In Summary: The Swallow, the Hoopoe and the Nightingale
A Greek tragedy, the story of the Swallow, the Hoopoe and the Nightingale was later one of the tales gathered by the Roman poet, Ovid in his tales of ‘Metamorphoses’. It is a story of rape, mutilation, murder and betrayal.
It begins with two sisters.
“She is like a dove / with her own blood all over her feathers, fearing / the talons that have pierced and left her.”
Procne and Philomela were the two daughters of King Pandion of Athens. Through their father’s line ran the blood of gods, as they were descended from Hephaestus. The Smith, the Forge, the Fire. Through their mother, Zeuxippe ran the blood of Naiads. Water and Beauty.
Procne was eldest, and so first to marry. She was claimed by Tereus, king of Thrace and left her family home for her husband’s far-off lands. While she was happy there with her husband and her son, Procne missed her family dearly, in particular the sister she had been so close to.
Finally, she begged her husband to allow her sister to visit. Tereus agreed. He even promised to go himself, and escort young Philomela to Thrace himself. Procne’s heart was filled with gratitude, over-joyed to think that soon, she might see her sister again.
But when his eyes were first laid upon his sister-in-law, Tereus’ heart filled with something else. As years had passed, Procne’s younger sister had grown into herself. As Tereus looked upon her he felt that in her youthful vigour, Philomela far eclipsed the elder. And he began to covet.
Philomela knew nothing of this, young as she still was. And even King Pandion saw nothing sinister in this man that was his son. This man his eldest loved. When Tereus asked to take Philomela back with him, King Pandion did not hesitate. His gave his youngest daughter two guards to see her safely on her travels, and bid give Procne a message of her father’s love.
They had barely passed out of the harbour’s view when Tereus dashed those guards against the floor and threw them in the sea.
Philomela was his. And he took her.
And when he was finished, he took her tongue. So that she might never speak against him. Might never tell her sister what he’d done. And secreting her away in a shepherd’s hut, where she could not be found, Tereus went home.
To his hopeful, waiting, wife he fed a tragedy. A story of a summer storm and waves so high they swept across the deck, snatching crewmen from their posts. Her sister, he said, was lost at sea, as he held Procne in his arms and rocked her through her grief.
Time moves on. Even for the grieving. And eventually it came that, though Procne missed her sister dearly, she moved on with her life. No longer spending the days inside with her mourning, she went out into the world that Philomela had loved so well.
And so it was, quite by chance, that, while wandering the back hills of her husband’s kingdom, Procne found her sister.
Philomela had no voice, she could not tell her sisters of the wrongs that Tereus had done to her. But, Tereus had let her want for nothing but her freedom. She had all the tools she needed. With her unbroken hands, Philomela had already woven the story of his wrongs. A great tapestry of colour and sin that she led her sister to.
And they wept. For a while.
But they were the children of kings and gods. The children of water and fire. And this crime would not be borne.
Tereus was a strong man. A warrior. A king. Even heavy with sleep he would wake alert and able to fight. They could not strike against him and win.
His son, though, Procne’s son – his son was weak.
Itys was weak.
Five years old, and the apple of his father’s eye.
Procne returned home, Philomela at her side, and cooked her king a feast. Young meat, tender. Tereus ate heartily, showered his wife with affection for the meal, and at its end he bid the nurse to bring his son to his side. He would look upon young Itys.
Instead, Philomela emerged, her nephew’s severed head held aloft in her arms.
Procne taunted Tereus, telling him that meat he had so praised, had gorged himself on, had been their son.
Rage blinded him. Grabbing his axe, Tereus leapt to his feet. The sisters fled, Tereus close at their heels, bellowing his anger to the skies.
In fear of their life, the girls begged the gods to save them and, out of pity, they did. The gods transformed the three into birds. Tereus became a hoopoe, with a mighty crown, Philomela became a swallow, her throat bleeding red, and Procne became a nightingale.
This is why, they say, the nightingale sings such a mournful song. It is Procne, in her regret and her grief lamenting the death of her son.