By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Philomela is well-known. And one of the most famous details of the myth of Philomela, her sister Procne, and King Tereus, is the fact that someone was turned into a nightingale. But who? And what is the meaning of this classical myth? Before we get to these questions, it might be worth recapping the story of Philomela by way of a brief plot summary.
The story of Tereus and Philomela: summary
Philomela and Procne were sisters, daughters of Pandion, King of Athens. A Thracian man, Tereus, married Procne. However, Tereus desired his sister-in-law, Philomela, and he took her by force. Afterwards, he cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone what he had done.
However, Philomela, although unable to speak, wove a tapestry which depicted Tereus’ crime, thus alerting Procne to what her husband had done to his own sister-in-law.
Procne set about taking revenge on her husband: she killed their son, Itys, and baked the son into a pie, which she then fed to her husband. (In some versions of the myth, she boiled Itys into a stew rather than baking a pie.)
When Tereus realised what had happened, he pursued both sisters, but when he was about to catch up with them, the gods took sympathy on them and turned Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. Tereus, meanwhile, was transformed into a hoopoe.
However, in some versions, Procne was turned into a nightingale, and Philomela into a swallow. So which is it? Let’s delve deeper into the story …
The story of Tereus and Philomela: analysis
The story of Philomela 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.
It was the Roman poet Ovid who helped to shape the story of Philomela, Tereus, and Procne as it is known to modern readers. As with the story of Echo and Narcissus (which we’ve analysed here), Ovid was the one who took earlier Greek myths and rearranged the details to form the familiar version we all know today.
But oddly, Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, 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.
For instance, 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 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. Either it’s a beautiful example of poetic justice and order being restored, or it’s a nonsensical transformation, given that she had lost all powers of speech.
But the alternative, that Procne was transformed into the nightingale, makes more sense, if we think about it: the woman who murdered her own son to wreak vengeance on her barbarous husband is doomed for eternity to sing a sad song, lamenting her own crime as well as her poor sister’s tragic fate. She is singing a sad song out of remorse rather than (or as well as) a more general grief or sadness.
Oddly perhaps, it is ornithology that helps to clear up this mess. There is a genus of martins (related to the swallow) named Progne. Progne is the Latinized form of ‘Procne’.
Indeed, the idea that Philomela was transformed into a nightingale isn’t the only thing Ovid introduced. 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.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.