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Introduction to Euripides' Ion
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Literary Background

When we speak of Greek tragedy, we allude to tragedies produced in Athens in the fifth century BC (roughly between 472 and 405 BC). And we usually have in mind something quite serious and weighty: the heroic young Orestes compelled to kill his mother Clytemnestra in revenge for the murder of his father Agamemnon (Aeschylus' Oresteia), Oedipus unknowingly killing his father Laertes and marrying his mother Jocasta (Sophocles' Oedipus), Medea murdering her children in order to avenge herself on her husband Jason's sexual treachery (Euripides' Medea). (Do you sense a pattern here?) Such plays are heady stuff, and focus less on plot or suspense (a Greek audience already knew how these stories were going to go, for the most part) than on the moral/philosophical implications of the stories that they enact: the playwrights' goal was not to entertain — or, at least, not solely to entertain — but to challenge and instruct.

In the last years of the fifth century, however, things begin to change. Euripides, in particular, begins to turn to the lesser known by-ways of myth (in the words of A.M. Dale), and to take his stories in directions they had never gone before. The twists and turns of the plot become much more involved, and the element of suspense begins to emerge as a central feature of the audience's experience. A humorous element begins to enter much more prominently as well, as characters and scenes begin to appear that seem much more at home on the comic stage than in the stately realm of tragedy. Some of these plays, in fact, start to read like romantic melodramas: tales of excitement and adventure, often in far-off exotic lands, where a couple (husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and son) struggle to escape the wicked machinations of a foreign tyrant, or to sort through the tangled confusions, mistaken identities, etc. that fate has thrown their way. Toss in some torn bodices and an overheated sex-scene or two, and you might seem to have the makings of a Harlequin Romance.

It is clear that Euripides is interested in providing more of a "theatrical" experience for his audience, but his motives are a bit more complex than simply a desire to put bums in seats. His approach to the traditional myths — particularly his habit of humanizing his characters and placing them in much more mundane, down-to-earth settings [FN 1] — allows him to raise serious questions about the traditional myths in which his plots are grounded, particularly the moral and philosophical implications of those stories. These plays are entertaining in many ways, but they also pose questions, in particular, about the kinds of gods that govern the world that they present: how morally satisfying are these gods? — and do they provide a satisfactory way of making sense of the world in which we live, either intellectually or emotionally?

For all of the fun offered by these works, the world that they present is potentially quite bleak. Characters are tossed about amid a sea of confusion, never quite sure of who is who and what is what, and are themselves prey to powerful emotional forces that drive them to perform morally questionable acts and, potentially, bring themselves to ruin. It is a world that would seem to have a great deal in common, potentially, with that described by the modern existential philosophers, in which human life has no rhyme nor reason, and is lived amid a chaotic welter of meaningless experience and disruptive passions.

This places these plays in direct conflict with the view of human life espoused in much of Greek literature and in traditional Greek morality, according to which humans are thought to operate as free agents, but in a world that is governed by mysterious and inscrutable forces (the gods, fate), whose will those human agents somehow help to bring to pass, but in ignorance, not recognizing the implications of their actions until after disaster has struck. (The classic example is Oedipus, who does everything he can to avoid fulfilling Apollo's prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother, and, in so doing, brings those very things to pass.) According to this view, life is chancy and unpredictable, not because it is random or chaotic, but due to the limitations under which we operate as human beings — our inability to perceive the inscrutable working of the gods. Hence the famous *Delphic Maxim: "Know thyself" (i.e., recognize that you are human and know your limits).
In the fifth century this gap between divine knowledge and human ignorance was symbolized above all by the oracular god Apollo and his august shrine at Delphi. Through his priestess there (the *Pythia), Apollo would give unerring indications of future events to those who came to consult his oracle, but (as in the case of Oedipus) the true meaning of those prophecies often was not fully understood until it was too late.

In the later Euripidean plays we often seem to find an intersection between comedy and a new type of existential tragedy. Provide a happy ending, and all of this becomes part of the typical confusions, mistaken identities, and intrigues that are the stuff of farce. But you can see how readily it could tip over into a despair-laden presentation of the human condition as tragic precisely because true tragedy — in the sense of human suffering that carries within it a form of deeper meaning — is no longer possible. The genius of Ion is the way in which it offers us romantic comedy, but always with the sense of the abyss below.

Euripides' Ion: Plot Summary

The Ion tells the story of the Athenian princess Creusa, daughter of King Erechtheus, who has been married to the Thessalian king Xuthus in return for the latter's services to Athens in a war against Chalcis (a city-state on the large island of Euboea, just off the east coast of Attica).

This kind of marriage is common in ancient Greek myth, and would have been the norm among aristocratic Athenians of the early fifth century. In late fifth-century Athens, however, it presented something of a problem. With the rise of the Athenian democracy, the responsibilities and the rewards of citizenship increased dramatically. As a result, in 451 BC the leader Pericles sponsored a law that restricted citizen rights to individuals who were descended from Athenian citizens on both their father's and their mother's side: offspring who failed to meet this requirement were considered illegitimate, both politically and in terms of their right to inherit property. Thus being a "true" Athenian became a real matter of concern, both personally and politically.

The Ion is set in the mythological past, but you can see the influence of this contemporary outlook in both the treatment of Xuthus (who comes off as a bit of a buffoon) and the portrayal of Creusa's eventual rebellion in the course of the play.

But Creusa had other problems besides being married off to a "foreigner." Prior to her marriage she was sexually assaulted by the god Apollo in a cave at the foot of the northwest slope of the Athenian Acropolis, at a place known as the Long Rocks. Having successfully hidden her condition, she gave birth to her child (a boy) in secret and set him out in the same cave (along with various objects to serve as tokens of his birth) to die. [FN 2] Unknown to Creusa, Apollo sent his brother Hermes (the sly messenger god) to rescue the child and take it to Apollo's oracular shrine at Delphi, to be raised as a temple servant.

The play opens some 15-16 years later. Creusa and Xuthus have been unable to have children — a misfortune shared by many couples, but particularly problematic when you have dynastic obligations, and when you are Greek. (The ancient view of marriage focused, not on the happiness of the couple or their future life together, but on the production of legitimate offspring. The principal concern was the interest, not of the couple, but of the two families and the continuation of their line. This is evident in the betrothal formula employed by the girl's father or guardian in addressing the prospective groom when he formally assented to the match: "I hand over this woman to you for the plowing of legitimate children" — a rather earthy expression, to be sure, but it reflects the concerns of all involved, and gives an indication of the pressures that could come to bear upon a woman who failed to produce an heir.) The couple have come to Apollo's oracular shrine at Delphi to ask what they might do to address this problem.

As the play opens, Creusa has managed to come to the shrine ahead of her husband (attended by a loyal chorus of female servants), hoping to enquire about the fate of her little son, so many years ago. When she arrives, she finds the young temple-servant Ion (in reality, the very boy she is enquiring after) sweeping out the temple and chasing away the birds that are befouling the architectural adornments. Creusa alludes in very general terms to the nature of her enquiry, and is told by Ion not to waste her time: the god, he says, will never reveal something to his own shame. Creusa departs, distraught, and the naive young Ion, troubled at the news that the god he serves could commit so despicable an act, rebukes Apollo for acting in ways that would bring discredit on even a mere human.

At this point, Xuthus arrives. He enters the temple and enquires of the god regarding his lack of children, only to be told that the first person he will meet upon leaving the temple is his son. Coming out of the shrine, he meets Ion and goes running up to embrace him. The gesture is initially mistaken by the naive young Ion as something less innocent (this is, after all, a society where respectable young boys were attended to and from school by a slave-nanny [paedagogus] to ensure that they were not improperly accosted by any older men along the way!) but, after all this is sorted out, the two attempt to determine what to make of the god's statement. Xuthus recalls that some years ago he did take part in a night festival at Delphi where he got quite drunk and had sex with one of the locals. He and the boy enjoy a touching "reunion" where Xuthus gives Ion his name (based on the fact that this was the one that Xuthus met while coming [iōn] out of the temple). They decide not to tell Creusa about the discovery; instead, Ion is to accompany Creusa and Xuthus back to Athens and eventually assume his position as Xuthus' heir. They depart to join in a celebratory sacrifice, after Xuthus warns the Chorus of female attendants to tell Creusa nothing of what they have witnessed.

Unfortunately for Xuthus, the Chorus of women refuse to keep silent but instead reveal everything to Creusa, who immediately falls into despair. Up until this point, Creusa has been a noble and sympathetic figure who bore her suffering with a quiet dignity; here, however — in a type of scene that is common in Euripides — she snaps. Having been raped by a god and compelled to set her baby out to die, she has subsequently been given in marriage to a foreigner and denied the ability to bear legitimate children that she might raise and cherish; now she must see the same god and her foreign husband conspire to place her husband's bastard son on the throne of Athens? In her anger, she arranges to have her loyal tutor poison Ion's wine at the sacrificial banquet.

