Shakespeare's Myths

Tereus, Also Tereu


Related entries
Philomel; Progne; Itys


Tereus was a son of Ares, and the king of Thrace (or in some sources the ruler of the Thracians in Daulis). Tereus assisted the king of Athens, Pandion, in a territorial dispute with the neighbouring king of Thebes. His reward was marriage to Pandion’s daughter, Progne. This is the beginning of the chief myth connected to Tereus, which is foretold by various bad omens at his and Progne’s wedding. When they have been married for five years, Progne asks Tereus to go to Athens to collect her sister Philomel for a visit. Tereus is overcome with desire at the sight of Philomela and persuades her reluctant father to allow her to leave him and visit her sister. When Philomel and Tereus arrive back in his kingdom, Tereus takes her to an isolated house in a forest and repeatedly rapes her. When Philomel berates him for this crime, Tereus cuts out her tongue with his sword, imprisons her, and goes home to Progne. He tells Progne that Philomel is dead. Philomel remains trapped in seclusion for a year. During this time, she weaves a tapestry depicting Tereus’ abuse of her and sends the tapestry to Progne via a loyal servant. When Progne receives the incriminating tapestry, she immediately understands its meaning and is incensed. Progne rescues Philomel, using a Bacchic festival as cover, and together they plot revenge on Tereus. They murder Progne and Tereus’ little son, Itys, dismember him, and cook his body. Progne serves the resulting banquet to Tereus. When he enquires after his son at the end of the meal, the sisters throw Itys’ severed head at him and flee, with the enraged Tereus in pursuit. The gods turn the three into birds, Tereus into the hoopoe, Philomel into the nightingale and Progne into the swallow (at least this is the case in the more familiar Roman versions exemplified by Ovid and Hyginus; the women’s metamorphoses are the other way round in earlier Greek sources such as Thucydides or Apollodorus). In both Hyginus and Apollodorus’ accounts, Tereus conceals his wife Progne in a forest, pretends that she is dead, and is offered Philomel as replacement. The fullest and most detailed accounts of the narrative are found in Ovid and Apollodorus, though evidently these texts differ as described, whilst the other sources cited include only passing reference to the myth.


How to cite

Sarah Carter.  “Tereus.”  2013.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology  (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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