previous next

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.—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, “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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Latin (Hugo Magnus, 1892)
load focus English (Arthur Golding, 1567)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Rhodope (Greece) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: