Bauer - Tereus Philomela Procne

Depiction of Philomela and Procne showing the severed head of Itys to his father Tereus, engraved by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book VI:621–647)

Philomela or Philomel (Ancient Greek: Φιλομήλα) is a minor figure in Greek mythology and is frequently invoked as a direct and figurative symbol in literary artistic works in the Western canon. Symbolically, Philomela is associated with the nightingale, a bird known for its song and her depiction in creative works is of being transformed into a nightingale—even though in nature, only the male nightingale sings.

Philomela is recorded as being the princess of Athens as a daughter of Pandion I, King of Athens and Zeuxippe, and sister of Procne, the wife of King Tereus. Ovid and other writers have claimed (either fancifully or mistakenly) that the etymology of her name was "lover of song" derived from the Greek Φιλος and μέλος instead of μῆλον). The name means "lover of fruit," "lover of apples,"[1] or "lover of sheep."[2]


Procne's husband, King Tereus of Thrace (son of Ares), agreed to travel to Athens and escort Philomela to Thrace for a visit. Tereus lusted for Philomela on the voyage. Arriving in Thrace, he forced her to a cabin in the woods and raped her.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses Philomela's defiant speech is rendered (in translation) as:

Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it.
Given the chance, I will go where the people are,
Tell everybody; if you shut me here,
I will move the very woods and rocks to pity.
The air of Heaven will hear, and any god,
If there is any god in Heaven, will hear me.

This incited Tereus to cut out her tongue and leave her in the cabin.

Philomela then wove a tapestry (or a robe) that told her story and had it sent to Procne. In revenge, Procne killed her son by Tereus, Itys (or Itylos), and served him to Tereus, who unknowingly ate him. When he discovered what had been done, Tereus tried to kill the sisters; they fled and he pursued but, in the end, all three were changed by the Olympian gods into birds.

As in many myths there are variant versions. In an early account, Sophocles wrote that Tereus was turned into a big-beaked bird whom some say is a hawk while a number of retellings and other works (including Aristophanes' ancient comedy, The Birds) hold that Tereus was instead changed into a hoopoe. Early Greek sources have it that Philomela was turned into a swallow, which has no song; Procne turns into a nightingale, singing a beautiful but sad song in remorse. Later sources, among them Ovid, Hyginus, and the Bibliotheca (but especially English romantic poets like Keats) write that although she was tongueless, Philomela was turned into a nightingale, and Procne into a swallow. Of these, some omit the tongue-cutting altogether. Eustathius' version of the story has the sisters reversed, so that Philomela married Tereus, who fell in love with Procne.[3]

The names "Procne" and "Philomela" are sometimes used in literature to refer to a nightingale. A genus of swallow has the name "Progne", a form of Procne. Philomela can also be poetically abbreviated to "Philomel".

The story is told Bibliotheke III, xiv, 8; and by Ovid in the Metamorphoses VI, 424–674.

Appearances in the Western canon

The material of the Philomela myth has been used in various creative works—artistic and literary—for the past 2,500 years.

Ancient dramatists and poets recounted the story including Sophocles in a lost tragedy called Tereus or in a set of plays by Philocles, the nephew of the great playwright Aeschylus. In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the prophetess Cassandra has a visionary premonition of her own death in which she mentioned the nightingale and Itys.[4] In his Poetics, Aristotle points to the ″voice of the shuttle″ in Sophocles′ tragedy Tereus as an example of a poetic device that aids in the ″recognition″ – the change from ignorance to knowledge – of what has happened earlier in the plot. Such a device, according to Aristotle, is ″contrived″ by the poet, and thus is ″inartistic.″[5] These writings appeared several centuries before Ovid's account in Metamorphoses which was adapted into Old French by the troubadour Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century.

However, Chrétien de Troyes was not alone, Geoffrey Chaucer recounted the story in his unfinished work The Legend of Good Women[6] as well as being briefly alluded to in ll. 64–70 in Book II of Troilus and Criseyde.

  • Sir Philip Sidney's poem "The Nightingale" centres its lament ("O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,") on the myth.
  • Emilia Lanyer in her patronage poem "The Description of Cookeham" refers to Philomela's 'sundry layes' (line 31) and later to her 'mournful ditty' (line 189).
  • The story of Philomel is a key plot element in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Prominent allusions to Philomel also occur in The Rape of Lucrece, and the story is also referred to in Cymbeline. Titania's lullaby in A Midsummer Night's Dream also asks Philomel to "sing in our sweet lullaby."
  • T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" has a number of mentions and allusions to this myth.
  • "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd", a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, mentions Philomel in the second stanza.
  • Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote a play about this myth called The Love of the Nightingale; she also wrote the libretto for Richard Mills' opera of the same name.
  • In The Birds by Aristophanes, the head Hoopoe represents Tereus.
  • The poem "Philomela" by English poet Matthew Arnold, makes numerous allusions to the myth, centering around a crying nightingale.
  • Ted Leo and the Pharmacists reference Philomel in their song "2nd Ave, 11 AM", from Hearts of Oak.
  • Hanoch Levin wrote a play heavily influenced by the myth, named The Great Whore of Babylon.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem called "The Nightingale" which mentions Philomela as a contrast to the song of the Nightingale.
  • José Rizal wrote a dedication called Felicitation, which names Philomela in a metaphor to his commitment to send salutations to his brother-in-law Antonino Lopez. In his award winning poem "A La Juventud Filipina", (To The Filipino Youth) Rizal uses Philomel as inspiration for young Filipinos to use their voices to speak of Spanish injustice.[7]
  • Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote several poems based on the myth that appear in her book Becoming the Villainess: "Remembering Philomel," "Philomel's Rape," "On Rubens' Tereus Confronted with the Head of His Son Itylus", "Case Studies in Revenge: Philomel Gives Some Advice," and "Procne and Philomel, At the End."
  • In Margaret Atwood's The Tent there's a short novel titled Nightingale, where the two sisters discuss the incident, and their names are reversed in it.
  • Milton Babbitt wrote a song called "Philomel" based on the story, with a libretto by poet John Hollander, for vocalist Bethany Beardslee accompanied by synthesizer and recorded soprano.
  • Emma Tennant wrote a story entitled "Philomela", which is a retelling of around half the story, from Procne's point of view.
  • Joanna Laurens wrote a play called The Three Birds based on the story.
  • Swinburne wrote a poem called "Itylus" based on the story.
  • James Dillion, Philomela, music/théâtre in 5 acts (2004).[8]
  • Ann Yearsley mentions Philomel in line 46 of her abolitionist poem "A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade" (1788)


  1. Defining φιλόμηλος as "fond of apples or fruit", see Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; and Jones, Henry Stuart. A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1st Ed. 1843, 9th Ed. 1925, 1996). (LSJ) found online here; citing "Doroth.Hist. ap. Ath. 7.276f." (Retrieved 7 October 2012)
  2. Defining it as "lover of sheep", see White, J. T. Virgil: Georgics IV (London, 1884) (vocabulary), found online here (Retrieved 7 October 2012).
  3. Alexander Pope, Notes to Book XIX of the Odyssey.
  4. "Agamemnon by Aeschylus". Greek Texts. Retrieved 22 January 2008. 
  5. Aristotle, Poetics, 54b.
  6. Gila Aloni, "Palimpsestic Philomela: Reinscription in Chaucer's 'Legend of Good Women'", in Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, eds. Leo Carruthers, Raeleen Chai-Elsholz, Tatjana Silec. New York: Palgrave, 2011. 157-73.
  7. Zaide, Gregorio. Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero. 1994. All Nations Publishing Co. Manila, Philippines.
  8. The Living Composers Project, "James Dillon".
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Philomela. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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