The Horrors of a Marriage Arranged: Sophokles, fr. 583 (Tereus)

“I am nothing now, apart. But often
I have examined the nature of women like this,
How we are nothing. As girls we live the sweetest life
of all human beings, I think, in our father’s house.
But ignorance nurses children always with pleasure.
When we come with full wits to adolescence,
We are sent out and made ready for sale,
Away from our paternal gods and our parents,
Some sent to foreign husbands, some sent to barbarians;
Some are sold to unhappy homes, some are wed to horrors.
And then, once a single evening has joined us,
We need to praise it and think that this is living well.”

<ΠΡΟΚΝΗ•> νῦν δ’ οὐδέν εἰμι χωρίς. ἀλλὰ πολλάκις
ἔβλεψα ταύτῃ τὴν γυναικείαν φύσιν,
ὡς οὐδέν ἐσμεν. αἳ νέαι μὲν ἐν πατρὸς
ἥδιστον, οἶμαι, ζῶμεν ἀνθρώπων βίον•
τερπνῶς γὰρ ἀεὶ παῖδας ἁνοία τρέφει.
ὅταν δ’ ἐς ἥβην ἐξικώμεθ’ ἔμφρονες,
ὠθούμεθ’ ἔξω καὶ διεμπολώμεθα
θεῶν πατρῴων τῶν τε φυσάντων ἄπο,
αἱ μὲν ξένους πρὸς ἄνδρας, αἱ δὲ βαρβάρους,
αἱ δ’ εἰς ἀγηθῆ δώμαθ’, αἱ δ’ ἐπίρροθα.
καὶ ταῦτ’, ἐπειδὰν εὐφρόνη ζεύξῃ μία,
χρεὼν ἐπαινεῖν καὶ δοκεῖν καλῶς ἔχειν

The story of Prokne, upon which this play of Sophocles is based, is most well-known to us from Ovid. Tereus, a Thracian King, marries the Athenian Prokne and then rapes her sister Philomela when she comes to visit. The sexual assault was not enough–he also cut out her tongue to keep her from telling her sister.

Philomela weaves a picture of what happened to inform Prokne; they kill her son with Tereus (Itys) and feed him to his father. According to Ovid, when Tereus tries to kill them, the gods turn them into birds to help them escape.

It seems that this passage–which shows Sophocles’ ability to empathize with someone else’s perspective–conveys a misery that is prior to the assault.

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