Tritonian Minerva had listened to every word, and approved of the Aonian Muses’s song, and their justified indignation. Then she said, to herself, ‘To give praise is not enough, let me be praised as well, and not allow my divine powers to be scorned without inflicting punishment.’ Her thoughts turned to Arachne, of Maeonia, whom she had heard would not give her due credit, in the art of spinning. The girl was not known for her place of birth, or family, but for her skill. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, dyed the absorbent wool purple, with Phocaean murex. Her mother was dead. She too had been of humble birth, and the father the same. Nevertheless, though she lived in a modest home, in little Hypaepa, Arachne had gained a name for artistry, throughout the cities of Lydia.
Often the nymphs of Mount Tmolus deserted their vine-covered slopes, and the nymphs of the River Pactolus deserted their waves, to examine her wonderful workmanship. It was not only a joy to see the finished cloths, but also to watch them made: so much beauty added to art. Whether at first she was winding the rough yarn into a new ball, or working the stuff with her fingers, teasing out the clouds of wool, repeatedly, drawing them into long equal threads, twirling the slender spindle with practised thumb, or embroidering with her needle, you could see she was taught by Pallas. Yet she denied it, and took offense at the idea of such a teacher. ‘Contend with me’ she said ‘I will not disagree at all if I am beaten’.
Pallas Minerva took the shape of an old woman: adding grey hair to her temples, and ageing her limbs, which she supported with a stick. Then she spoke, to the girl, as follows. ‘Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.’ Arachne looked fiercely at her and left the work she was on: scarcely restraining her hands, and with dark anger in her face. Pallas, disguised it is true, received this answer. ‘Weak-minded and worn out by tedious old age, you come here, and having lived too long destroys you. Let your daughter-in-law if you have one, let your daughter if you have one, listen to your voice. I have wisdom enough of my own. You think your advice is never heeded: that is my feeling too. Why does she not come herself? Why does she shirk this contest?
The goddess said ‘She is here!’ and, relinquishing the old woman’s form, revealed Pallas Minerva. The nymphs and the Phrygian women worshipped her godhead: the girl alone remained unafraid, yet she did blush, as the sky is accustomed to redden when Aurora first stirs, and, after a while, to whiten at the sun from the east. She is stubborn in her attempt, and rushes on to her fate, eager for a worthless prize. Now, Jupiter’s daughter does not refuse, and does not give warning, or delay the contest a moment. Immediately they both position themselves, in separate places, and stretch out the fine threads, for the warp, over twin frames. The frame is fastened to the cross-beam; the threads of the warp separated with the reed; the thread of the weft is inserted between, in the pointed shuttles that their fingers have readied; and, drawn through the warp, the threads of the weft are beaten into place, struck by the comb’s notched teeth. They each work quickly, and, with their clothes gathered in tight, under their breasts, apply skilful arms, their zeal not making it seem like work. There, shades of purple, dyed in Tyrian bronze vessels, are woven into the cloth, and also lighter colours, shading off gradually. The threads that touch seem the same, but the extremes are distant, as when, often, after a rainstorm, the expanse of the sky, struck by the sunlight, is stained by a rainbow in one vast arch, in which a thousand separate colours shine, but the eye itself still cannot see the transitions. There, are inserted lasting threads of gold, and an ancient tale is spun in the web.
Pallas Athene depicts the hill of Mars, and the court of the Aeropagus, in Cecrops’s Athens, and the old dispute between Neptune and herself, as to who had the right to the city and its name. There the twelve gods sit in great majesty, on their high thrones, with Jupiter in the middle. She weaves the gods with their familiar attributes. The image of Jupiter is a royal one. There she portrays the Ocean god, standing and striking the rough stone, with his long trident, and seawater flowing from the centre of the shattered rock, a token of his claim to the city. She gives herself a shield, a sharp pointed spear, and a helmet for her head, while the aegis protects her breast. She shows an olive-tree with pale trunk, thick with fruit, born from the earth at a blow from her spear, the gods marvelling: and Victory crowns the work.
Then she adds four scenes of contest in the four corners, each with miniature figures, in their own clear colours, so that her rival might learn, from the examples quoted, what prize she might expect, for her outrageous daring. One corner shows Thracian Mount Rhodope and Mount Haemus, now icy peaks, once mortal beings who ascribed the names of the highest gods to themselves. A second corner shows the miserable fate of the queen of the Pygmies: how Juno, having overcome her in a contest, ordered her to become a crane and make war on her own people. Also she pictures Antigone, whom Queen Juno turned into a bird for having dared to compete with Jupiter’s great consort: neither her father Laomedon, nor her city Ilium were of any use to her, but taking wing as a white stork she applauds herself with clattering beak. The only corner left shows Cinyras, bereaved: and he is seen weeping as he clasps the stone steps of the temple that were once his daughters’ limbs. Minerva surrounded the outer edges with the olive wreaths of peace (this was the last part) and so ended her work with emblems of her own tree.
The Maeonian girl depicts Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet. Also Arachne showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and Leda lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.
She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter. In Enipeus’s form you begot the Aloidae, and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields, knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother of the winged horse, knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is Phoebus like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how Bacchus ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how Saturn as the double of a horse begot Chiron. The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.
Neither Pallas nor Envy itself could fault that work. The golden-haired warrior goddess was grieved by its success, and tore the tapestry, embroidered with the gods’ crimes, and as she held her shuttle made of boxwood from Mount Cytorus, she struck Idmonian Arachne, three or four times, on the forehead. The unfortunate girl could not bear it, and courageously slipped a noose around her neck: Pallas, in pity, lifted her, as she hung there, and said these words, ‘Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!’ Departing after saying this, she sprinkled her with the juice of Hecate’s herb, and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, Arachne’s hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.
All of Lydia murmurs: the tale goes through the towns of Phrygia, and fills the whole world with talk. Niobe had known Arachne. As a girl, before her marriage, she had lived in Maeonia, near Mount Sipylus. Nevertheless she was not warned by her countrywoman’s fate, to give the gods precedence, and use more modest words. Many things swelled her pride, but neither her husband Amphion’s marvellous art in music, nor both of their high lineages, nor the might of their great kingdom of Thebes, pleased her, though they did please her, as much as her children did. And Niobe would have been spoken of as the most fortunate of mothers, if she had not seemed so to herself.
Now Manto, the daughter of Tiresias, prescient of the future, stirred by divine impulse, went through the middle of the streets, declaiming. ‘Women of Thebes, Ismenides, go, as a crowd, and wreathe your hair with laurel, and bring incense with holy prayer to Latona, and Latona’s children, Diana and Apollo. Latona commands it through my mouth.’
They obey: all the Theban women, as commanded, dress their temples with sweet-bay, and bring incense and words of prayer to the sacred flames.
Look, Niobe comes, followed by a crowded thong, visible, in her Phrygian robes woven with gold, and as beautiful as anger will let her be. Turning her lovely head with the hair falling loose over both her shoulders, she pauses, and looks around with pride in her eyes, from her full height, saying ‘ What madness, to prefer the gods you are told about to the ones you see? Why is Latona worshipped at the altars, while as yet my godhead is without its incense? Tantalus is my father, who is the only man to eat the food of the gods. My mother is one of the seven sisters, the Pleiades. Great Atlas, who carries the axis of the heavens on his shoulders, is one of my grandfathers. Jupiter is the other, and I glory in having him as my father-in-law as well. The peoples of Phrygia fear me. Cadmus’s royal house is under my rule: and the walls, built to my husband’s lyre, and Thebes’s people, will be ruled by his power and mine. Whichever part of the palace I turn my eyes on, I look at immense wealth. Augment it with my beauty, worthy of a goddess, and add to this my seven daughters, as many sons, and soon my sons- and my daughters-in-law! Now, ask what the reason is for my pride, and then dare to prefer Latona to me, that Titaness, daughter of Coeus, whoever he is. Latona, whom the wide earth once refused even a little piece of ground to give birth on.
Land, sea, and sky were no refuge for your goddess. She was exiled from the world, until Delos, pitying the wanderer, gave her a precarious place, saying ‘Friend, you wander the earth, I the sea.’ There she gave birth to twins, only a seventh of my offspring. I am fortunate (indeed, who can deny it?) and I will stay fortunate (and who can doubt that too?). My riches make me safe. I am greater than any whom Fortune can harm, and though she could take much away, she would leave me much more. Surely my comforts banish fear. Imagine that some of this host of children could be taken from me, I would still not, bereaved, be reduced to the two of Latona’s family. In that state, how far is she from childlessness? Go home – enough of holy things – and take those laurel wreaths from your hair!’ They relinquish them, and leave the rite unfinished, except what is their right, reverencing the goddess in a secret murmur.
The goddess was deeply angered, and on the summit of Mount Cynthus she spoke to her twin children. ‘See, it will be doubted whether I, your mother, proud to have borne you, and giving way to no goddess, except Juno, am a goddess, and worship will be prevented at my altars through all the ages, unless you help me, my children. Nor is this my only grief. This daughter of Tantalus has added insult to injury, and has dared to put her children above you, and has called me childless, may that recoil on her own head, and has shown she has her father’s tongue for wickedness.’ Latona would have added her entreaties to what she had related, but Phoebus cried ‘Enough! Long complaint delays her punishment! Phoebe said the same, and falling swiftly through the air, concealed by clouds, they reached the house of Cadmus.
There was a broad, open plain near the walls, flattened by the constant passage of horses, where many wheels and hard hooves had levelled the turf beneath them. There, a number of Amphion’s seven sons mounted on their strong horses, and sitting firmly on their backs, bright with Tyrian purple, guided them using reins heavy with gold. While Ismenus, one of these, who had been the first of his mother’s burdens, was wheeling his horse’s path around in an unerring circle, and hauling at the foaming bit, he cried out ‘Oh, I am wounded!’ and revealed an arrow fixed in his chest, and loosing the reins from his dying hands, slipped gradually, sideways, over his mount’s right shoulder.
Next Sipylus, hearing the sound of a quiver in the empty air, let out the reins, just as a shipmaster sensing a storm runs for it when he sees the cloud, and claps on all sail, so that not even the slightest breeze is lost. Still giving full rein, he was overtaken, by the arrow none can avoid, and the shaft stuck quivering in his neck, and the naked tip protruded from his throat. Leaning forward, as he was, he rolled down over the mane and the galloping hooves, and stained the ground with warm blood.
Unlucky Phaedimus, and Tantalus, who carried his grandfather’s name, at the end of the usual task imposed on them, had joined the exercise of the young men, and were gleaming with oil in the wrestling match. And now they were fully engaged, in a tight hold, chest to chest, when an arrow, loosed from the taut bow, pierced them both, as they were. They groaned as one, and fell as one, their limbs contorted with pain. As they lay there, they cast a last dying look, as one, and, as one, gave up the ghost. Alphenor saw them die, and striking at his breast in anguish, he ran to them to lift their cold bodies in his embrace. In this filial service he also fell, for Delian Apollo tore at his innermost parts with deadly steel. As the shaft was removed, a section of his lung was drawn with it, caught on the barbs, and with his life’s blood his spirit rushed out into the air.
But it was not a simple wound that longhaired Damasicthon suffered. He was hit where the shin begins, and where the sinews of the knee leave a soft place between. While he was trying to pull out the fatal shaft with his hand, another arrow was driven into his throat as far as the feathers. The rush of blood expelled it, and gushing out, spurted high in the air, in a long jet. The last son, Ilioneus, stretched out his arms in vain entreaty. ‘O you company of all the gods, spare me!’ he cried, unaware that he need not ask them all. The archer god Apollo was moved, though already the dart could not be recalled: yet only a slight wound killed the boy, the arrow not striking deeply in his heart.
The rumour of trouble, the people’s sorrow, and the tears of her own family, confirming sudden disaster to the mother, left her astounded that the gods could have done it, and angered that they had such power, and dared to use it. Now, she learned that the father, Amphion, driving the iron blade through his heart, had, in dying, ended pain and life together. Alas, how different this Niobe from that Niobe, the one, who a moment ago chased the people from Latona’s altar, and made her way through the city with head held high, enviable to her friends, and now more to be pitied by her enemies. She threw herself on the cold bodies, and without regard for due ceremony, gave all her sons a last kiss. Turning from them she lifted her bruised arms to the sky, and cried out ‘Feed your heart, cruel one, Latona, on my pain, feed your heart, and be done! Be done, savage spirit! I am buried seven times. Exult and triumph over your enemy! But where is the victory? Even in my misery I have more than you in your happiness. After so many deaths, I still outdo you!’
She spoke, and the twang of a taut bowstring sounded, terrifying all of them, except Niobe. Pain gave her courage. The sisters, with black garments, and loosened hair, were standing by their brothers’ bodies. One, grasping at an arrow piercing her side, falling, fainted in death beside her brother’s face. A second, attempting to comfort her grieving mother, fell silent, and was bent in agony with a hidden wound. She pressed her lips together, but life had already fled. One fell trying in vain to run, and her sister fell across her. One tried to hide, while another trembled in full view. Now six had been dealt death, suffering their various wounds: the last remained. The mother, with all her robes and with her body, protected her, and cried out ‘Leave me just one, the youngest! I only ask for one, the youngest of all!’ While she prayed, she, for whom she prayed, was dead. Childless, she sat among the bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband, frozen in grief.
The breeze stirs not a hair, the colour of her cheeks is bloodless, and her eyes are fixed motionless in her sad face: nothing in that likeness is alive. Inwardly her tongue is frozen to the solid roof of her mouth, and her veins cease their power to throb. Her neck cannot bend, nor her arms recall their movement, nor her feet lead her anywhere. Inside, her body is stone. Yet she weeps, and, enclosed in a powerful whirlwind, she is snatched away to her own country: there, set on a mountain top, she wears away, and even now tears flow from the marble.
Now all men and women are indeed afraid of the anger manifested by divine being, and all pay more respect to the great power of the goddess, the mother of the twins. As often happens, because of recent events they tell old stories, and one says ‘In Lycia’s fertile fields, in ancient times, also, the farmers spurned the goddess, and not without suffering for it. The thing is not well known, it is true, because the men were unknown, nevertheless, it was wonderful. I myself saw the place, and the lake made notable by the strangeness of it, since my father, getting old, and unable to endure the journey, had ordered me to collect some choice cattle from there, and one of the men of that country had offered himself as a guide. While I crossed the pastureland with him, there was an old altar, black with ashes, standing in the middle of a lake, surrounded by trembling reeds. My guide stopped and, shivering with fear, said in a murmur ‘Have mercy on me!’ and I, similarly, said in a murmur ‘Have mercy!’
Then I asked him whether it was an altar to the Naiads, Faunus, or a local god, and my friend replied ‘Young man, it is no mountain spirit in this altar. She calls it hers, whom the queen of heaven once banned from the world, and whom vagrant Delos, a lightly floating island, would barely accept, at her prayer. There, between Pallas’s olive tree and a date-palm, Latona bore her twins, against their step-mother Juno’s will. Having endured her labour, even then she fled Juno, carrying the divine twins clasped to her breast.
