The Myth of Philomela and Procne
The mythical story of Philomela
by Lilian Stoughton Hyde
The Myth of Philomela and Procne
King Pandion had two beautiful daughters, called Procne and Philomela. It came about that the eldest, Procne, was married to King Tereus, who was the son of Mars, the cruel god of war. The wedding festivities lasted for two weeks, or more, with singing and dancing, and much other merry-making; but Hymen, the little marriage-god, was not present among the guests with his torch, neither were the Graces. This was a bad omen, as it meant ill-fortune for the bride; but it was a much worse one when a little owl came in, flew to the rafters overhead, and began to hoot dismally.
After Procne had been married a few years, she felt so lonely in the great palace in Thrace, that she begged King Tereus either to let her go home or to send for her sister, Philomela.
King Tereus said that her sister should come to her. He ordered a ship launched, and went himself to bring Philomela.
King Pandion did not like to part from his younger daughter, who was the only child he had left; but Philomela wished so much to see her sister that she put her arms around her father's neck, and coaxed him to let her go, until at last he gave a reluctant consent.
Now, alas for Philomela, King Tereus was a very cruel, wicked man. When he saw how beautiful this younger sister was, he wished that he had married her instead of Procne. As soon as the ship reached Thrace, he sent Procne away into a great forest, where he had her shut up in a lonely tower. Then, sighing and groaning, he told Philomela that her sister was dead. Philomela was heart-broken, and mourned a long time; but nevertheless she was finally persuaded to become the queen of King Tereus, in Procne's place.
The king's wicked plan had succeeded thus far, but he feared that Procne might tell how cruelly she had been treated. This fear made him more cruel still, for he had her tongue cut out, thus making the poor queen dumb.
Picture of Philomela and Procne
Now he thought all was safe, but he did not know how skilful Procne was at her weaving and her embroidery. She had never learned to write - even queens could not write in those days; but she could weave most wonderful pictures, and could embroider letters, and put them together to form a few simple words. She needed nothing more to make her story known. For almost a year she worked busily at her loom and with her needle. Then one day she sent one of her maids to Philomela at the palace, with the gift of a piece of tapestry.
When Philomela unrolled the tapestry and spread it out before her, she was horrified at what she saw, for she easily understood all that Procne had meant to tell her by the woven pictures.
She immediately sent for her sister, by night. The two then planned to fly from the country of King Tereus, taking Procne's little son, Itys, with them. As they stole out of the palace, the great doors creaked on their rusty hinges, and awoke the king. He came rushing out, with a drawn sword, and started in pursuit of the fugitives.
Philomela and Procne ran as fast as they could, dragging Itys between them; but the wicked King Tereus was getting nearer and nearer.
All at once the sisters felt themselves borne up on the air, and carried along as if they had wings. The gods, in pity, had changed them into birds. Procne became a swallow; Philomela, a nightingale. The child, Itys, being in no danger from his father's anger, was not changed into a bird, and was therefore left behind.
Procne, now a swift-winged swallow, went back to the palace many a day, lingered under the eaves, and even flew in at the open doors, trying to coax her child to come away with her. But Itys saw only a pretty, bright-eyed bird, and could not understand its excited chatter.
Philomela, even as a bird, remained broken-hearted. She hid away from other birds, and remained silent while they were singing. At night, however, when all was dark and still, she used to sing under the windows of the peasants, telling the story of her dumb sister's wrongs, and her own sorrow.
The Legend and Myth of Philomela