic butchery
Still spattered in her hair, and throws the head
Of Itys, bleeding, in his father's face.
She never wanted more her tongue to express
Her joy in words that matched her happiness!
With a great shout the Thracian king thrust back
The table, calling from the chasms of Hell
The snake-haired Furies. Gladly, if he could,
He'd tear himself apart to vomit back
That frightful feast, that flesh of his own flesh.
He wept and wailed and called himself his son's
Disastrous tomb, then with his naked sword
Pursued Pandion's daughters. As they flee,
You'd think they float on wings. Yes, sure enough,
They float on wings! One daughter seeks the woods,
One rises to the roof; and even now
The marks of murder show upon a breast
And feathers carry still the stamp of blood.
And he, grief-spurred, swift-swooping for revenge.
Is changed into a bird that bears a crest,
With, for a sword, a long fantastic bill-
A hoopoe, every inch a fighter still.