In the end, Ion is saved by the very birds he was chasing off earlier: when he pours his wine on the ground, after a slave utters an ill-omened word, they drink some of it and immediately fall dead. Ion comes charging on stage, prepared to kill Creusa, when the action is brought to a halt by the sudden entrance of the Pythia, the oracular priestess of Apollo. She notes that she has been instructed by the god to bring out the basket in which Ion was found as a baby, along with the birth-tokens. Creusa immediately recognizes the latter as belonging to her long-lost child, and a happy reunion follows. Ion will follow Xuthus and Creusa back to Athens and be acknowledged as Xuthus' "son," to the happiness of all. In the end, it is only Xuthus (the comic cuckold) who is left in the dark about the truth — that the "son" he is so happy to have discovered is actually the result of an illicit liaison between his wife and the god Apollo.

Euripides' Ion: Mythological Background and Plot Elements

The audience that sat down to watch Euripides' play in ca. 418-410 BC probably knew Ion as little more than a mere name in a genealogical chart, the eponymous forefather of the Ionian/Athenian race. [FN 3]

According to the standard myth, the eldest son of Deucalion and Pyrrha (the Greek Noah and his wife) was Hellen, who married the nymph Orseïs and fathered three sons: Dorus (eponymous forefather of the Doric-speaking Greeks, in the southern Peloponnese), Aeolus (eponymous forefather of the Aeolic-speaking Greeks in Northern Greece), and Xuthus. Xuthus married the Athenian princess Creusa, but died in exile in Aegialus, in the northern Peloponnese. One of his sons, Achaeus, returned to his father's homeland (Thessaly) and became the eponymous forefather of the Achaeans (Greeks of the north-central Peloponnese); the other, Ion, was recalled to Athens, where he died leading Athens in its war against neighboring Eleusis (northwest of Athens). (Ion's people are later driven from the Peloponnese and come to Athens; many later move eastward to found the Ionian sites in Asia Minor [western Turkey] and the islands of the Aegean.)

Euripides' version of the myth is quite different. Here the Thessalian Xuthus is a son of Aeolus, summoned to Athens to aid the Athenians in a war against Chalcis and given the hand of Creusa as his reward. Xuthus and Creusa eventually produce the sons Dorus and Achaeus; Ion, however, is the son of Creusa and Apollo. (Note how Euripides' version inflates the importance of Athens: here the Dorians and Achaeans are a side-branch, as it were, of an essentially Athenian/Ionian genealogy, while the Athenians and Ionians can boast Apollo as their direct "ancestor.")

The story of Creusa's rape and the exposure and eventual rediscovery of Ion is invented by Euripides, but not quite out of whole cloth. In developing his plot, the poet follows various models, two of them general and one quite specific. Thus the audience watching the play would have a certain presentiment of how the story would develop and could appreciate the artistry with which the poet contrives his fiction.

  1. The general story pattern is a familiar one: the royal infant who is exposed at birth, grows up abroad, but eventually comes to be recognized and reclaims his rightful throne. This is the story of Oedipus, Cyrus the Great (the Persian king), Romulus and Remus, and several other figures of Greek and Roman myth. [FN 4]

  2. The development of the plot follows a pattern that we find again and again in Euripides' later plays (including Helen). These plays are built around two central motifs: the recognition (*anagnorisis) and the clever plot or scheme (*mechanêma). Generally, these plays involve long-lost siblings, a mother and child, or (in the case of Helen) a husband and wife who meet one another, after a separation of many years, in a foreign land and/or amid dangerous circumstances. At first they fail to recognize each other, but once the recognition (anagnorisis) is effected (usually through some sort of mark or token) the two unite to form a plot (mechanêma) to take revenge on those who threaten them and/or escape to safety. In Ion the pattern is varied somewhat: the mechanêma precedes the anagnorisis and is aimed by Creusa at the as yet unrecognized Ion. Note as well the nature of the play's conclusion: the entrance of the Pythia is reminiscent of the so-called *deus ex machina — the sudden appearance of a divine agent at the end of a play, who sets everything right. [FN 5]