Then, inside the borders of Lycia, home of the Chimaera, as the fierce sun scorched the fields, the goddess, weary from her long struggle, and parched by the radiant heat, felt her thirst: also her hungry children had drunk all her rich milk. By chance she saw a smallish lake in a deep valley. Countrymen were there, gathering bushy osiers, rushes, and the fine marsh sedges. The Titan’s daughter approached, and putting her knee to the ground, rested, to enjoy a drink of the cool water. The group of rustics denied it to her. The goddess, denied, spoke. ‘Why do you forbid me your waters? The use of water is everyone’s right. Nature has not made the sun, or the air, or the clear waves, private things. I come for a public gift, and yet I beg you to grant it to me as a suppliant. I was not preparing to bathe my limbs and my weary body here, only to quench my thirst. My mouth lacks moisture from speaking, my throat is dry, and there’s scarcely a path here for speech. A drink of water would be nectar to me, and I would bear witness to accepting life from it, as well: you will be giving life from your waves. Let these children move you, also, who stretch their little arms out from my breast.’
And it chanced that they did stretch out their arms. Who would not have been moved by the goddess’s winning words? Yet, despite her prayers they persisted in denying her, with threats, if she did not take herself off, and added insults besides. Not content with that, they also stirred the pool with their hands and feet, and churned up the soft mud from the depths, by leaping about, maliciously. Anger forgot thirst, for now the daughter of Coeus could not bear to beg from the unworthy, nor speak in words inferior to those of a goddess, and stretching her palms to the heavens, she said ‘Live in that swamp for ever!’ It happened as the goddess wished: It is their delight to be under the water, now to submerge their bodies completely in the deep pool, now to show their heads, now to swim on the surface. Often they squat on the edges of the marsh, often retreat to the cool lake, but now as before they employ their ugly voices in quarrelling, and shamefully, even though they are under the water, from under the water they try out their abuse. Now their voices are also hoarse, their inflated throats are swollen, and their croaking distends their wide mouths. Their shoulders and heads meet, and their necks appear to have vanished. Their backs are green; their bellies, the largest part of their body, are white, and, as newly made frogs, they leap in their muddy pool.
When whoever it was had finished relating the ruin of the men of Lycia, another storyteller remembered the satyr, Marsyas, whom Apollo, Latona’s son, had defeated, playing on the flute, that Tritonian Minerva invented. He had exacted punishment. Marsyas cried ‘Why do you peel me out of myself? ‘Aah! I repent’, he screamed in agony. ‘Aah! Music is not worth this pain!’ As he screams, the skin is flayed from the surface of his body, no part is untouched. Blood flows everywhere, the exposed sinews are visible, and the trembling veins quiver, without skin to hide them: you can number the internal organs, and the fibres of the lungs, clearly visible in his chest. The woodland gods, and the fauns of the countryside, wept, and his brother satyrs, Olympus his friend and pupil, still dear to him then, and the nymphs, and all who pastured their fleecy sheep and horned cattle on those mountains. The fertile soil was drenched, and the drenched earth caught the falling tears, and absorbed them into its deep veins. It formed a stream then, and sent it into the clear air. From there it ran within sloping banks, quickly, to the sea, the clearest river of Phrygia, taking Marsyas’s name.
From such tales as these the company turns immediately to the present, and mourns the loss of Amphion and his children. The mother was blamed, though even then one man, her brother Pelops, is said to have wept for her and, after taking off his tunic, to have shown the ivory, of his left shoulder. This was of flesh, and the same colour as his right shoulder, at the time of his birth. Later, when he had been cut in pieces, by his father, it is said that the gods fitted his limbs together again. They found the pieces, but one was lost, between the upper arm and the neck. Ivory was used in place of the missing part, and by means of that Pelops was made whole.
The princes, of countries to the southwest, near neighbours of Thebes, gathered, and the cities related to Thebes urged their kings to go and offer sympathy. Argos and Sparta, and Peloponnesian Mycenae, Calydon not yet cursed for rejecting Diana, fertile Orchomenos, and Corinth famous for bronze; warlike Messene, Patrae, and low-lying Cleonae, Nelean Pylos, and Troezen not yet ruled by Pittheus; and whichever of the other cities were southwest of the Isthmus, lying between its two seas, or seen to the northeast of the Isthmus, lying between its two seas. But who can believe this? Athens, alone, did nothing. War prevented them doing so. A Barbarian army had crossed the sea and brought terror to the walls of the city of Mopsopius.
