Chrétien de Troyes excused Philomena for killing her innocent son

Ancient Greek literature tells tales of brutal violence. Epic violence against men institutionalized as war was the most prevalent brutality. But horrific violence also occurred within families. Oedipus blinded himself after killing his father and marrying his mother. Clytemnestra slayed her husband and his concubine. Medea murdered her ex-husband’s new wife and the children she had with him. The ancient Greek story of Philomena, Procne, Tereus, and Itys similarly involves horrific familial violence. When Chrétien de Troyes adapted the latter story from Ovid’s Latin version into Old French in the twelfth century, he both deplored Philomena killing her innocent son and excused her action.

Ovid and Chrétien de Troyes depicted Tereus as a barbarian monster. Philomena and Procne were princesses of Athens, the preeminent city in Greece. Tereus was king of Thrace, a region far from central Greece. Procne married Tereus to establish an enduring political alliance after he had routed “barbarian hordes {barbara agmina}” besieging Athens.[1] By origin and action, Tereus was thus associated with barbarians.

Tereus acted like a monster. After being married to Procne for five years and having a son named Itys with her, Tereus returned to Athens to bring Philomena to visit her sister Procne. But as soon as Tereus saw the beautiful Philomena, he lusted ardently for her like a dog. Tereus lied to Philomena and her father. After promising to bring Philomena back soon, Tereus returned to Thrace. During this return voyage he continually eyed Philomena with his bestial male gaze. Tereus confined Philomena in a house in the woods near his Thracian palace. He then raped her. To prevent her from telling anyone of his horrible crime, he cut out her tongue. After brutalizing her in this way, he returned to rape her repeatedly. With his lack of loyalty to his wife, his violent, bestial sexual desire for his wife’s sister, and his deceptiveness, Tereus is characterized squarely within the misandristic tradition. Men have felt defamed by literary representations of Tereus.[2] But who cares?

Procne and Philomena understandably burned with anger at Tereus’s horrible crimes. In the ancient and medieval world, women were credited with being capable of acting just as horrifically or more horrifically than any monstrous man. After learning of her husband’s crimes, Procne declared to her sister:

“This is no time for tears,” she said, “what’s to be done
can be done only with steel, or if you have it, something stronger
than steel. I am ready for any crime, sister,
whether to burn the palace down and
throw the schemer Tereus amid the flames,
or his tongue and eyes, and his genitals that stole from you
chastity — to snatch them off with steel and through a thousand wounds
expel his guilty soul. I am ready for something great.
What it is, I am still uncertain.”

{ “non est lacrimis hoc” inquit “agendum,
sed ferro, sed si quid habes, quod vincere ferrum
possit. In omne nefas ego me, germana, paravi.
Aut ego, cum facibus regalia tecta cremabo,
artificem mediis inmittam Terea flammis,
aut linguam, aut oculos et quae tibi membra pudorem
abstulerunt, ferro rapiam, aut per vulnera mille
sontem animam expellam. Magnum quodcumque paravi:
quid sit, adhuc dubito.” }[3]

Violence against men’s genitals has historically been common, all the way through to Super Bowl commercials. Such violence has even been formalized as a primitive punishment for rape. Procne, however, didn’t seek justice. She sought great vengeance. She wanted to burn Tereus’s body, deprive him of senses, and send his soul to be condemned. She sought to outdo Tereus in vicious crime.

Procne and Philomela grabbing Itys to kill him

Happenstance and the resemblance of Procne’s innocent son Itys to his father Tereus spurred her to violence. Itys appeared just as Procne was searching for a great crime. Ovid recounted with detachment:

While Procne was so exhausting herself,
Itys came to his mother. What might be to her
is proposed, and looking at him with pitiless eyes she said,
“Ah, how similar to your father you are.” Saying no more,
she secretly contrived a mournful deed in her boiling anger.
But when the boy approached her and greeted his mother,
brought forth his little arms and put them around her neck,
combining flattering mixed with kissing as little boys do,
the mother is indeed moved, and her firmly standing anger broken.
Against her will, her eyes began to moisten with tears.

