1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arion

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ARION, of Methymna, in Lesbos, a semi-legendary poet and musician, friend of Periander, tyrant of Corinth. He flourished about 625 B.C. Several of the ancients ascribe to him the invention of the dithyramb and of dithyrambic poetry; it is probable, however, that his real service was confined to the organization of that verse, and the conversion of it from a mere drunken song, used in the Dionysiac revels, to a measured antistrophic hymn, sung by a trained body of performers. The name Cycleus given to his father indicates the connexion of the son with the “cyclic” or circular chorus which was the origin of tragedy. According to Suidas he composed a number of songs and proems; none of these is extant; the fragment of a hymn to Poseidon attributed to him (Aelian, Hist. An. xii. 45) is spurious and was probably written in Attica in the time of Euripides. Nothing is known of the life of Arion, with the exception of the beautiful story first told by Herodotus (i. 23) and elaborated and embellished by subsequent writers. According to Herodotus, Arion being desirous of exhibiting his skill in foreign countries left Corinth, and travelled through Sicily and parts of Italy, where he gained great fame and amassed a large sum of money. At Taras (Tarentum) he embarked for his homeward voyage in a Corinthian vessel. The sight of his treasure roused the cupidity of the sailors, who resolved to possess themselves of it by putting him to death. In answer to his entreaties that they would spare his life, they insisted that he should either die by his own hand on shipboard or cast himself into the sea. Arion chose the latter, and as a last favour begged permission to sing a parting song. The sailors, desirous of hearing so famous a musician, consented, and the poet, standing on the deck of the ship, in full minstrel’s attire, sang a dirge accompanied by his lyre. He then threw himself overboard; but instead of perishing, he was miraculously borne up in safety by a dolphin, supposed to have been charmed by the music. Thus he was conveyed to Taenarum, whence he proceeded to Corinth, arriving before the ship from Tarentum. Immediately on his arrival Arion related his story to Periander, who was at first incredulous, but eventually learned the truth by a stratagem. Summoning the sailors, he demanded what had become of the poet. They affirmed that he had remained behind at Tarentum; upon which they were suddenly confronted by Arion himself, arrayed in the same garments in which he had leapt overboard. The sailors confessed their guilt and were punished. Arion’s lyre and the dolphin were translated to the stars. Herodotus and Pausanias (iii. 25. 7) both refer to a brass figure at Taenarum which was supposed to represent Arion seated on the dolphin’s back. But this story is only one of several in which the dolphin appears as saving the lives of favoured heroes. For instance, it is curious that Taras, the mythical founder of Tarentum, is said to have been conveyed in this manner from Taenarum to Tarentum. On Tarentine coins a man and dolphin appear, and hence it may be thought that the monument at Taenarum represented Taras and not Arion. At the same time the connexion of Apollo with the dolphin must not be forgotten. Under this form the god appeared when he founded the celebrated oracle at Delphi, the name of which commemorates the circumstance. He was also the god of music, the special preserver of poets, and to him the lyre was sacred.

Among the numerous modern versions of the story, particular mention may be made of the pretty ballad by A. W. Schlegel; see also Lehrs, Populäre Aufsätze aus dem Alterthum (1844–1846); Clement, Arion (1898).