Philomela (princess of Athens)

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In Greek mythology, Philomela (Φιλομήλα) was a daughter of Pandion I (King of Athens) and Zeuxippe, and a sister of Procne. Her name is derived from Ancient Greek Φιλο philo- (loving), and μέλος melos (song).[1] Therefore, her name literally means "Love Song," or "Song Lover."


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 as (in translation)

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 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 Apollodorus (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. Eustathios'[clarification needed (Who?)] version of the story has the sisters reversed, so that Philomela married Tereus, who fell in love with Procne.[citation needed]

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 by Apollodorus in Bibliotheke III, xiv, 8; and by Ovid in the Metamorphoses VI, 424–674.


  • Sophocles wrote a tragedy about these events which has been lost, called Tereus.
  • In his Poetics (Aristotle) 54b, 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.″
  • Philocles, nephew of Aeschylus, also wrote a set of plays about it.
  • Ovid's story of Philomela from the Metamorphoses was adapted into Old French by the trouvère Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century.
  • The nightingale and Itys are referred to in Aeschylus's Agamemnon by Cassandra as she prophesies her own death.[2]
  • The story of Philomela and Tereus is retold by Chaucer as the seventh story in the unfinished fourteenth-century The Legend of Good Women as "The Legend of Philomela", 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 it's lament ("O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,") on the myth.
  • 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's 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. [3]
  • 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 Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s The Book of Sorrows, the brown bird, who Wyrm solicits for his suicide and whose tongue he cuts out, says nothing but "jug jug" and "tereu."
  • 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, for vocalist Bethany Beardslee and electronic sounds.
  • Emma Tennant wrote a story entitled 'Philomela', which is a retelling of around half the story, from Procne's point of view. The story is somewhat minimalistic.
  • Joanna Laurens wrote a play called "The Three Birds" based on the story, premiering at the Gate Theatre, London, in October 2000.
  • Beth Fein, a New York City poet, published a series entitled "Philomela," written from the title character's point of view, in the anthology The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men.
  • Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus features themes and characters inspired by this myth.

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