Our first Philomela in the garden. OR WAS IT?

December 31, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

These days, I get more excited spotting a kestrel or buzzard than I do when I see any of our omnipresent red kites. If you’d have told my young self (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) that I’d feel that way in the 21st century, I’d have scoffed at you.

Likewise, when I first became interested in birds about forty years ago, song thrushes were everywhere and I was only really excited by the arrival of the winter thrushes –  fieldfares more so than the redwings.

We had at least one pair of breeding song thrushes in our back garden (in the large laurel bush) and each time I set off on my dawn paper round, I’d be accompanied by at least a dozen song thrushes belting out their repeating ditties, from TV aerials up and down the streets.

Not so now though – and very sad too. We are surrounded by the noisy, football-rattling “storm cocks” (mistle thrushes) and also inundated with thousands of redwings and fieldfares each winter. Sure… it’s nice to see these thrushes, but these days it’s the formerly-far-more-common but now hard-to-see song thrushes that make my heart leap.

We’ve been at our current abode just over five years and whilst song thrushes may have visited our garden in that time – I saw my first garden song thrush here, only this morning.

63 months here without a song thrush (that I’ve seen) changed this morning, in the damp, morning gloom of New Year’s Eve.

The song thrush bounced (as is the way of all thrushes) around the long grass by the pond, about 20 yards from my viewing position inside the kitchen. I immediately thought it must be a redwing (for at this time of year it’s always a redwing if it’s a thrush in our garden) but very soon became apparent that a redwing it was not – a song thrush it most certainly was. A first for the garden and a very welcome if belated first too.

But why the “Philomela” title? The culture vultures amongst you might know of a Philomel(a) as a nightingale, after all. Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, Milton and many, many others all write of the Philomel(a) – the nightingale.

Today’s song thrush got me thinking again.

I know.

Dangerous.

Permit me to explain (although you may need to put a kettle on – I’m not known for my brevity and this story in particular could take some time).

 

The scientific name for the song thrush is Turdus philomelos.

Turdus is the generic name (meaning “Thrush”) and Philomelos is the specific name which allegedly* means “song-loving” (from philos: loving and melos: song).

So that’s all fine and dandy then eh?

Philomelos.

Same as Philomela really. Same stem anyway.

“Song-loving thrush”.

Song thrush.

A perfect scientific (classical) name for this species then?

You’d think.

*Note though, my use of “allegedly” in relation to the meaning of Philomelos.

Philomela was a figure in ancient Greek mythology, widely used as a figurative symbol in literary, artistic and musical works of the Western canon. Sophocles (c.450BC) the ancient Greek tragedian wrote about her (amongst many other characters) as did Ovid, the popular, classical Roman poet sent into exile to the Black Sea by Augustus in 8AD.

But why mention both Sophocles and Ovid in relation to the myth of Philomela?

In short, their early renditions of the ancient Greek myth are the same, but for one, very important detail.

Philomela was a princess - the daughter of King Pandion of Athens (for all you avian classicists out there… yes… the Osprey was (badly) named after King Pandion).

Philomela’s sister Procne married King Tereus of Thrace (modern day Bulgaria/Greece/Turkey area) and whilst the myth varies a little in nature, basically Tereus, in a fit of unbridled lustful excess, rapes his sister-in-law Philomela, cuts off her tongue so she can’t tell anyone, banishes her to the woods and tells his wife, Procne, that her sister is in fact, dead.

Philomela weaves a tapestry detailing the terrible act of her brother-in-law (Tereus), which is seen by Procne. Procne and her sister (Philomela) obtain their terrible revenge by killing, boiling and feeding Tereus’ son (Itys) to him and then presenting Itys’ decapitated head to Tereus, his father.

Tereus (understandably) goes berserk and starts to chase Procne and Philomela with an axe.

The two sister princesses pray to the gods to assist them in their escape and are immediately transformed into birds by the gods, who also turn the pursuing Tereus into a bird too.

In the original Greek myth (a la Sophocles), Tereus was transformed into a (pursuing) hawk, Procne a nightingale and Philomela a swallow.

