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Philomela was a princess of Athens and the sister of Procne, queen of Thrace (married to Tereus, the king of Thrace).

In the fifth year of their marriage, Procne expressed a desire to see her sister. Tereus went to go get Philomela and lusted for her. On the way back, he forced her into a log cabin in the wood and violated her. The king warned her to keep quiet, but when she displayed defiance, he cut out her tongue and held her captive in the cabin. When he got back to Thrace, he told his wife her sister was dead.

This is the part where a few plot holes start coming up.

Philomela made a tapestry of Tereus' crime. Somehow Procne received it and was so angry, she killed their son Itys and served it to Tereus. After he ate, both sisters presented Itys head to Tereus.

Tereus gets angry, grabs an ax and chases them. The sisters prey to the gods for help and they all get transformed into different birds.

How did her sister get the tapestry if she was held captive in the cabin? How did her sister get free?

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According to Ovid:

But even in despair and utmost grief, there is an ingenuity which gives inventive genius to protect from harm: and now, the grief-distracted Philomela wove in a warp with purple marks and white, a story of the crime; and when 'twas done she gave it to her one attendant there and begged her by appropriate signs to take it secretly to Procne. She took the web, she carried it to Procne, with no thought of words or messages by art conveyed.
SOURCE: Metamorphoses VI.553 ff.

Essentially, she used pantomime, "begging her by appropriate signs." If you ever get a chance to see a production of Titus Andronicus, you'll see a variant of this scene involving Lavinia.

  • So even though she was held captive, attendants looked after her. She begged one to have the incriminating cloth delivered to her sister. But does this mean she begged for herself to go or have the attendant give the cloth to her sister? (Still a little confused on that part.) – Andrew Johnson May 12 '18 at 1:54
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    Begged to have the attendant see it delivered as a gift to her sister the queen. (Pity is a major theme in this work of Ovid's, and what strikes me most about the text, even in translation, is immediacy of Philomel's extreme predicament. It's this same pity that compels Juno to finally forgive Hercules in his extremity. So my theory is that was what compelled the attendant to promise the poor mad woman a harmless favor.) Apollodorus is even less descriptive: "But by weaving characters in a robe she revealed thereby to Procne her own sorrows." 3.14.8 Library, trans. Frazer – DukeZhou May 12 '18 at 2:18

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