After Niobe’s fate, princes from all around travel to Thebes to offer sympathy. Every city participates except for Athens which is engaged in a war with barbarians. These barbarians are led by a king named Tereus. To achieve peace and because Tereus is wealthy, Pandion, the king of Athens, arranges for his daughter Procne to marry Tereus. Their wedding and consummation is attended by the Furies instead of Juno, and so their son Itys is born under a bad omen.
The beginning of Tereus and Procne’s relationship foreshadows that it will not end happily. Their marriage is an arranged marriage that was made in an attempt to achieve peace between two warring nations. Also, they are married by demons instead of by Juno—the goddess of women and the state. All in all, this suggests that they are not married in unity and love.
Five years after their marriage, Procne begs Tereus to let her sister Philomela visit her in Thrace. Tereus agrees and sets sail for Athens to ask Pandion for permission to bring Philomela to Thrace. As Tereus is making his request to the king, Philomela appears, and Tereus is overcome with desire for her. Tereus is lustful by nature and determines to have sex with Philomela, whether by wooing her or abducting her.
Procne misses her sister, feeling that her marriage—whether it’s good or bad—took her away from her real kin. With no intervention from the gods, Tereus lusts after Philomela as soon as he sees her and does not once consider the criminality of his intention to sleep with her.
Tereus repeats Procne’s request for Philomela’s visit, adding his lustful passion to his voice. While appearing as a devoted husband wanting to give his wife her wish, Tereus pursues his wicked plan. Philomela, eager to see her sister, pleads with Pandion, embracing him and promising to return soon. Tereus fantasizes that Philomela is embracing him and imagines what she looks like naked.
Tereus deceives Pandion and Philomela by disguising himself as a devoted husband. Although his passion really comes from lust, he plays it off as concern for Procne. In this way, although Tereus doesn’t transform, his pursuit of Philomela is comparable to the gods’ abuse of power in which they disguise themselves in order to sleep with their love interests.
Pandion gives permission for Philomela to visit Thrace. At Philomela’s farewell banquet, Pandion takes Tereus aside and makes him promise to take care of Philomela. With tears in his eyes, Pandion says that Tereus is family and asks him to return his daughter safely to him after she visits her sister. He then joins Philomela and Tereus’s hands and bids them farewell. When Philomela steps onto Tereus’s ship, Tereus rejoices. He keeps his eyes on his prey.
At no point throughout his deception of Philomela and Pandion does Tereus feel that he is doing anything wrong. Interestingly, lustful passion and wickedness emerges in him without the intervention of the gods. Either Tereus is an example of a character who is truly wicked on his own, or the curse that befell Procne and Tereus on their wedding day is now unfolding.
When the ship gets to Thrace, Tereus drags Philomela onto land and into the forest. Tereus brutally rapes Philomela while she screams for her father and sister. When her terror finally subsides, Philomela tears at her body in despair. She screams at Tereus, calling him a monster for ruining her, cheating on his wife, and forcing her and Procne to be rivals. She wishes Tereus had murdered her before raping her so her ghost could be pure. She says she will get her revenge and tell the world and the gods of Tereus’s crime.
Philomela accuses Tereus of cheating on his wife and making her and Procne rivals by raping her. In this way, Tereus destroys many things when he rapes Philomela. He destroys his bond of marriage with Procne, Procne and Philomela’s bond of sisterhood, and Philomela’s virginity as well. In this way, Tereus’s violent love forces Philomela to betray everything that is important to her.
Tereus is frightened by Philomela’s threats. He ties her hands behind her and pulls out his sword. She lifts her throat, wanting him to kill her, but he cuts out her tongue instead. He then rapes her several more times before going home to Procne. He tells her that Philomela died on the journey from Athens. Procne mourns and sets up a tomb for her sister.
Philomela’s verbal threats frighten Tereus. Her ability to speak means that she will be able to tell her horrible story and therefore get revenge. In cutting out her tongue, Tereus removes her ability to speak and therefore the potential expression of his crime.
Philomela is imprisoned in a stone hut. Unable to speak, she fashions a loom and weaves a tapestry that tells her horrible story in writing. She then gives this tapestry to one of Procne’s maids with instructions to give it to Procne. When Procne reads Philomela’s story on the tapestry, she is speechless with grief and rage. At this time, the women are gathering to worship Bacchus. Procne dresses in her ceremonial clothes and makes her way to Philomela’s hut. She releases her sister and brings her home to her palace.
Even though Tereus has cut out Philomela’s tongue and she can’t speak, her need to express the horrible thing that happened to her does not disappear. In order to express herself without verbal words, Philomela adopts the art of writing, weaving her story into words on a tapestry. This written relic allows Philomela to hold onto her story and reveal the truth to Procne.
Philomela shudders with shame, unable to look Procne in the eyes. Procne tells Philomela not to weep, and says that she plans to destroy Tereus, either by cutting off his sex organs or by some other cruelty. Just then, Itys, Procne’s son, runs into the palace and tells his mother he loves her. Procne realizes that her maternal tenderness towards Itys is making her forget her hatred of his father. She hates that Itys can tell Procne he loves her when Philomela can’t say anything.
After Tereus rapes Philomela, each person’s bonds of loyalty are disrupted. Philomela can’t look Procne in the eyes, fearing that Procne might hate her as a rival. Furthermore, Procne realizes, in siding with her sister over her husband, that she can no longer love her son—the image and offspring of her detestable husband. In this way, Tereus’s rape destroys the bonds of marriage and motherhood for Procne, too.
Procne and Philomela drag Itys to another room. Itys pleads, but Procne kills him with a sword and Philomela cuts his throat. The two sisters then tear apart his body and cook him over a fire. They then lay the table for a feast with the cooked flesh.
The extremity of Philomela and Procne’s revenge against Tereus—in which they kill and cook his son—indicates how utterly devastating Tereus’s rape was—it leads Procne and Philomela to become criminals, too.
Tereus comes home and dines on his son’s flesh. When he calls for Itys, Procne tells him that Itys is inside his belly. Philomela then revels herself, tossing Itys’ head in Tereus’s face. Tereus goes mad and chases the two sisters around the banquet hall. The Furies transform the sisters into a nightingale and a swallow, each wearing the badge of murder on their chests in spots of red plumage. Tereus is changed into a monstrous bird with a long beak.
The Furies, rather than the gods, transform Philomela, Procne, and Tereus at the end of this story. Since Procne and Tereus rejected the gods at their wedding, the gods do not intervene throughout the story to help or punish the offenders. In this way, the story shows how rapidly corrupt people can become by worshipping the wrong things and therefore forfeiting the gods’ help.