Written between 414 and 412 BC, Ion—along with Helen, Orestes and Iphigenia in Tauris—is one of Euripides’ so-called romantic tragedies, i.e. tragedies with a happy ending. It begins with a prologue in which Hermes, the messenger of the gods, reveals to us that, years before the events we’re about to witness, Creusa, daughter of the king of Athens, was raped by Apollo and had a son by him. Ashamed, she abandoned the child in his cradle. Hermes, however, rescued it and took it to his father’s oracle at Delphi, where the boy has grown up in the meantime as the temple servant of Apollo. Now, Creusa is married to Xuthus, a foreigner, but she has remained childless throughout the marriage. Because of this, the two have decided to visit Delphi—where the play is set—to learn from the priestess of Apollo (the Pythia) whether the gods will be merciful enough to grant them descendants. Xuthus is surprised to learn from the oracle that the first person he should meet coming out of the temple is actually his son. Of course, the boy in question turns out to be none other than Creusa’s once-abandoned child whom Xuthus immediately names Ion (the word means “coming out” in Greek). Creusa is hurt to find out from an old man that her husband has been granted a son by Apollo, cursing the god for hurting her yet again. She plots with the old man the murder of Xuthus’ supposed son. However, a messenger soon reveals that Creusa’s scheme has failed, that the old man has been captured, and that Ion, having escaped the poison meant for him, is now up for revenge. To protect herself, Creusa takes refuge at the altar of Apollo inside the temple, but that’s precisely where Ion tries to find her. The Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, meets Ion before the entrance and advises him to leave both Delphi and his anger and go back to Athens with his father. She also gives him the basket he had been found in as a child, together with the clothes and jewelry it once contained, hoping that the items should help Xuthus find his mother. Creusa recognizes them as her own, and realizes that Ion must be the son Apollo had fathered once with her. Ion is a bit confused because this would mean that Apollo’s prophecy to Xanthus wasn’t precisely right, but before he can ask the oracle, Athena appears and covers for Apollo, predicting a glorious future for Ion as the next king of Athens.
Date and Historical Background
The exact date of the first production of Ion—as well as its placement within the supposed trilogy—is not known. However, based on metrical evidence, it shouldn’t be before 418 BC or later than 412 BC. Due to a few historical circumstances, 412 BC is often stated as the most probable year of the original production of Ion, but this needn’t be necessarily true.
Characters and Setting
• Hermes, the messenger of the gods
• Ion, son of Apollo and Creusa, raised as an orphan
• Creusa, queen of Athens, mother of Ion
• Xuthus, king of Athens and husband of Creusa; an Achaean ally of Athens
• Old man, a former tutor of Erechtheus, one of the first kings of Athens, and Creusa; a loyal slave in Creusa’s household
• Servant, slave in Creusa’s household
• The Pythia, priestess of Apollo
• Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom
• Chorus of female slaves of Creusa
Summary of Ion
After introducing himself as the son of Maia and Zeus, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, informs us that he has come to Delphi to observe the fate of a unique boy. The boy is, in fact, a demigod, born by Athens’ queen Creusa many years before the events of the play and nine months after the god Apollo had forced a union with her in an isolated Athenian cave. It was in this cave that the ashamed Creusa brought the infant and “exposed him to die in the round circle of a hollow cradle” as soon as she gave birth to him. Unknown to her, Apollo ordered Hermes to rescue the child and place it at the entrance of his temple at Delphi. The Pythia, the priestess of the temple, took up the child and raised it to become a loyal servant of Apollo.
In the meantime, back in Athens, Creusa has married an Achaean ally named Xuthus, but the couple has remained childless to this day. Seeking for a remedy, the two have decided to visit Apollo’s temple at Delphi and are just about to reach it. Apollo, however, has already devised a plan of his own to solve everybody’s problems: he intends to convince Xuthus that the boy is his, while giving Creusa a chance to recognize it as the one she had abandoned. Thus, both the union of Apollo and Creusa will be kept a secret, and the boy will find his way back to his original home. He will be named Ion, says Hermes, and become the eponym of the Ionians, the ancestors of all Athenians.
