The Wonderfully Weird World of the Ancient Greek Singer Arion

Arion rides his dolphin to safety in a third-century mosaic from baths in Henchir Thyna, Tunisia. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Ancient Greek poet and singer Arion was seaworthy adventurer, who could mount a dolphin as easily as he could strum his own instrument. 

Arion's Early Life

According to Herodotus, Arion spent a fair amount of time in the city of Corinth. He landed on the Peloponnese, "brought there by a dolphin" during the reign of Periander, seventh-century B.C. tyrant of Corinth. At the spot where Arion and his dolphin landed was a bronze statue of the musician riding Flipper like a cowboy. That locale was Taenarum, a cape near Corinth. 

Arion, who hailed from the town of Methymna on the island of Lesbos, wound up finding his dolphin companion after a chance encounter with pirates. Once, he wanted to explore the Mediterranean world, heading to Italy and Sicily; when he was done, he hired a ship to go back home to Corinth. The boat's crew saw how much wealth he'd accumulated while overseas, so they conspired to rob and kill him.

According to Hyginus's Fabulae, written centuries later, "Apollo appeared to him in a dream and bade him sing in his poet’s garland crown, and surrender himself to those who would come to aid him." When the crew was about to kill him, Arion requested one last song to stall, perhaps his own funeral dirge; when he started belting out a tune, the local dolphin pod swarmed the ship and Arion tossed himself overboard, rescued by his mammal pals. This transformative, death-to-life sequence has close ties to a hero's journey to the Underworld. But Arion survived after he "charmed the ocean waves," as Ovid claims; he rode one dolphin all the way to Corinth, where the animal died and a monument to it was constructed. 

Hyginus states that Periander faked worry about Arion's fate when he saw his ship come in without the poet, knowing the sailors were bad guys. The crew claimed that Arion had died and they'd buried him; Periander required that they swear it was the truth on his Dolphin Monument. Arion hid inside the dolphin statue and shocked the crew into silence; Periander ordered them crucified in punishment. But to celebrate Arion, Hyginus claims, "Apollo, because of Arion’s skill with the cithara, placed him and the dolphin among the star." Indeed, as Dio Chrysostom notes, this guy was very "dear to the gods."

Beautiful Lyre Music

Arion's biggest gifts to musicians, as the story goes, were his skill on the lyre and his contribution to poetry. He "was a lyre-player second to none in that age; he was the first man whom we know to compose and name the dithyramb, which he afterwards taught at Corinth," according to Herodotus. The dithyramb was a choral song that fifty guys warbled in honor of Dionysus. These were pretty popular in a culture in which attending and participating in theater was a huge civic and religious responsibility.

The tradition of Arion continued on long past his lifetime. The third-century B.C. poet Posidippus wrote an epigram chronicling the journey of Arion's lyre from Greece to Alexandria in Egypt, where it winds up as a votive object. He quips that "Arion's dolphin" brought this instrument, "made to resound," across "the white sea." Such a sacred object would be a worthy donation to a royal shrine. Arion was closely tied to the divine; Apollo and creatures of Poseidon saved this talented musician.

Arion wasn't forgotten, even centuries later, remaining a staple of art in the ancient world. In his City of God, St. Augustine compares Arion, who "was received on a dolphin’s back and carried to land," didn't measure up to Jonah, rescued from the belly of a whale. Augustine opines that Christianity is better than paganism because "that story of ours about the prophet Jonah is far more incredible, more incredible because more marvellous, and more marvellous because a greater exhibition of power." So Jesus > Apollo, in other words.