Philomela (princess of Athens)

Philomela (princess of Athens)

In Greek mythology, Philomela (Φιλομήλα) was a daughter of Pandion I (King of Athens), and Zeuxippe, and a sister of Procne.


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)

"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 Olympic 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 Procne was turned into a nightingale, singing a beautiful but sad song in remorse for the death of her son; Philomela turns into a swallow, which has no song. 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' version of the story has the sisters reversed, so that Philomela married Tereus, who fell in love with Procne.

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."

Apollodorus. Bibliotheke III, xiv, 8; Ovid. Metamorphoses VI, 424-674.

Philomela and castration

Catherine Maxwell argues that "Philomela is not only castrated but castrating." She notes that "the image of her severed tongue is reminiscent of castration, a suggestion that is enforced by Ovid's graphic description in the Metamorphoses: 'the remaining stump still quivered in her throat, while the tongue itself lay pulsing and murmuring incoherently to the dark earth. It writhed convulsively, like a snake's tail when it has newly been cut off.'" Likewise, she castrates Tereus through (together with Procne) killing his son: "The vengeful anger of Procne and Philomela makes them into Bacchantes who participate in a sacred Dionysian sparagmos"--Maxwell has identified sparagmos with castration in her consideration of the death of Orpheus--"Procne, who has considered the possibility of either blinding or muting her husband"--both of which Maxwell's analysis has already associated with castration--"realises he will be punished more clearly by the loss of his son. Itys, described as 'the image of his father', and clearly his substitute as well as his heir, is violently slain and dismembered by the women. When Tereus is informed of his son's death, the wildly disarrayed and blood-bespattered Philomela mutely presents him with Itys' severed head. At one stroke Tereus' male issue and his hopes for futurity are decisively cut off." [Catherine Maxwell, "The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness", Manchester University Press, 2001, pp. 22-23]


*Sophocles wrote a tragedy about these events which has been lost, called "Tereus."
*Philocles 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. [cite web
url =
title = Agamemnon by Aeschylus
accessdate = 2008-01-22
publisher = Greek Texts
*The story of Philomela and Tereus is retold by Chaucer as one of the stories in the fourteenth-century "Legend of Good Women".
*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.
*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.
*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."


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