Tereus of Thrace routed these Barbarians, with his army of auxiliaries, and won a great name by his victory. Since Tereus was a master of men and riches, and happened to trace his descent from mighty Mars himself, Pandion, king of Athens, made them allies, by giving him his daughter Procne in marriage. Neither Juno, who attends on brides, nor Hymen, nor the three Graces, was there. The Eumenides, the Furies, held torches snatched from a funeral. The Eumenides, the Furies, prepared their marriage bed, and the unholy screech owl brooded over their house, and sat on the roof of their chamber. By this bird-omen, Procne and Tereus were joined. By this bird-omen, they were made parents. Thrace of course rejoiced with them, and they themselves gave thanks to the gods, and the day when Pandion’s daughter married her illustrious king, and the day on which Itys their son was born, they commanded to be celebrated as festivals: so, always, our real advantages escape us.
Now, Titan, the sun, had guided the turning year through five autumns when Procne said, coaxingly to her husband, ‘If any thanks are due me, either send me to see my sister, or let my sister come here. You can promise my father she will return after a brief stay. It would be worth a great deal to me, if you allowed me to see Philomela.’ Tereus ordered his ship to sea, and with sail and oar reached the harbour of Cecrops, and landed on the shore of Piraeus.
As soon as he gained access to his father-in-law, right hand was joined to right hand, and they began by wishing each other favourable omens. Tereus had started to tell of the reason for his visit, his wife’s request, and promise a speedy return if she were sent back with him, when, see, Philomela entered, dressed in rich robes, and richer beauty, walking as we are used to being told the naiads and dryads of the deep woods do, if only one were to give them like her culture and dress. Seeing the girl, Tereus took fire, just as if someone touched a flame to corn stubble, or burned the leaves, or hay stored in a loft. Her beauty was worthy of it, but he was driven by his natural passion, and the inclination of the people of his region is towards lust: he burnt with his own vice and his nation’s. His impulse was to erode her attendants care, and her nurse’s loyalty, even seduce the girl herself with rich gifts, to the extent of his kingdom, or rape her and defend the rape in savage war. There was nothing he would not dare, possessed by unbridled desire, nor could he contain the flame in his heart.
Now he suffered from impatience, and eagerly returned to Procne’s request, pursuing his own wishes as hers. Desire made him eloquent, and whenever he petitioned more strongly than was seemly, he would make out that Procne wished it so. He even embellished his speeches with tears, as though she had commissioned him to do that too. You gods, what secret darknesses human hearts hide! Due to his efforts, Tereus is viewed as faithful, in his deceit, and is praised for his crime. Moreover Philomela wishes his request granted, and resting her forearms on her father’s shoulders, coaxing him to let her go to visit her sister, she urges it, in her own interest, and against it. Tereus gazes at her, and imagining her as already his, watching her kisses, and her arms encircling her father’s neck, it all spurs him on, food and fuel to his frenzy. Whenever she embraces her father, he wishes he were that father: though of course his intentions would be no less wicked. The father is won over by the twin entreaties. The girl is overjoyed, and thanks her father, and thinks, poor wretch, that what will bring sorrow to both sisters is actually a success for both.
Now little was left of Phoebus’s daily labour, and his horses were treading the spaces of the western sky. A royal feast was served at Pandion’s table, with wine in golden goblets. Then their bodies sated, they gave themselves to quiet sleep. But though the Thracian king retired to bed, he was disturbed by thoughts of her, and remembering her features, her gestures, her hands, he imagined the rest that he had not yet seen, as he would wish, and fuelled his own fires, in sleepless restlessness. Day broke, and Pandion, clasping his son-in-law’s right hand, in parting, with tears welling in his eyes, entrusted his daughter to him. ‘Dear son, since affectionate reasons compel it, and both of them desire it (you too have desired it, Tereus), I give her over to you, and by your honour, by the entreaty of a heart joined to yours, and by the gods above, I beg you, protect her with a father’s love, and send back to me, as soon as is possible (it will be all too long a wait for me), this sweet comfort of my old age. You too, as soon as is possible (it is enough that your sister is so far away), if you are at all dutiful, Philomela, return to me!’
