Classical Mythology: Switchblade Sisters
Both Echo and Narcissus remain solitary tragic figures, cursed with loneliness and tormented by a love they can never have. But even those bound by a powerful love—for instance, the bonds between sisters, between a husband and wife, between a father and son—can suffer tragedies. Love, it seems, does not always offer protection against tragedy. Indeed, love can actually lead to tragedy.
The sisters Procne and Philomela loved each other so much they could not bear the separation that came when Procne married. Yet their desire to reunite led only to tragedy. When they finally overcame the obstacles placed in their path by Procne's husband Tereus, the sisters bonded once more—in a quest for vengeance.
Pandion, king of Athens, and Labdacus, king of Thebes, couldn't agree on the border between these two territories. When they went to war, Pandion called upon Tereus—a son of Ares and the ruler of Daulis, a city in Phocis not far from Delphi—for assistance. With the help of Tereus, Pandion defeated and killed Labdacus.
In gratitude, Pandion offered his daughter Procne as a bride to Tereus. Procne and Tereus made a home in Daulis, where they had a son, Itys. But after five years, Procne confessed to her husband that she felt a little homesick. If only she could visit her sister Philomela or have her sister visit them, she would never ask anything of him again.
Tereus honored his wife's request and sailed across the Gulf of Corinth to Athens to fetch her sister. But sadly, Tereus became infatuated with Philomela. He found her beauty, grace, charms, and enchanting voice impossible to resist. He kept his feelings hidden, however. So with her father's blessing, the predatory Tereus took the innocent Philomela away with him to Daulis.
No sooner had they arrived than Tereus stole Philomela away to a deserted cabin in the woods and brutally raped the virgin. Fearful that she might escape and tell Procne or Pandion—and angry that the anguished girl was calling on the gods to punish him—Tereus chopped off Philomela's tongue. Again and again he raped her, then imprisoned her in the ramshackle cabin.
Dinner—and Vengeance—Is Served
Mythed by a Mile
In a slightly different version of this tale, Tereus—smitten with Philomela—hid Procne away in a cabin and informed Pandion that his daughter had died. Though tormented by the loss of his daughter, Pandion nonetheless thought to ease the supposed widower's anguish by offering Tereus his other daughter, Philomela, to take Procne's place. Tereus seduced Philomela even before the wedding could take place. In this version, Tereus cut out Procne's tongue and locked her up in the slave's quarters. But the abused wife wove a message into Philomela's bridal robe that read, “Procne is among the slaves.” Philomela then freed her sister and the two sought vengeance against Tereus.
Philomela spent a year in the cabin, but used her time well. She cleverly wove her tale of woe into a robe and sent it to Procne. Procne figured out the message, raced to the cabin, freed her sister, and joined with her in a plot to avenge her husband's wickedness.
The two sisters came up with a grisly plot. Procne slaughtered her young son—the image of his father—slitting his throat and, with Philomela's help, carving him into pieces. The sisters boiled and roasted the body and had him served to Tereus as a special feast.
Just as Thyestes had enjoyed a meal of his children served by his brother Atreus (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy), Tereus stuffed himself with the flesh of his son, relishing every bite. After the king announced he could eat no more, Philomela sprang into the banquet hall and tossed the head of Itys onto the table in front of him.
Realizing that he had just feasted on his own son, Tereus went mad with rage. Drawing his sword, he chased the sisters out of the palace. He might have killed them both, but all three were suddenly transformed by the gods into birds: Procne became a swallow; Philomela, a nightingale; and Tereus, a hoopoe (a small crested bird commonly found in southern Europe). The people of Phocis claim that fear of Tereus has kept the nightingale from singing or the swallow from nesting in Daulis ever since.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.