Greek mythology features many instances of adults eating children, sometimes as part of a revenge plot against the eater, sometimes intentionally in a preemptive grudge against the eaten. Some of these tales survived to modernity, because they were recorded by Ovid and adapted in his Metamorphoses to a more Roman set of theatrical sensibilities during the Hellenistic Period. Ovid took many liberties in his refurbished tales, usually stripping them of their religious overtones and adding themes which were more graphic, more ribald, and decidedly more rapey than the originals. The elements of cannibalism and pedophagy, however, are - as far as any classicist has yet determined - purely faithful to the Greek source material. When William Shakespeare and George R. R. Martin used this same imagery in their own stories, they were drawing on ancient precedent. Of all Greek mythic incidences of pedophagy, the myth of Procne, as told by Ovid, stands out as a unique example of the perpetrator being a woman.
With such bad omens Tereus married her, sad Procne, and those omens cast a gloom on all the household till the fateful birth of their first born.
Procne (Ancient Greek: Πρόκνη), older sister of Philomela and daughter of King Pandion I of Athens, married King Tereus of Thrace. Philomela, lovelier to the eye than Procne, was brutally raped by Tereus, when she traveled to Thrace to visit her sister. Tereus, fearing the consequences of his act, used Philomela's own hair to tie her hands so she could not fight him, and then he tore out her tongue to prevent her revealing the crime. He then sealed her away in a secluded chamber in the forest outside the Thracian palace, kept under perpetual guard, with only a loom to keep her occupied.
And after these vile deeds, that wicked king returned to Procne, who, when she first met her brutal husband, anxiously inquired for tidings of her sister; but with sighs and tears, he told a false tale of her death, and with such woe that all believed it true.
Philomela weaved an elaborate tapestry depicting the crimes committed against her, and using sign language she convinced a servant to deliver the tapestry to Procne. Procne opened the parcel and discovered the message woven there. During the triennial festival to Bacchus, Procne dressed in the garb of a Maenad, as was traditional in Thrace, and set out in the night carrying weapons and a fearsome appearance. She used the cover of darkness to find Philomela's prison and break her out, leading Philomela back to the palace.
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, so 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!”
Procne killed her son, Itys, who closely resembled Tereus. With Philomela's help, she carved the boy into many pieces and boiled them into a stew, which she served to her husband at a private banquet. She sent the servants out of the room, citing Thracian custom that this particular type of meal should be enjoyed only by the king. Tereus asked after the whereabouts of Itys, and Procne announced to Tereus, "You have him there, inside you, the very one you ask for."
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... Tearing at his breast, in miserable efforts to disgorge the half-digested gobbets of his son, Tereus 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.
To allow the avenged women to escape Tereus' wrath, the gods transformed Procne into a swallow, whose red-stained breast marks her as the slayer of her own child. Philomela turned into a nightingale, fleeing into the woodland, no remarkable sight to behold whatsoever, but lovely to hear. Tereus was turned into a hoopoe, the crest resembling his crown, the sharp beak resembling the sword he raised against his wife and his victimised sister-in-law.
Three swallow genera, Progne, Ptyonoprogne, and Psalidoprocne, all derive their names from the name Procne.
All block quotes are from the Brookes More translation of Metamorphoses book 6, found here.
Iron Noder 2016, 8/30