Greek Myth: Arion and the Dolphin

When I was eight, one of my favorite books was Bernard Evslin’s The Dolphin Rider. I’ve forgotten which other myths it contained, although I suspect that Oedipus’ family troubles weren’t among them. The one that I remember is the myth the book was named for, a story that’s stayed with me all my life. That’s the myth I’d like to share first.

If you’ve been following my rotating “Myth o’ the Month” column on Ancient Greece Odyssey, I apologize for repeating myself; I’m going to archive the old entries first before moving on to Herakles’s next labor. However, what follows is not quite the same tale I posted before, because I’m no longer constrained to 2000 characters. Besides, what bard ever tells a story the same way twice?

Note that this is a loose adaptation of the myth; I’m telling the story as I remember it from childhood, and over the years I’ve embellished it here and there.

[Edit: After posting this, I ventured to check Herodotus, and I see that there’s nothing about Ionia in the original version!]

Arion on the dolphin Arion was a youth in Corinth who played the lyre with such skill that many said he was taught by Orpheus, the greatest musician of all. For Arion had the power to charm birds and beasts, and some said the very earth was moved by his wild tunes. Corinthians pointed proudly to local rings of rocks or trees that had gathered around to listen, they said, where he had stopped to play for a while.

One day word came from the harbor that a great music contest was to be held in Ionia across the sea. The prize a bag of silver. Wealth did not draw Arion, but like many young lads he wanted to make a name for himself, the κλέος that was so important to heroes and the poets who sang about them. And where better to win fame than the birthplace of Homer?

His friend Periander, king of Corinth, warned him of sea-travel’s risks. There were no ferries in those days; one booked passage on any ship and hoped. But Arion was eager and adamant. So at last Periander yielded. For how could Corinth not send its best to compete before Homer’s gods?

The voyage to Ionia was smooth, and Ionia welcomed Arion warmly. Orpheus’ blessing was upon him. He won the purse of silver, and his name was soon known up and down the coast and nearest islands. Perhaps the king had simply begrudged others a chance to hear his songs?

Ah, but a night and a day out from Corinth, Periander’s fears were proved after all.

At sunset, the captain sought Arion standing in the bow of the ship listening to the gulls. “I’m sorry, lad,” the man said, “but we must kill you now.”

“Must you?” Arion said, too surprised to be properly alarmed.

“Aye, we must. For we want your purse of silver.”

The harper looked around in dismay. The sailors were all on deck. Some had knives, and others had cudgels; he had only his lyre, besides the purse. The choice between them was easy enough. “Well, then, take the purse; only let me keep my life. I’ll win more.”

“I’m sorry, boy,” the man said again. “But we cannot let you go. For a corpse can’t say, ‘That’s mine!’”

Arion thought to protest, but he saw the crew was ready to crown him, and not with laurel this time. From the looks on their grim faces, rocks might be easier to move. “Well,” he said sadly, “If I am to be a corpse, then at least let me play one last time.”

Now you may see he had κλέος indeed by this time, for the sailors and captain readily agreed, and even waited for him to tune the strings loosened by the breath of the sea. This would be a rare treat! They could boast to their children that they had heard the last song of Arion the harper. So they said to each other with knowing winks. The captain made sure to take the purse from him, however.

Arion took his place at the prow and set his hand to the strings.

He sang of the hills of Corinth and the red poppies of spring. He sang of the gold grain of autumn and the purple wine. He sang of the deep green caves where Nereids wove the tides. He sang of the eagles of Zeus, circling above Corinth’s crag and watching from afar. The sailors held their breaths. Arion jumped into the sea.

Miles from shore, the sailors assumed he would drown and sailed on. That would have been his fate, if not for a wonderful thing.

A dolphin following the ship rose under the boy and said, “Keep playing, master, and I will take you anywhere, even to the ends of the world.”

“No need to go that far,” Arion gasped. “My home is Corinth!” He lifted his lyre and played, while the foam swirled around his knees.

Aided by the gods with an unseen current, the dolphin bore the harper swiftly back to his native shore. There, amazed fishermen greeted him and brought him before Periander. After a bath and and a little food, Arion knelt before the king in his four-pillared hall and sang his tale.

The next day the merchant ship entered the harbor, and the king sent for its crew.

“It was terrible, your majesty,” said the captain. “Arion won the contest but offended the gods. One day he boasted he was a finer singer than all the Nereids, and a better harper than Apollo. I told him to change his tune, but he only laughed. As soon as I left him, a huge wave broke over the prow and swept him away. We searched but found no trace. His bag of silver must have pulled him down. Mortals can’t defy the gods.”

“No, they can’t,” said the king and called Arion forward. “Here is he whom you meant to drown, rescued from the sea by Poseidon’s creatures. The gods sent a helper to thwart your villainy.” Then he ordered the captain and his men to be led away, and their ship searched.

Sure enough, servants found the bag of silver aboard. The captain and crew were laden with bags of stones for their troubles, and tossed into the sea.

Arion never ventured across the sea again, and now people from many lands sailed to Corinth to hear him play. As for the dolphin, it was often seen swimming close to shore at sunset. Arion did not forget a suppliant’s thanks, but would often go down to the harbor and sing his sweetest songs.

When the dolphin died, Zeus put it in the sky as Delphinus, a kite-shaped constellation that guides those lost at sea. It swims the heavens to this day.

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