In the latter Roman variants of the Greek myth (a la Ovid), Tereus was transformed into the Hoopoe, Procne the swallow and Philomela the nightingale – and this (Philomela turning into the nightingale rather than the swallow of Sophocles) is the “accepted” version – well… at least as far as the Western Canon (from Virgil (BC) all the way to Ted Hughes, perhaps, in the 20th Century) is concerned.

Let’s consider that for a second though – the actual species that Philomela was turned into by the gods, in the ancient Greek myth.

As stated above, most classicists (post Ovid anyway) have Philomela down as becoming a nightingale. Which might be quite apt you’d think. A secretive, reclusive bird of dense thicket and powerful, haunting, sorrowful song – but only sung at night.

The trouble is of course with that version is that the nightingale is known for its song (nothing else really) and Philomela herself would be known for anything but her song, having no tongue.

Coupled to that the fact that early natural historians, through a combination of sexism and anthropomorphism I’d assume, thought it was only the females in songbird species (including nightingales) that actually sang. They certainly would have thought that it was the female nightingale that sang, rather than the actual case (single, unpaired males) being the reality.

Maybe the ancient natural historians and classicists thought it would be apt to give Philomela her voice back again in the form of a hidden, nocturnal-singing nightingale.

Maybe.

I rather think that Sophocles’ version may be more likely than Ovid’s though (as far as any myths go) – that is to say the mute Philomela was turned into the songless swallow and it was her sister, Procne, that was turned into the bird with the mournful night song – the nightingale.

As I’ve earlier-written though, as far as Western culture has it, Philomela is the nightingale and her sister, Procne is the swallow. In fact, many martins (similar to swallows in appearance) are now classified within the Genus Progne – the roots of which are clearly from the Philomela and Procne myth, with Procne becoming the swallow (or martin).

 

OK.

So.

Like it or not (I don’t), Philomela was turned into a nightingale by the gods – and her sister, Procne, a swallow.

So… is the Scientific name for the nightingale derived from Philomela?

In a word…. No.

The Scientific name for our nightingale is in fact Luscinia megarhyncos – meaning “Nightingale (Latin) Large beak (Greek)”.

No Philomela in sight.

Philomela (or Philomelos) is solely reserved as a specific name for the song thrush, Turdus philomelos, as described at the start of this ridiculously-long blog post.

But why is Philomela attributed to the song thrush then – and not the (more culturally-accepted (if not by me)) nightingale?

A fanciful misinterpretation I’d suggest. Or even a mistake.

Zoological nomenclature is full of such things; as well as more apt scientific names derived from relevant classical myths.

*Most scholars think Philomelos stems from the Greek φιλο (philo: love of) and μέλος (melo: song) rather than the probably more accurate Greek φιλο (philo: love of) and μῆλον (melon: apple, grape, fruit, sheep, goat or beast).

Philomelos may mean lover of song, but is just as (or more than) likely to actually mean lover of apples, grapes, fruit, sheep, goats or beasts.

The song thrush has been so-named by scientists because Philomela was thought to have originally meant “song lover”. But that probably is incorrect.

We’ve all been brought up (brainwashed?) to accept, unquestioningly that Philomela (from Philomelos) is the lover of song, the nightingale. But she may have originally been the lover of apples or grapes (cider and wine?!) or sheep and goats.

Ovid, Virgil, De Troyes, Chaucer, Raleigh, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Elliot et.al. have all written of Philomela or Philomel as the nightingale, the hidden, mournful song lover.

None have had the swallow (or martin) in mind when talking of Philomela, even though that was probably the original myth.

Not one of the above had the song thrush in mind either - the actual modern-day Philomela or Philomelos.

 

Well.

We had our first philomela(os) in the garden today.

Not a nightingale (wrong time of year).

Not a swallow/martin (ditto – and anyway, we’ve already had swallows in the garden each summer).

A quite beautiful song thrush.

A grape loving, apple-loving, sheep and goat-loving song thrush.

A song-loving thrush too.

I do hope it stays.

 

 

 

Footnote.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the scientific name for song thrush (Turdus philomelos) would better describe a Thrush nightingale. Turdus after all meaning thrush and philomelos meaning nightingale (even though as we've seen above... it never really did).

You'd be wrong though.

That'd be FAR too sensible.

No... the scientific name for the Thrush nightingale is Luscinia luscinia.

Look.... I don't make the rules.

 

Happy new year, grapple fans.

 


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