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  • Procne, Philomela, And The Voice Of The Peplos
  • Stamatia Dova*
Philemon A.P. 9.452.1–5; text Beckby 1968

Rejoice, Procne, in greetings from your sister Philomela, if indeed such greetings can bring you joy. May the robe [peplos] become the messenger of all the pain that savage Tereus inflicted on my heart, when he shut me, ill-fated girl, in a shepherd's hut, and took away from me first my virginity and then my voice.

Sophocles' Tereus represents a pivotal moment in the development of the myth of Procne and Philomela (Gantz 1993.240). Almost all later versions of the story can be traced back to the lost tragedy, in which a woven fabric, possibly a peplos (robe), was prominently featured as the catalyst for the development of the plot. According to a second- to third-century ce hypothesis of Sophocles' Tereus preserved in P.Oxy. 3013 (Parsons 1974.50), Procne, elder daughter of Pandion, king of Athens, was given in marriage to Tereus, king of Thrace, with whom she had a son, Itys. [End Page 69] Missing the company of her sister Philomela, Procne asked her husband to bring his sister-in-law to Thrace for a visit. Indeed, Pandion entrusted his younger daughter to Tereus, who conceived a passion for her and raped her; he then cut out her tongue in order to prevent her from revealing his crime.1 Unable to speak, "Philomela revealed her sorrows by means of a woven fabric" (, P.Oxy. 3013.21–23).2 Upon learning the truth, Procne, mad with jealousy, killed Itys, cooked his flesh, and served it to his father, who unknowingly partook of the meal. After Procne and Philomela revealed to Tereus the nature of his perverse dinner, they fled as he tried to kill them. In the end, all three turned into birds, presumably after divine intervention. Procne became a nightingale (ἀηδών),3 Philomela a swallow (χελιδών),4 and Tereus a hoopoe (ἔποψ).5

What kind of textile, we may wonder, was Philomela's ὕφος? In extant sources, the first references to it as a peplos are in Apollodorus's mythographical works (first-second century ce) and Achilles Tatius's novel Leucippe and Clitophon (ca. 150 ce). As Vayos Liapis shows (2006.222–27, [End Page 70] 235–38), however, Achilles Tatius is drawing on Sophocles' Tereus. Thus the ὕφος or peplos featured in Tereus, though markedly "feminized" in terms of production, was co-opted for purposes quite unintended by traditional material culture and gender boundaries. As preserved in Greek and Latin poetry, mythography, and scholia that echo Sophocles (Gantz 1993.239–41), on the other hand, the myth of Philomela's incriminating fabric encompasses elements with which the peplos is in close association: women's attire, weaving, and storytelling through weaving.6 As a traditional garment produced and worn by women, the peplos also constitutes a symbol of female domesticity and devotion to the marital household. Defining a woman's figure in ways that both safeguard and suggest her sexuality (Lee 2005.55–64 and 2015.100–06), the peplos was the apparel of choice for women of the early archaic period, and it may have been revived in the fifth century as a cultic garment.

Through its associations with marriage, a peplos may be offered as a gift to a prospective bride, as in Odyssey 15.124, where Helen gives Telemachus an exquisite peplos for his future bride to wear on her wedding day.7 This richly ornate robe is one of the many πέπλοι παμποίκιλοι that Helen wove herself and kept in her chest (105–06). Its significance is twofold: it shows Helen's approval of the young prince, while also foreshadowing his marriage and thereby his transition to adulthood. As a perverted gift,8 however, a peplos can kill a bride: this is the function of the colorful garment (πέπλους ποικίλους, 1159) sent by Medea to Jason's future bride in Euripides' Medea. Delivered by her children (, 1188) along with a poisonous diadem (786 = 949, 960, 983, 1065), this fine (λεπτός, 786 = 949, 1188, 1214) peplos constitutes the first part of Medea's revenge, which concludes with her slaughter of the innocent couriers.

The peplos in Euripides' Medea raises the question...


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