Mary Beth Smith

The Motif of Cannibalism in the Metamorphoses and Thyestes

1¶ Passion and revenge are two themes that characterize Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Seneca’s Thyestes. The tone in the Metamorphoses varies from grotesque to comedic to serious. Mythical tradition allows for the creation of imaginative transformations and functions as a conduit for the poet to interweave tales of passion, while touching upon the many facets of human emotion. While Ovid’s characters undergo physical metamorphoses in his stories, his writing exhibits a textual metamorphosis. Just as figures transform in the Met., his words take on a new form when they are interlaced into different works of a similar context by emulating authors. Seneca’s Thyestes, then, does just that. The literary domain of Ovid’s texts, therefore, may be applied to Seneca’s tragic Thyestes. Seneca mirrors the structure, thematic elements, and genre of Ovid’s works via intertextuality. This paper will explore the parallels between passages in Thyestes and Book Six of the Metamorphoses (6.401-652). I will argue that the Thyestes is a restaging of Ovid’s Tereus-Procne-Philomela narrative of the Metamorphoses.

2¶ Vengeance is a dominant theme that motivates horrid action, transforming both Atreus and Pronce into calculating exactors of retribution. After Thyestes’ seduction of his brother’s wife, Aerope, Atreus seeks revenge by serving Thyestes his own children. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tereus rapes his wife’s sister, Philomela; Procne, then, seeks revenge for her sister by making Tereus eat his own son, Itys. Atreus points to this crime in wishing for his feast to be worse than that of the Thracian house (Thyestes, 272-9). I will begin by examining the interacting themes of revenge and passion, which fuel non-Stoic actions. Then, I will analyze the similarities and differences between the banquet of Itys (Metamorphoses, 6.636-45) and the feast of Thyestes’ children, which arguably surpasses the “Thracian crime.” It recounts not one, but two child-slaughters, yet Atreus is still rendered unsatisfied (Thyestes, 1052-68). Lastly, I will analyze the reflective diction of both Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Seneca’s Thyestes to further enhance the parallels observed via intertextuality. These similar elements appear in both works to such an extent that Seneca functions as an emulator of Ovid, while Atreus functions as an emulator of Procne.

Part I: Sadistic Revenge in relation to Passion

3¶ The revenge witnessed in these works is that of talio or “an eye for an eye,” as both Procne and Atreus get back at the one who wronged them (Larmour). The adultery within the family relationships leads to blood pouring of youths, who are mere innocent bystanders to their parents’ strife. Tereus, responding to Procne’s plead for her sister’s visit, is immediately moved by the sight of Philomela and her richer beauty (divitior forma; 452) when he encounters her. The cycle of passion, thus, begins with Tereus’ lust for Philomela, expressed by the transparency of his words, his acting upon that lust, which results in Procne’s agenda for vengeance. In analyzing Met. 6.465-70, the placement and diction of nihil demonstrate Tereus’ limitless bounds to pursue his emotional passions.

et nihil est, quod non effreno captus amore
ausit, nec capiunt inclusas pectora flammas.
iamque moras male fert cupidoque revertitur ore
ad mandata Procnes et agit sua vota sub illa.
facundum faciebat amor, quotiensque rogabat
ulterius iusto, Procnen ita velle ferebat. (470)

5¶ “And there is nothing, which, having been seized by an unrestrained love, he would not dare, nor did the chests seize the enclosed flames. And now he bears the delays badly and is turned by the desirous face to Procne’s orders and he makes his vows under her vows. Love was making him eloquent, and as often as he was asking further than what is fair, in this way Procne was bearing to wish [it]. (Met. 465-470)”

6¶ As the word order depicts, his “pectora” is surrounded by “inclusas flammas.” He is unable to escape his desires, yet his lust is accompanied by eloquence (facundum faciebat amor; 469). It is this eloquence and mellifluous diction that distinguishes appearance from reality. Although his orders appear to be his wife’s, they function to his benefit when he pleads his cause under Procne’s name.