{ Peragit dum talia Procne,
ad matrem veniebat Itys. Quid possit, ab illo
admonita est: oculisque tuens inmitibus “a quam
es similis patri” dixit. Nec plura locuta
triste parat facinus tacitaque exaestuat ira.
Ut tamen accessit natus matrique salutem
attulit et parvis adduxit colla lacertis
mixtaque blanditiis puerilibus oscula iunxit,
mota quidem est genetrix infractaque constitit ira
invitique oculi lacrimis maduere coactis }

Chrétien de Troyes added emotionally heightened diction and moral commentary in expanding this scene:

And as she said these words, her son
unluckily came into the room
destined to be his place of doom.
He was a truly handsome boy,
but that day Procne did not enjoy
the sight of him. In a quiet voice
she spoke words that were the Devil’s choice:
“Ha! I see here a vile, devilish thing
that looks too much like that traitor king!
Bitter, bitter, your death will be
because of your father’s villainy.
You are the one who’ll pay for his crime.
You’ll have to die before your time,
unjustly die for just one reason:
innocent though you are of treason,
and though you’re not the one who’s hated,
never before has God created
anyone else, any other pair
so much alike — to that I swear.
That’s why I will cut off your head.”
The child heard nothing his mother said.
He ran to greet her. When he kissed her
so joyfully, how could she persist
in the frightful plan she had in mind?
Nature ordains for humankind,
as human law itself requires
and piety in our hearts desires,
that no mother could have the will
to mutilate her child, or her child kill.

{ Atant ses fiz devant li vint
Qui biaus estoit a desmesure
Si l’amena mesavanture
Que li estoit a avenir.
La mere voit son fil venir
Et dit an bas une mervoille
Si con Deables li consoille.
“Ha,” fet ele, “chose sanbable
Au traïtor, ou vil deable!
Morir t’estuet de mort amere
Por la felenie ton père.
Sa félonie conparras.
Por son forfet a tort morras
Qui ne l’as mie desservi,
Fors solemant qu’onques ne vi
Ne Deus ne fist mien esciant
Chose a autre miauz ressanblant,
Et por ce te vuel descoler.”
Li anfes la cort acoler
Qui de tot ce n’ot rien oï.
Tant la beisa et conjoï
Que Progne deûst estre ostee
Del panser ou ele iert antree
Si con requiert droiz et nature
De tote humainne creature
Et si con pitiez le deffant,
Que mere ne doit son anfant
Ne ocire ne desmanbrer. }[4]

In Chrétien’s version, Procne implicitly was overtaken by the devil, for she spoke “as if the devil were advising her {si con Deables li consoille}.” In becoming similar to Tereus, Procne saw in her innocent little boy Itys a “traitor or vile devil {traïtor, ou vil deable}.” Although she explicitly declared Itys to be innocent, she would kill him merely because of his surface form. Medieval Christian clerics theologically understood inner being to be more significant than surface form. Chrétien commented that, by nature, human law, and divine law, no mother would kill her child. In planning to kill her child, Procne became no longer a mother.

Philomena and Procne killing Itys

Procne and Philomena’s murder of Procne’s innocent son Itys is more explicitly horrific in Ovid’s version. While maintaining detached narration, Ovid employed a violent simile, terrified direct speech, and details of brutality:

Without delay, she dragged Itys as a tiger drags
a suckling female fawn through the dark woods along the Ganges.
When they reached a remote part of the high house,
and the boy saw his fate, he stretched out his hands
and screamed, “Mother! Mother!” and he sought to cling to her neck.
Procne struck him with a knife where his chest meets his side,
and didn’t turn her face. Even this one wound was sufficient
to send him to his fate, yet Philomena also slit his throat,
and they sliced apart his body while it retained life
and breath. Parts boil in bronze kettles,
other parts hiss on spits, and the room drips with gore.