Despite being a god, funnily enough, Hermes retreats to the bushes so as to watch these events unfold and “learn what is fated for the child.” At about the same moment, the child—the still-anonymous Ion—appears, greeting the new day with a work song, during which he performs menial chores around the temple, while praising Apollo.
Parodos (Entrance Song)
A group of Athenian female slaves appear before the temple—amazed at its beauty and sculptural decorations. Ion welcomes them warmly and shows them around. Before they can identify themselves as slaves of Creusa, the queen of Athens arrives before the temple, followed by her attendants.
“Who are you? From what land have you come? What country is your fatherland? By what name should we call you?” asks Ion the distinguished guest of the temple. “Creusa is my name, Erechtheus my father, the city of Athens my fatherland,” responds she. The very mention of Erechtheus and Athens inspire admiration in Ion; inexplicably, Creusa is strangely drawn to the courteous temple slave as well. After a brief discussion on the origin of Erechtheus and his deeds, Creusa reveals the purpose of her visit: she and her husband have been married for quite some time but are childless, and they would appreciate finding out if there is something they can do to change that.
But there’s something else, she adds almost immediately: “One of my friends says that she had intercourse with Apollo. And she bore a child to the god, without her father's knowledge, and she exposed out of doors the child that she bore. She wants to know his whereabouts.” “How much time has passed since then?” asks Ion. “If he were indeed alive, he would be your age,” answers Creusa. After contemplating the situation a bit, Ion denies Creusa the opportunity to ask Apollo anything about that boy: after all, why would he prophesize anything about something that he wants to hide? “He is ashamed of the deed; do not convict him,” he says. “There must be no consultation contrary to the god.” It is at this moment that Xuthus arrives at the temple and enters inside to ask about his and Creusa’s childlessness. While Ion ponders Creusa’s strange behavior and her portrayal of Apollo, the queen departs to the shrines in the outer precinct of the temple to pray for good result.
The Chorus does pretty much the same: in the first stasimon, they pray to Artemis and Athena that Apollo grant the House of Erechtheus a child, “for it brings a cure in ills, pleasure in good fortune, a saving defense with the spear for one's native land.” At the same time, however, they are a bit sad: the story of Apollo’s actions in the case of Creusa’s supposed friend has evidently touched them profoundly. “Neither at the loom nor in speeches have I heard that the children born to mortals from gods claim a report of good fortune,” they sing.
“My boy, welcome! That is a suitable way to begin speaking!” exclaims Xuthus, exiting the temple and happening upon Ion. “Let me kiss your hand, and throw my arms around your body!” he adds without warning. Ion is more than surprised and has no idea how to interpret Xuthus’ advances: “Are you in your right mind, stranger? Or has some damage from a god driven you mad?” After several amusing back-and-forth exchanges of this kind, Xuthus suddenly says something that takes the orphan aback even more: “Ion, I am your father,” he says, “and you are my child.” Skeptical at first, Ion accepts the news after Xuthus explains to him that this is what Apollo’s oracle had foretold him—namely, that the first person he’d meet upon leaving the temple is his son. Almost too happy, Xuthus seems uninterested in whether Ion is his real son or, per the ambiguous words of the priestess, “a gift, but born his son.” He is also unconcerned about the problem of the temple servant’s mother: it must be one of the women he had slept with in the folly of his youth and she must have exposed Ion to hide her shame. Eventually, Ion is entirely convinced in Xuthus’ story, if not merely because of Apollo’s authority: “It is reasonable not to distrust the god, at any rate,” he says.