7¶ From the moment Tereus lays his eyes on Philomela, he displays mastery in the art of trickery. The practice of deceit, thus, often accompanies the display of passion. He adds tears to his request (addidit et lacrimas; 471) for the purpose of securing approval for Philomela’s visit to see Procne, gaining the trust of the sisters’ father. Ovid directly references Tereus’ motivation as wicked, yet in doing so, he demonstrates Tereus’ deceitful nature that conceals reality from perception. (Creditor esse pius laudemque a crimine sumit; he is believed to be pious and he obtains praise from crime, 474). The tyrant seizes and rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out, and has no qualms returning to Procne to whom he lies with a false tale of her sister’s death.

8¶ Ovid demonstrates Procne’s inevitable desire to seek revenge, paralleling it to Tereus’ lust for Philomela. Ovid, here, portrays Procne as equally as wicked since she is not merely committing a crime of passion, but rather acts with deliberate intention. Ironically, it is Tereus’ manipulative language that further fuels his passions and Philomela’s inability to speak that establishes his culpability. Her voice is evident as she weaves the story, a nonverbal carmen, for Procne, who gives no response (silet, 583). Although Procne is capable of speaking, she becomes just as silenced as her sister. Action via the woven word replaces Philomela’s muted state when she explains Tereus’ crime to her sister.

9¶ Dolor ora repressit,
Verbaque quaerenti satis indignantia linguae
Defuerunt, nec flere vacat, sed fasque nefasque
Confusura ruit poenaque in imagine tota est.

10¶ “Grief repressed the words, and words and the scorning things were wanting of the searching tongue, nor is she empty to weep, but she rushes, about to unite that which is right and that which is wrong and all punishment is on the image”(Met. 583-6)

11¶ Thus, the imagery of Procne’s silence not only references her transformation from the “matron of the savage tyrant” (saevi matrona tyranni) into a tyrant herself, but it also parallels the silence, albeit forced, of Philomela (Met., 581). Philomela’s rape by Tereus renders Procne silent, as she cannot find any words to express her rage. This unspeakable crime, committed by Tereus, silences everyone but the criminal himself.

12¶ Ovid stresses that Procne exhibits no compassion for her sister’s emotional turmoil and overall well-being. She focalizes her attention on one thing: her ability to exact vengeance (poena). Ovid’s text recognizes the power or emotion, rage, and desire, which alter one’s normal judgment. The fasque nefasque demonstrates a clear dichotomy between her detached moral state, yet the continuation of the text clarifies her ambivalence in that nefas triumphs over fas. The use of tota, which assures that her whole soul is invested in her crime, describes her transformation: her entire being becomes just as villainous as Tereus. Her crime too is not dissimilar from Tereus’ since both do not hear the cries of their respective victims. The parallels between their behavior and actions further solidify this claim. Her motivation for killing Itys, her son, is placed in relation to Tereus, as she finds a corresponding way to respond to the actions committed against her. Larmour notes,

13¶ “As Tereus flagrat (460), Procne ardet (610). The killing of Itys (furiali caede, 657) strikingly recalls Tereus’ treatment of Philomela in the woods: Procne drags Itys off to a remote part of the house, like a tigress with a fawn, just as Tereus took Philomela into a secluded spot, like a wolf with a lamb or an eagle with a dove; Procne   ignores the child’s cries of “mater, mater” (640), just as Tereus paid no attention to Philomela’s pleas to her father and the gods; Procne kills the child with a sword (ease ferit, 641) just as Tereus cuts out his victim’s tongue ense fero (557).”

14¶ Likewise, in the Thyestes, Atreus’ deceit motivates Thyestes to visit since he is under the impression that Atreus is ready to make amends. Atreus, like Procne, is well aware of the severity of his actions and meticulously plans his plot for vengeance. The language even parallels that of Ovid’s in the Metamorphoses. Just as Procne contemplates right from wrong (fas et nefas), so too does Atreus. For example, he states, “Whatever is wrong to do against a brother is right to do against him (Fas est in illo quidquid in fratre est nefas; Thy.220). However, he wants to surpass the Thracian crime, as he directly references the Odrysian house and both Procne and Philomela, the “parens sororque Daulis“.

15¶ Uterque faciat, vidit infandas domus
Odrysia mensas—fateor, immane est scelus
Sed occupatum; maius hoc aliquid dolor
Inveniat? Animum Daulis inspira parens
Sororque (causa est similis); assiste et manum
Impelle nostrum. Liberos avidus pater
gaudensque laceret et suos artus edat.