{ Nec mora, traxit Ityn, veluti Gangetica cervae
lactentem fetum per silvas tigris opacas.
Utque domus altae partem tenuere remotam,
tendentemque manus et iam sua fata videntem
et “mater, mater” clamantem et colla petentem
ense ferit Procne, lateri qua pectus adhaeret,
nec vultum vertit. Satis illi ad fata vel unum
vulnus erat: iugulum ferro Philomela resolvit.
Vivaque adhuc animaeque aliquid retinentia membra
dilaniant. Pars inde cavis exsultat aenis,
pars veribus stridunt: manant penetralia tabo. }[5]

Aedon killing Itys

While modern scholars have commonly shrouded the enormity of their deeds in silence, Procne and Philomena became in no way inferior to Tereus in wicked inhumanity. Chrétien de Troyes’s version shows the historical tendency to elide these women’s brutality:

Even as lovingly her son
embraced her, the Devil’s will was done.
Pride made her listen to what he said
and do evil — cut off her child’s head
and give it to Philomena. They shared
in the cooking of the meat, prepared
not just in one way, but in two:
part they put in a pot for stew
and the other part they roasted.

{ Li petiz anfes par chierté,
Par Deablie et par fierté,
Que Deables li amoneste,
A l’anfant copee a la teste,
Si l’a Philomena bailliee,
Puis ont la char apareilliee;
Antr’eles deus mout bien et tost.
Partie an mirent cuire an rost
Et en esseu l’autre partie. }

Pride and the devil are closely associated in medieval Christian thought. Chrétien faulted Procne with pride, a frequent human failing. He blamed the devil, commonly figured as male, for Procne murdering her innocent son and cooking his dead body. Depriving women of agency is a means for depriving women of responsibility for their crimes.[6]

Both Ovid and Chrétien de Troyes highlighted the sadistic glee with which Procne and Philomena fed Itys’s cooked flesh to his father Tereus, but they end the tale much differently. Ovid described “cruel joys {crudelia gaudia}” with which Procne told Tereus that his son was inside of him. He described Philomena unexpectedly appearing to Tereus:

Just as she was, hair stained with furious murder,
she leaps forward and hurls Itys’s bloody head
into his father’s face. At no time did she want any more
to be able to speak and declare with words the joy of her heart.

{ sicut erat sparsis furiali caede capillis,
prosiluit Ityosque caput Philomela cruentum
misit in ora patris: nec tempore maluit ullo
posse loqui et mentis testari gaudia dictis. }

That’s sad, sick joy. After Philomena and Procne were transformed into birds, Ovid had them appropriately designated:

Even now their breasts have not lost
marks of their excess. Their feathers are impressed with blood.

{ neque adhuc de pectore caedis
excessere notae, signataque sanguine pluma est. }

Indicating the unending trajectory of vengeance’s joy, Tereus became a hoopoe, a bird with a beak like a sword. These metamorphoses are only partial. A morally engaged reader might hope for further change.

Philomena and Procne dismembering and cooking Itys

Chrétien de Troyes recounted at length how Procne gulled Tereus and fed him more and more of the cooked body of their son Itys. When Tereus insistently asked for Itys’s company, Procne taunted him to prompt Philomena’s action:

“Inside of you is what you seek,
yet you’ve not tasted every bit.
Outside remains a part of it.”
Philomena, who in readiness had been
concealed in a nearby room, just then
comes out with Itys’s head in her hands,
and doesn’t pause until she stands
in front of Tereus. She throws
the head, from which the blood still flows,
into his face.

{ “Dedanz toi as ce que tu quiers,
Mes n’i est mie toz antiers.
Partie an as dedanz ton cors
Et partie an a defors”.
Philomena, qui s’iert reposte
An une chanbre iluec decoste
S’an issi fors atot la teste.
Jusque devant lui ne s’areste,
Si li a tote ansanglantee
La teste an mi le vis gitee. }

Chrétien described Philomena as extraordinarily beautiful, talented, and learned. Men sought her company.[7] Perhaps she underwent a metamorphosis in character before her metamorphosis into a nightingale. In any case, the metamorphoses into birds in Chrétien’s version are elaborated with a gender-biased moralization and a chilling threat:

A very great miracle indeed
happened, as the Fates decreed.
Tereus was changed into a bird,
old and scrawny, ugly, absurd.
The little claws that tried to grip
his sword were forced to let it slip.
It was a hoopoe he became
in punishment for his crime, the shame
inflicted on a woman — so
the story tells us. And we know
that Procne was changed into a swallow.
Philomena does not forget her woe.
A nightingale, famed for her song,
she still accuses those who do wrong —
traitors, liars. She seeks to destroy
those who have no respect for joy,
and those vile felons who mistreat,
slander, abuse, and also cheat
honorable women, who are gentle and wise.
Woodlands still resound with her cries.
After the winter months have passed
and summer is beginning at last,
her sweetest song comes from her woes
and bitter hatred for her foes.
“Kill! Kill!” demands the nightingale,
and here I’ll end Philomena’s tale.

