BMCR 2005.12.12

Procne e Filomela. Dal mito al simbolo letterario

, Procne e Filomela : dal mito al simbolo letterario. Testi e manuali per l'insegnamento universitario del latino ; 83. Bologna: Pàtron, 2005. 270 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8855527983 €18.00.

This book is a study of the myth of Procne and Philomela. The bulk of the book consists of an explanation of the myth’s treatment in all classical sources, beginning with Homer and ending with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These explanations are broken up into chapters. Chapter one outlines the first literary sources, namely, Homer, Pherecydes, Hesiod, the lyric poets, and Aeschylus. Chapter two focuses solely on Sophocles’ Tereus. The third chapter continues with instances of the myth in the works of Hyginus, Boeus, and Helladius. Chapter four examines the myth in Roman sources with subheadings on Roman archaic tragedy, the ambiguity of the ‘Latin version,’ and the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Monella’s study of these various treatments of the myth is straightforward and exhaustive, including, as is evident from the list above, those by lesser known ancient writers. He raises a number of questions about each treatment, for example, how it compares with that of other authors, and includes a thorough discussion on what previous scholars have written on each question.

The most interesting part of this study is the fifth and final chapter, entitled ‘From myth to literary metaphor.’ Here Monella’s own arguments are best seen, as he suggests that the nightingale (the creature Philomela or Procne turns into at the end of the myth) is a metaphor for the elegiac poet.

After setting forth his argument, Monella begins his exploration of this metaphor by examining the link between the nightingale’s lament and the idea of singing or poetry in Greek authors. He looks at examples in Homer, Hesiod, Bacchylides, Alcaeus, tragedy, comedy (Aristophanes’ Birds) and Plato (where in the myth of Er in the Republic the poet Thamyras expresses a desire to be reincarnated as a nightingale).

Monella then suggests that, in regard to this myth and metaphor, Greek literature informs Latin literature, where the metaphor takes on the further facet of representing not just a poet’s song or even lament but elegiac poetry in particular. He first examines Catullus 65, where the poet laments the loss of his brother and compares this situation with Procne’s lament for her son Itys. He points out that while Procne sings her lament, Catullus expresses his own grief through the act of poetry, suggesting that this serves as an introduction to the elegiac portion of his collection of poems. Thus the nightingale here is not just representative of the poet and his song but the genre of elegiac poetry. Monella next references Propertius 1.18, where the poet-lover is able to express his romantic difficulties only to the birds in the woods. Again the elegiac poet is shown in connection with the nightingale. Monella then turns to the Orpheus episode in book four of Vergil’s Georgics. Here the lament of Orpheus for his dead love Eurydice is compared to that of Procne (the nightingale) for her dead son. Like the elegiac poet, Orpheus is the unhappy lover, mourning his lost love. Orpheus, like the poet, also composes songs. Monella’s final examples of the connection between the nightingale and elegiac poetry are in Ovid. First, in 3.1 of the Amores, Ovid mentions the sweet complaint of birds and then proceeds with the main focus of the poem, the personification of Elegy versus that of Tragedy. Then, in Heroides 15, Sappho, a poetess, laments her separation from Phaon. Elegy is described as the appropriate genre for lament, and, even more pointedly, the nightingale singing for Itys is directly compared with Sappho singing for her lost love (line 155): ales Ityn, Sappho desertos cantat amores.

The first four chapters of Monella’s book offer a useful reference and discussion of all the instances of the Procne and Philomela myth. The final chapter presents a thoughtful and convincing argument, supported by close textual reading, for the nightingale as elegiac poet connection becoming a topos in Latin poetry.1


1. Monella employs a few tables which help to elucidate his explanations, such as a table outlining plot summaries, and a table diagramming the possible influence of one author’s treatment upon another. The book includes six photographs of vases depicting relevant mythological scenes, however the quality of either the photo or the printing makes them somewhat difficult to see.