Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.13

Antonio María Martín Rodríguez, El mito de Filomela en la literatura española.   León:  Universidad de León, Área de Publicaciones, 2008.  Pp. 437.  ISBN 9788497734493.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pablo Alvarez, University of Rochester (

Though literary references to a nightingale gloomily echoing a horrific human deed are as old as Homer's Odyssey (19. 518-523), scholars generally agree that the basic content of the myth of Philomela was canonized by the fifth century BCE. For instance, the main plot is recorded in one of the few extant fragments of Sophocles' lost play Tereus.1 Procne, one of the two daughters of the Athenian king Pandion, married the Thracian king Tereus and after a few years living in a foreign country she longed for the company of her sister Philomela. To please his wife, Tereus traveled to Athens to bring Procne's sister to Thrace. But Tereus fell in love with his sister-in-law, whom he raped, mutilated by cutting out her tongue, and locked away so that she could become his concubine. Philomela told her misfortune to Procne by sending her a woven cloth displaying a detailed description of these horrible acts. Procne rescued her sister and devised a dreadful revenge by slaughtering Itys, Procne's only son by Tereus, and serving the flesh of the little boy to Tereus in a private banquet. Realizing that he had eaten his own son, Tereus tried to kill the two sisters, when a triple metamorphosis took place: Procne turned into a nightingale, Philomela into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe.

Unquestionably, the most successful and influential retelling of the myth is the one included in Ovid's Metamorphoses (6. 424-674), and this version is understandably the main point of reference in Antonio María Martín Rodríguez (MR)'s El mito de Filomela en la literatura española (MFLE). Having previously dealt with the etiology, evolution, and interpretation of the myth,2 in this new book MR looks at how this ancient tale has been translated and reinterpreted by Spanish authors from the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century. MFLE consists of five chapters, each of them representing a particular literary genre within a chronological frame. MR's method is based on a close reading, translation, and comparison of the texts under examination. All the Latin passages are accompanied by a Spanish translation, and many of the works MR discusses are included in an appendix (pp. 331-403). A useful bibliography (pp. 407-421) and an index of proper names (pp. 407-437) are added at the end.

In the Introduction (pp. 11-20), MR briefly discusses the origin and evolution of the myth leading to the Ovidian version. In the Latin tradition, a crucial change that would affect all subsequent versions is Philomela being turned into a nightingale instead of a swallow. As MR points out (p. 14), this variant is likely the result of the etymological misconception that Philomela means "lover of song", and it seems odd that, apart from a casual reference in Martial (14.75; p. 16), Latin writers dealing with this myth have never acknowledged an obvious contradiction: As a matricide, Procne is the obvious choice to be the nightingale who intensely expresses the sorrow of a mother; conversely, the cacophonic chirps of a swallow are a suitable onomatopoeia for Philomela being unable to speak. However, scholars are well aware of how the arbitrariness and complexity of the textual transmission can alter the original meaning of a particular text. For instance, in these introductory pages, MR already warns the reader that the Ovidian text was not the only source for Spanish writers. Mythological manuals such as Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum and Natale Conti's Mythologia played a role as well; sometimes aspects of the version by Hyginus were selected, and, more importantly, it seems clear that rather than engaging with the original Latin, Spanish writers heavily borrowed from Italian and Spanish translations of the Metamorphoses.

Having emphasized that the purpose of the book is to deal only with comprehensive versions of the myth (p. 20), MR stills devotes Chapter 1 ("Tratamientos Alusivos del Tema de Filomela en la Literatura Española", pp. 21-60) to a brief summary of examples of writers metonymically alluding to the tale in Spanish literature. This is a sound decision: it would require a different book to identify the actual sources behind mere allusions to the nightingale. Moreover, in the Middle Ages Spanish authors consistently treat the nightingale as a joyful creature, while in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for instance, the nightingale becomes the alter ego of the poet lamenting an unrequited love. In fact, as MR explains, this literary device is borrowed from Vergil's Georgics 4. 511-515: Orpheus's sorrow at being separated from Eurydice is compared to the nightingale that mourns her lost young (pp. 30-31).