{ La, si con plot as destinees
Avint une si granz mervoille
Qu’onques n’oïstes sa paroille,
Car Tereus devint oisiaus
Orz et despiz, petiz et viauz.
De son poing li cheï l’espee
Et il devint hupe copee,
Si con la fable le raconte,
Por le pechié et por la honte
Qu’il avoit fet de la pucele.
Progné devint une arondele
Et Philomena rossignos.
Ancore qui crerroit son los,
Seroit a honte trestuit —
Li desleal mort et destruit
Et li felon et li parjure
Et cil qui de joie n’ont cure
Et tuit cil qui font mesprison
Et felenie et traïson
Vers pucele sage et cortoise,
Car tant l’an grieve et tant l’an poise
Que, quant il vient au prin d’esté,
Que tot l’iver avons passé,
Por les mauves qu’ele tant het
Chante au plus doucemant qu’el set
Par le boschage: “Oci! Oci!” —
De Philomena leirai ci. }

Chrétien de Troyes’s version ends with a defense of women against all those bad men. Procne brutally killing her son Itys is effaced and silenced. The perpetually aggrieved Philomena, even transformed into a nightingale, continually threatens murder.[8] That’s a telling moralization of Philomena’s, Procne’s, and Tereus’s horrific violence.

The historical intensification of gynocentrism has tended to exculpate women and promote penal systems’ vastly disproportionate punishment of persons with penises. In the ancient Greek Odyssey, Penelope recognize the regret of Aedon, turned into a nightingale:

Frequently varying the strains of her voice, she pours out varied melody,
mourning Lord Zethos’s son, her very own son Itylos,
whom she once killed with bronze in her absence of thought.

{ ἥ τε θαμὰ τρωπῶσα χέει πολυδευκέα φωνήν,
παῖδ’ ὀλοφυρομένη Ἴτυλον φίλον, ὅν ποτε χαλκῷ
κτεῖνε δι’ ἀφραδίας, κοῦρον Ζήθοιο ἄνακτος· }[9]

Aedon was much less culpable for killing her innocent son than Procne was. Nonetheless, roughly two thousand years later in Chrétien de Troyes’s telling of the story, Procne as a nightingale cried out, “Kill! Kill! {Oci! Oci!}.” That’s not a sweet song. Reject endless, unjust violence, and mourn its victims. Listen for the actual voice of nightingales. The singing nightingales are male.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.423, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation. Ovid’s Latin uses the name Philomela, from the ancient Greek Φιλομήλα. The name Philomela became Philomena in Old French. For simplicity I consistently use the name Philomena above.

In the sixth century BGC, the Persian Achaemenian Empire ruled Thrace. The Greeks and the Persians became enemies and fought long wars against each other through to the time of Alexander the Great.

Chrétien de Troyes’s version, adapted from Ovid’s tale, added its own barbarian sign with its claim that barbarians approved of incest. Specifically, Chrétien declared that if Procne’s sister Philomela (Tereus’s sister-in-law) had been his biological sister, pagan law would have permitted him to have sex with her:

Therefore, if she were her fraternal sister
the love would not at all have been villainous,
for one of the gods that they had,
according to the law that they observed,
had decided that they might do whatever
their desire and their pleasure wanted.
Such a law had that one written for them,
that whatever pleased or delighted them,
each one could do without committing a sin.
Such was the law that paganism observed.
Therefore, if he had to defend it,
and the god who had willed it hadn’t revoked it,
whatever would have pleased him to do,
no one ought to have considered it evil.
But now let us let their law be.