Even so, he is sad that he has discovered nothing more but the identity of his long-lost father. “O my dear mother,” he cries longingly, “when shall I see you also? Now I long to see you, whoever you are, more than before; but perhaps you are dead, and it could never happen.” Xuthus says the two can look for her in Athens, where Ion (who is still anonymous) should be welcomed with a scepter and abundant wealth. Ion, however, prefers Delphi, and explains at length why: being natives of their land, the Athenians will certainly not like to be ruled by someone with a foreigner-father and of bastard birth. In Athens, Ion says, despite all wealth and royal titles, he “shall be called no one and nothing” and “will be hated by the powerless;” in Delphi, he is careless and feels at home. “Let me live here,” Ion pleads, “for the pleasure is equal, to rejoice in greatness or to have delight with little.” Xuthus laughs off this logic and pledges to teach Ion to be successful and happy. He orders a farewell feast and gives his son his name: Ion, meaning “coming out,” since he was the first one Xuthus met after emerging from the temple.
As the two leave, in the second stasimon, the Chorus invokes Dionysus and curses viciously Xuthus and Ion, believing that the former has betrayed Creusa with another woman, the real mother of Ion. “May the boy never come to my city,” they threaten, “may he leave his young life and die! For the mourning city would have for excuse a foreign invasion.”
A moment later, Creusa appears with an old man, her tutor from the days of her adulthood, and learns from the Chorus what has happened. “Lady, we are betrayed,” says the Tutor and instantly develops a conspiracy theory: Xuthus must have discovered that Creusa was barren long time ago, and then sired this child by a slave woman and subsequently gave him to a Delphian to raise it. Now, he has tricked Creusa to come here and accept him as a son under a false premise: in fact, she will be accepting a foreign invader of Athens. “Now indeed you must act a woman's part,” concludes the Tutor. “With a sword or by some trick or with poison kill your husband and his son, before death comes to you from them.”
Creusa is inconsolable: for the second time in her life she has been betrayed by a man—in the past a revered god, and a now a longtime, beloved husband. She bursts into a tearful song and in a brief discussion with the puzzled Tutor, she reveals, for the first time, Apollo’s rape and its heartbreaking aftermath. “What thought induced you to expose your child?” asks the Tutor. “That the god would save his own offspring.” Maddened by the suffering of the queen, the Tutor goes so far to even suggest that Creusa should burn the holy oracle of Apollo. “I am afraid,” replies Creusa. “I have enough ills even now.” “Dare what may be done then,” counters the Tutor, “kill your husband.” Creusa is reluctant to do that as well out of respect to Xuthus’ faithfulness and love in some bygone times. “Then kill the son who has appeared against you.” Creusa agrees to this, and, with the help of the Old Man, proceeds to plot the murder of Ion.
In the third stasimon, Creusa’s female slaves pray to Hecate for their mistress plot to succeed; otherwise, Athens will end up being presided over by outsiders and their queen would never endure strangers ruling her home. “Let the song recant and let discordant music go against the beds of men!” they sing. “See how we surpass their unjust seed in piety!”
A servant-messenger—an attendant of Creusa—arrives before Apollo’s temple and reveals that the Tutor’s plan to poison Ion at the feast organized by Xuthus has failed miserably. He did manage to mask himself as a wine steward and to pour poisoned wine in the chalice of Ion; however, at that moment, an ill-omened remark by someone made Ion order everybody to pour out their goblets as libation sacrifices. Soon, a flock of doves flew in and started drinking the spilled wine; one of them, after drinking the wine intended for Ion, died in terrible torment. After being exposed and tortured, the Old Man has implicated Creusa in the plot; now every Delphian is searching for her: she has been sentenced to death by a hastily assembled people’s court.
In a lyric Interlude, Creusa’s slave women anticipate the death of their queen—as well as their own demise—at the hands of the Delphian mob. “What remains, my unhappy mistress, for you to feel in your life?” they ask even though Creusa is not there to hear them. “Shall we, who planned to do wrong to another, ourselves be punished, as is right?”
Exodos (Exit Song)
As if summoned by them, Creusa rushes in and tells them what they already know: that she is pursued to the death. She runs inside the temple to take refuge at the altar and, just a moment later, Ion and an angry Delphian mob arrives. As Ion rages against the ancient laws that prevent him from killing the traitress right there and then, the Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, steps out of the temple and advises Ion to focus on something much more important: locating his mother. To help him, she presents him with a secret object that she has kept for years: the basket he was found in as a baby. Now that he knows who his father is, the basket should certainly help him identify his mother as well.
