Secret Library

Was Philomela Really a Nightingale?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the curious story of Philomela the nightingale from classical myth

The story of Philomela is well-known. But a quick reminder never hurts, so here’s the story:

Tereus … marries Procne, the daughter of Pandion. Tereus coming a second time to Athens, takes back with him to his kingdom Philomela, his wife’s sister; and having committed violence on her, with other enormities, he is transformed into a hoopoe, while Philomela is changed into a nightingale, and Procne becomes a swallow.

This is from Henry Thomas Riley’s late nineteenth-century prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, available here; I’ve changed ‘Progne’ to the more familiar Procne. However, there are a couple of important details which Riley misses out of his translation, perhaps to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of his nineteenth-century readers. The first part is, in fact, vital: after he had committed his terrible act on his sister-in-law, Tereus – to make sure Philomela could tell nobody about what he’d done – cut out her tongue to silence her. However, she wove a tapestry which depicted his crime, thus alerting Procne to what her husband had done. The other part that Riley glosses over, presumably for similar reasons, is Procne’s subsequent revenge: to teach Tereus a lesson, she killed her son by Tereus, Itys, and baked him into a pie, which she then fed to her husband. When Tereus realised what had happened, he pursued both sisters, but when he was about to catch up with them, the gods turned Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. So says Ovid, anyway.

This story has been told again and again in literature, and Philomela (or ‘Philomel’ in some poems) has become a poetic synonym for the nightingale, that bird with the beautiful song. The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote a poem, ‘Philomela’, about her: ‘The Nightingale, as soon as April bringeth / Unto her rested sense a perfect waking, / While late-bare Earth, proud of new clothing, springeth, / Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making.’ And more recently, T. S. Eliot talks in The Waste Land (1922) of ‘the change of Philomel’ who has filled the desert ‘with inviolable voice’. Philomela may not have been inviolable, but her (singing) voice was, and she continues to sing as the nightingale.

But oddly, Ovid seems to have been unusual in making Philomela the nightingale and Procne the swallow. Ovid, of course, was writing in the heyday of ancient Rome, but earlier sources from ancient Greece have the transformation or ‘metamorphosis’ the other way around, i.e. Philomela was turned into a swallow and it was her sister, Procne, who was transformed into a nightingale. In his Bibliotheca (or Library), a compendium of ancient myths, Apollodorus (now sometimes known as ‘Pseudo-Apollodorus’ because we’re not entirely sure who wrote the Library) wrote about Procne becoming the nightingale and Philomela the swallow. (Incidentally, Apollodorus’ Library – which, unlike this column, shouldn’t be a ‘secret’ library – is available in a modern translation as The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World’s Classics).) This makes more sense when we stop and think about it: it is perhaps odd that Philomela, having lost her tongue when a woman, should be transformed into a bird which is known for its beautiful singing voice. Meanwhile, the idea that Procne is doomed to sing a sad song – lamenting her own crime, murdering the blameless Itys to wreak her revenge on Tereus – makes more sense. She is singing a sad song out of remorse rather than a more general grief or sadness.

Oddly perhaps, it is ornithology that helps to clear up this mess, rather than literary criticism. There is a genus of martins (related to the swallow) named Progne. To return to Riley’s translation of Ovid, you’ll remember that I said I had altered his ‘Progne’ to the more familiar spelling; indeed, Progne is the Latinized form of ‘Procne’. So what, you might say? Surely it’s poetic licence, and that overrides this curious ornithological piece of trivia. After all, there is something poetic – poetic justice, we might say – about the tongueless Philomela regaining her expression following her transformation into the nightingale, so she can sing forever. So perhaps it doesn’t matter which version of the myth we believe is ‘correct’.

But in fact, either way, it doesn’t actually matter. Once again, science throws a fly into the ointment: the female nightingale doesn’t sing. Every nightingale famed for its song, from the one heard in Berkeley Square to the one Sir Philip Sidney enjoyed, was male. So, not Philomela – but not Procne, either.

Indeed, the idea that Philomela was transformed into a nightingale isn’t the only thing Ovid gets ‘wrong’. He was also under the impression to Philomela’s name literally means ‘lover of song’, from the ancient Greek φιλο- (‘love’) and μέλος (‘song’). This would obviously fit with the nightingale association, but as we’ve already seen, that is itself a misconception. The second part of Philomela’s name was actually derived from μῆλον which means ‘fruit’ or, less romantically, ‘sheep’. Or, indeed, ‘apple’. Indeed, the melos survives in the modern name for the melon, which is derived from the ancient Greek for ‘apple’: yes, a melon is, etymologically speaking, an apple. So, Philomela is a lover of fruit, a lover of apples, or, perhaps, a lover of sheep – but not a lover of song.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.


  1. This was such a joy to read – probably for all the wrong reasons, and I’m trying not to mention any jokes concerning the Welsh here…

  2. Scenario X: Apples acidic on tongue – enables magically Philomela
    # gain gift of song
    # transgender to male when singing.

  3. Pingback: Was Philomela Really a Nightingale?