Tereus, Philomele, and Procne


Bibliographic Information (see Variations below)


Ethnic Origin: Greece (myth)


Running time: 12 minutes, approx.


Power Centers: 


Philomele's despair

Procne's fury

Tereus' treachery




Philomele: Nightingale [symbol of the connection between love and death]

Procne: Swallow [sign of malevolent fortunes, ranging anywhere from severe and life-

long illness to the possibility of murder]

Tereus: Hoopoe [symbolic of war and death]

Pandion (king of Athens)

Itys (son of Procne and Tereus) [in some variants/translations of Ovid is turned into a





1.  Athens (Procne and Tereus are married)

2.  Thrace (Procne begs Tereus to get her sister, Philomele)

3.  Athens (Tereus sees Philomele and plans to have her no matter what)

4.  Thrace (Tereus docks the ship and drags Philomele off)

5.  Thrace woods (Philomele is raped and locked in a shack)

6.  Thrace palace (Procne thinks Philomele is dead)

7.  Thrace woods (Philomele weaves her story into a tapestry, Procne sees it and goes to get her during the Bacchanalian rites)

8.  Thrace palace (Procne kills her own son, Itys, and serves it to Tereus- Philomele throws Itys' head at Tereus)

9.  Thrace woods (the three are changed into birds).


Audience:  Adult (NOT for under 18)





I chose to tell this story because, well, I knew that it would be difficult.  I'm by nature a goofball, and something like this, even though it's a Greek Myth (well, legend, really), deserves a level of seriousness that I would like to cultivate or at least attempt.  I decided not to make it a "sob story", but rather keep the tale serious and focus on some of the more universal messages that are found within the story and its variations (exertion of power over others, exploitation, making sacrifices in the name of love and obligation). 




Ovid's Metamorphoses

Aristophanes' The Birds

Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

Fragments of Sophocles' Tereus (Dana F. Sutton, The Lost Sophocles. New York:

University Press of America, 1984)

Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale (1989; rpt. London, Boston: Faber

and Faber, 1991)


In Ovid's version, Tereus, king of Thrace, defeats a group of barbarians who have invaded Athens and, as a reward for his valor, marries Procne, daughter Pandion, king of Athens. Procne goes to live in Thrace and gives birth to a son, Itys. After five years, she asked Tereus to bring her sister Philomele from Athens to visit her. Tereus returns to Athens, falls in lust with Procne's sister, Philomele. He brings her back to Thrace where he drags her into the woods and rapes her; he also cuts out her tongue when she threatens to tell everyone what he has done and rapes her twice more. Leaving her locked in a shack in the woods, Tereus returns to Procne and pretends that Philomele is dead. Meanwhile, Philomele weaves a tapestry that illustrates her rape and mutilation by Tereus and sends it to Procne via an old woman.  Procne understands the message of the tapestry and immediately plots revenge on Tereus. By means of participating in the triennial rites of Dionysus she seeks out Philomele and brings her back to the palace. The two sisters kill Itys and cook his flesh. Procne then tricks Tereus into eating his own son. Philomele leaps out from hiding at the end of the meal (when Tereus wants to know where his son is) and produces Itys's severed head. Tereus tries to kill the sisters but instead they are transformed into birds: Procne into swallow and Philomele into a nightingale, while Tereus is turned into a hoopoe.


