“inter Delphinas arion“
Vergil speaks of Arion among things impossible by nature:
Now let the wolf turn tail and fly the sheep,
tough oaks bear golden apples, alder-trees
bloom with narcissus-flower, the tamarisk
sweat with rich amber, and the screech-owl vie
in singing with the swan: let Tityrus
be Orpheus, Orpheus in the forest-glade,
arion ‘mid his dolphins on the deep.
‘Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.’
The earliest scounts of Arion’s rescue by a dolphin pre-date Vergil’s poem by more than half a millennium and the earliest authors speak of it in matter-of-fact tones, not as a myth but as an event incidental to their subject. Thus Herodotus is concerned with the life of Periander, ruler of Corinth from BC 627- BC 585 as he writes:
The Corinthians say (and the men of Lesbos agree) that the most marvellous thing that happened during Periander’s lifetime was the landing on Taenarus of Arion of Methymna, brought there by a dolphin. This Arion 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. (Herodotus. Histories. 1.23)
Taenarus, or Taenarum (Gk.Ταίναρον, mod. Gk Ακρωτήριον Ταίναρον) is known today as Cape Tintenaro or Cape Matapan, the tip of the Peloponnese ‘middle finger’. It marked the western border of the Vale of Lacadaemon, ancient Sparta.
The next source belongs to the early part of the second century AD and again refers to Arion by way of another subject. Pausanias’ Description of Greece says, in connection with Taenarum:
“among other offerings … is a bronze statue of Arion the harper on a dolphin. Herodotus has told the story of Arion and the dolphin, as he heard it, in his history of Lydia”
This might seem so non-comittal as to imply doubt, but Pausanias – himself a Spartan – adds immediately:
I have (myself) seen the dolphin at Poroselene [Nasos = mod. Alibey Adası] that rewards the boy for having saved his life. It had been damaged by fishermen and he cured it. I saw this dolphin obeying his call and carrying him whenever he wanted to ride on it. [3.25.7].
The example is most apt, for Poroselene lies very near Arion’s native town of Methymna and on same latitude – a ‘poetic latitude’ perhaps.
Pausanias’ reserved tone is partly his habitual care to observe a line between fact and hearsay though perhaps, too, he suspected Herodotus’ may have received a garbled account of a still-earlier incident when a Spartan named Phalanthos had been saved so after shipwreck.
“before Phalanthus reached Italy they say that he was cast away in the Crisaean Sea, and was brought to land by a dolphin.”
Phalanthos had left Sparta with a group of his fellows, their intention being to conquer and occupy a city in Magna Graecia. This they did, eventually, taking Tarentum, the largest and richest of the native cities. Or so the story went.[Pausanias, Description.. X.4], The tale of rescue-by-dolphin may even represent a transfer by the Spartans to themselves of the Tarentum’s original founding myth, in which the hero was the eponymous Taras. A coin made for Tarentum in the fifth century BC is among our earliest examples of such a figure.
It was from Sicily that Arion had taken ship in a journey that promised death but ended in salvation and indeed most of these figures belong to the regions most affected by the culture of the Phoenicians, particularly in the western Mediterranean – the old ‘Phoenician basin’.
The seamen on Arion’s ship are said to have been so civil as to offer him a choice to suit his religious preference: either to die and be buried on land or to have this happen at sea. Consignment to Demeter or to Poseidon.
It is now so well-attested and well-known that humans may become recipients of dolphin-behaviours normally applied in aiding incompetent or distressed members of their own, or other sea-mammal species that demonstration is scarcely needed, but in illustration I’ll add links to a few recent incidents at the end of this post. A video made by Japanese whalers (‘cetacean researchers’) shows precisely the behaviour that Plutarch describes in connection with Arion: the pod forming a supporting ‘raft’.
Of Ships and Poets.
Apart from the story of Arion’s rescue (or that of Phalanthos, or of Taras), a possibility exists which seems to have escaped the urban writers of ancient and medieval times: that is, that the figure of the poet-musician on the dolphin celebrates those who served as poets, teachers and chanters of the way. Like this type of image, we find allusions to the practice from the periphery, where remnants of pre-Roman culture survived for a time: in Ionia, the Greek islands, in Canopus and later in the Great Sea east of the Yemen from which we have the fifteenth-century account of his craft by the master, Ibn Majid.
