The Dual 'Other' in the Myth of Philomela and Tereus

Jessica Westerhold

University of Kansas

Rape in myth is rarely treated as a 'crime' against the female victim. Nevertheless, it is clear from the mythological tradition that Tereus' rape of Philomela is a horrifying act and that sympathy lay with the 'victim'.  What sets this story apart from the many others is, I believe, the context in which we meet the victim.  Like Lucretia, Philomela is introduced in a domestic context, as opposed to the familiar locus amoenus of many maiden/victims.  This domestic context—the house of her father—serves to reinforce her role as signifier of Greek identity and political power.  Focusing on Ovid's version of this myth in his Metamorphoses and applying recent scholarship on Greek tragedy, I will explore the construction of power as defined by this originally Greek myth—still visible in a Roman retelling—which places Philomela above Tereus in the hierarchy of 'Other' and allows her and her sister, acting as a surrogate Greek male, to justly take revenge for the 'nefas' committed.

As P. K. Joplin clearly describes in her essay "The voice of the shuttle is ours" ([1984] 2002), both Procne and Philomela function as a symbolic means of exchange between Pandion and Tereus.  Procne's body, given to Tereus, is a symbolic 'entry' into Athens—an alliance between the two kings.  In these terms, the rape of Philomela represents not only a violation of Philomela herself, but also a violation of the treaty and an attack upon Athenian political boundaries.  The subsequent action of the two sisters is presented as justified revenge.  In her chapter on Sophocles' lost Tereus from her book Revenge in Attic and later tragedy (1998), Anne Pippin Burnett calls it "a patriarchal imperative stronger even than that of the womb" (p. 190).  She describes the act of child killing as a response to a wrong done to the paternal house, placing (Greek) father above (barbarian) husband.  Helene Foley's reading of Sophocles' Electra imagines the female heroine as exercising an ethics of vendetta (Female acts in Greek tragedy, 2001).  Her analysis seems to support Anne Pippin Burnett's argument.  Foley, borrowing from modern ethnographers, notes that a surviving female family member, both in modern contexts and in tragedy, may choose to take revenge in the absence of male kin.  Likewise, Philomela and Procne, in the absence of their father, can be seen as exercising an ethics of vendetta in retaliation for the act of violence committed against their father's house. 

Tereus, despite being a member of the privileged gender, is vilified not because of his actions (rape and mutilation) but because of his nationality.  His actions are viewed as a 'nefas' and barbarous.  Burnett believes that Sophocles used Tereus' mutilation of Philomela's tongue, after an already violent act of rape to "intensify and to generalize the savagery that already marked the Thracian Tereus of folktale" (p. 184).  His status as barbarian is highlighted by the barbaric acts he performs.  In Ovid's version, Philomela addresses Tereus as diris barbare factis (6.533), defining Tereus as barbarus by the diris factis which surround the word itself.  Tereus' horrific actions, however, do not make him a monster among Thracians, but only serve to emphasize the barbaric mark of Thracian.  Indeed, as Ovid tells us earlier, pronumque genus regionibus illis/ in Venerem est (6.459-460).  The classical Greek conception of Thracian is of a race that lacks self-control and would commit acts of theft or violence if given the chance.  Though Roman, Ovid adopts this concept with apparent ease.

Burnett argues that Procne and Philomela's association with the Pandionid tribe and Athens itself prove that the two women, in their vengeance, could only have been viewed as justified in Sophocles' play.  The daughters, according to Burnett, were considered heroines by their tribe.  The 'victim' of this rape, however, is not Philomela herself but the property and power of her Athenian paternal house. Two marginalized groups are juxtaposed in this myth, woman (Philomela) and non-Greek or Barbarian (Tereus).  Thus Philomela is privileged over Tereus, just as Athenian is privileged over barbarian.  Although Ovid was writing for a Roman rather than Athenian audience and the 'Thracian' identity of the villain was no longer relevant, the power structures at work in the originally Greek myth were preserved and still resonated with a Roman author and his audience.


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