{ Por ce, s’ele iert sa suer germaine,
N’estoit mie l’amors vilaine,
Car uns lor deus que il avoient
Selonc la loi que il tenoient
Establi qu’il feïssent tuit
Lor volanté et lor deduit.
Tel loi lor avoit cil escrite
Que quanqu’il lor plest ne delite
Pooit chascuns feire sanz crime:
Itel loi tenoit paiennime.
Por ce se poïst cil deffandre,
S’il fust qui l’an vosist reprandre,
Ne ce qu’il li pleisoit a feire
Ne devoit nus a mal retreire.
Mes or leissons lor loi ester. }

Philomena, vv. 219-33, Old French text from Cormier (1986), English translation (modified slightly) from Vaughan (2020). I’ve used this rather literal translation for clarity in what Chrétien de Troyes asserted about “paganism {paiennime}.” Chrétien seems to have invented such a law. He probably drew upon traditional Greco-Roman belief that Jupiter married Juno, as well as medieval perception of Epicureanism. He perhaps humorously meant to allude to use of the word “sister” for a man’s woman-lover or wife in medieval European languages drawing upon the biblical Song of Solomon.

In classical Athens, Tereus would have been perceived to be a barbarian. Procne killing her son Itys could be understood as “a radically formulated claim for and defense of autochthony and national purity.” Räuchle (2015) para. 37.

[2] Replacing Procne’s name with the simple generic “the victim” (obscuring her murder of her innocent son Itys) and replacing Tereus’s name with the simple generic “the rapist,” Krueger pretentiously declared:

If the victim is more fully developed as a courtly subject in Chrétien’s version, so, too, is the rapist. … But it is true that Chrétien’s presentation makes the rapist a more complex, and therefore more troubling, character.

Krueger (2005) pp. 95, 96. Declaring complexities and ambiguities has become a threadbare convention of academic literary scholarship. Complexities, ambiguities, and troubling character are typical of real persons. Tereus, in contrast, is a misandristic, zenophobic caricature.

Writing in 1997, a scholar of medieval French literature courageously broke the silence and made some nearly unspeakable observations:

The following essay is a reflection on rape. More precisely, it bears on the ways in which the theme of rape has been handled in some recent scholarship — in a number of books and articles, and in a wide array of lectures and conference presentations that I have heard at academic gatherings in the past several years. (Every conference now devotes sessions to rape and sexual violence against women.) Some of this work is sound and provocative. But much of this scholarly trend is, in my view, plagued by a tendency towards naive, anachronistic, and inappropriate readings of literary works, high levels of indignation and self-pity, and a pervasive hostility to men.

Vitz (1997) p. 1. Since 1997, literary scholarship has become more misandristic while continuing to remain silent about the gender reality of women raping men.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.611-9, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from that of Lombardo (2010) and Melville (1986). For freely available online translations, Kline (2000) and More (1922).

Subsequent quotes above from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are similarly sourced. They are 6.619-28 (While Procne was so exhausting herself…), 6.636-46 (Without delay, she dragged Itys as a tiger drags…), 6.657-60 (Just as she was, hair stained with furious murder…), 6.669-70 (Even now their breasts have not lost…).

[4] Chrétien de Troyes, Philomena vv. 1292-1319, Old French text from Cormier (1986), English translation (modified slightly) from Terry (1995).

In contrast to my translation as “piety,” the Old French word “pitiez” is typically translated as “pity.” Hence a more common, literal translation of v. 1317 would be “and as pity forbids it {et si con pitiez le deffant}.” The Anglo-Norman Dictionary notes:

The words pitié and pieté, though deriving from the same etymon (pietas), are usually treated separately by dictionaries, with a distinctive semantic shift in: ‘pity’ versus ‘piety’. Classical Latin pietas originally only had the sense ‘piety, holiness’, but soon developed ‘pity, compassion’ as an extended sense, and it is mainly the later that is found in medieval vernacular (cf. OED etymology of pity n.). In Anglo-Norman, the sense ‘pity’ prevails entirely for both spellings, and the sense ‘piety’ does not appear to be unequivocally attested. As a result, it was decided to treat both forms in the same entry. It is only in the seventeenth century that English pity and piety become truly differentiated, both formally and semantically.

