Portrayals of Gender in The Metamorphoses

Arachne and Minerva Caeneus Ceres and Proserpina Dryope Diana and Actaeon Hercules and Achelous Echo and Narcissus
Hermaphroditus Jason and Medea Iphis and Ianthe Tereus and Philomela Minos and Scylla Scylla and Circe Daughters of Minyas

Procne et Philomela.

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The lords of many cities that were near,
now met together and implored their kings
to mourn with Pelops those unhappy deeds.—

The lords of Argos; Sparta and Mycenae;
and Calydon, before it had incurred
the hatred of Diana, goddess of the chase;
fertile Orchomenus and Corinth, great
in wealth of brass; Patrae and fierce Messena;
Cleone, small; and Pylus and Troezen,
not ruled by Pittheus then,—and also, all
the other cities which are shut off by
the Isthmus there dividing by its two seas,
and all the cities which are seen from there.

What seemed most wonderful, of all those towns
Athens alone was wanting, for a war
had gathered from the distant seas, a host
of savage warriors had alarmed her walls,
and hindered her from mourning for the dead.

Now Tereus, then the mighty king of Thrace,
came to the aid of Athens as defense
from that fierce horde; and there by his great deeds
achieved a glorious fame. Since his descent
was boasted from the mighty Gradivus,
and he was gifted with enormous wealth,
Pandion, king of Athens, gave to him
in sacred wedlock his dear daughter, Procne.

But Juno, guardian of the sacred rites
attended not, nor Hymenaeus, nor
the Graces. But the Furies snatched up brands
from burning funeral pyres, and brandished them
as torches. They prepared the nuptial couch,—
a boding owl flew over the bride's room,
and then sat silently upon the roof.

With such bad omens Tereus married her,
sad Procne, and those omens cast a gloom
on all the household till the fateful birth
of their first born
matronly. All Thrace went wild with joy—
and even they, rejoicing, blessed the Gods,
when he, the little Itys, saw the light;
and they ordained each year their wedding day,
and every year the birthday of their child,
should be observed with festival and song:
so the sad veil of fate conceals from us
our future woes.

Now Titan had drawn forth
the changing seasons through five autumns, when,
in gentle accents, Procne spoke these words:
“My dearest husband, if you love me, let
me visit my dear sister, or consent
that she may come to us and promise her
that she may soon return. If you will but
permit me to enjoy her company
my heart will bless you as I bless the Gods.”

At once the monarch ordered his long ships
to launch upon the sea; and driven by sail,
and hastened by the swiftly sweeping oars,
they entered the deep port of Athens, where
he made fair landing on the fortified
Piraeus. There, when time was opportune
to greet his father-in-law and shake his hand,
they both exchanged their wishes for good health,
and Tereus told the reason why he came.

He was relating all his wife's desire.
Promising Philomela's safe return
from a brief visit, when Philomela appeared
rich in her costly raiment, yet more rich
in charm and beauty, just as if a fair
Dryad or Naiad should be so attired,
appearing radiant,
virginal from dark solitudes.

As if someone should kindle whitening corn
or the dry leaves, or hay piled in a stack;
so Tereus, when he saw the beautiful
and blushing virgin
virginal, was consumed with love.

Her modest beauty was a worthy cause
of worthy love; but by his heritage,
derived from a debasing clime, his love
was base; and fires unholy burned within
from his own lawless nature, just as fierce
as are the habits of his evil race.

In the wild frenzy of his wicked heart,
he thought he would corrupt her trusted maid,
her tried attendants, and corrupt even
her virtue with large presents: he would waste
his kingdom in the effort.—He prepared
to seize her at the risk of cruel war.
And he would do or dare all things to feed
his raging flame.—He could not brook delay.

With most impassioned words he begged for her,
pretending he gave voice to Procne's hopes.—
his own desire made him wax eloquent,
as often as his words exceeded bounds,
he pleaded he was uttering Procne's words.

His hypocritic eyes were filled with tears,
as though they represented her desire—
and, O you Gods above, what devious ways
are harbored in the hearts of mortals! Through
his villainous desire he gathered praise,
and many lauded him for the great love
he bore his wife.

