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Arion (Ancient Greek: Ἀρίων, gen.: Ἀρίωνος) was a kitharode in ancient Greece, a Dionysiac poet credited with inventing the dithyramb: "As a literary composition for chorus dithyramb was the creation of Arion of Corinth," The islanders of Lesbos claimed him as their native son, but Arion found a patron in Periander, tyrant of Corinth. Although notable for his musical inventions, Arion is chiefly remembered for the fantastic myth of his kidnapping by pirates and miraculous rescue by dolphins, a folktale motif. Herodotus (1,23) says "Arion was second to none of the lyre-players in his time and was also the first man we know of to compose and name the dithyramb and teach it in Corinth". However J.H. Sleeman observes of the dithyramb, or circular chorus, "It is first mentioned by Archilochus (c 665 BC)… Arion flourished at least 50 years later… probably gave it a more artistic form, adding a chorus of 50 people, personating satyrs… who danced around an altar of Dionysus. He was doubtless the first to introduce the dithyramb into Corinth".
Arion is also associated with the origins of tragedy: of Solon John the Deacon reports: “Arion of Methymna first introduced the drama [i.e. action] of tragedy, as Solon indicated in his poem entitled Elegies".
According to Herodotus' account of the Lydian empire under the Mermnads, Arion attended a musical competition in Sicily, which he won. On his return trip from Tarentum, avaricious sailors plotted to kill Arion and steal the rich prizes he carried home. Arion was given the choice of suicide with a proper burial on land, or being thrown in the sea to perish. Neither prospect appealed to Arion: as Robin Lane Fox observes, "No Greek would swim out into the deep from a boat for pleasure." He asked for permission to sing a last song to win time.
Playing his kithara, Arion sang a praise to Apollo, the god of poetry, and his song attracted a number of dolphins around the ship. At the end of the song, Arion threw himself into the sea rather than be killed, but one of the dolphins saved his life and carried him to safety at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Tainaron. When he reached land, being eager for his journey, he failed to return the dolphin to the sea and it perished there. He told his misfortunes to Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, who ordered the dolphin to be buried, and monument raised to it. Shortly after, word came to Periander that the ship in which Arion had sailed had been brought to Corinth by a storm. He ordered the crew to be led before him, and inquired about Arion, but they replied that he had died and that they had buried him. The tyrant replied: "Tomorrow you will swear to that at the Dolphin's Monument." Because of this he ordered them to be kept under guard, and instructed Arion to hide in the monument of the dolphin the next morning, attired as he was when he threw himself into the sea. When the tyrant had brought them there, and ordered them to swear by the departed spirit of the dolphin that Arion was dead, Arion came out of the monument. In amazement, wondering by what divinity he had been saved, they were silent. The tyrant ordered them to be crucified at the monument of the dolphin, but Apollo, because of Arion's skill with the kithara, placed him and the dolphin among the stars. This dolphin was catasterised as the constellation Delphinus, by the blessing of Apollo.
Augustine of Hippo asserted that pagans "believed in what they read in their own books" and took Arion to be a historical individual. "There is no historicity in this tale", also according to Eunice Burr Stebbins, and Arion and the dolphins are given as an example of "a folkloristic motif especially associated with Apollo" by Irad Malkin. Yet there are many more or less reliable historical accounts from many periods of people being saved by dolphins. Erasmus instanced Arion as one of the traditional poet's topics that sound like historia rather than fabulae, though he misremembered that Augustine had taken the Arion story to be historical.
The episode may be seen as a doublet of the fate of Melicertes, where the leap into the sea was that of his mother, Ino. transformed into the "white goddess" Leucothea; Melicertes was carried more dead than alive to the shores where the Isthmian Games were celebrated in his honour, as he was transformed to the hero Palaimon, who was placated with a nocturnal chthonic right, and the whose winners were crowned with a barren wreath of spruce.
Another parallel is the myth of Dionysus and the sailors, related in the Homeric Hymns: Tyrrhenian pirates try to lash the god to the mast, but the wood itself starts to sprout and the mast is entwined with ivy (like the god's thyrsus); the sailors leap into the sea and are transformed into dolphins. This is especially interesting because Arion is credited with the invention of the dithyramb, a dionysiac song.
In light of the above parallels, Walter Burkert interprets the story as a significant development in the history of Dionysiac cult: "Released from this gloomy background, the cheerful and liberating legend of the sixth century further developed the image of the dolphin-rider under the colors of the renewed cult of Dionysus.". C. M. Bowra tied the myth to the period following the expulsion from Corinth of the aristocratic Bacchiadae, who traced their descent from Dionysus: "the cult of the god had to develop new and more democratic forms."
Stewart Flory identified Herodotus' characteristic use of the episode in a historicising context as an example of what Flory calls his "brave gestures", a man faced with death performs with calm dignity some spirited but unnecessary gesture that demonstrates contempt for danger.
Other variations of the story exist. In 1994, it was adapted by Vikram Seth and Alec Roth for the opera Arion and the Dolphin (aka "The Dolphin Opera"), commissioned by the English National Opera for professional performers with community chorus and children's chorus. It premiered at Plymouth in 1994 under conductor Nicholas Kok and director Rebecca Meitlis.
Arion is alluded to in Plato's Republic at 453d, where Socrates says: “Then we, too, must swim and try to escape out of the sea of argument in the hope that either some dolphin will take us on its back . . ."
Arion is mentioned in Act 1, scene ii of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where the Captain reassures Viola that her brother may still be alive after the shipwreck, for "like Arion on the dolphin's back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves."
The Jimmy Buffett song "Jolly Mon" is based on this fable.
There is a cantata by the French Baroque composer André Campra telling the story of Arion
Arion on the dolphin is the imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers based in Boston and New York; the figure was used previously by the sixteenth-century Basel printer Johannes Oporinus as his device.
Since November 2009 the Icelandic bank Nýja Kaupþing ("New Kaupthing") since being taken over by the Icelandic state has been rebranded as Arion banki.
A cantata for children's choir and piano, 'Arion and the Dolphin', by the English composer Philip Godfrey, was first performed in 2003.
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