Janice SIEGEL An Apologia for Procne
The bloody story of Procne, Philomela and Tereus is best known to us via Ovid's
thorough treatment of it in Met. VI.424-674. Almost all other literary references to this myth in
antiquity present the crimes of the women - killing and cooking Itys and serving him to his father
at banquet - as more reprehensible than the crimes of the man which spawned their vengeance
- abducting, imprisoning, raping and mutilating the virginal Athenian princess Philomela
(Juvenal Sat. 6.643-656, Achilles Tatius 1.8, etc.). Fragments of plays by Sophocles and Accius
indicate that the women fared no better in these treatments: even Sophocles, in his lost Tereus,
suggests that the women responded with a "medicine harsher than the disease" (fr. 589).
Modern reconstructions and critical analyses further deny the women their due by claiming that
Sophocles' lost play was Dionysian in tone and theme, that the sisters Procne and Philomela
murdered and cooked Itys in their roles as crazed devotees of Dionysus, that in fact Dionysus
orchestrated the events of the myth. Scholars then point to the Bacchic element in Ovid's
treatment of this myth as further proof that the women acted under his influence and without
reason, for Ovid's Procne is dressed as a Bacchante when she liberates Philomela. But Ovid
has something altogether different in mind.
In an article now in progress I show that this scene is the third and climactic act of the
five-act structure Ovid provided this episode, a play embedded in Book VI in a blatantly
rebellious response to Horace's edicts concerning thematic and dramatic limitations. But before
we can advance to that discussion, we must first debunk the idea that these women are acting
under the influence of Dionysus in Ovid, or else the appropriateness of Procne's actions (the
quid pro quo nature of her vengeance) - as well as the contributory effects of Tereus' provoking
actions - will remain hidden.
The gods are conspicuously absent throughout Ovid's entire treatment of this myth; in
the liberation scene, the poet transfers Dionysus' power to Procne. She thus appropriates
Dionysus' famous double role as Lusios: she is the Liberator who frees Philomela from her
imprisonment by Tereus, and also the Destroyer, who will bring down Tereus, and with him, his
house. From the scene of liberation until the final metamorphoses of all the characters, Ovid
presents typical, familiar Dionysian motifs only to pervert them; subtle, implied comparisons
between Philomela/Agave and Procne/Hecuba also point to the absence of Dionysian influence.
In fact, Ovid's true intention in crafting this Dionysian parody is to highlight the very human
nature of the horror, not prove that the myth is "rooted in the Dionysian realm." (Burkert, Homo