Philomela and Ovid

Tereus raping Philomela, Pablo Picasso, 1931In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Philomela’s rape and suppression of speech by Tereus reflects similar gender patterns of male domination that are found throughout classical literature. The story of Philomela is especially important because it reflects the difficulty people have talking about events that have silenced them. Often, those who hold positions of power and privilege in society are the ones who enforce the silencing. Although it is hard to speak the truth, either because of inability or reluctance, it is important that it be revealed because often communciation is the only way to achieve change or improvement. When people are either unwilling or unable to speak up, problems can lie hidden and fester. The silencing of Philomela reflects the silencing of women throughout history and reminds us that, even today, women can be silenced and over-powered by their male counterparts. The story of Philomela recalls Ovid’s exile by Augustus because in both cases a person in power silenced a weaker person. In the end, Philomela overcame her censorship by becoming a beautiful singer. Similarly, Ovid composed or revised some of his best works while in exile, including the Metamorphoses, the Tristia, and the Epistulae ex Ponto. Philomela and Ovid both overcame their silencing to produce beautiful and meaningful works of art.

The Story

Tereus confronted with the head of his son Itylus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1638Tereus, a Thracian king, marries Procne, an Athenian princess, and brings her to live with him in Thrace. After a while, Procne begins to miss her beloved sister, Philomela. Procne begs her husband to bring her sister to Thrace. When Tereus agrees, he travels to Athens, only to fall in deep lust for Philomela. Tereus is able to convince the father to let Philomela travel back to Thrace with him to see Procne. However, once Tereus and Philomela’s voyage is over, Tereus takes Philomela into the woods and rapes her. Philomela threatens to tell the world of his unforgivable act so Tereus cuts out her tongue, rapes her again, and leaves her imprisoned in a cabin in the woods. Since she is unable to speak, Philomela weaves the story into a tapestry. She sends the tapestry to her sister, revealing the crime through the woven word. Procne finds her sister and brings her back to the palace to plot revenge against Tereus. Procne kills their son, Itys, and puts the pieces of his dismembered body in Tereus’ dinner. While eating, Tereus asks to see his son, but Procne tells him that his son is in his stomach. Philomela enters the room with the severed head of Itys. Then Philomela and Procne flee in fear of Tereus’s rage and are transformed into a nightingale and a swallow, respectively, while the enraged Tereus is transformed into a hoopoe. (Metamorphoses 6.438-674). 


The Rape and Censoring

Tereus Severing Philomela's Tongue, Virgil Solis 1562

Tereus Severing Philomela’s Tongue, Virgil Solis 1562

In addition to being raped, Philomela is also violated by the mutilation of her tongue and attendant loss of speech. In a way, Tereus rapes Philomela’s speech by taking her ability to speak out against him.

ille indignantem et nomen patris usque vocantem               

luctantemque loqui conprensam forcipe linguam

abstulit ense fero. (Met.6.555-557)
Outraged and calling the name of her father repeatedly
and struggling to speak, the tongue having been seized with pincers,
he removed with his savage blade. 

By taking Philomela’s tongue, Tereus removes her ability to denounce him. This rape of Philomela’s voice functions as an act of censorship. Tereus inhibits her from speaking the truth that would inevitably ruin his name and reputation. When Tereus cuts out Philomela’s tongue, he reenacts the rape, not simply making it a consequence of the rape. The cutting out of Philomela’s tongue is in itself an act of rape because it violates Philomela again while depriving her of the ability to speak.


Overcoming Censorship:


Tereus, Procne, & the Furies, Virgil_Solis_-_Tereus_Procne_FuriesAlthough Philomela proclaims her intent to tell the world of Tereus’s deed, she is still silenced. Philomela may be seen as changing the script for the victim by initially wanting to speak out against her assaulter. She is “actively rebelling from male domination, and she herself became a threat to the male power structure.”By vowing to tell her story to all, Philomela rejects the oppression that many women find hard to overcome in rape cases. Since she constitutes a threat to Tereus’s power and name, the evil king cuts out her tongue.

In response to Tereus’s efforts to censor her, Philomela weaves a tapestry to communicate the crime of Tereus. She responds again to tyrannical power and overcomes the attempt to censor her. This bold act recalls Arachne, who weaves a tapestry depicting the ways in which gods abused mortals. In the stories of Arachne and Philomela we can see weaving as a metaphor for poetic composition, since Ovid and these two women tell the same stories through different media.

Philomela & her Tapestry, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1864

Philomela & her Tapestry, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1864

The act of weaving is silent and the “experience was expressed in disarticulated speech—by a language that had no ‘tongue’.” In this way, Philomela’s proclamation of Tereus’s rape is compelled by her loss of a tongue. She cannot speak, so she cleverly chooses to weave the story of how she was silenced. As a result “she wrote out of necessity and in response to violation, but that writing was bound by the terms of violation.” Tereus tries to censor Philomela by cutting out her tongue. However, Philomela has the wit and determination to overcome her censor by telling her story in a tapestry.