And even Philomela
desires her own undoing; and with fond
embraces nestles to her father, while
she pleads for his consent, that she may go
to visit her dear sister.—Tereus viewed
her pretty pleading, and in his hot heart,
imagined he was then embracing her;
and as he saw her kiss her father's lips,
her arms around his neck, it seemed that each
caress was his; and so his fire increased.
He even wished he were her father; though,
if it were so, his passion would no less
be impious.—Overcome at last by these
entreaties, her kind father gave consent.
Greatly she joyed and thanked him for her own
misfortune. She imagined a success,
instead of all the sorrow that would come.

The day declining, little of his toil
remained for Phoebus. Now his flaming steeds
were beating with their hoofs the downward slope
of high Olympus; and the regal feast
was set before the guests, and flashing wine
was poured in golden vessels, and the feast
went merrily, until the satisfied
assembly sought in gentle sleep their rest.

Not so, the love-hot Tereus, king of Thrace,
who, sleepless, imaged in his doting mind
the form of Philomela, recalled the shape
of her fair hands, and in his memory
reviewed her movements. And his flaming heart
pictured her beauties yet unseen.—He fed
his frenzy on itself, and could not sleep.

Fair broke the day; and now the ancient king,
Pandion, took his son-in-law's right hand
to bid farewell; and, as he wept,
commended his dear daughter, Philomela,
unto his guarding care. “And in your care,
my son-in-law,
protector I trust my daughter's healthprotected.
Good reason, grounded on my love, compels
my sad approval. You have begged for her,
and both my daughters have persuaded me.
Wherefore, I do entreat you and implore
your honor, as I call upon the Gods,
that you will ever shield her with the love
of a kind father and return her safe,
as soon as may be—my last comfort given
to bless my doting age. And all delay
will agitate and vex my failing heart.

“And, O my dearest daughter, Philomela,
if you have any love for me, return
without too long delay and comfort me,
lest I may grieve; for it is quite enough
that I should suffer while your sister stays away.”

The old king made them promise, and he kissed
his daughter, while he wept. Then did he join
their hands in pledge of their fidelity,
and, as he gave his blessing, cautioned them
to kiss his absent daughter and her son
for his dear sake. Then as he spoke a last
farewell, his trembling voice was filled with sobs.
And he could hardly speak;—for a great fear
from some vague intuition of his mind,
surged over him, and he was left forlorn.

So soon as Philomela was safe aboard
the painted ship and as the sailors urged
the swiftly gliding keel across the deep
and the dim land fast-faded from their view,
then Tereus, in exultant humor, thought,
“Now all is well, the object of my love
sails with me while the sailors ply the oars.”,

He scarcely could control his barbarous
desire—with difficulty stayed his lust,
he followed all her actions with hot eyes. —
So, when the ravenous bird of Jupiter
has caught with crooked talons the poor hare,
and dropped it—ruthless,—in his lofty nest,
where there is no escape, his cruel eyes
gloat on the victim he anticipates.

And now, as Tereus reached his journey's end,
they landed from the travel-wearied ship,
safe on the shores of his own kingdom. Then
he hastened with the frightened Philomela
into most wild and silent solitudes
of an old forest; where, concealed among
deep thickets a forbidding old house stood:
there he immured the pale and trembling maidvirginal,
who, vainly in her fright, began to call
upon her absent sister,—and her tears
implored his pity. His obdurate mind
could not be softened by such piteous cries;
but even while her agonizing screams
implored her sister's and her father's aid,
and while she vainly called upon the Gods,
he overmastered her with brutal force.
sp: philomela
invo: gods

The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

But presently, as consciousness returned,
she tore her streaming hair and beat her arms,
and, stretching forth her hands in frenzied grief,
cried out, “Oh, barbarous and brutal wretch!
Unnatural monster of abhorrent deeds!
Could not my anxious father's parting words,
nor his foreboding tears restrain your lust?
Have you no slight regard for your chaste wife,
my dearest sister, and are you without
all honor, so to spoil virginity
now making me invade my sister's claim,
you have befouled the sacred fount of life,—
you are a lawless bond of double sin!