Surprisingly, Creusa recognizes it almost immediately: “I cannot be silent anymore,” she says, stepping away from her refuge. “For I see the cradle, in which I once exposed you, my son, when you were still an infant. I will leave this altar, even if I must die.” Irritated and disbelieving, Ion challenges Creusa to prove that the basket was indeed left by her by identifying its contents. Creusa accepts the challenge and lists all three items inside the basket: an unfinished weaving, a pair of golden serpents fashioned into a necklace, and a wreath of olive branches. Ion is convinced and flies into Creusa's welcoming arms: “O my dearest mother! I see you with joy, I am held to your joyful face.” “I am no longer childless,” replies Creusa. “The house is established; the land has a king.”
After a touching and emotional reunion, Ion asks Creusa about his father. She reveals to him something that strikes Ion to his very core: his father is not Xuthus, but none other than Apollo. “How then did he give his child to another father and say that I was born the son of Xuthus?” Ion wonders. “The god is true, or prophecy is in vain—this troubles my heart, mother, and with reason.” Ion tries to retreat inside the temple to ask the god himself how could he have lied, but suddenly Athena appears above him. She confirms Creusa’s story, absolves Apollo from guilt, and prophesizes Ion’s majestic fate, his four sons becoming eponyms of the four Athenian tribes. She also instructs Creusa to let Xuthus go on believing he is Ion’s father. Joyful and thankful for everything, Ion and Creusa leave for Athens, led by Athena.
A Brief Analysis
Both thematically and metrically, Ion is quite similar to Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen and the now-fragmentary Andromeda and Hypsipyle—all of them written at about the same time—in that it dramatizes a little-known myth (or aspect of a myth) in a non-Greek or exotic setting (Crimea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Delphi) and features “a story of lovers or long-lost relatives united or reunited, intricately plotted revenge actions, catastrophe narrowly averted, and thrilling escapes” (John Gibert). The strangest aspect of these plays—at least to modern audiences—is the somewhat unexpected happy ending, because, for the most part, the plays are actually structured pretty much as proper tragedies. Because of this—and analogously to Shakespeare’s late plays—Ion, Iphigenia in Tauris and Helen are often grouped under the anachronistic genre-title “Euripides’ romantic tragedies.”
Even so—and despite the evident instances of humor throughout the play (such as Hermes’ hiding behind a shrubbery or Ion misunderstanding Xuthus’ embraces)—Ion seems to seriously explore at least three interrelated themes of constant interest to both Ancient Athenians and modern people as well: the themes of ethnic purity, ethnic superiority and autochthony.
Even though there’s no way to know for sure, it’s quite possible that Euripides might have revised some of the old myths to grant Ion a different genealogy. Ancient Athenians weren’t that happy with the fact that they are descendants of Ion (Ionian Greeks) due to his foreign ancestry via Xuthus. In addition, the original myth made them inferior to the Spartans in terms of age, because the Spartans considered themselves descendants of the Dorian Greeks whose mythical father was Xuthus’ brother, i.e., Ion’s uncle. In other words, because of Ion, the Athenians weren’t only foreigners, but also came to Greece a generation later than their fierce rivals, the Spartans. By adding another layer to this myth—without damaging its outlines—Euripides solves both of these problems: in his play, Ion is now a foster-son of Xuthus and an actual son of Apollo, a connection which makes the Athenians both autochthonous inhabitants of their land and as ancient as it is humanly conceivable.
However, the great tragedian employs an ambiguous trick to achieve this: a premediated false prophecy by none other than Apollo. Does this make the play ironic – or is it just another patriotic play of his? Knowing Euripides, it should surprise nobody that to at least a few interpreters, the former seems a bit more probable.
There are many translations of Ion available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read E. P. Coleridge’s translation for Loeb Classical Library here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Arthur S. Way blank verse adaptation here.