Forcing Tereus to Eat His Own Son

Silence is a recurring theme throughout the story of Philomela because in addition to Philomela’s silencing, Procne is speechless when she learns from the tapestry of the rape of her sister.

evolvit vestes saevi matrona tyranni
germanaeque suae fatum miserabile legit

et (mirum potuisse) silet: dolor ora repressit,

verbaque quaerenti satis indignantia linguae

defuerunt. (Met.6.581-585)
The wife of the king rolls out the cloth
and reads the miserable fate of her sister
and is silent (to have been able is a miracle): pain restrains her mouth,
and her tongue cannot find sufficiently outraged words,
lacked them.

Even though Procne still has her tongue and the ability to speak, the rape of her sister renders her silent. She cannot find the words for her rage. In this way, Tereus censors not only Philomela, but also Procne.

The actions of Tereus have made both the sisters silent. Up to this point, Tereus, the one who is actually guilty of the unspeakable crime, is still able to speak. Although he is the criminal, he has lost nothing and in fact, his power of persuasive speech is repeatedly emphasized.

Philomela & Procne preparing to kill Itys, Attic Wine Cup, c.490 BCE

Philomela & Procne preparing to kill Itys, Attic Wine Cup, c.490 BCE

When Procne punishes her husband, instead of taking his tongue, she feeds Tereus the body of the child they had made together. She kills Itys and chops his body into the dinner. After filling his stomach and mouth with his son, Tereus asked for Itys, only to realize his son filled his body. “Procne thus used her own child as a substitute for a tongue.” Procne speaks through her child. In this way, even though both Philomela and Procne are silenced by Tereus, they are able to speak to him by means of their revenge, thus overcoming their censoring.

Furthermore, the murder of Itys acts as the silencing of the father, delayed by a generation. Philomela and Procne also deprive Tereus of his son and make him guilty of cannibalism, which is a crime he was unaware he was committing until it was over. His guilt as a cannibal recalls Philomela’s guilt as an adulteress because neither wanted to commit the crime.

Singing as Birds

NightingaleAt the conclusion of the story, although the transformation of Philomela and Procne into a nightingale and a swallow, respectively, can be seen as their silencing, it is important to note that on the contrary, nightingales are known as beautiful singers and swallows are often referred to as songbirds. Furthermore, Tereus’s transformation into a hoopoe, whose English name derives from the Latin word that imitates the cry of a bird, indicates his inability to produce a beautiful melody. The ending of Philomela’s story recalls the outcome of Ovid’s exile. In both cases, Philomela and Ovid overcome their censoring to create beautiful pieces of art.

These victims of censorship transgress the boundaries set forth by their suppressors. In the case of Philomela, she defies gender boundaries by naming her male aggressor. For his part, Ovid continued to write even though the Emperor Augustus, a man with enormous power, had sent him into exile. Philomela and Ovid are both examples of people who successfully overcome attempts to suppress and censor their speech.


Other Similarities: Language of Rage

Displaying the Head of Itys, Detail, RubensThe language of rage and pain is a central theme throughout Ovid’s story of Philomela. It is often difficult to speak of times that cause anger, pain, or grief. In the case of Philomela, she is physically unable to speak of her rage towards Tereus because her tongue has been cut out. When she displays the head of Itys to Tereus, she wishes more than anything that she could speak.

…nec tempore maluit ullo
posse loqui et meritis testari gaudia dictis. (Met.6.660-661) 
Nor was there a time when she wished more strongly
to be able to speak and to testify her joy in words having been deserved.

Philomela is not able to communicate her rage and pain by actually articulating words.

In the case of Procne, she loses her ability to speak when she learns of the horrific act. When she most wants to express her anger, disappointment, and shame, she is unable to because the acts of Tereus have silenced her.

When the two sisters wish to speak of their rage, they cannot because “the language of rage is a language without a tongue, a language of disarticulation.” Often times, people in a rage are considered “beside themselves with anger” meaning they cannot speak of such outrage. Enraged people cannot articulate their feelings, so there is no way to describe their experience vocally. Philomela depicts her rage at her rapist by weaving and Ovid depicts the deep emotions prompted by his exile in his poems. Neither of these outlets include speaking.


Connections to Today

The story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus shows the “difficulty of speaking the experience of being silenced.” The story conveys messages of female silence and male power as seen when the sisters are silenced, either physically or emotionally. Today, silence around rape and other horrific events prevents society from effectively addressing these issues. Rape victims often do not report the crime for fear of retaliation and stigma. The story of Philomela provides a powerful warning to those that would silence their victims: the truth will out! Together, Philomela and Ovid offer examples of people who overcome censorship by communicating in ways other than vocal language. Philomela weaves words and sings as a bird, while Ovid writes poems. In this way, Philomela visits terrible retribution on her rapist, and Ovid’s written words have outlived the emperor who banished him. 

Works Cited

Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 158.
Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 158.
Philomela Strikes Back: Adultery And Mutilation As Female Self-Assertion,” 434.
Keuss, “Speech After Rape: Towards A Theological Poetics Of Identity And Loss After Philomela’s ‘Voice Of The Shuttle’,” 249.
Johnson, Ovid Before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses, 26.
Marder, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 157.
Marder, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 157.
Marder, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 161.
“Birds by Name.”
Keuss, “Speech After Rape: Towards A Theological Poetics Of Identity And Loss After Philomela’s ‘Voice Of The Shuttle’,” 249.
Marder, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 162.
Marder, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” 162.