“Oh, this dark punishment was not my due!
Come, finish with my murder your black deed,
so nothing wicked may remain undone.
But oh, if you had only slaughtered me
before your criminal embrace befouled
my purity, I should have had a shade
entirely pure, and free from any stain!
Oh, if there is a Majesty in Heaven,
and if my ruin has not wrecked the world,
then, you shall suffer for this grievous wrong
and time shall hasten to avenge my wreck.

“I shall declare your sin before the world,
and publish my own shame to punish you!
And if I'm prisoned in the solitudes,
my voice will wake the echoes in the wood
and move the conscious rocks. Hear me, O Heaven!
And let my imprecations rouse the Gods—
ah-h-h, if there can be a god in Heaven!”
sp: philomela
invo: gods

Her cries aroused the dastard tyrant's wrath,
and frightened him, lest ever his foul deed
might shock his kingdom: and, roused at once
by rage and guilty fear; he seized her hair,
forced her weak arms against her back, and bound
them fast with brazen chains, then drew his sword.

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father's name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,

And cut it with his sword.—The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor. As the tail
of a slain snake still writhes upon the ground,
so did the throbbing tongue; and, while it died,
moved up to her, as if to seek her feet.—
And, it is said that after this foul crime,
the monster violated her again.

And after these vile deeds, that wicked king
returned to Procne, who, when she first met
her brutal husband, anxiously inquired
for tidings of her sister; but with sighs
and tears, he told a false tale of her death,
and with such woe that all believed it true.

Then Procne, full of lamentation, took
her royal robe, bordered with purest gold,
and putting it away, assumed instead
garments of sable mourning; and she built
a noble sepulchre, and offered there
her pious gifts to an imagined shade;—
lamenting the sad death of her who lived.

A year had passed by since that awful date—
the sun had coursed the Zodiac's twelve signs.
But what could Philomela hope or do?
For like a jail the strong walls of the house
were built of massive stone, and guards around
prevented flight; and mutilated, she
could not communicate with anyone
to tell her injuries and tragic woe.

But even in despair and utmost grief,
there is an ingenuity which gives
inventive genius to protect from harm:
and now, the grief-distracted Philomela
wove in a warp with purple marks and white,
a story of the crime; and when 'twas done
she gave it to her one attendant there
and begged her by appropriate signs to take
it secretly to Procne. She took the web,
she carried it to Procne, with no thought
of words or messages by art conveyed.

The wife of that inhuman tyrant took
the cloth, and after she unwrapped it saw
and understood the mournful record sent.
She pondered it in silence and her tongue
could find no words to utter her despair;—
her grief and frenzy were too great for tears.—
In a mad rage her rapid mind counfounded
the right and wrong—intent upon revenge.

Since it was now the time of festival,
when all the Thracian matrons celebrate
the rites of Bacchus—every third year thus—
night then was in their secret; and at night
the slopes of Rhodope resounded loud
with clashing of shrill cymbals. So, at night
the frantic queen of Tereus left her home
and, clothed according to the well known rites
of Bacchus, hurried to the wilderness.

Her head was covered with the green vine leaves;
and from her left side native deer skin hung;
and on her shoulder rested a light spear.—
so fashioned, the revengeful Procne rushed
through the dark woods, attended by a host
of screaming followers, and wild with rage,
pretended it was Bacchus urged her forth.

At last she reached the lonely building, where
her sister, Philomela, was immured;
and as she howled and shouted “Ee-woh-ee-e!”,
She forced the massive doors; and having seized
her sister, instantly concealed her face
in ivy leaves, arrayed her in the trappings
of Bacchanalian rites. When this was done,
they rushed from there, demented, to the house
where as the Queen of Tereus, Procne dwelt.

When Philomela knew she had arrived
at that accursed house, her countenance,
though pale with grief, took on a ghastlier hue:
and, wretched in her misery and fright,
she shuddered in convulsions.
despair—Procne took
the symbols, Bacchanalian, from her then,
and as she held her in a strict embrace
unveiled her downcast head. But she refused
to lift her eyes, and fixing her sad gaze
on vacant space, she raised her hand, instead;
as if in oath she called upon the Gods
to witness truly she had done no wrong,
but suffered a disgrace of violence.—

Lo, Procne, wild with a consuming rage,
cut short her sister's terror in these words,
“This is no time for weeping! awful deeds
demand a great revenge—take up the sword,
and any weapon fiercer than its edge!
My breast is hardened to the worst of crime
make haste with me! together let us put
this palace to the torch!

