If you know your Greek myths, you’ll likely have heard this one already. But as lovely words with horrible stories behind them go, this...
...is up there with the best.
Philomela was a legendary princess of Athens, whose elder sister Procne was the wife of the vengeful and jealous King Tereus of Thrace.
Once upon a time, Tereus agreed to travel to Athens to escort Philomela home to visit her sister. But on seeing Philomela for the first time, Tereus fell madly in love with her, and by the time they had reached Thrace his love had grown into a full-blown obsession. He coerced Philomela into a remote cabin in the woods, and there raped her, kept her captive, and cut out her tongue to prevent her from ever telling anyone what he had done. On his return to the palace, he told Procne that her sister had died on the journey. (We did say this was a horrible story...)
But Tereus had messed with the wrong woman; Philomela wasn’t going to let a little thing like not having a tongue stop her from revealing the king’s crimes. Instead, she wove a tapestry that explained all that had happened to her and had it sent to Procne. She, it’s fair to say, wasn’t best pleased.
In a mad fury, Procne killed her son and Tereus’ only male heir, Itys, and served his flesh in a meal to the king.
She then left to rescue Philomela, with the furious King Tereus hot on her heels. The two sisters fled into the woods, pleading with the gods to aid their escape. And this being a Greek myth, the gods didn’t disappoint.
Procne was magically transformed into a swallow, while Philomela was changed into a nightingale, her lost voice replaced with the most beautiful birdsong the gods could muster. Tereus, meanwhile, was transformed into the hoopoe—the bird’s crest signifying his kingship, its long beak symbolizing his violent temper.
This version of the tale, admittedly, is just one of many. Other versions have both Procne and a rescued Philomela conspiring to kill Itys (as in the Rubens painting above). Others claim that it was Procne who became the nightingale (in which case the birdsong is her song of mourning for her dead son), while Philomela becomes the swallow (which has no song at all). But it’s this version that eventually led to Philomela or Philomel becoming a poetic or literary nickname for the nightingale in sixteenth century English—and inspired the adjective philomelian, first used in the early 1600s to describe anything or anyone that resembles, or sings as sweetly as, a nightingale.