There was a youth in ancient Corinth who played the lyre with such skill that many said he was taught by the legendary musician Orpheus, for he had the power to charm beasts with his songs.
Once upon a time, young Arion learned a music contest was to be held in Ionia, birthplace of Homer, with a bag of silver for first prize. Wealth did not draw Arion, but like any Greek hero, he wanted to win fame.
His friend Periander, king of Corinth, warned him of pirates and shipwrecks. In those days, passenger ships did not exist: you embarked on any passing vessel and hoped you would reach your destination. But Arion was so keen to go that the king paid a merchant to take him aboard.
Arion played beautifully in Ionia, and sure enough, the prize and fame were his. He booked passage back with the same merchant who had conveyed him across the sea, and headed for home full of stories and pride.
When they were nearly back to Corinth, the merchant came to him one morning and said, “I’m sorry, lad, but we must kill you. We want that silver prize you’ve won.” For the merchant was really a pirate, as were so many ship captains back then. They would rob you, sell you into slavery or hold you for ransom if they thought they could get a good price.
Arion started to plead for his life, but he saw the sailors waiting with drawn swords and knew they had no reason to spare him. So he asked a favor, that he might play one last song.
The crew thought it would be a fine thing to tell their children they had heard the last song of Arion the harper, so they agreed. He took his place at the prow and set his hand to the strings.
He sang of the red poppies on the stone walls of Corinth and golden grain of Eleusis and the purple wine of Epidauros. He sang of the deep green caves of Ocean where Nereids wove the tides. The sailors held their breaths. Then Arion jumped into the sea.
Miles from shore, they assumed he would drown and sailed on. But a dolphin drawn by his music rose under Arion 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. “Take me to Corinth!” He raised his lyre and played while the dolphin crested the waves.
At last he came into the Bay of Corinth in this outlandish fashion, and the local fisherman and sailors were much amazed. The commotion soon reached the palace of King Periander, who came down to the harbor to learn the cause of the disturbance. There he found Arion dripping but unharmed, and learned the whole tale. The youth was fed and clothed and escorted back to the court at the king’s orders.
The next day the merchant ship entered the harbor, and the sailors and merchant captain found themselves summoned to the royal court. There Periander inquired what news they had of his young friend, and where he might be now.
“It was terrible, your majesty,” said the captain. “Arion won the contest, but offended the gods. One day on the voyage home, he boasted that he was a better harper than Apollo and a greater singer than Orpheus. A huge wave broke over the prow and swept him away. We searched the sea but found no trace of him. 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. The gods sent a helper to thwart your villainy.”
Then Periander ordered servants to search their ship while the crew was detained. Sure enough, they found the bag of silver under the captain’s chair. The king’s judgment was stern; pirates and their leader were weighted down with bags of stones and cast into the ocean.
But that was not quite the end of the tale. Afterwards, the kindly dolphin came often into the harbor to hear Arion play. When the animal died, they say, the gods put it in the sky as Delphinus, the little fish-shaped constellation that guides good sailors home.
This story we have from a classical Greek tourist who visited Corinth years later, and heard the whole story from the locals concerning the origin of a little gold statue in the temple, depicting a youth riding on a dolphin’s back.