Chrétien de Troyes wrote not in Anglo-Norman but in the Champenois dialect of Old French. The meaning “piety” is apparently attested in that dialect. Moreover, Philomena is rooted in Latin as an adaptation of the story of Philomela, Procne, Tereus, and Itys in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In addition, “pitiez” is the third prong of a conceptualization in which the other two prongs are nature and human law. In that context, “piety / divine law” makes better sense.

Chrétien de Troyes apparently wrote the Philomena between 1165 and 1170. It is thus the earliest known work of Chrétien. The Philomena is found only within the Ovide Moralisé, an early-fourteenth-century French adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The attribution of the Philomena to Chrétien de Troyes isn’t certain, but it’s now generally accepted.

De Boer (1909) is an earlier, freely accessible Old French edition of Philomena. Vaughan (2020) provides a line-by-line, literal translation, including a translation of the associated allegory in the Ovide Moralisé.

Subsequent quotes above from Chrétien de Troyes’s Philomena are similarly sourced. They are vv. 1329-37 (Even as, lovingly, her son…), 1403-12 (Inside of you is what you seek…), 1442-68 (A very great miracle indeed…).

[5] Procne’s brutal treatment of her son Itys in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is astonishingly misrepresented in an article published in a leading journal of medieval scholarship. This article begins:

In the twelfth-century Philomena attributed to Chretien de Troyes, one of the changes the author makes to his Ovidian source is his identification of Procne as the murderer of her son. Whereas Ovid recounts that Procne’s sister, Philomena, cuts off Itys’s head, in Chretien’s rewriting of the story it is the mother, Procne, who kills her son, and the two women then dismember, cook, and feed him to Tereus, Procne’s husband, in revenge for his rape of Philomena. This change is part of what has been identified as a demonization of the character of Procne in Chretien’s version of the story…

McCracken (2002) p. 55. That’s grossly misleading. In Ovid’s version, Itys’s mother Procne dragged Itys like a tiger, struck him with a knife below the ribs, and helped her sister carve up Itys’s dead body. Ovid doesn’t specify who cut off Itys’s head. That’s not important. What should not be obscured in silence is that Procne also acted monstrously in Ovid’s version.

[6] When they haven’t kept silent about this brutality, modern literary scholars have worked to excuse Philomena and Procne’s horrific murder of Procne’s son Itys. McCracken (2002) ponderously deployed abstractions (e.g. patriarchal family, patriarchal authority) to problematize why Procne’s killing and dismembering her son Itys isn’t explained as a sacrifice “in the service of some higher good or higher purpose.” Id. p. 56. That’s best interpreted as a grotesque response to a mother viciously murdering and dismembering her innocent son. Cf. Räuchle (2015), particularly the example of Praxithea, Queen of Athens, who had as husband Erichthonios; and the revered Spartan mothers.

Moore suggested “considerations of the legal definition of justifiable homicide to the ultimate satisfaction of revenge.” Moore (2021) p. 57. The definition of crimes has long been biased to excuse women, but not yet to that extent. Literary scholars, however, are working to increase the enormous anti-men gender inequality in penal systems:

Recent interpretations of Procne’s killing and cooking of her son reflect the text’s ambivalence about female revenge and power. Burns emphasizes Procne’s transformative resistance; she acts to ‘extricate herself from an unwitting collusion in producing ravishers of women’ and to ‘stop the cycle of abuse’.

Krueger (2005) p. 100. Men are not naturally “ravishers of women.” A mother killing her innocent son doesn’t “stop the cycle of abuse.”

Krueger exemplified interpreting the story within the now-dominant academic misandristic tradition:

It {Ovid’s narrative of Philomela, Procne, Tereus, and Itys} portrays the force of feminine ingenuity and artifice and reveals the power of narrative simultaneously to cover and expose the truth, revealing, in this case, the violence against and silencing of women that underlies patriarchal relations, as Patricia Joplin has shown.

Krueger (2005) p. 91. Philomena and Procne’s horrific murder of Procne’s son Itys reveals ingenuity and artifice in deploying literary scholarship’s socially constructed myth of patriarchal relations. It’s all complex and ambiguous, except for that. Hence Moore evidently felt the need to declare:

I do not seek to attenuate the violence against women that structures many medieval texts or patriarchy in general (that is, I do not reclaim or characterize this text as articulating gender equality), but rather I wish to suggest that the text builds a shared culture of exceptionalism that is articulated through emotions, here thematized through an erotics of grief.