In Chapter 2 ("Los Primeros Traductores y Adaptadores," pp. 61-126) MR introduces us to the first renderings of Ovid's version of the myth into Spanish, beginning with the General Estoria, a universal history of the world sponsored by Alfonso X of Castile ("the Wise"), and composed in the second half of the thirteenth century. Certainly, the word "translation" should be used with caution, even if we acknowledge, along with MR, the linguistic achievements of humanistic scholarship (p. 61). Whereas these early versions tend to follow the sequence of the plot faithfully, glosses and expansions were freely added to make Ovid's narrative more approachable, including the use of new dramatic effects and moralizing explanations. Indeed, MR lists examples of how Jorge de Bustamante, whose prose translation served as the model for future adaptors in the next two centuries, does not hesitate to depart from the original whenever he thinks his readers need clarification. When describing how Procne took advantage of the Bacchean festival to rescue Philomela, Bustamante inserts a few lines to explain that during these festivities women were allowed to walk freely for eight days, likely anticipating a reasonable question from his contemporaries: how could a married woman wander around without supervision? (p. 77). Moreover, Bustamante attains a great dramatic effect by turning the phrase fassus nefas (6.524) into a long dramatic speech whereby Tereus rhetorically declares his passionate love for Philomela (p. 79). Furthermore, as mentioned above, one must consider the role of other vernacular versions. Bustamante occasionally relied on Giovanni de Bonsignore's Metamorphoses, first published in Venice in 1497 (n. 77, p. 62; p. 73), and Felipe Mey recognizes his debt to the Italian translations of Ludovico Dolce and Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara in the preface of his Del Metamorfoseos de Ovidio en otava rima (Tarragona, 1586) (p. 97).

Scholars employ the term Romancero to designate the corpus of a long tradition of ballads (romances) sung or recited in Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan or Sephardim from the late Middle Ages. Being first printed in cheap single sheets (pliegos de cordel), which would be hung for display and then sold on the streets, in the second half of the sixteenth century these romances began to be compiled in book form under titles such as Cancionero de Romances or Silva de Romances. In chapter 3 ("La Épica Popular: Tratamientos Romancísticos," pp. 127-151), MR meticulously describes the variations this popular tradition gradually incorporated into the tale of Philomela. Some of these changes are so drastic, including the elimination of the final metamorphoses, that one wonders whether the Ovidian poem was ever the direct source for these compositions.

Formally defined as a modern re-interpretation of the ancient epyllion, the so-called mythological tale became a popular genre among the poets of the Spanish Golden Age. In Chapter 4 ("La Épica Culta: La Fábula Mitológica," pp. 153-254) MR examines four different mythological tales based on the Philomela story, of which Lope de Vega's La Filomena is perhaps the most fascinating piece for its insight into the literary fashions of the day. Along with other poems and prose compositions included in the same volume, La Filomena can be seen as Lope's attempt to emulate the extraordinary success of Luis de Góngora y Argote's long mythological poem Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, published eight years earlier.

MFLE closes with a chapter devoted to five dramatic adaptations of the myth ("Versiones Dramáticas," pp. 255-322), followed by a general conclusion (pp. 323-328). The dramatic versions include new characters, some of them comic, as well as dramatic twists inspired by other plays, such as Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and The Tempest. The most influential play was the one by Guillén de Castro, who actually turned the tale into a "comedia" by eliminating its gruesome features--there was only an attempt of rape and Tereus did not cut out the tongue of Philomela--and, particularly by introducing a fantastic reconciliation in the last act. In turn, Rojas Zorrilla, who imitated the plot of Castro's play, recovered the spirit of the original poem by giving the women a central role in undertaking their revenge and challenging the patriarchal establishment.

