Philomela was the daughter of Pandion, king of Athens. She is famous as the sister of Procne (whose name see). Her melodious name means 'sweet song', from philos, 'dear', 'loving', 'pleasing' and melos, 'song'.

This is more than just a pleasantly propitious name, however. The basic story behind her is this: Pandion, at war over a border dispute with Labdacus, called Tereus to his aid.

With his help, he won the war and gave his daughter Procne to Tereus as a bride. Procne in due course bore a son to Tereus, and this was Itys. After a while Procne wanted to see her sister again, and at her request Tereus went to Athens and persuaded Pandion to let him escort Philomela back to Procne, in Thrace.

On the way, however, he raped her, and then cut out her tongue to prevent her telling anyone what had happened. She managed to communicate with Procne, however, and after further misadventures the two sisters fled together from an angry Tereus.

As he was on the point of catching up with them, they prayed to the gods to change them into birds: Procne was changed into a nightingale and Philomela into a swallow. This latter bird was the appropriate one for Philomela, the gods decided, since she had lost her tongue and so could not speak or sing but merely chatter, like a swallow.

And yet her name means 'sweet song'! This is because the story was told and repeated in several variations, until Roman authors, who probably preferred the sound of her name to that of Procne, told it the other way round: Procne was now the swallow and Philomela the nightingale, which of course sings sweetly. (The name can also be translated as 'song lover', which is also appropriate.) In the midst of all these metamorphoses another explanation for Philomela's name has been made.

This is that it derives not from melos, 'song' but mela, 'flocks of sheep' (from melon, 'sheep'). Such a name, it is pointed out, is suitable for a swallow since it nests in byres and farm buildings. Whichever bird we prefer (and does it really matter in the end?), philomela was the standard Greek word for 'nightingale' together with Aedon.

In view of the popularity of the name in classical times, as well as its general attractiveness, it is a little surprising that it has never really caught on as a modern first name, even in Victorian times. Perhaps it needed a flesh-and-blood saint or martyr Philomela to give the name a boost.