Aristophanes' The Birds uses Ovid and references it quite a bit, but the variations are hilarious rather than disturbing.  His play tells the story of two Athenians, Peisthetaerus and Euelpides, who are seeking to escape Athens, a place overwhelmed by corrupt politicians, choked law courts, and a long war. After finding Tereus, the same one from Ovid (now in bird form), they ask him to summon all of the birds in the forest and then, after a bit of conflict, form a pact with the birds to build Cloudcuckooland.  From here on, eighteen new characters appear between now and the end of the play, but we don't see Eulepides or the hoopoe anymore. The first group of characters consists of people concerned in different ways with the founding of Cloudcuckooland: a priest, a lyric poet, an oracle-monger, the mathematician and astronomer Meton, and finally an "inspector" and a "decree-seller" from Athens.  Later, another similar group is introduced. Then two messengers arrive: the first describes the miraculous speed by which Cloudcuckooland is being built thanks to the work of huge flocks of birds.  The second messenger says that a divine spy has penetrated the city. The alarm is sounded and Iris, personification of the rainbow and one of Zeus's messengers, arrives. Everyone mocks her, drives her into a helpless rage, and shoos her away. Then, a herald suddenly arrives with news that all the men on earth are now bird-crazy and that Peisthetarus and company should expect that thousands will come to Cloudcuckooland to be fitted with wings. A collection of wings is then brought out and three immigrants from earth arrive. The first is a young man who is attracted by the lack of inhibition that birds seem to have in assaulting their own fathers; Peisthetaerus tells him that the situation is not that simple, arms him, and sends him off to war to work off his aggression in a more acceptable way. The poet Cinesias arrives next, reciting poems about winds, birds, and the sky; what Peisthetaerus does to get rid of him is not entirely clear. The third character reveals himself as a blackmailer who specializes in victimizing citizens and explains that he could be more productive if he had wings. He ignores Peisthetaerus' reprimands and is subsequently, violently, driven away. So, the store of wings is removed.  Prometheus (friend of man, enemy of the gods) then comes (hidden under an umbrella) to tell Peisthetaerus how bad things are in heaven and to offer his advice on matters that are to be addressed in the upcoming divine embassy (the gods are angry at the humans for the construction of Cloudcuckooland, which they see as a revolt against them).  The embassy then arrives, consisting of Poseidon, Heracles, and a god of the Triballians, people who once lived in the center of the Balkans.  Meanwhile, Peisthetaerus has arranged to have some birds who were "condemned for revolting against the democratic birds" cooked, and pretends to be more interested in the particulars of food preparation than in what the gods have to say.  He then invites the embassy to lunch.  Lunch is enough for Heracles, who agrees and bullies the Triballian into agreeing as well.  Pesithetaerus then insists that the divine housekeeper, Kingship (she looks after Zeus's thunderbolts), become his wife.  Poseidon threatens to stop all negotiations, but Pesithetaerus again persuades them all by some quick talking.  The final scene, introduced by a messenger who lets forth a slew of random poetic hyperboles, is the wedding procession of Peisthetaerus and Kingship.


Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus uses Ovid's story as well and references it several times within the play's text, but embellishes on it a bit and, utterly unlike Aristophanes, makes Ovid's tale more disturbing.  Lavinia, daughter of the great Roman general Titus Andronicus, is the Philomele character, but she is set up and raped as a means of revenge (the wicked Goth queen Tamora plots with Aaron, the moor, and her lusty sons to use Lavnia as a way of hurting Titus).  Also, Lavinia has two assailants, Tamora's sons, and they not only cut out her tongue but also cut off her hands.  Lavinia is discovered by her uncle and greeted with very strange, almost love poetry.  No tapestry is used to communicate the crime (Lavinia is without hands, remember), so she uses a staff to scrawl the names of her attackers in the dust.  Parent-child cannibalism is present (this time between Tamora and her sons with Titus as the angry chef), however unlike Ovid's version no one is transformed: everyone just dies. 


Though Wertenbaker also follows Ovid's version, she departs from it in a number of ways. She introduces the device of the "play within the play," used frequently in Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, to name a few), into the scene where Tereus falls "in love" with Philomela (Wertenbaker's version of "Philomele"). After the victory of Athens/Thrace over the barbarian invasion, Tereus watches a production of Medea and discusses with Pandion the use of love as a justification for violence.  He later uses this line of reasoning to rationalize raping Philomela.   Additionally, the means by which Tereus's crimes are communicated to Procne are also altered. Philomela and her attendant (a nurse who has accompanied her from Athens) manipulate three "naked" life-sized cloth dolls, one male and two female (something used in modern-day rape crisis centers as a non-invasive technique for communicating the crime), to act out Tereus's brutality. Finally, Wertenbaker keeps the Procne-Itys murder, however omits the father/son cannibalism.  Instead, Itys' body is presented to Tereus by both Procne and Philomela, the three of them are turned into birds, and Itys is transformed back into an innocent child.  Philomela, now a nightingale, sings Itys a song, and Itys asks Philomela "What is right?"  Philomela cannot answer him, so he asks (the final line in the play), "didn't you want me to ask questions?"  This line brings to mind what to me is the point of the story- that one should question the violence inherent in man and the perpetuation of violence with regard to revenge.