Arion was a legendary kitharode in ancient Greece, a Dionysiac poet credited with inventing the dithyramb. The islanders of Lesbos claimed him as their native son, but Arion found a patron in Periander, tyrant of Corinth. Although notable for his musical inventions, Arion is chiefly remembered for the fantastic myth of his kidnapping by pirates and miraculous rescue by dolphins, a folktale motif.
Kidnapping by pirates
According to a digression in Herodotus
' account of the Lydian empire under the Mermnads, occasioned simply by the appearance of the name of Periander, Arion attended a musical
competition in Sicily
, which he won. On his return trip from Tarentum
, avaricious sailors plotted to kill Arion and steal the rich prizes he carried home. Arion was given the choice of suicide
with a proper burial on land, or being thrown in the sea to perish. Neither prospect appealed to Arion, and he asked for permission to sing a last song to win time.
Playing his kithara, Arion sang a praise to Apollo, the god of poetry, and his song attracted a number of dolphins around the ship. At the end of the song, Arion threw himself into the sea rather than be killed, but one of the dolphins saved his life and carried him to safety at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Tainaron. This dolphin was catasterised as the constellation Delphinus, by the blessings of Apollo.
Arion, according to Herodotus' brief excursus, then continued to Corinth by other means and arrived before the sailors that tried to kill him. On his return to Corinth, the king didn't quite believe Arion's fantastic story. The sailors believed Arion was dead in the sea, and on arrival in Corinth they told the king that Arion had decided to remain in Italy. The king then understood that Arion's story was true and punished the sailors with death.
The story as Herodotus tells it was taken up in other literature. Lucian of Samosata wittily imagined the dialogue between Poseidon and the very dolphin who bore Arion.
The episode may be seen as a doublet of the fate of Melicertes
, where the leap into the sea was his mother's, Ino
transformed into the "white goddess" Leucothea
; Melikertes was carried more dead than alive to the shores where the Isthmian Games
were celebrated in his honour, transformed to the hero Palaimon
, who was placated with a noctunal chthonic rite, and the whose winners were crowned with a barren wreath of spruce..
Another parallel is the myth of Dionysus and the sailors, related in the Homeric Hymns: Tyrrhenian pirates try to lash the god to the mast, but the wood itself starts to sprout and the mast is intwined with ivy (like the god's thyrsus); the sailors leap into the sea and are transformed into dolphins. This is especially interesting because Arion is credited with the invention of the dithyramb, a dionysiac song.
In light of the above parallels, Walter Burkert
interprets the myth as a significant development in the history of Dionysiac cult: "Released from this gloomy background, the cheerful and liberating legend of the sixth century further developed the image of the dolphin-rider under the colors of the renewed cult of Dionysus.. G.M. Bowra tied the myth to the period following the expulsion from Corinth of the aristocratic Bacchiadae
, who traced their descent from Dionysus; "the cult of the god had to develop new and more democratic forms.
Stewart Flory identified Herodotus' characteristic use of the episode in a historicising context as an example of what Flory calls his "brave gestures", a man faced with death performs with calm dignity some spirited but unnecessary gesture that demonstrates contempt for danger.
Other variations of the story exist. In 1994, it was adapted by Vikram Seth
and Alec Roth
into the opera Arion and the Dolphin
(aka "The Dolphin Opera"), commissioned by the English National Opera
for professional performers with community chorus and children's chorus
. It premiered at Plymouth
in 1994 under conductor
Nicholas Kok and director Rebecca Meitlis.
Arion is mentioned in Act 1, scene ii of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where the Captain reassures Viola that her brother may still be alive after the shipwreck, for "like Arion on the dolphin's back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves."
Arion is a journal of humanities and the classics published at Boston University.
... Only I, still singing, washed
Ashore by the long sea-swell, sing on,
A mystery to my poet self,
And safe and sound beneath a rock shelf
Have spread my wet clothes in the sun.
- There is a Japanese animation (anime) film named Arion that blends various Greek tales into an original story, following the story of a Hercules-like boy named Arion who struggles against various forces. The music in the film is by Joe Hisaishi, the main composer of all the music in Hayao Miyazaki's films.
- The Greek music awards show is called the ARION.
- There is a cantata by the French Baroque composer André Campra telling the story of Arion
- There is a mystical character in DC Comics called Arion, Lord of Atlantis.
- A sixteen year old boy named himself Arion Beats after the Greek poet to represent the treasures he hopes to find by following his passion for music.
- Burkert, Walter, Homo Necans (University of California Press) 1983, III.7 "The Return of the Dolphin" pp 196-204.