Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Euripides, Ion



* * * * *

Ion “is sometimes considered tragicomedy and is perhaps unique in Greek drama” (Roche 103). The play begins with Hermes recounting prior events: Ion was born to Creusa “some nineteen years ago” (103) as a product of rape by the god Apollo. Creusa feared her father, so the night that Ion was born, she brought him to the cave where Apollo had raped her and left Ion there to die (104). Hermes, the messenger god, rescued Ion from the cave “and put him in the charge of the temple priestess at Delphi, where he was reared and came to serve in Apollo’s shrine.” Creusa then married Xuthus, a soldier of fortune; they are childless but are “determine[d] to go to Delphi and ask for offspring” (104).

Ion and Creusa meet and have no idea that he is her son. She gives much of her background, and the scene is replete with ironies, such as Creusa changing the topic: “But what of you? Who are you? What a fortunate mother you have!” (110). Ion knows little: “Perhaps some woman was violated and I am her child” (111). She tells him all about a woman who abandoned her son in a cave because Phoebus (another name for Apollo) seduced her (116). Ion speculates: “What if Phoebus took up the child and raised it in secret”? Creusa responds, “Then he is acting unjustly in enjoying for himself what should be a pleasure shared!” (112).

Xuthus arrives, reporting that he had word that neither he nor Creusa would return from the oracle childless. He enters the temple, while Ion ruminates about Apollo being a deadbeat dad. “If you and Poseidon and Zeus who rules the heavens are to answer to men for your predatory behaviour towards women … Who, then, deserves the title ‘wicked’? No longer mankind if we imitate behaviour sanctioned by the gods, but the ones who teach us these lessons!” (114-115).

Xuthus emerges from the temple of Apollo excited. He runs toward Ion and wants hug him because he was told that the first person he would see would be his son. Ion is confused and reacts almost violently toward Xuthus: “Will you let go or do you want an arrow through your ribs?” (122). Xuthus finally convinces Ion, admitting that he slept with other women “in the folly of youth” (117), but now Ion wants to find out the identity of his mother. He also frets about what could be all the strikes against him in his new life: not being born a citizen, being a bastard, having “to give way on the road to men of low birth” (120) — that last being a rather inappropriate aristocratic attitude!

The Chorus Leader tells Creusa and an Old Man that Creusa will never have a baby at this point, and that Xuthus has in fact been given a son (131). Creusa is heartbroken, assuming that Ion is the child of Xuthus and some Delphian slave-girl; an Old Man tells her that she has been “cheated by [her] husband,” and that “he took some slave girl to his bed” (132). Creusa tragically recalls when, gathering flowers, Apollo “grasped my white arms, like fruit on a tree, and dragged me screaming ‘Mother!’ to lie with you, a god, in the cave, where you shamelessly indulged your lust” (127).

The Old Man wants Creusa to kill Ion because he will ruin their household, so they devise a plan of killing him with poison Creusa has carried with her for years. The plan fails when the first cups of wine at a feast are ritualistically poured out and a bird dies in convulsions after drinking what had been Ion’s wine. Ion sets out to kill Creusa. She takes refuge, as Ion objects to the practice of sanctuary privilege for criminals.

The priestess (or Prophetess) gives Ion a bit more of the story of his background and presents the ark, or basket, that baby Ion had been left in: “This is new detail in the story!” (141). Creusa also recognizes it and tells Ion the truth: she is his mother. Ion expresses the hope that she is not doing that thing where a girl accidentally pregnant blames a god. No, it is decided that Apollo has arranged matters so that Xuthus will be the father (a little late), and secrecy has spared any public embarrassment (though mostly for Apollo?). Ion now wants to know if his father is Xuthus or Apollo, and he is set straight by an intervening Athena, deus ex machina style, declaring Apollo his real father and promising that a people — the Ionians — will descend from him. “The gods’ purposes may be slow in coming to fruition but they are fulfilled without fail” (149). Um … yeah, but….

* * * * *

Gold Images in Ion:

Euripides uses the image of gold “to distract the audience’s attention from a tragic occurrence, namely Apollo’s assault upon Creusa” (Thorburn 40).