16¶ “Let each do it, the Odrysian house saw infant tables—I confess, the crime is immense but it has been reached. Let pain find something greater than this. Daulian parent and sister breathe in my soul (the cause is similar); assist me and urge on our hand. Let the avid father mangle the children, and praising, let him eat their joints” (Thy. 272-279).

17¶ The immensity of the crime he is going to commit does not tempt Atreus to reconsider his actions. Rather, because the crime of avenging wrongful seduction has been committed before, he calls upon Pronce and Philomela to aid him as demonstrated with his use of the imperatives impelle and assiste. For Atreus, they function as guiding models for the crime since their motivations and cause are “similis.” In calling upon their example, he wishes for something greater (maius)—not solely one child murder but two.

18¶ The brutality of their revenge has no limits. The Ovidian language from the Procne-Philomela myth parallels Atreus’ language when they decide the best manner to execute their crimes. Iron or the sword is not powerful enough, and she wishes for a weapon that surpasses iron in emphasizing that she is prepared for any crime (sed ferro, sed si quid habes, quod vincere ferrum possit. In omne nefas ego me, germana, paravi: Met. 611-13). The repetition of ego and the main verb paravi in first person singular solidifies the agency of her actions. She, conscientious of her wickedness, is willing to bear all responsibility for “omne nefas” or every crime.

19¶ Similarly, in the Thyestes, Atreus’ dialogue with the Satelles reflects that no weapon is enough for his crime. He states, “nullum relinquam facinus et nullum est satis; 256)” When the Satelles proposes iron (ferrum?), he responds, “it is too little” (parum est). His revenge must exceed all limits, including those set by Procne in her murder of Itys. The repetition of nullum conveys Atreus’ anger. The deed or facinus, positioned centrally in the sentence, is placed in contrast with its first usage. As Atreus recounts his brother’s betrayal, facinus is placed first and foremost in the sentence (hunc facinus ingens ausus assumpta in scelus consorte nostri perfidus thalami auehit; 234-235). Here, facinus refers to Thyestes’ crime rather than the one Atreus will commit in retaliation. As the word order reflects, the placement of ingens facinus qualifies the extent to which it will fuel and function as the impetus behind Atreus’ facinus. Additionally, Thyestes’ crime is further emphasized when he is described as “perfidus,” demonstrating that he literally comes in between the “nostri thalami” of Atreus and Aerope

Part II: The Feast

20¶ Cannibalism as an act of revenge functions as the most horrifying, merciless form of vengeance in both the Metamorphoses and the Thyestes. The ingestion of Itys by Tereus and of Aegisthus and his brother by Thyestes parallels the adultery or unwarranted penetration of Aerope by Thyestes and Philomela by Tereus. Just as they unlawfully committed sexual intercourse, so too will the children unlawfully enter the bodies of their culpable fathers. It could be argued that the child deaths are described in more detail than the acts that spurred on such action, as they serve as culminating point of Procne’s and Atreus’ observed anger. As Seneca writes in De Ira, no passion is more eager for revenge than anger (Nullus enim adfectus uindicandi cupidior est quam ira; I.XII).

21¶ The depiction of Procne’s gruesome murder of her own son is quite disturbing, and Itys, approaching his mother, compels Procne to do the unfathomable. She, angered by Tereus, who functions as the mastermind (Artificem; 615) of her anger, now becomes the mastermind behind her son’s demise. She is unmoved by his presence and looks upon him with “pitiless eyes” (oculis inmitibus; 621) when she notes the striking similarity he bears to his father. He, unknowing, “came up to her and greeted his mother, put his little arms around her neck” (ut tamen accessit natus matrique salute attulit et parvis adduxit colla lacertis; 624-5). For a moment, it seems as if Procne will exit her evil state of thought, as her eyes are filled with tears (oculi lacrimis coactis; 628) at the recognition of his endearing actions. Briefly, she questions the rationality of her plan while her inner-thoughts contemplate the injustices imposed by Tereus. While Itys has the capability to offer such heartening words, Philomela is indefinitely silenced—all of these realizations are placed in relation Tereus. Procne views Itys as an extension of her husband, even as he begs for mercy yelling “mater mater.” In killing her son, she believes Tereus will suffer to the same extent if not more so than she did.