  3. The story of Creusa's rape and the fate of the infant Ion is cast by Euripides in a mold that recalls several of the founding myths of Athens. The relevant myths are outlined below.
Cecrops: first king of Athens; born of the earth and so a true son of Attica. (The Greek term to describe such indigenous peoples is *autochthonous — "born of the very earth.") He had a human torso but the tail of a snake. He judged the contest between Athena and Poseidon regarding who would become the patron deity of Athens. (Poseidon made a salt spring rise out of the ground by smiting the earth with his trident; Athena won when she produced the olive tree. This scene is a popular one in Athenian art: it appeared, e.g., on the west pediment of the Parthenon.) Cecrops had three daughters: Herse (Dew), Aglaurus (Bright), and Pandrosus (All-Dewey).
Erichthonius: son of Hephaestus and Ge (Earth). Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena. She struck him with her spear and, in his excitement, he ejaculated prematurely: his semen fell on the earth, which gave birth to the young Erichthonius. [FN 6] Athena put the infant into a chest and gave it to the daughters of Cecrops to guard, with strict instructions not to look inside. Aglaurus and Herse peeked and, driven insane by what they saw (either a snake or a child with a snake's tail), jumped to their deaths from the walls of the Acropolis. Athena (or her priestess) then raised the boy in her temple on the Acropolis. When he grew up, Erichthonius drove out the usurper Amphictyon and became king of Athens. He is credited with instituting the Panathenaic festival (a mid-summer new year's festival celebrating Athena's birth) and with dedicating the ancient wooden statue of Athena Polias, originally kept in the old temple of Athena on the Acropolis but later transferred to the Erechtheum (below). Erichthonius went on to marry the nymph Praxithea, by whom he had a son, Pandion.
The story of Erichthonius is clearly related to the mysterious rite of the Arrhephoria. This rite is described by Pausanias (1.27.3): two girls of noble birth would live on the Acropolis near the Erechtheum as Athena's servants. On the night of the festival they would accept chests, the contents of which was a mystery, from the priestess of Athena. These they would carry on their heads down a passageway to the shrine of Aphrodite in the Gardens (near the caves of Apollo and Pan) at the northern base of the Acropolis. [FN 7] There they would leave the contents of the chests in a cave and would bring back something else (unknown) and deposit it in Athena's temple. The site of this rite is thus the very place where Creusa is raped by Apollo in Euripides' play and where she later exposes the infant Ion in a basket. (The connection with the background to Euripides' play is apparent, but consider as well the play's conclusion, where we find an Athenian woman of noble birth who receives a basket/chest from the priestess of Apollo, inside of which are important objects.)
Erechtheus: son of Pandion (although in Ion he is presented as the son of Erichthonius) and father of Creusa; to some degree a mere duplicate of Erichthonius. (The stories regarding these two often become confused with one another.) He too is often said to have been born of the earth. His most famous exploit involved the conquest of the neighboring city of Eleusis: Erechtheus won the war against Eleusis and killed the opposing king Eumolpus, but only at the cost of sacrificing one of his daughters. Erechtheus was closely identified with Poseidon.
The Erechtheum on the Acropolis is one of the most ornate and unusual temples in Greece. It was begun in 421 BC (to replace the old temple of Athena, destroyed by the Persians) but was not completed until 406. (Thus it would have been under construction at the time Ion was originally produced.) The Erechtheum is often compared to a jewel box or a reliquary: it has an unusual shape due, mainly, to the various cult sites and shrines that it was built to enfold. It contained, among other things, the wooden statue of Athena Polias, the olive tree planted by Athena, the marks of Poseidon's trident and the salt spring, the tombs of Cecrops and Erechtheus, and the shrine of Pandrosus. The famous maiden porch is intended to recall the daughters of Cecrops and, perhaps, the girls celebrating the Arrhephoria. (See the Perseus WWW site, s.v. "Erechtheion".)

Euripides as Playwright

Throughout his career, Euripides shows himself to be a witty, often irreverent and provocative poet of ideas, a playwright who directly imports contemporary intellectual issues into his plays and challenges received views of religion, morality, and social custom. In contrast to Sophocles, who explores and reinterprets myth, Euripides frequently challenges the mythic tradition, using it to illustrate views that contradict or actually undermine the very basis of the myths he is presenting. Thus, where Sophocles reinterprets myth, Euripides often actively subverts it. He is a complex and often contradictory playwright: his works are at once refreshingly realistic and extraordinarily artificial, deeply tragic and blatantly sensationalistic, moving and academic. Two features of Euripides' work make him particularly popular today:

