The Myth of Procne & Philomela

Jean MenziesJean Menzies is currently undertaking her PhD research at Roehampton University having completed both an MA and MSc in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. Her research is focused on the political context of sexual assault against women in the oratory of democratic Athens. She is also the current creative producer at Pan Macmillan publishers and has a background in creating digital media and video content for her own websites and BBC Scotland’s ‘The Social’.

In Greek mythology, Procne and Philomela represented the unanticipated danger that women possessed. These two characters are examples of women who retaliated against a man who had mistreated them. More than that, however, the way in which their story is recalled reflects a cultural approval of, if not their methods, their goal to punish and seek reprisal. Their aggressor saw no danger in either woman; he considering his own desires to trump the rights of women. Procne and Philomela, however, demonstrate that alone, sure in the knowledge of their own honour’s worth, they were able to take revenge into their own hands. It is dangerous to assume that women can be of no danger to you and that you, therefore, can take what you like. Every woman is a dangerous one.

Apollodorus tells to us in full the story of the sisters Procne and Philomela, daughters of Pandion the King of Athens (3.14). Procne was given by her father in marriage to King Tereus of Thrace due to a wartime alliance between both men. After the birth of their son, however, Tereus set his eyes on the unwedded Philomela. He took her by means of force and, in order to prevent her from revealing his crime, cut out her tongue to boot. Philomela, by the art which women in ancient Greece were most praised, wove a tapestry depicting the tragic events that had befallen her and shared it with her sister. In response to the actions of her husband, Philomela slew her own son and fed him to his unsuspecting father. Both sisters fled but, upon realising what had happened, Tereus took after them in pursuit. In order to escape his wrath when they appeared surely doomed the sisters prayed to the gods to turn them into birds. The gods granted their wish by transforming Procne into a nightingale, Philomela a swallow and Tereus a hoopoe.

Neither infanticide nor in fact the cannibalisation of one’s children are uncommon motifs in Greek mythology; recall Medea, Herakles, Atreus and Thyestes to name but a few. Nor is the sexual assault of women. What is distinctive about the tale of Procne and Philomela is their reaction. Despite their extreme methods they both possess a great deal of agency that is not given to many victims of assault in myth. Tereus fails to silence Philomela, who manages to share her story with her sister and instead of being punished or blamed for her own assault is avenged. This is in contrast with some women in mythology such as Medusa who, after being ravished by the god Poseidon in one of Athena’s temples, was transformed by the goddess into a monstrous gorgon as retribution for desecrating sacred ground, regardless of her non-complicity in the act (Ovid. Met.4.700ff).

One could consider whether the fact that both sisters undergo a metamorphosis at the end of the story is a kind of punishment in itself but in Greek and Roman myth the metamorphosis of women is often portrayed as a form of escape. Daphne for one preferred to be transformed into a tree than have her chastity forcefully taken by the god Apollo; in granting her prayer the gods saved her (Ovid. Met.1.525ff).

Little actual commentary on this myth can be found in Apollodorus’ account, who prefers to report on events than pass judgement on them. Apollodorus was not an inventor of story, however, and the myth of Procne and Philomela can be found in surviving Greek texts written long before his Bibliotheca. It is referenced to varying extents by a multitude of ancient writers working in different genres; from tragedy to history and even funeral oratory.

Thucydides mentions in passing the characters of this myth only long enough to condemn both women for the murder of Procne and Tereus’ son Itys: ‘It was in this land that the women perpetrated the outrage upon Itys’ (2.29). Of Tereus’ crime he says nothing. Pausanias on the other hand presents what could be considered a more diplomatic perspective. He describes Itys as having ‘suffered at the hands of the women [Procne and Philomela]’ (1.41.8). Earlier in the same text, however, he acknowledges the necessity for Philomela to have some form of vengeance against Tereus:

‘They say that Tereus, though wedded to Procne, dishonored Philomela, thereby transgressing Greek custom, and further, having mangled the body of the damsel, constrained the women to avenge her.’ (1.5)

He describes the two women as ‘constrained’ by Tereus’ transgression of Greek custom to not simply punish him but ‘avenge’ Philomela. This is more than the story of a man who requires a scolding for misbehaving; it is a story about a woman who requires recompense for a sexual attack against her in order to restore her honour.