22¶ Atreus, however, has no feelings of remorse nor does he contemplate his actions. After killing Tantalus, he “heaps crime on crime” (scelus sceleri ingerit; 731) with the murder of Plisthenes. One murder is not satisfactory, as retribution is achieved only in excess. For Atreus, the most difficult facet of his crime has already been achieved. After luring Thyestes to his kingdom for reconciliation, he is finally able to unveil his wickedness. He feigns kindness and “faith is offered” while he pretends that “it is pleasing to see his brother” (praestetur fides. Fratrem iuvat videre; 507-8). The juxtaposition of fides and fratrem, which are separated by a period with fides preceding fratrem, represents the dichotomy between faith and brother. Thyestes, unaware of brother’s ulterior motive, demands Atreus to “accept these innocent pledges of my faith, brother” (obsides fidei accipe hos innocentes, frater; 520-21). Thyestes, who violated his brothers’ faith, now entrusts his fides in Atreus with his two innocent children, emphasized by the vocative of frater to conclude his plea. Indeed, the same fraternal fides that Thyestes breached is the faith he uses to his advantage when seeking revenge.

23¶ The depiction of death in the Thyestes is given bestial qualities, which parallels Itys’ murder by Procne, who is described as a savage tigress (Gangetica…tigris; Met. 626-7) when she drags her son into the woods.

24¶ non aliter Atreus saeuit atque ira tumet,
ferrumque gemina caede perfusum tenens,
oblitus in quem fureret, infesta manu
exegit ultra corpus, ac pueri statim                               740
pectore receptus ensis in tergo exstitit.

25¶ “Not otherwise, Atreus rages and swells with anger, and holding the knife having been bathed in twin slaughter, forgetful against whom he might rage, with a disturbed hand he expels [the sword] beyond the body, and the sword, and at once having been received in the chest of the boys, entered into the back” (Thy., 737-41).

26¶ Atreus is savage, compared to a lion (Armenia leo; 731), and ira is directly stated as his desire to exact revenge. The ferrum perfusum, responsible for the twin deaths, encircles the victims (gemina caede). In this anger, he is forgetful (oblitus) of his purpose and overcome by inflicting pain upon others. Seneca focuses on the manner of death and the extent of the sword’s damage “beyond the body” (ultra corpus). The boys are given secondary importance, which is demonstrated by Seneca’s purposeful positioning of pueri as the penultimate word in line 740 (Tarrant). The reader is presented with an image of the passive victims’ body mutilation, which is enhanced by the diction of corpus, pectore, and tergo. This describes the all-encompassing extent of Atreus’ anger, as he does not spare any part of their bodies in his vengeance. Atreus is both a viewer and spectator to his own crime, admiring and enjoying the pleasures it has incurred.

27¶ These exactors of punishment, however, hardly prove to be victims. Both Procne and Philomela exact their revenge happily, and Procne is unable to contain her cruel joy (crudelia gaudia; 653), eager for Tereus to know the truth—that he is, in fact, eating his own flesh by consuming his son. When Tereus requests Itys’ presence, Procne exhibits her cleverness in the addition of a riddle: “you have, within, whom you demand” (intus habes, quem poscit; 655). Philomela, too, partakes in the crime by hurling the bloody head to Tereus, wishful that she could express her “joy with worthy words” (gaudia meritis dictis; 660). Although she is unable to vocalize or articulate her emotions, her action carries more force than words when she reveals the crime to the unsuspecting Tereus. Likewise, Procne speaks through her child by offering him to Tereus as a token of her revenge. Ovid describes this crime with the most troublesome detail, especially given the delight Procne and Philomela exhibit upon serving and parading the maimed remains of Itys to Tereus.

28¶ Atreus reveals his crime to Thyestes with a similar riddle. “Whatever remains from your sons you have, and whatever does not remain you have” (Quidquid e natis tuis superset habes, quodcumque non superset habes; 1030-1). Seneca competes with Ovid in this parallel word structure, as he offers a more horrifying depiction of a double slaughter. He is unmoved by the first gruesome murder and gloats over his hard work:

29¶ Nunc meas laudo manus,
Nunc parta vera est palma; perdideram scelus
Nisi sic doleres. Liberos nasci mihi
Nunc credo, castis nunc fidem redidi toris.  

