Philomela’s Silence

Kylie Constantine writes about the reception of Philomela in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel for young adults, Speak.  ​She talked about it at our recent Mythical Workshop.

– Liz Hale

Philomela’s Silence

nightingale-and-rose
Nightingale and rose detail of the south garden wall fresco excavated at the Casa del Bracciale d’oro, Pompeii.

On 24 March at the ERC’s 10th Anniversary Celebrations, we touched on many topics, comic and poignant. Perhaps the most poignant, among our discussions of gods and goddesses, mythical beasts, and heroic quests, was that of Philomela, whose violent story feels as relevant today as it was in antiquity. Philomela’s tale draws on themes of sexual assault, domestic violence, and censorship––all of which are reported in the news on a daily basis.

According to Ovid (in Book VI of the Metamorphoses), Philomela is the younger daughter of an Athenian King. Her older sister, Procne, is married to King Tereus of Thrace, and has a son, Itys. She has not seen her family for some time. Tereus returns to Athens to collect Philomela for the purpose of visiting her sister, but on the return journey Tereus makes different plans. He takes Philomela to an isolated hut in the woods and brutally rapes her. To suppress her protests and to ensure her silence, he cuts out her tongue. Tereus abandons Philomela in the woods and tells Procne that her sister died on their return journey.

600px-Philomela_Procne_preparing_to_kill_Itys
Image from an Attic wine cup, circa 490 BC, depicting Philomela and Procne preparing to kill Itys. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Over the course of a year Tereus repeatedly violates Philomela, while she secretly weaves her story into a cloak. When it is finished, she sends the cloak to her sister. Procne rescues Philomela and in revenge the sisters slaughter Itys and feed him to his father. Tereus attempts to kill Procne and Philomela, but the gods intervene in sympathy and turns each of them into birds. Traditionally, Philomela becomes a nightingale.

The story of Philomela appears repeatedly in art, music, and culture, and is the subject of my PhD thesis, Song and Silence: Case Studies in the Reception of Philomela from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. But for the purposes of the Our Mythical Childhood project, considerations of Philomela reveal her pervasive power. Philomela can be found in television shows, films, and literature popular with older children and young adults. She is often alluded to rather than overtly referenced. While Philomela’s influence is evident in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Hush), Dr Who (the Ood) or throughout Netflix’s recently adapted series, 13 Reasons Why, her silent presence is overwhelming in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, Speak.

Speak is the first-person narrative of fourteen-year-old Melinda Sordino, who documents her freshman year of high school over the course of four academic periods. Melinda is a social outcast, ostracised after her 911 call brought the police to at a party she had attended the previous summer. Melinda is unable to tell anyone why she called the police and over the year, her mutism alienates her from her friends, teachers, and her family. Melinda’s silence stems from an encounter with a gorgeous older boy, a “Greek God”, who forces himself on her in the woods next to the party house. He covers her mouth with his hand as he rapes her, and her protest, like Philomela’s, is denied through silencing. Melinda loses her identity with the loss of her voice: “I saw my face in the window over the sink and no words came from my mouth. Who was that girl? I had never seen her before.”

Melinda’s ability to speak again is regained through her recovery. Like Philomela, she is able to tell her story not through weaving, but through written notes, graffiti, and her art project on trees. But unlike Philomela, whose voice returns through the nightingale’s song, Melinda finally speaks of her trauma to her art teacher. “The tears dissolve the last block of ice in my throat. I feel the frozen stillness melt down through the inside of me, dripping shards of ice that vanish in a puddle of sunlight on the stained floor. Words float up.”

At different periods in time, references to Philomela have evoked themes of censorship, identity, mourning, sorrow, beauty and suffering, along with ideals associated with Christ, the soul, the poet and more recently, feminism. In each manifestation, the focus is Philomela’s voice, as she regains the ability to vocalise through the sonorous beauty of the nightingale’s sad song.

For more information on Speak, go to Laurie Halse Anderson’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com

For an example of Philomela in music, listen to Mendelssohn’s “Ye Spotted Snakes” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1842):

Bibliography

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Square Fish, 2011.


Kylie Constantine is a PhD candidate in the School of Arts, UNE.  Her research traces the reception of Philomela in song and popular culture.  Her Honours thesis (2016) explored the feminine voice in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

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