It is perhaps a passage from Demosthenes’ funeral speech, delivered in honour of the Athenian soldiers who died at the battle of Chaeronea in the 4th century BC, that is the most striking of the interpretations of the Procne and Philomela myth:

‘The Pandionidae had inherited the tradition of Procne and Philomela, the daughters of Pandion, who took vengeance on Tereus for his crime against themselves. Therefore they decided that life was not worth living unless they, akin by race, should have proved themselves to possess equal spirit with those women, when confronted by the outrage they saw being committed against Greece.’ (60.28)

Demosthenes is more than sympathetic to the plight of Procne and Philomela: he admires them. He goes so far as to suggest that Athenian men (Pandionidae being an Athenian tribe) should aspire to emulate the honorable conduct demonstrated by these women and that anything less would be shameful for an Athenian citizen.

What are the circumstances, which differ from Greek myths with similar themes, that allow for Demosthenes radical interpretation of Procne and Philomela’s actions? Well, naturally, in order to make his point, Demosthenes skirts over the issue of infanticide in the myth. It is nevertheless a proactive choice he has made to hold up these women as models for the Athenian citizens who would have been in attendance at the public funeral where he delivered his speech. Also worth noting is that Tereus is a mortal. Regardless of whether the actions of a god are cruel or unjust it is not within the remit of mortals to reprimand them for their actions, which allows for a series of myths where the gods go unpunished for assaulting mortal women; on the other hand, mortals cannot expect to emulate the bad behaviour of gods and escape unpunished.

There is nothing, in fact, to suggest that Tereus’ actions would have been considered acceptable in the reality of Ancient Greek life, quite the opposite. According to 4th century Athenian law, the time in which Demosthenes was working, sexual assault against legitimate Athenian women could be brought to court as a case of hybris against the perpetrator i.e. the intentional and self-serving dishonouring of another (Cohen (1991), 172); this was considered an incredibly serious offence in Athens (Dem.21.45-46). Regardless of how common this actually was, it gives an indication of how Greek custom looked upon men who committed acts of sexual assault against women, albeit free women; it is also concurrent with Pausanias’ later interpretation of the Procne and Philomela myth mentioned above.

In the Athenian courts women had to rely on their case being brought by a male citizen on their behalf. Neither Procne nor Philomela, however, seek the assistance of their father. They do not privilege the honour or authority of the men in their family above their own. They personally take on the responsibility of avenging themselves and punishing Tereus. And Demosthenes holds up these two women as examples of Athenian principles to which their ancestors should aspire.

There is no question that the aggressive patriarchy of Ancient Greece and Athens left much to be desired in terms of gender equality for women. That does not mean, however, that women, especially those who were legitimate citizens, were not entitled to respect when it came to the honour implicit in their status as legitimate citizens. No Greek writer explicitly condones the murder of Itys but they most certainly vindicate the right of Tereus’ victim to seek retribution in some form or another. Procne and Philomela were the original Athenian women: daughters of the city’s ancestral king. No man, therefore, could be allowed to assault Philomela, commit an act of hybris against her, and go unpunished. It was a dangerous game to offend against the sexual honour of Athenian women.



Cohen, D. (1991), ‘Sexuality, violence and the Athenian law of hybris’, G & R 38, 171-88.

Dent, J. M. (1910), Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, London.

Jones, W. H. S. (1918), tr., Pausanias’ Description of Greece, London.

Melville, A. D. (2008), tr., Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Oxford.

Murray, A. T. (1939), tr., Demosthenes, Cambridge.