2, Herodotus, Arion and the Dolphin

00.00.00 00.00.00 loading

Arion and the Dolphin

Written and presented by Bertie with help from Jana Elizabeth.

Dedicated to Alex and Emily.

Read by Bertie.
Proofread & audio edited by Jana Elizabeth.

This is Bertie, and I’m here with another story from the Histories of Herodotus, written two and half thousand years ago. Some people think that this particular story is a myth - but I’m not so sure. See what you think?

The story starts in Corinth. At the time of this story, Corinth was ruled by a man called Periander who lived about 600 years before the birth of Christ.
We will hear more about Periander, and Corinth another time, but for now, I’ll explain that he loved the arts, including wonderful columned buildings, paintings on pottery, and music. In his time, the most famous musician in Greece was a man called Arion, who was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, near Turkey. Periander invited Arion to come and stay with him in Corinth and to play his music at the court.

So what was Arion’s music like? I’m not going to try and give you a rendition, but I can say he sang and played the lyre which is a stringed instrument. As he was born near Asia, I think his music would have sounded slightly Eastern. He was particularly famous for inventing a kind of song and dance dedicated to Dionysus the Greek god of wine. Well the followers of Dionysus were known for being pretty wild, and it seems likely that the music of Arion would have been a bit out there, and had a good stomping beat to it. As he was so famous, we might think of him as a sort ancient rock star.

Herodotus tells us that he made his base at Periander’s court in Corinth, but he also liked to go on tour from time to time. He was invited to go and play his music at a festival in Sicily, situated in the toe of Italy. There was a Greek settlement there. Arion travelled to Sicily, performed to great acclaim, and was paid a good sum of gold for his appearances. Like I said, he was something of a rock star of his times, and he was both mega famous AND rich.

After his tour of Sicily, he took a boat back to Corinth. The crew of this boat understood that they had a VIP passenger, and that he had plenty of money with him, and as they were a rough sort, they decided to rob him. So when they were out at sea, the ship’s captain gave Arion a choice - he could commit suicide, and they would give him a proper burial on land, or he could jump overboard. It wasn’t much of a choice, but Arion remained composed. He chose to jump into the sea, but before doing so, he made a last request. Could he sing and play his lyre one more time? He promised that when he had finished singing, he would jump over the side of the ship into the waves.

Herodotus tells us that the sailors were delighted to have a private performance from the world's most famous singer, and they readily agreed. Arion changed into the special robes that he wore for his performances, and he sung his heart out.

Now Herodotus does not actually say this, but I would like to add a detail. Perhaps the sailors were not his only audience. It might be that some keen eared dolphins heard him and gathered round the ship to listen to his music. At any rate, what happened next suggests that might be the case.

Arion, as he had promised, jumped into the sea, and the crew sailed away with his gold, having greatly enjoyed his last ever performance.

But Arion did not drown as they had expected, because he was saved by a dolphin. The dolphin picked him up on his back, and swam until he was near enough to dry land for his human passenger to scramble ashore, at Cape Taenarum, on the bottom of the Peloponnese, where there was a temple to the sea god, Poseidon, and also the Cave of Hades, which the Greeks believed was the entrance to the underworld of the dead.

From there, a wet but very much alive Arion made his way across the Peloponnese back to Corinth where he told Periander the story of the robbery and his incredible rescue by the Dolphin.

Now Periander thought the story was so amazing that he was really not sure whether or not to believe it, and he put Arion under arrest. When the boat that had carried Arion arrived at Corinth, he summoned the crew to his palace.

“What news do you have of our famous singer, Arion?” he asked.

The crew replied that he was still in Sicily and doing well.

At that moment, Arion, who had been listening to all this from behind a curtain, stepped out into full view, still wearing his performing costume, just as the sailors had seen him last before he made his leap from the ship. They were so struck with amazement, that they weren’t able to deny their dastardly plot.

And Herodotus tells us that he has heard this story from both the Corinthians, and the people of Lesbos, and that he has seen a bronze statue of a Arion riding the dolphin in the temple at Cape Taenarum where he came ashore.

So Herodotus clearly believed the story of Arion and the Dolphin. Many people, however seem to think that this is a myth - meaning that it’s probably not true.

In fact, the famous English historian, Edward Gibbon, called the story of Arion, “A most unphilosophical fable since it supposes the friendship of a man and a seafish.”

Elsewhere he remarked that Herodotus, “Sometimes writes for children, and sometimes writes for philosophers.” I think he’s using the word philosophers in the meaning of those who love wisdom and truth.

But is the story so unlikely? The sea of course is mainly full of fish, but dolphins live there too, and they are unusual because, like us, they are mammals. Mammals are animals that feed their offspring on breast milk. Dolphins form close families, protect one another, even give each other gifts, speak to each other with sounds, and generally act in ways that are not entirely different from us humans. So Gibbon, writing in the 18th Century, was wrong to call them seafish.

In fact, we have modern stories of people making friends with dolphins. In the year 2004, the British long-distance swimmer, Adam Walker was swimming across New Zealand's Cook Strait when he noticed a great white shark beneath him. To his great relief, a pod of about 10 dolphins kept him safe until the shark swam off, about an hour later.

In the same year, also in New Zealand, a lifeguard called Rob Howes, reported that dolphins protected him and his two daughters from sharks. And there are many other such stories.

When I was growing up, my favourite part of a family trip to the Safari park was to see the dolphin show. The trainers could command the dolphins to perform tricks like jumping through hoops. And sometimes a trainer swimming in the pool, would hold onto a dolphin’s fin, and the dolphin would pull him or her through the water.

So while I think it’s not possible that Arion actually rode on the back of a dolphin, because he would have slipped off, it’s not so completely impossible that dolphins helped him, and maybe he held onto one of them.

However, I have to say that perhaps I am letting my feelings affect my judgement. If you’ve ever listened to Storynory, you probably know that I have a soft spot for stories about animals who are friends to humans. Perhaps I’m inclined to believe the dolphin story because I want to believe it.

We will never know the truth about Arion and the Dolphin for sure, but we do know that Periander, tyrant of Corinth, did exist, and that there were Greek settlements in Sicily in the West, and that Greeks lived on the eastern side of the Mediterranean sea on islands near Turkey. These widely spread Greeks had different rulers, but they shared a language, religion, and culture, and they were connected by sea trade. It’s perfectly possible that Periander invited a popular singer called Arion from Lesbos to come and stay with him in Corinth, and that Arion travelled to Sicily, and that he was robbed at sea.

Anyway, kids, as always, you are the jury. It’s up to you to listen to the story, perhaps do your own research, weigh the evidence, and decide which parts you believe to be true, and which parts you think might be myth. Use your own judgment and use it wisely.

And I am delighted to dedicate this story to Alex, aged 4 and Emily, Aged 6 in California. Their family has become our latest supporter on Patreon, and their dad Joe writes:

“We love Storynory and listen every Saturday morning at Breakfast. Hope our contribution helps pay for coffee and more stories! We love the new Herodotus and especially the Birdy series! Thank you for entertaining our mornings and expanding our imaginations.”

And thank you Joe, Alex and Emily for supporting us, because it really means the world to us when our listeners give us a little help.

Next time, I’ll be telling you about an extremely wealthy leader called Croesus, king of Lydia, in Asia, who considered himself to be the luckiest man alive - a claim which the Greeks thought was presumptuous.

For now, from me, Bertie, Goodbye.