When Creusa, in her monody, recounts Apollo’s assault, she expresses her rage at the god. But when she protests against being raped by a golden-haired divinity who delivers oracles from a golden seat, while she herself picks crocus petals that cause her dress to bloom with a golden gleam, we are temporarily blinded to the sexual assault she attempts to portray. (Thorburn 40)

By bringing attention to these different features — her dress, the flowers, and the radiance of the god — it “seems to ameliorate Apollo’s actions and thus confuses the audience’s ability to determine with certainty whether Apollo is ‘noble’ or ‘base'” (Thorburn 40).

Euripides does more with the golden accents in this play than just taking focus off of the rape of Creusa; “At other times, golden imagery elevates the play’s mundane or comic elements to a majestic level.” Ion is a servant who sweeps the temple, washes the temple, and protects the temple from bird droppings, but Euripides “gives the young man’s servitude a certain dignity by surrounding him with gold” (Thorburn 45). Thorburn states that “Ion is the guardian of Apollo’s gold,” “Ion laves Apollo’s precinct with water from golden jars, and keeps golden lustral vessels fill with water,” and “Ion sweeps Apollo’s golden oikos” (45).

Although Ion is surrounded by gold, Euripides does not eliminate the comic element from his enslavement completely; Ion does not entirely prevent the temple garden of Apollo from being soiled by birds. “When Apollo’s temple is soiled by this means, Euripides achieves a comic irony by subjecting the temple of the god of truth and light [Apollo] to defilement by birds, the very creatures whom Ion is ashamed to kill because they deliver the gods’ messages to the mortals” (Thorburn 45).

Though to shoot you
Is against my principles, because you birds
Let us know the will of the gods. But I,
Apollo’s servant, have my duties and
Am dedicated to my tasks, especially
To one by whom I get my living here. (110)

This is interesting because the defilement is not directed towards Ion; it is directed to Apollo. The image of the birds soiling the golden surface of the temple gardens brings about the question of Apollo’s purity: “Apollo may be the god of truth and light, but in the Ion we hear how the god has taken by force the virginity of an Athenian princess, an act which Ion himself later shows to be one that debases the god’s divinity.” Within Creusa’s monody, the assault that Apollo committed sullies his own golden purity, but within Ion’s monody, the birds are soiling the golden purity of Apollo’s temple (Thorburn 46). * * * * *

Purity in the Temple of Apollo:

In his own monody, Ion describes the temple of Apollo, “emphasizing the connection between purity and the domination by which purity is enforced” (Hoffer 291). Ion tells us that it is his duty to keep the temple of Apollo sacred and pure, and he shows violence towards all of the various birds that enter the temple (107-110).

Also in Ion’s monody, Euripides gives us reference to the “sun-chariot, to the alternation of night and day, and to the ‘sacredness’ of night to suggest a metaphor of supplication” (Hoffer 292):

Gaze on the blazing car of the sun
Whose rays go streaming over the earth
And burn the stars’ light from the skies
In flight until mysterious night.
Parnassus’ lonely peaks are tinged,
Shining on mankind with spokes of sun. (107)

The stars described here “can be thought of as suppliants, escaping from the military onslaught of the sun into the night,” trying to keep them pure and out of danger of the sun’s light. The night is said to be “sacred” because it is “dangerous and mysterious,” so it is “a good place of ‘refuge’ for the stars” (Hoffer 292):

“Sacred” is thus a kind of euphemism. Another word for “night” is a clear euphemism that indicates its mysterious danger: “the well-intentioned time.” Supplication and euphemism are closely connected; both are strategies for negotiating the dangerous boundary of a sacred taboo, whether by shielding against it in euphemism, or exploiting its violation in supplication. (Hoffer 292)

Ion is hinting at euphemism and supplication by giving us this tension between what is pure and sacred. * * * * *

Purity and Violence:

