Arion and the dolphin

The story of Arion and the dolphin is an entertaining and almost certainly fictitious tale that may, however, have a deeper meaning.

Josho Brouwers

In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote an important overview of the Graeco-Persian Wars. His Histories, derived from the Greek Historiai (“Inquiries”), contain a wealth of information: some of it, as far as we can tell, accurate, but a lot of it also rather fanciful if not simply fantastical. While some have dubbed Herotodus the “Father of History”, others, both ancient and modern, have disparaged him as the “Father of Lies”.

But Herodotus wasn’t a “historian” in the modern sense of the word. More than anything, he was an investigative reporter. He travelled to other places and talked to the people there. When there were conflicting reports or eye witness accounts, Herodotus sometimes tells us explictly what different version of stories existed; other times, he simply picked what seemed to him the more plausible version, usually without noting what criteria he used to weigh his decision.

Because Herodotus talked to local people, he’s an invaluable source for ancient Greek folklore, too. One of the many stories collected by Herodotus focuses on the poet Arion, a native of Methymna, a town on the island of Lesbos (Hdt. 1.23-24).

The story of Arion

Arion was supposedly the world’s greatest lyre-player, who had spent most of his time in Corinth, back when the city was ruled by the tyrant Periander (r. ca. 627-585 BC). At one point, he sailed to Italy and Sicily. Once he had amassed a fortune there, he hired a Corinthian vessel in Tarentum (modern Taranto, in Southern Italy) to take him home to Corinth.

But out at sea, the crew seized his wealth and offered him a choice: either kill himself so he could be buried on land or else hurl himself into the sea. To the ancient Greeks, being lost at sea was considered a dreadful fate. Without a corpse to give the proper funeral rights, the shade of the deceased would be doomed to never find peace.

Arion asked that he be allowed to sing before hurling himself into the sea. The thieves were eager to hear the world’s greatest singer perform. Arion picked up his lyre and performed a song, after which he dutifully threw himself into the sea. The ship went on its way, but unbeknownst to the crew a dolphin had appeared, which carried Arion on his back to Taenarus, a city in the very south of the Peloponnese. Herodotus is quick to point out that this is how the story was told to him: he undoubtedly realized it sounded fantastical.

In any case, from Taenarus, Arion crossed the entire Peloponnese and arrived at Corinth. Periander listened to him, but was skeptical. He confined him while he waited for the sailors to arrive. Once their ship had come into port, Periander summoned them and asked them about Arion. They claimed that the lyre-player was safe in Italy, at which point Arion suddenly appeared before them, much to their shock and surprise.

Herodotus doesn’t tell us what happened to the sailors. While Periander was counted among the Seven Sages of Greece, one imagines that his reponse wouldn’t have been kind. All Herodotus adds is that this story was current among both the Corinthians and the Lesbians, and that a small bronze memorial was dedicated to Arion at Taenarus, which depicts the figure of a man riding a dolphin (cf. Pausanius 3.25.7).

A link to Dionysus

Arion is credited with inventing the dithyramb. The latter detail is undoubtedly incorrect. Arion lived around the time of Periander, who reigned ca. 637-585 BC. The earlier poet Archilochus, whose floruit is usually dated ca. 650 BC, already mentions the existence of dithyrambs, which were hymns dedicated to Dionysus.

Inside of an Attic black-figure kylix signed by Exekias. It depicts the god Dionysus on a ship, sailing among dolphins. The animals are presumably former pirates, who were transformed into dolphins when they panicked and jumped overboard. Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 530 BC. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich. Photo: Matthias Kabel (source).

The link with Dionysus is interesting. According to the Homeric Hymn 7, Tyrrhenian pirates once captured the god of the vine and lashed him to the mast. When the mast began to sprout and become intertwined with ivy, the sailors panicked and jumped into the sea. When they hit the water, they were transformed into dolphins. There is a kylix (drinking cup) that is almost certainly based on this story.

Just how and why Dionysus is associated with dolphins is unclear. The dolphin is more commonly associated with Aphrodite or, as the Romans called her, Venus. A good example is the Augustus of Prima Porta, where Cupid (Eros) depicted on the back of a dolphin is a reference to the first Roman emperor’s divine ancestor.

Did Arion ever exist? Herodotus reports the story as it was told among both the Corinthians and the Lesbians, so they probably took it as real. The fact that Herodotus emphasizes that it’s a story that he was told suggests that he perhaps doubted its veracity, but he records it anyway. Barring any further corroborating evidence, that’s often the best a reporter can do.

But whether or not Arion was a real person is besides the point. Herodotus regales us with tales not just to amuse, but usually also to teach us something. In this story, the moral is perhaps that one should face death with dignity, trust in the gods, and that the truth will come out eventually.