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William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Arion on a Sea Horse (1855)

Arion on a sea horse, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1855)

Arion poet riding a dolphin circa 1514 Dürer

Arion riding a Dolphin, by Albrecht Dürer circa. 1514

Arion (Ancient Greek: Ἀρίων, gen.: Ἀρίωνος) was a kitharode in ancient Greece, a Dionysiac poet credited with inventing the dithyramb: "As a literary composition for chorus dithyramb was the creation of Arion of Corinth,"[1] 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.[2] Herodotus (1,23) says "Arion was second to none of the lyre-players in his time and was also the first man we know of to compose and name the dithyramb and teach it in Corinth". However J.H. Sleeman observes of the dithyramb, or circular chorus, "It is first mentioned by Archilochus (c 665 BC)… Arion flourished at least 50 years later… probably gave it a more artistic form, adding a chorus of 50 people, personating satyrs… who danced around an altar of Dionysus. He was doubtless the first to introduce the dithyramb into Corinth".[3]

Arion is also associated with the origins of tragedy: of Solon John the Deacon reports: “Arion of Methymna first introduced the drama [i.e. action] of tragedy, as Solon indicated in his poem entitled Elegies".[4]

Kidnapping by pirates

Parc de Versailles, Bosquet des Dômes, Arion, Jean-Melchior Raon 01

Arion, playing his kithara and riding dolphins. Sculpture by Jean-Melchior Raon (grove of the Domes, gardens of Versailles)

According to Herodotus' account of the Lydian empire under the Mermnads,[5] 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: as Robin Lane Fox observes, "No Greek would swim out into the deep from a boat for pleasure."[6] 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. When he reached land, being eager for his journey, he failed to return the dolphin to the sea and it perished there. He told his misfortunes to Periander, the King of Corinth, who ordered the dolphin to be buried, and monument raised to it. Shortly after, word came to Periander, that the ship in which Arion had sailed had been brought to Corinth by a storm. He ordered the crew to be led before him, and inquired about Arion, but they replied that he had died and that they had buried him. The King replied: "Tomorrow you will swear to that at the Dolphin's Monument." Because of this he ordered them to be kept under guard, and instructed Arion to hide in the monument of the dolphin the next morning, attired as he was when he threw himself into the sea. When the King had brought them there, and ordered them to swear by the departed spirit of the dolphin that Arion was dead, Arion came out of the monument. In amazement, wondering by what divinity he had been saved, they were silent. The King ordered them to be crucified at the monument of the dolphin, but Apollo, because of Arion's skill with the kithara, placed him and the dolphin among the stars.[7] This dolphin was cataserised as the constellation Delphinus 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 did not quite believe Arion's 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. After Arion presented himself, they could no longer deny the truth.[8]

The story as Herodotus tells it was taken up in other literature.[9] Lucian of Samosata wittily imagined the dialogue between Poseidon and the very dolphin who bore Arion.[10]

Augustine of Hippo[11] asserted that pagans "believed in what they read in their own books" and took Arion to be a historical individual. "there is no historicity in this tale",also according to Eunice Burr Stebbins,[12] and Arion and the dolphins is given as an example of "a folkloristic motif especially associated with Apollo" by Irad Malkin>[13] Yet there are many more or less reliable historical accounts from many periods of people being saved by dolphins. Erasmus instanced Arion as one of the traditional poet's topics that sound like historia rather than fabulae, though he misremembered that Augustine had taken the Arion story to be historia[14]


From what is told in ancient Greek scripts, Arion, although favored by Apollo, is the son of Poseidon and Ino.

Mythological parallels

The episode may be seen as a doublet of the fate of Melicertes, where the leap into the sea was that of his mother, Ino. transformed into the "white goddess" Leucothea; Melicertes was carried more dead than alive to the shores where the Isthmian Games were celebrated in his honour, as he was 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.[15]

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 entwined with ivy (like the god's thrysus); 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.

Scholarly interpretations

In light of the above parallels, Walter Burkert interprets the story 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.".[16] C.M. Bowra[17] 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."[18]

Stewart Flory[19] 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.

Later uses

Other variations of the story exist. In 1994, it was adapted by Vikram Seth and Alec Roth for 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 alluded to in Plato's Republic at 453d, where Socrates says: “Then we, too, must swim and try to escape out of the sea of argument in the hope that either some dolphin will take us on its back . . ."

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 mentioned in the first stanza of Luis de Góngora's Soledades.

"Arion" is a poem by Alexander Pushkin.[20]

Arion is a journal of humanities and the classics published at Boston University.

The Jimmy Buffett song "Jolly Mon" is based on this fable.

There is a cantata by the French Baroque composer André Campra telling the story of Arion

Arion on the dolphin is the imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers based in Boston and New York; the figure was used previously by the sixteenth-century Basel printer Johannes Oporinus as his device[21]

A cantata for children's choir and piano, 'Arion and the Dolphin', by the English composer Philip Godfrey, was first performed in 2003.


  1. Pickard-Cambridge, Sir Arthur Wallace. 1927. Dithyramb Tragedy and Comedy. Second edition revised by T.B.L. Webster, 1962. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 01981422776
  2. The dolphin's love of music and of humans was proverbial among Greeks (Euripides, Electra 435f; for the folktale motif, see Stith Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature (Bloomington IN) 1955-58) s.v. B300-B349, and B473, B767.
  3. J.H. Sleeman, ed. Herodotus Book I.
  4. Solon, Fragment 30a W, noted in Eric Csapo and Margaret Christina Miller, The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and beyond: from ritual to drama, 2007 "Pre-Aristotelian fragments", p. 10.
  5. Herodotus, Histories I.23-24.
  6. Fox, Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer, 2008:170.
  7. Gaius Julius Hyginus, Fabulae, 194
  8. Herodotus I, 23-24.
  9. See Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XVI.19; Plutarch, Conv. sept. sap. 160-62; see William Roberts, "Classical sources of Saint-Amant's 'L'Arion'", French Studies 17.4 (1963:341-350).
  10. Lucian, Dialogi Mortuorum 8.
  11. Augustine of Hippo, City of God, i.14.
  12. Stebbins, The Dolphin in the Literature and Art of Greece and Rome‎, 1929:67.
  13. Malkin, Religion and Colonization in Ancient Greece, 1987:219.
  14. Erasmus, divus Augustinus historiam estimat, quoted by Peter G. Bietenholz, Historia and Fabula: myths and legends in historical thought from antiquity to the Modern Age 1994:155.
  15. Burkert 1983:198f. "To Plutarch this seemed more a mystery initiation (τελετή) than an athletic and folk festival" (p 197).
  16. Burkert 1983:198f
  17. Bowra, "Arion and the dolphin", MR 20 (1963:121-34, reprinted in Bowra, On Greek Margins (1970:164-81).
  18. Burkert 1983:201)
  19. Stewart Flory, "Arion's Leap: Brave Gestures in Herodotus" The American Journal of Philology 99.4 (Winter 1978:411-421).
  20. "Arion" by Alexander Pushkin in Russian and English translation.
  21. Device of Johannes Oporinus.


  • Burkert, Walter, Homo Necans (University of California Press) 1983, III.7 "The Return of the Dolphin" pp 196–204.

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Arion. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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