Story of Philomela (The Nightingale in Greek Mythology)

Procne, the elder of the two sisters, was married to Tereus of Thrace, a son of Ares, who proved to have inherited all his father’s detestable qualities.

The two had a son, Itys, and when he was fve years old Procne, who had all this while been living in Thrace separated from her family, begged Tereus to let her invite her sister Philomela to visit her.

He agreed, and said he would go to Athens himself and escort her. But as soon as he set eyes on the girl he fell in love with her. She was beautiful as a nymph or a naiad. He easily persuaded her father to allow her to go back with him, and she herself was happy beyond words at the prospect.

All went well on the voyage, but when they disembarked and started overland for the palace, Tereus told Philomela that he had received news of Procne’s death and he forced her into a pretended marriage.

Within a very short time, however, she learned the truth, and she was ill-advised enough to threaten him. She would surely find means to let the world know what he had done, she told him, and he would be an outcast among men. She aroused both his fury and his fear.

He seized her and cut out her tongue. Then he left her in a strongly guarded place and went to Procne with a story that Philomela had died on the journey.

Philomela’s case looked hopeless. She was shut up; she could not speak; in those early days there was no writing.

It seemed that Tereus was safe. However, although people then could not write, they could tell a story without speaking because they were marvelous craftsmen, such as have never been known since.

A smith could make a shield which showed on writing. It seemed its surface a lion-hunt, two lions devouring a bull while herdsmen urged their dogs on to attack them.

Or he could depict a harvest scene, a field with reapers and sheaf-binders, and a vineyard teeming with clusters of grapes which youths and maidens gathered into baskets while one of them played on a shepherd’s pipe to cheer their labors.

The women were equally remarkable in their kind of work. They could weave, into the lovely stuffs they made, forms so lifelike anyone could see what tale they illustrated.

Philomela accordingy turned to her loom.

She had a greater motive to make clear the story she wove than any artist ever had. With infinite pains and surpassing skill she produced a wondrous tapestry on which the whole account of her wrongs was unfolded.

She gave it to the old woman who attended her and signified that it was for the Queen.

Proud of bearing so beautiful a gift the aged creature carried it to Procne, who was still wearing deep mourning for her sister and whose spirit was as mournful as her garments.

She unrolled the web. There she saw Philomela, her very face and form, and Tereus equally unmistakable. With horror she read what had happened, all as plain to her as if in print.

Her deep sense of outrage helped her to self-control. Here was no room for tears or for words, either. She bent her whole mind to delivering her sister and devising a fit punishment for her husband.

First, she made her way to Philomela, doubtless through the old woman messenger, and when she had told her, who could not speak in return, that she knew all, she took her back to the palace. There while Philomela wept, Procne thought. Let us weep hereafter, she told her sister.

“I am prepared for any deed that will make Tereus pay for what he has done to you.”

At this moment her little son, Itys, ran into the room and suddenly as she looked at him it seemed to her that she hated him. “How like your father you are”, she said slowly, and with the words her plan was clear to her.

She killed the child with one stroke of a dagger. She cut the little dead body up, put the limbs in a kettle over the fire, and served them to Tereus that night for supper. She watched him as he ate; then she told him what he had feasted on.

In his first sickening horror he could not move, and the two sisters were able to flee. Near Daulis, however, he over took them, and was about to kill them when suddenly the gods turmed them into birds, Procne into a nightingale and Philomela into a swallow, which, because her tongue was cut out, only twitters and can never sing.

The bird with wings of brown,
Musical nightingale,
Mourns forever; O Itys, child,
Lost to me, lost.

Of all the birds her song is sweetest because it is saddest. She never forgets the son she killed.

The wretched Tereus too was changed into a bird, an ugly bird with a huge beak, said sometimes to be a hawk.

The Roman writers who told the story somehow got the sisters confused and said that the tongueless Philomela was the nightingale, which was obviously absurd. But so she is always called in English poetry.

Other tragic Ancient Greek tales and stories

Ceyx and Alcyone: Short Summary of Greek Mythological Story

Story of Pygmalion and Galatea from Greek Mythology

Atlas Mythica

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