Psychology. Euripides is especially interested in the effects of repeated injustice or continued suffering on his characters. Where Sophocles presents aggressive heroes who meet their fates as the result of actively asserting their will and their individuality, Euripides tends to present passive victims, who suffer not because of what they do but because they are trapped. Often, as in the case of Creusa in Ion, these victims will only act when they find themselves with their backs against the wall (so to speak), whereupon they lash out, often with deadly effect. Instead of Sophocles' idealistic portrayals of larger than life heroes reminiscent of those of Homer (e.g., Sophocles' Oedipus), Euripides focuses upon human weaknesses and failings, a tendency that makes him seem more "modern" in his approach to tragedy. Aristotle, in his Poetics, records a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) that notes this difference: Sophocles is said to have remarked that while he portrayed people as they should be, Euripides portrayed them as they were.
Social issues. Euripides is equally interested in society's failings, in "man's injustice to man." Often the individual character's plight will be presented in such a way as to highlight inequities in Greek/Athenian society or politics and to question the status quo. Euripides is particularly interested in women's issues. In antiquity he was mocked as a misogynist, yet he presents some very compelling and sympathetic portrayals of women and their position in Athenian society. His Medea, about Medea's betrayal at the hands of Jason and her subsequent murder of her own children is often read today as a feminist tract, while the portrayal of Creusa and her plight in Ion questions the casual contempt for women often displayed by the Greek male, and presents a sympathetic picture of the sexual double standard that prevailed in Athenian society.
To a certain extent, this interest in women is part and parcel of Euripides' interest in suffering and pathos: the focus on women and on more private themes affords him wider scope for pathetic scenes than would, say, an Achilles or an Oedipus. Again, the social relevance of the issues Euripides addresses makes his works seem more modern than those of Sophocles and adds to the impression of realism. In this regard Euripides is often said to have brought tragedy down to earth. Particularly notable in this context is Euripides' tendency to afford a prominence and authority to minor characters of humble status: thus, e.g., the role of the old Tutor in Ion, the stubborn loyalty of the female chorus of slaves, and the youthful Ion himself — the simple temple-servant who sees fit to lecture a god. In his willingness to "deconstruct" social hierarchies and to challenge the status quo, Euripides reveals an affinity with the sophists.
Less popular today, but important, is Euripides' fondness for rhetoric. One of the most notable and most artificial features of Euripidean drama is its penchant for rhetorical displays. Thus the formal rhetorical debate or *agon (lit. "contest") has a prominence in his works that it rarely finds in Aeschylus or Sophocles, often seeming to exist for its own sake. It is here that Euripides' sophistic leanings become most apparent, particularly in the seeming delight with which he will make the weaker argument appear to be stronger. In antiquity Euripides was notorious for subverting traditional morality in the manner of the sophists. In his lost Cretans, for example, he had Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, engage in an agon with her husband Minos where she justified her passion for the bull and the subsequent birth of the Minotaur. [FN 8]

Euripides' Ion: Questions to Consider

  1. to what degree can Ion be considered a tragedy? — in what sense?
  2. what specific features of the play might be taken to associate it with comedy? (e.g., specific scenes, character types, elements of the plot?)
  3. what do you make of Apollo in this play? — to what degree does he accord with the traditional view of the god (set out in the opening section above: Literary Background)? — in the prologue, Hermes paints a picture of a benevolent, all-knowing Apollo who has a plan in place to ensure that Ion assumes his true identity as founder of the Attic/Ionian line: does the course of the plot confirm this image of the god?
  4. what are the essential themes of the play? — where does the focus of the play lie?
  5. what secondary themes can you identify (i.e., prominent, but not quite so central to the play's success)?


[FN 1] There might seem to be a contradiction between this statement and my reference to exotic locales (above), but consider: Menelaus, in Helen, finds himself in distant Egypt, but is confronted by an abusive old slave-woman straight out of Monty Python; Ion takes us to the magical realm of Apollo’s august oracle at Delphi — where we find the young temple-servant Ion sweeping out the temple. [Return to text]

[FN 2] The tokens Creusa employs will be important. Called spargana (Latin: *crepundia) they are in part playthings, in part magical tokens designed to protect the baby, and in part recognition tokens offered in the hope that they will some day allow for a reunion between mother and child. [Return to text]

[FN 3] The term "eponymous" is used to indicate the person after whom something is named. The Athenians spoke a dialect of Greek that was developed from the Ionic dialect, spoken on many islands of the Aegean and in Asia Minor (the west coast of modern-day Turkey). [Return to text]

[FN 4] See Marc Huys, The Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth in Euripidean Tragedy: A Study of Motifs (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1995). Cf. my Course Notes on Herodotus' Histories. [Return to text]

[FN 5] The term deus ex machina is a Latin phrase that actually means "god from the machine" — the latter being a reference to the crane (mechane) employed in the Greek theater to represent individuals (esp. divinities) in flight. The deus ex machina comes flying in at the end of a play, somewhat like a fairy god-mother, to set everything right. [Return to text]

[FN 6] Note that Erichthonius, like Cecrops, is autochthonous in a literal sense. [Return to text]

[FN 7] For views of this area of the Acropolis, visit Kevin Glowacki's and Nancy Klein's The City of Athens: North Slope of the Acropolis page. [Return to text]

[FN 8] Background: [Return to text]

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