For the earlier period, however, our iconographic and textual evidence is more circumstantial and emerges chiefly from regions where Phoenician and Punic influence existed. In the western Mediterranean the imagery emerges from the middle of the fifth century BC that is, contemporary with Herodotus.
That the ‘dolphin’ may be a metaphor for a certain type of ship is clear, and particularly in a mosaic laid in Delphi by one Asclepiades of Arados in Phoenicia. The cult of Delos centred around worship of Poseidon and of Dionysius, the deities of the wine-dark sea and of the wine of poetry and music.
The parallel between creature and ship was more apparent in ancient times, when Phoenician ships bore the Egyptian ‘eye’ and a ram formed like a dolphin’s nose.
But even if we take literally the images of ‘musician and the dolphin’, there is close accord between the most ancient accounts and present knowledge of dolphin behaviour. Such divergencies as occur are explicable in terms of human expectations and assumptions – such as a hierarchy of species which interprets the assistance as ‘service’ inspired by gods and so on.
Among the later Romans, the historicity of Arion’s rescue seems to have become a subject of considerable interest and some controversy. We find increasing reference made to it among the writers even as imagery of the Roman world seeks to minimalise, infantilise or to replace such figures as Arion, Phalanthos and Taras with the wholly mythical Melicertes-Palaemon, though the name ‘Melicertes’ is thought to reflect earlier Phoenician worship of Melkart.
The scoffer’s position is well represented by Vergil and by a passage from Strabo, who wrote:
Antissa, a city with a harbor, comes next in order after Sigrium. And then Methymna, whence came Arion, who, according to a myth [sic.] told by Herodotus and his followers, safely escaped on a dolphin to Taenarum after being thrown into the sea by the pirates. Now Arion played, and sang to, the cithara; and Terpander, also, is said to have been an artist in the same music and to have been born in the same island, having been the first person to use the seven-stringed instead of the four-stringed lyre, as we are told in the verses attributed to him. (13.2)
It is interesting to note that our most detailed and circumstantial account comes from Plutarch, writing more than seven centuries after Periander’s death. In his Convivio, Plutarch imagines the seven ancient ‘sages’ of Greece together, and the degree to which he melds tradition, fact, and imagination is impossible to determine. Here are some of the ancient sources describing ‘man rescued by dolphin’. I apologise for having mislaid my note of the sources from which the extracts came.
“When the vast pinnacle of [Sicily’s volcano] Aetna, with its trailing pennon of smoke, a pinnacle which hour after hour seems to rise in the sky, at last fades out of sight in the west, a long reach of unbroken sea has to be ploughed. Long before we sight the mountains of Taygetus or the headlands of Taenarum or Malea, between which lies the vale of ‘Hollow Lacedæmon,’ one has come to realise that we have left Europe far behind and are entering on the land of the rising sun … Whatever geographers may pretend, there is not any such country as Greece — and there never was…” Zaman (Dec. 2007)
- Fragments of Arion’s poems at Demonax Hellenistic Library (online)
- Modern intellectualisations and efforts to describe the ancient accounts as archetypes are far too many and too tedious to enumerate here.
- Readers might, however, enjoy Vivienne Gray, ‘Herodotus’ Literary and Historical Method: Arion’s Story (1.23-24)’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 122, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 11-28 (JSTOR)
- Arion’s story again became enormously popular during the Renaissance and later. See the Warburg Collection for images of the works produced between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. [HERE]
- On the equine Areon/Arion – the fullest account is in Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Biography and Myth (the same source, extracted and reprinted is online at Theoi.com.)
- Palemon Melicertes – figure preferred in Roman re-workings of the older stories. See coins displayed at http://www.ancientcoinage.org/other-interesting-ancient-myths.html
- House of the Dolphins – see Katherine Dunbabin, “Technique and Materials of Hellenistic Mosaics”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 83 No. 3 (July 1979) pp. 265–277. [p.33] JSTOR