So he commanded his daughter and kissed her, and soft tears mingled with his commands. As a token of their promise he took their two right hands and linked them together, and asked them, with a prayer, to remember to greet his absent daughter, and grandson, for him. His mouth sobbing, he could barely say a last farewell, and he feared the forebodings in his mind.
As soon as Philomela was on board the brightly painted ship, and the sea was churned by the oars, and the land left behind them, the barbarian king cried ‘I have won! I carry with me what I wished for! He exults, and his passion can scarcely wait for its satisfaction. He never turns his eyes away from her, no differently than when Jupiter’s eagle deposits a hare, caught by the curved talons, in its high eyrie: there is no escape for the captive, and the raptor gazes at its prize.
Now they had completed their journey, and disembarked from the wave-worn ship, on the shores of his country. The king took her to a high-walled building, hidden in an ancient forest, and there he locked her away, she, pale and trembling, fearing everything, in tears now, begging to know where her sister was. Then, confessing his evil intent, he overcame her by force, she a virgin and alone, as she called out, again and again, in vain, to her father, her sister, and most of all to the great gods. She quivered like a frightened lamb, that fails to realise it is free, wounded and discarded by a grey wolf, or like a dove trembling, its feathers stained with its blood, still fearing the rapacious claws that gripped it. After a brief while, when she had come to her senses, she dragged at her dishevelled hair, and like a mourner, clawed at her arms, beating them against her breasts. Hands outstretched, she shouted ‘Oh, you savage. Oh, what an evil, cruel, thing you have done. Did you care nothing for my father’s trust, sealed with holy tears, my sister’s affection, my own virginity, your marriage vows? You have confounded everything. I have been forced to become my sister’s rival. You are joined to both. Now Procne will be my enemy! Why not rob me of life as well, you traitor, so that no crime escapes you? If only you had done it before that impious act. Then my shade would have been free of guilt. Yet, if the gods above witness such things, if the powers of heaven mean anything, if all is not lost, as I am, then one day you will pay me for this! I, without shame, will tell what you have done. If I get the chance it will be in front of everyone. If I am kept imprisoned in these woods, I will fill the woods with it, and move the stones, that know of my guilt, to pity. The skies will hear of it, and any god that may be there!’
The king’s anger was stirred by these words, and his fear also. Goaded by both, he freed the sword from its sheath by his side, and seizing her hair gathered it together, to use as a tie, to tether her arms behind her back. Philomela, seeing the sword, and hoping only for death, offered up her throat. But he severed her tongue with his savage blade, holding it with pincers, as she struggled to speak in her indignation, calling out her father’s name repeatedly. Her tongue’s root was left quivering, while the rest of it lay on the dark soil, vibrating and trembling, and, as though it were the tail of a mutilated snake moving, it writhed, as if, in dying, it was searching for some sign of her. They say (though I scarcely dare credit it) that even after this crime, he still assailed her wounded body, repeatedly, in his lust.
He controlled himself sufficiently to return to Procne, who, seeing him returned, asked where her sister was. He, with false mourning, told of a fictitious funeral, and tears gave it credence. Procne tore her glistening clothes, with their gold hems, from her shoulders, and put on black robes, and built an empty tomb, and mistakenly brought offerings, and lamented the fate of a sister, not yet due to be lamented in that way.
The sun-god has circled the twelve signs, and a year is past. What can Philomela do? A guard prevents her escape; the thick walls of the building are made of solid stone; her mute mouth can yield no token of the facts. Great trouble is inventive, and ingenuity arises in difficult times. Cleverly, she fastens her thread to a barbarian’s loom, and weaves purple designs on a white background, revealing the crime. She entrusts it, when complete, to a servant, and asks her, by means of gestures, to take it to her mistress. She, as she is asked, takes it to Procne, not knowing what it carries inside. The wife of the savage king unrolls the cloth, and reads her sister’s terrible fate, and by a miracle keeps silent. Grief restrains her lips, her tongue seeking to form words adequate to her indignation, fails. She has no time for tears, but rushes off, in a confusion of right and wrong, her mind filled with thoughts of vengeance.