Moore (2021) p. 49. Is it any wonder that women are receiving twice as many Ph.D.’s in the humanities as men are? On narrow-mindedness in humanities students, see e.g. Kim-Worthington (2020). The humanities urgently needs to welcome and include meninist literary criticism before more men flee from the humanities.

[7] After describing at length Philomena’s great beauty, Chrétien continued:

Philomena understood
so many things that I can swear
she was as wise as she was fair —
truly learned. She knew all sorts
of entertaining games and sports –
more than the men best known to us,
like Tristan or Apollonius.
Both chess and backgammon she could play,
“Six and Ace” from an earlier day,
and “Buffet and Battle.” She was adored
and wooed by many a noble lord
for her most delightful company.
She was excellent at falconry,
with peregrine and sparrow hawk
and even lanners, though they balk.
Falcons, tercels, goshawks – all three
she brought through their molts. She loved to be
out hawking close to a river’s shore
or in the field. Yet no one had more
talent for working cloth dyed rich
crimson. She had the skill to stitch
figured silk or fine brocade
and ghostly Hellequins portrayed
in beautifully colored thread.
Skilled in language too, well-read,
the woman could write both verse and prose,
and she could perform, as she chose,
music on psaltery or lyre.
Who has the art it would require
to tell all her talents? She could play
the vielle to accompany a lai –
there wasn’t a tune she did not know –
and when she talked her words were so
full of wisdom. She could teach
without a book, just through her speech.

{ Ne fu pas mains sage que bele,
Se je la verité recort.
Plus sot de joie et de deport
Qu’Apoloines ne que Tristanz:
Plus an sot voire voir dis tanz.
Des tables sot et des eschas,
Del vieil jeu et del “sis et as,”
De la bufe et de la hamee.
Por son deduit estoit amee
Et requise de hauz barons.
D’espreviers sot et de faucons
Et del jantil et del lanier;
Bien sot feire un faucon mulier
Et un ostor et un tercuel,
Ne ja ne fust ele son vuel
S’an gibier non ou an riviere.
Avuec c’iert si bone ovriere
D’ovrer une porpre vermoille
Qu’an tot le mont n’ot sa paroille.
Un diaspre ou un baudequin
Nes la Mesniee Hellequin
Seüst ele an un drap portreire.
Des autors sot et de grameire
Et sot bien feire vers et letre,
Et, quant li plot, li antremetre
Et del sautier et de la lire:
Plus an sot qu’an ne porroit dire,
Et de la gigue et de la rote.
Soz ciel n’a lai ne son ne note
Qu’el ne seüst bien vieler,
Et tant sot sagemant parler
Que solemant de sa parole
Seüst ele tenir escole. }

Philomena, vv. 172-204. This extraordinary characterization was probably meant to heighten the horror of Tereus brutally depriving Philomena of her tongue.

Philomena surely wasn’t composed as a realistic story. Nonetheless, Cormier described “a griping and realistic vengeance scene”: Philomena and Procne viciously murdering Procne’s innocent son Itys, cooking his body, feeding it to Tereus, and then throwing Itys’s bloody head into Tereus’s face. Cormier (1986) p. 185. Cormier also perceived “a powerful psychological portrait of compulsion in Tereus’ unrestrained outburst of animal lust” for Philomena. Id. Medieval scholars remain sickly unconscious of the misandristic tradition.

[8] Classical Greek poets typically made Procne the nightingale (e.g. Aristophanes, Birds vv. 659-667) and Philomela the swallow. Classical Latin poets, in contrast made Procne the swallow and Philomela the nightingale. Melville (1986) p. 413, note to vv. 6.668-9. Ovid actually didn’t specify the particular birds into which Procne and Philomela were transformed. Cf. Lombardo (2010) p. 169.

[9] Odyssey, vv. 19.521-3, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Levaniouk (2011) Ch. 12, pp. 213-4. As Levaniouk carefully and convincingly argued, Penelope’s simile is commonly and wrongly thought to refer to the story of Philomela, Procne, Tereus, and Itys. It’s best interpreted as referring to the related story of Aedon, Niobe, Zethos, and Itylos. The former story seems to have been better known. It was the basis for the now-lost tragedy Tereus by Aeschylus’s nephew Philocles and for Sophicles now-fragmentary tragedy Tereus. In both stories, mothers killed their wholly innocent sons.

