During the reign of Pandion of Atticus, war broke out with the Atticans’ longstanding adversaries, the Boeotians. Pandion eventually managed to secure a vital alliance with the Thracian King, Tereus, by offering his eldest daughter, Procne, in marriage. Lonely in Thrace, Procne pleaded with Tereus for her younger sister, Philomela, to come out and join her. Tereus agreed and went to fetch Philomela. He brought her back to Thrace, but not before he had forced his affections on her, raped her and, to prevent her from complaining, cut out her tongue. Philomela still found a way of making herself understood, however, by embroidering a tapestry which reconstructed the story of her rape. Realizing what had happened, Procne plotted her revenge, treating Tereus to a succulent meal – consisting of his own son. Bursting with rage (and indigestion?), Tereus went after the two sisters with an axe. Sympathizing with their plight, the gods saved Procne and Philomela by turning them into birds: Procne became a swallow, Philomela a nightingale. Tereus, for his sins, became a hoopoe.
The story of Philomela, or rather the story of Philomela's retold story, is one of the best-known of the Attic legends, a source of inspiration for many beleaguered poets who have used the legend to celebrate, or lament, their own insufficiently acknowledged ability. But more recently, the legend has taken on a different, allegorical significance; for in the work of several contemporary postcolonial writers, Philomela's story has become a paradigm for the re-enactment of colonial encounter, for the articulation of a violent history of dispossession and deprivation which circumstances dictate must be told in another way. By providing these writers with an alternative framework for the expression of an otherwise repressed, or censored, history, the Philomela legend allows them to confront and imaginatively transform the past. The conversion in the legend of silence into song also provides a motivation for postcolonial writers seeking to overcome the imaginative legacy of their colonial past. The affiliation between silence and music in several postcolonial texts can be seen in this context as providing alternative, non-verbal codes that subvert and/or replace those earlier, overdetermined narratives of colonial encounter in which the word is recognized to have played a crucial role in the production and maintenance of colonial hierarchies of power.