It was the time when the young Thracian women used to celebrate the triennial festival of Bacchus. (Night knew their holy rites: by night, Mount Rhodope rang with the high-pitched clashing of bronze). By night the queen left her palace, prepared herself for the rites of the god, and took up the weapons of that frenzied religion. Tendrils of vine wreathed her head; a deerskin was draped over her left side; a light javelin rested on her shoulder. Hurtling through the woods with a crowd of her companions, terrifying, driven by maddening grief, Procne embodies you, Bacchus. She comes at last to the building in the wilderness, and howls out loud, giving the ecstatic cry of Euhoe, breaks the door down, seizes her sister, disguises her with the tokens of a wild Bacchante, hides her face with ivy leaves, and dragging her along with her, frightened out of her wits, leads her inside the palace walls.
When Philomela realised that she had reached that accursed house, the wretched girl shuddered in horror, and her whole face grew deathly pale. Procne, once there, took off the religious trappings; uncovered the downcast face of her unhappy sister, and clutched her in her arms. But Philomela could not bear to lift her eyes, seeing herself as her sister’s betrayer. With her face turned towards the ground, wanting to swear by the gods, and call them to witness, that her shame had been visited on her by force, she made signs with her hands in place of speech. Procne burned, and could not control her anger, reproaching her sister for weeping, saying ‘Now is not the time for tears, but for the sword, or for what overcomes the sword, if you know of such a thing. I am prepared for any wickedness, sister; to set the palace alight with a torch, and throw Tereus, the author of this, into the midst of the flames; or to cut out his eyes and tongue, and the parts which brought shame to you; or to force out his guilty spirit through a thousand wounds! I am ready for any enormity: but what it should be, I still do not know yet.’
While Procne was going over these things, Itys came to his mother. His arrival suggested what she might do, and regarding him with a cold gaze, she said ‘Ah! How like your father you are!’ Without speaking further, seething in silent indignation, she began to conceive her tragic plan. Yet, when the boy approached, and greeted his mother, and put his little arms round her neck, and kissed her with childish endearments, she was moved, her anger was checked, and her eyes were wet with the tears that gathered against her will. But, realising that her mind was wavering through excess affection, she turned away from him, and turned to look at her sister’s face again, till, gazing at both in turn, she said ‘Why should the one be able to speak his endearments, while the other is silent, her tongue torn out?’
Without delay, she dragged Itys off, as a tigress does an unweaned fawn, in the dark forests of the Ganges. As they reached a remote part of the great palace, Procne, with an unchanging expression, struck him with a knife, in the side close to the heart, while he stretched out his hands, knowing his fate at the last, crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’, and reaching out for her neck. That one wound was probably enough to seal his fate, but Philomela opened his throat with the knife. While the limbs were still warm, and retained some life, they tore them to pieces. Part bubble in bronze cauldrons, part hiss on the spit: and the distant rooms drip with grease.
The wife invites the unsuspecting Tereus to the feast, and giving out that it is a sacred rite, practised in her country, where it is only lawful for the husband to be present, she sends away their followers and servants. Tereus eats by himself, seated in his tall ancestral chair, and fills his belly with his own child. And in the darkness of his understanding cries ‘Fetch Ithys here’.
Procne cannot hide her cruel exultation, and now, eager to be, herself, the messenger of destruction, she cries ‘You have him there, inside, the one you ask for.’ He looks around and questions where the boy is. And then while he is calling out and seeking him, Philomela, springs forward, her hair wet with the dew of that frenzied murder, and hurls the bloodstained head of Itys in his father’s face. Nor was there a time when she wished more strongly to have the power of speech, and to declare her exultation in fitting words.