My criticism of this book mostly focuses on a number of omissions. It seems odd that nothing is said about the manuscript and early printed tradition of Ovid in the Iberian Peninsula.3 Without such a study, at least in the form of a brief introduction, it is impossible to understand how Ovid exercised such a lasting influence on Spanish literature. For instance, this type of analysis would help establish which particular editions of Ovid's Metamorphoses were more likely available to the authors MR discusses. Furthermore, nothing is said about the long tradition of commentaries on Ovid and his opera, which are crucial for learning about the reception of the poet. In fact, a list of these commentaries is available, but not mentioned in the bibliography, in Frank T. Coulson and Bruno Roy's Incipitarium Ovidianum: A Finding Aid for Texts Related to the Study of Ovid in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin 3, Turnhout, 2000).4

When examining Bustamante's translation, MR states that he will be citing from the second edition (n. 98, p.74), but he fails to explain why. Then, I was puzzled to find that MR's transcriptions from Bustamante's version include words containing one or more italic characters. A librarian from the Biblioteca Nacional confirmed my suspicion: the italic characters represent expansions of abbreviations. However, bibliographers have forcibly argued that this approach can be problematic.5 Besides, one would expect this type of literal transcription to be applied also to the other citations, which in fact are modernized as they appear in twentieth-century editions. This lack of appreciation for the subtleties of analytical bibliography is reflected in the bibliography itself, which does not make the basic distinction between primary and secondary sources.

MR is correct in interpreting Met. 6. 577; 581-582 as Philomela having woven purple letters and not images. It makes perfect sense that images of the horrible deed would have alerted Tereus' servants, whereas they would have been unable to read Greek (pp. 304-5). But then MR adds that his reading is "contrary to the interpretation of many commentators of Ovid" (p. 304). But who are these commentators? Unfortunately, MR does not mention the scholarship on this particular passage. Actually, Raphael Regius' edition of the Metamorphoses, which became the standard commentary in the sixteenth century, contains this interpretation. For these two passages, Regius' glosses are Rubras litteras and litteras indices sui infortunii respectively.6

And, lastly, in chapter 1, which lists brief references to the myth, MR fails to mention an allusion in the work of Catullus (65. 12-14).

Nevertheless, I hope that these omissions do not prevent readers from fully appreciating the extraordinary accomplishment of MFLE. Overall, MR has successfully achieved his goal of describing the impact of the tale of Procne and Philomela on the history of Spanish literature. Students and researchers will surely benefit from the author's careful comparison of the texts, where even the smallest variations in interpretation are recorded, and I hope that this review serves to draw the attention of non-Spanish speakers towards a work that can be incorporated within a broader and ongoing discussion on the impact of Ovid on Western literature.


1.   See Peter J. Parsons. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri 42 (London, 1974).
2.   De Aedón a Filomela. Génesis, sentido y comentario de la versión ovidiana del mito (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 2002). The best broad study of the myth is I. Cazzaniga. La saga di Itis nella tradizione letteraria e mitografica Greco-romana, I: la tradizione letteraria e mitografica Greco-romana da Omero a Nonno Panopolitano (Milan, 1950).
3.   The following book chapter should be added to the bibliography: John Richmond. "Manuscript Traditions and the Transmission of Ovid's Works." In Brill's Companion to Ovid. Ed. Barbara Weiden Boyd (Leiden; Boston, 2002). Pp: 443-483.
4.   I also suggest, for instance, Ralph Hexter. "Medieval Articulations of Ovid's Metamorphoses: from Lactantian Segmentation to Arnulfian Allegory." Mediaevalia 13 (1987): 63-82.
5.   Fredson Bowers. Principles of Bibliographical Description (Reprint. Winchester, UK; New Castle, DE, 1994). Pp. 166-167.
6.   P. Ouidii Metamorphosis cum integris ac emendatissimis Raphaelis Regii enarrationibus & repraehensione illaru[m] ineptiaru[m]: quibus ultimus Quaternio primae editionis fuit inquinatus (Venice, 1493). This edition is available online from the digital collection at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 09:10:19, Friday, 07 May 2010