Mythman's Greek Mythology Today



Arion & the Dolphin
by Salvator Rosa

Arion and the Dolphin

Arion and the Dolphin

Arion and the Dolphin


Arion of Methymna in Lesbos was a celebrated lyric poet and player on the cithara, and the inventor of dithyrambic poetry. He was the first to compose and name the dithyramb (originally a choral song to Dionysus, god of wine) which he afterwards taught at the city of Corinth.

The poet Arion lived about B.C. 625, and spent a great part of his time in the court of King Periander of Corinth, but one day he received news that there was to be a musical contest in the island of Sicily, in Italy. The greatest poets, singers and musicians of the land would take part in this rich and prestigious competition.

Arion's musical talents were by then widely renown in his homeland, and he knew that he stood a very good chance of winning the contest. He decided to sail to Italy and Sicily in order to make a lot of money and also to further spread his fame to another land.

Indeed Arion excelled in the musical contest, enchanting the judges and the listeners, and he won the first place prize. Carrying his rich prizes and laden with presents from the adoring Sicilians, Arion then hired a Corinthian vessel to carry him back home to Corinth.

But when they were out at sea, the evil and greedy crew began to covet the poet's new treasure and they rudely plotted to take Arion's money and to cast him overboard, where he would soon drown. So they seized the helpless poet and announced their intentions.

In face of this distressing situation Arion asked for his life and offered them his money, but the crew would not listen to him, and told him either to kill himself and so receive burial on land or else to jump into the sea at once.

You could say that poor Arion was "caught between Scylla and Charybdis" (that expression means between a rock and a hard place...)

Arion didn't want to commit suicide, and certainly he didn't wish to drown. He thought quickly and then he proposed a final request to the pirate crew. He asked if he could be permitted to sing a song on the deck, accompanied by his cithara.

The crew eagerly allowed this, pleased at the thought of hearing the best singer in the world. Arion began to strum his cithara and the sweetest sounds filled the air. The dastardly crew, scum though they were, nevertheless couldn't help but to be transfixed by the heavenly sound of the lyre and Arion's unsurpassed voice.

But when the sound of the lyre and his voice were heard, many song-loving dolphins came all about the ship, and they frolicked along with it, rejoicing at the music. That was Arion's cue. At the sight of the friendly dolphins Arion once more invoked the gods in inspired strains and threw himself into the sea.

The crew thought that he had perished so they sailed back to Corinth, certain that the poet had drowned and gleefully thinking of ways to spend their new-found loot.

But in the meantime one of the song-loving dolphins took Arion on his back and bore him from the Sicilian Sea to Taenarum. From there he found another ship and hired it to return him to Corinth.

Soon Arion arrived back home but King Periander, being of a skeptical nature, didn't believe the fantastic story of the savior dolphin and so he kept Arion under house arrest, while he waited for the sailors to return.

When their ship arrived the king immediately summoned the rascals to the palace and they were asked about Arion. They had conspired to stick to the same story, so the pirates replied that he was safe and that they had left him very prosperous at Tarentum.

The crew told King Periander that Arion had enjoyed himself so much at Tarentum, what with winning the musical contest and all, and the people there had so fallen for his charms and talents, that he had decide to take up residence there.

That's when Arion appeared before them, and the treacherous sailors could no longer deny what was proved against them.

A small variation of the story claims that Arion reached land in Corinth carried by the hero dolphin, but that he forgot to push the dolphin back into the sea and it perished there. King Periander ordered it to be buried, and a monument to be raised to honor the friendly dolphin.

As for the pirate ship, it is claimed that it was brought back to Corinth by a storm sent by Poseidon, and when the sailors were asked about Arion, they replied that he had died suddenly and that they had buried him with all the honor befitting such a renowned bard. When the king heard this he said:

"Tomorrow you will swear to that at the Dolphin's Monument." (Periander to the sailors. Hyginus, Fabulae 194)

The King had his trap set. He ordered his soldiers to keep the crew under guard and instructed Arion to hide in the monument of the dolphin wearing the same clothes he had when he threw himself into the sea.

The next day when the sailors came to swear by the dolphin's spirit that Arion was dead, the artist came out of the monument, horrifying the crew, who thought that they were seeing a ghost. The traitorous sailors had no choice but to admit their guilt, whereupon they were then crucified.

To honor Arion, Apollo, the patron god of music, placed him and the dolphin among the stars (constellation Delphinus), where they are to this day.

(Yet others say that Delphinus was placed in the sky by the god of the sea Poseidon, in thanks for the dolphin's efforts in helping him get Amphitrite to agree to be his wife. As always, different mythographers offer various versions of myths...)


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