It’s one of the darkest and bloodiest episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King Tereus of Thrace, having lusted after his sister-in-law, Philomela, inveigles her away from her father’s protection, takes her to a forest dungeon, and rapes her. Philomela, towering in eloquence, vows to tell the world what Tereus has done; her raised voice, she promises him in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, will “make the stones to understand.” So Tereus cuts her tongue out. Ovid, characteristically, zooms in: The wound pours; the severed tongue bounces and mutely spasms—“as an adder’s tail cut off doth skip a while,” in Golding’s version. More modern retellers of The Metamorphoses have been similarly transfixed. From Ted Hughes’s Tales From Ovid (1997): “The tongue squirmed in the dust, babbling on—Shaping words that were now soundless.” From Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren (2019): “Please imagine how it continues to wriggle, how it twitches and moves on the dirt floor.”
It barely qualifies as mythic, the story of Philomela. A sexual assault, a silencing, a mutilated testimony—there is nothing supernatural about any of this. The germ of hope in the tale is that Philomela is not silenced; still trapped by her abductor, the speechless princess secretly weaves her denunciation of Tereus into the imagery of a tapestry, which she then sends to her sister.
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