Evidently working withing the misandristic tradition, McDonald interpreted Penelope’s simile of Aedon as expressing her “powerful wish to slay the son, flee the husband, and be free, alone, singing a beautiful song of grief.” McDonald (1997) p. 18. That’s an ugly interpretation.

[images] (1) Procne and Philomela prepare to kill Itys. Illustration on Attic red-figure wine cup, attributed to Makron. Made about 480 BGC. Preserved as item G 147; Cp. 929 in the Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Alternate image in Dickinson College Commentaries. (2) Philomena and Procne killing Itys. Illustration from folio 176r of an instance of Ovid Moralized {Ovide Moralisé} by Chrétien Legouais. Made c. 1325. Preserved as Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen. Ms O 4. (3) Aedon / Procne killing Itylos / Itys. Illustration on Attic red-figure clay vase, made about 500-450 BGC. Preserved at Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen {State Collection of Antiquities} 2638. Alternate images here and here. (4) Philomena and Procne dismembering and cooking Itys. Image via Wikimedia Commons. This poorly sourced illustration apparently is from a fifteenth-century Ovid Moralized {Ovide Moralisé}. Among instances of Ovide Moralisé, the illustration may be from København, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Ms. Thott 399, but it’s surely not from BnF Arsenal MS 5069, BnF Lyons MS 742, nor Bnf Français 137. On illustrations in Ovide Moralisé, Clier-Colombani (2017), Possamaï & Besseyre (2015), and Lord (1975).


Clier-Colombani, Françoise. 2017. Images et Imaginaire dans l’Ovide Moralisé. Essais sur le Moyen Âge, 63. Paris: Honoré Champion.

Cormier, Raymond J., ed. and trans. 1986. Three Ovidian Tales of Love: Piramus et Tisbé, Narcisus et Danaé, and Philomena et Procné. New York: Garland.

De Boer, Corneilis, ed. 1909. Philomena, conte raconté d’après Ovide. Paris: Geuthner.

Kim-Worthington, Chaerim. 2020. “ΜΕΛΟΣ ΦΙΛΟΜΗΛΗΣ: The Songlover’s Song — The Nightingale’s Song — The Voice of Philomela.” Prizewinning story in the 2020 Paideia Institute High School Essay Contest. Medium. Online.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2000. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Krueger, Roberta L. 2005. “Philomena: Brutal Transitions and Courtly Transformations in Chrétien’s Old French Translation.” Pp. 87-102 in Norris J. Lacy et Joan Tasker Grimbert, eds. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Cambridge: Brewer.

Levaniouk, Olga. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies Series 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2010. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lord, Carla. 1975. “Three Manuscripts of the Ovide moralisé.” The Art Bulletin. 57 (2): 161-175.

McCracken, Peggy, 2002. “Engendering Sacrifice: Blood, Lineage, and Infanticide in Old French Literature.” Speculum. 77 (1): 55-75.

McDonald, W. E. 1997. “On Hearing the Silent Voice: Penelope and the Daughters of Pandareus.” Helios 24:3–22.

Melville, A. D., trans. 1986. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Megan. 2021. The Erotics of Grief: Emotions and the Construction of Privilege in the Medieval Mediterranean. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press.

More, Brookes, trans. 1922. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Boston, MA: Cornhill Publishing Co.

Possamaï, Marylène and Marianne Besseyre, eds. 2015. L’Ovide moralisé illustré. Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes 30. Online.

Terry, Patricia, trans. 1995. The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: Medieval Stories of Men and Women. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Alternate source.

Räuchle, Viktoria Johanna. 2015. “The Myth of Mothers as Others.” Cahiers Mondes Anciens. 6. Online since 16 February 2015.

Vaughan, Míċeál F., trans. 2020. “The Philomena of Chrétien de Troyes.” Online.

Vitz, Evelyn Berge. 1997. “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections.” Romanic Review. 88 (1): 1-26.

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