Ion carries three items which he uses to mark what his cleaning tasks are in the temple of Apollo: a “bay-sweet broomstick,” a “golden ewer,” and a “bow” (109-110). The bow clearly demonstrates “how purity depends on violence” (Hoffer 295). Ion goes out into the temple gardens to ward off the birds to keep the temple pure using this bow and arrow. “Even the pacing changes here, from ritualized serenity to unpredictable, violent action” (Hoffer 297). Ion had entered with a bow and arrow, but he does not know when the birds would fly into the temple gardens; when he sees them, he goes into a frenzy to ward them off:

[Suddenly Ion thrusts away his broom and urn of lustral waters and, snatching up his bow and arrows, runs through the temple gardens waving his arms and shouting. In an exuberant mime he makes a show of warding off the various birds that begin to alight]. (109)

Ion threatens three different types of birds during his outrage: an eagle, a swan, and an unknown bird species that is making a nest of sticks. An eagle seems an awkward choice in this play because we are in a pure and peaceful temple garden in Delphi. “The eagle, the ‘herald of Zeus, prevails over the strength of birds with its beak’, just as Zeus controls the cosmic hierarchy with his thunderbolt.” It makes more sense to have a swan because they are more peaceful creatures: “But the swan, with its beautiful appearance ‘crimson-gleaming’ foot, and beautiful songs, would seem to belong at Delphi” (Hoffer 298). Ion threatens these two birds in very different ways: to the eagle he exclaims, “And you, you eagle / Of Zeus — are you back too? Just wait, you / Talon-tearing snatcher, strongest of birds, / I’ll have an arrow at you.” But to the swan, the more beautiful and calm creature, he has more disturbing attitude:

And what’s this?
A swan cruising down towards the altar.
Get those crimson feet of yours away
Or your swan song, be it as melodious
As Apollo, will not save you from my arrows.
So, off with you! Away — away
To the lake of Delos, or else your blood
Will flow as musically as your final melody. (110)

With sending the swan from Delphi, “the place of mythical archery and death,” to Delos, “the place of mythical song and birth,” Ion is eliminating from the citadel the bird “that reminds us that Apollo, too, had a mother and a birth” (Hoffer 298).

The third, unnamed bird he also wants to send to other sacred precincts:

Ha! What’s this new bird arriving?
No doubt you want to make your nest of sticks
And straw under the eaves for your fledglings. Yes?
The twang of my bow will make you keep your distance.
Are you listening? Go and do your breeding
Among the deltas of Alpheus or
Somewhere on the wooded Isthmus, not
Here, besmirching the sacrificial offerings
And temple of Apollo…. (110)

Here Ion is describing the sacred precincts of Zeus and Poseidon: “His descriptions of Olympia [Alpheus] and the Isthmus emphasize their natural fertility, in contrast to the man-made monuments at Delphi” (Hoffer 298). Hoffer also describes how “fresh water and a wooded grove would make an appropriately fertile setting for the birth of chicks, and there the bird droppings would be fertilizing, not polluting” (298). Ion talks about sending them to a better place, but we still get a sense of his anger to have the birds leave the temple.

Ion’s attempts to ward off the birds in the temple garden are much like his actions towards Creusa and Xuthus when he meets each of them for the first time: he does not believe what Creusa told him about Apollo’s past — about him seducing a young woman — and he repels Xuthus after he came out of the temple and wanted to embrace him. “He violently wards off Xuthus’ fatherly embrace, which he seems to misinterpret as a homosexual attack on his chastity” (Hoffer 298). Ion orders both of them to leave, much like how he orders the birds to leave the temple.

Works Cited

Euripides. Ion. Heracles and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 2002. 95-149, 256-269.

Euripides. Ion. Ten Plays. Trans. Paul Roche. NY: Penguin Books, 1998. 101-161.

Hoffer, Stanley E. “Violence, Culture, and the Workings of Ideology in Euripides’ ‘Ion’.” Classical Antiquity 15.2 (October 1996): 289-318.

Thorburn Jr., John E. “Euripides’ ‘Ion’: The Gold and the Darkness.” Classical Bulletin 76.1 (2000): 39-49.


Orpheus: Greek Plays