August 10, 2015Posted by on
In ancient Greece there once lived a cruel and fearsome king named Tereus who despite being a son of Ares, the god of war, was considered to be a Thracian barbarian. However when Greece was invaded, it was to Tereus that all the Greek kings sent soldiers to fight the invaders. All that is, except Pandion the King of Athens. A victorious Tereus taunted Pandion for doing nothing but a wily Pandion allied himself to Tereus by giving him his eldest daughter Procne as a bride. The gods displeasure with Pandion for not defending Greece and now the hubris¹ of both kings, in arranging to marry a barbarian to an Athenian princess without their consent, invoked the gods’ wrath. Instead of the bridal goddess Hera attending the wedding, the gods sent the furies who cursed the marriage. Returning to Thrace, Tereus was overjoyed when Procne gave birth to a son whom he named Itys. When an oracle predicted that Itys would be killed by a blood-relative, Tereus suspected his brother Dryas of plotting to seize his throne and killed him. Thus began the curses of the furies.
Procne had a young sister named Philomela whom she greatly missed, on the pretext of pleasing her Tereus sailed to Attica seeking Pandion’s permission for Philomela to visit her sister. As he had expected Philomela was now a youthful beauty and her sweet voice so bewitched Tereus that he determined to posses her. His entreaties, in the guise of Procne’s need to see her sister, won over both Philomela and her father who gave his permission. However, once in Thrace Tereus ravished Philomela and when she threatened to tell Procne he cut out her tongue destroying the voice that had so enchanted him. Tereus then held Philomela captive, telling Procne that Philomela had died on the voyage from Attica. Suspecting nothing of her sister’s captivity and her abuse by Tereus, hearing of Philomela’s death caused Procne great anguish.
Unable to tell Procne of her plight, Philomela wove a pattern into a peplos² that only her sister could decipher and had it secretly sent to Procne. On reading Philomela’s concealed message and learning of Tereus’s vile abuse of her sister, Procne set Philomela free. Together they wrought a heinous retribution on Tereus. They killed his beloved son Itys whom they dismembered and cooked. An unwitting Tereus ate his own son and when confronted by the sisters they told him of their deed. Philomela threw his son’s head at him and a horrified Tereus drew his sword intending to kill them both, but the sisters fled with Tereus in pursuit. He was about to slay them when the gods took pity and intervened, Tereus was transformed into a hawk and Procne to a swallow, which a hawk can’t catch in flight. Philomela became a nightingale whose suitors vie for her affection with sweet songs. Unable to sing Luscinia³ calls out to entice her suitors, their long overtures making them easy prey for a voracious hawk.
¹hubris: Presumption, insolence towards the gods; pride, excessive self-confidence.
² peplos: A usually rich outer robe or shawl worn by women in ancient Greece, hanging in loose folds and sometimes drawn over the head.
³Luscinia is a genus of smallish passerine birds containing the nightingales.