30¶ Now I praise my hands, now truly the palm has been obtained, I had wasted my crime, unless thus you might suffer. Now I believe the children to be born to me, now I returned faith to the chaste [wedding] bed (Thy. 1096-1099).

31¶ The palm, a symbol of victory, accompanies his praise when he is finally satisfied with his handiwork. However, it may be argued that the liberos or children are the true symbol of victory, as revenge has been birthed (nasci). The alliteration of parta and palma further depict this association—Atreus’ children, Agamemnon and Menelaus, are indeed his offspring. By killing Thyestes’ sons and witnessing the resulting anguish he inflicted upon his brother, Atreus convinces himself that his children are legitimately his own (Schiesaro). This passage offers a contrast to his previous state whereby no weapon, including iron and fire, was satisfactory. Through these child deaths, he believes to have restored the faith, a reoccurring central theme, to his loss of self-identity. The castis toris references Thyestes’ adultery, which encircles his breached, yet newly rediscovered fidem. Atreus imagines the restoration of sexual chastity despite Thyestes’ display of infidelis. The stabbing repetition of nunc, an anaphora, represents the finality of his actions. The nunc builds upon itself and functions as a causal mechanism: in praising his toils, he solidifies his fatherhood, and reestablishes his fidem.

32¶ Just as Procne, Philomela, and Tereus physically transform into birds at the end of the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s text undergoes a metamorphosis in the Thyestes. As Seneca writes in De Ira, “The cause of anger is the belief that we have suffered an injustice” (Causa autem iracundia opinio iniuriae est; 2.22.2). Both Atreus and Procne are motivated by anger after having suffered an injustice, specifically as victims of adultery. Tereus’ and Thyestes’ appetite for lust converts into an unexpected, unknowing appetite for their children, satiating both Procne’s and Atreus’ desire for vengeance. Both stories unravel similarly in that cannibalism becomes the ultimate form of revenge and their plans for exacting such punishment are highly reflective of one another. In doing so, Seneca’s Thyestes references Ovid’s Metamorphoses to such an extent that reoccurring themes, syntax, and diction appear throughout his text. While Seneca emulates Ovid’s authorship, Atreus’ actions similarly mirror those of Procne’s.



Larmour, David H. J. “Tragic ‘Contaminatio’ in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’: Procne and Media; Philomela and Iphigeneia (6.424-674); Scylla and Phaedra (8.19-151).” Illinois Classical Studies 15.1 (1990): 131-141. JSTOR. Web. 19 January 2016.

Schiesaro, Alessandro. The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of SenecanDrama.         Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Tarrant, R.J. Seneca’s Thyestes, The American Philological Association, 1985.

3 thoughts on “Mary Beth Smith”

  1. Mary Beth – a well-written and well-argued paper.
    A few suggestions: In the very beginning, you might elaborate the basics of the Tereus-Procne-Philomela story a bit more for the reader who is not that familiar with the details. That will help to situate your argument.
    para 6 “It is this eloquence and mellifluous diction that distinguishes appearance from reality. Although his orders appear to be his wife’s, they function to his benefit when he pleads his cause under Procne’s name.” This could be clarified a bit more and the added story explanation will help.
    Procnen ita velle ferebat.
    in this way Procne was bearing to wish [it]. (Met. 465-470)”
    re translation: case here – Procnen an accusative.
    Occasionally super-literal translation made sense hard to follow.
    example: “empty” to weep – maybe “free” to weep? Vacare is difficult to translate at times.
    31 display “of” infidelis—”as” needed, since this is adj.?
    I may have missed something, but I don’t think you refer to the triple murder (3 boys), but to a “double” slaughter. That detail is important, in general, but also for the sense of “outdoing” one’s predecessor.

  2. Hi Mary Beth,

    I really enjoyed your paper. It was a great close reading of the relevant texts and really delves deep into a lot of the more nuanced moments present. I especially enjoyed your interesting treatment of the Philomela episode from the Metamorphoses, and your discussion of the ‘cycle of passion’ that begins with Tereus. One thing that I was a little unclear on was how the placement and diction of nihil affected the attitude of passion in the passage you referenced from the Metamorphoses. Overall though, I found this to be an expertly constructed and very interesting read!

    I look forward to further discussion at at the symposium!


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