What Language Did the Shuttle Speak?
Voice and Vision in Sophocles’ Tereus

Niall W. Slater

         From Sophocles onward, Philomela uses her weaving to inform her sister Procne of her grisly fate (rape, followed by excision of her tongue) at the hands of king Tereus.  In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6. 576-579), Philomela weaves actual words into a tapestry, which she sends to her sister. Most commentators have assumed that Ovid invented the use of writing for his version, while Sophocles in his lost tragedy imagined communicating the story through a picture.  Greg Dobrov (Figures of Play, 2001) has recently suggested that the “voice of the shuttle” (kerkidos phonê, fr. 595 Pearson) in Sophocles implies use of writing in his play originally, a view that has important further implications for its staging and for late fifth century conceptions of literacy.

         Pearson and Lloyd-Jones assume that Philomela weaves a picture only.  This implies that, if the picture’s meaning is self-evident, the tapestry must be delivered to Philomela alone.  Were Tereus to see such a depiction, he could not remain completely unsuspecting.  Some assume that the person delivering the tapestry somehow confirms its story and that fr. 588, encouraging someone to speak the truth, is addressed to this individual.

         Evidence from vase painting, however, especially a bell krater by the Dolon Painter, suggests that the weaving is delivered to Procne in the presence of Tereus.  Therefore she should be able to understand its message while the king does not.  The use of Greek script in the weaving allows for a rich dramatic irony:  the Greek sisters can communicate through writing, but the barbarian tyrant, though obviously able to speak Greek, is illiterate and therefore cannot “hear” what the “voice of the shuttle” communicates in his presence.  Fr. 595 is preserved by Aristotle in his discussion of artistic and inartistic recognitions at Poetics 16 (1454b); the reference is extremely brief, but its association with the recognitions in the Iphigenaia in Tauris suggests the use of writing as well.

         The Tereus is very likely a late Sophoclean play, not much earlier than the references to it in Aristophanes’ Birds of 414.  If the “voice of the shuttle” was indeed Greek script, Sophocles depicts literacy as quite imaginable for elite Athenian women, with intriguing implications for its contemporary audience.  The presumed staging also implies silent reading on the part of Procne, and the Tereus should be drawn into the ongoing discussion of the origins and frequency of silent reading in Greek culture.

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