“Come, let us maim,
the beastly Tereus with revenging iron,
cut out his tongue, and quench his cruel eyes,
and hurl and burn him writhing in the flames!
Or, shall we pierce him with a grisly blade,
and let his black soul issue from deep wounds
a thousand.—Slaughter him with every death
imagined in the misery of hate!”

While Procne still was raving out such words,
Itys, her son, was hastening to his mother;
and when she saw him, her revengeful eyes
conceiving a dark punishment, she said,
“Aha! here comes the image of his father!”
She gave no other warning, but prepared
to execute a horrible revenge.

But when the tender child came up to her,
and called her “mother”, put his little arms
around her neck, and when he smiled and kissed
her often, gracious in his cunning ways,—
again the instinct of true motherhood
pulsed in her veins, and moved to pity, she
began to weep in spite of her resolve.

Feeling the tender impulse of her love
unnerving her, she turned her eyes from him
and looked upon her sister, and from her
glanced at her darling boy again. And so,
while she was looking at them both, by turns,
she said, “Why does the little one prevail
with pretty words, while Philomela stands
in silence always, with her tongue torn out?
She cannot call her sister, whom he calls
his mother! Oh, you daughter of Pandion,
consider what a wretch your husband is!
The wife of such a monster must be flint;
compassion in her heart is but a crime.”

No more she hesitated, but as swift
as the fierce tigress of the Ganges leaps,
seizes the suckling offspring of the hind,
and drags it through the forest to its lair;
so, Procne seized and dragged the frightened boy
to a most lonely section of the house;
and there she put him to the cruel sword,
while he, aware of his sad fate, stretched forth
his little hands, and cried
rage, “Ah, mother,—ah!—”
And clung to her—clung to her, while she struck—
her fixed eyes, maddened, glaring horribly—
struck wildly, lopping off his tender limbs.
But Philomela cut through his tender throat.

Then they together, mangled his remains,
still quivering with the remnant of his life,
and boiled a part of him in steaming pots,
that bubbled over with the dead child's blood,
and roasted other parts on hissing spits.

And, after all was ready, Procne bade
her husband, Tereus, to the loathsome feast,
and with a false pretense of sacred rites,
according to the custom of her land,
by which, but one man may partake of it,
she sent the servants from the banquet hall.—
Tereus, majestic on his ancient throne
high in imagined state, devoured his son,
and gorged himself with flesh of his own flesh—
and in his rage of gluttony called out
for Itys to attend and share the feast!

Curst with a joy she could conceal no more,
and eager to gloat over his distress,
Procne cried out,

“Inside yourself, you have
the thing that you are asking for!” — Amazed,
he looked around and called his son again:—

that instant, Philomela sprang forth—her hair
disordered, and all stained with blood of murder,
unable then to speak, she hurled the head
of Itys in his father's fear-struck face,
and more than ever longed for fitting words.

The Thracian Tereus overturned the table,
and howling, called up from the Stygian pit,
the viperous sisters. Tearing at his breast,
in miserable efforts to disgorge
the half-digested gobbets of his son,
he called himself his own child's sepulchre,
and wept the hot tears of a frenzied man.
Then with his sword he rushed at the two sisters.

Fleeing from him, they seemed to rise on wings,
and it was true, for they had changed to birds.
Then Philomela, flitting to the woods,
found refuge in the leaves: but Procne flew
straight to the sheltering gables of a roof—
and always, if you look, you can observe
the brand of murder on the swallow's breast—
red feathers from that day. And Tereus, swift
in his great agitation, and his will
to wreak a fierce revenge, himself is turned
into a crested bird. His long, sharp beak
is given him instead of a long sword,
and so, because his beak is long and sharp,
he rightly bears the name of Hoopoe.