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Ch. 18: Arion, Ibycus, Simonides, Sappho

The poets whose adventures compose this chapter were real
persons, some of whose works yet remain, and their influence on
poets who succeeded them is yet more important than their
poetical remains. The adventures recorded of them in the
following stories rest on the same authority as other narratives
of the Age of Fable, that is, that of the poets who have told
them. In their present form, the first two are translated from
the German, the story of Arion from Schlegel, and that of Ibycus
from Schiller.


Arion was a famous musician, and dwelt at the court of Periander,
king of Corinth, with whom he was a great favorite. There was to
be a musical contest in Sicily, and Arion longed to compete for
the prize. He told his wish to Periander, who besought him like
a brother to give up the thought. "Pray stay with me," he said,
"and be contented. He who strives to win may lose." Arion
answered, "A wandering life best suits the free heart of a poet.
The talent which a god bestowed on me, I would fain make a source
of pleasure to others. And if I win the prize, how will the
enjoyment of it be increased by the consciousness of my wide-
spread fame!" He went, won the prize, and embarked with his
wealth in a Corinthian ship for home. On the second morning
after setting sail, the wind breathed mild and fair. "Oh,
Periander," he exclaimed, "dismiss your fears! Soon shall you
forget them in my embrace. With what lavish offerings will we
display our gratitude to the gods, and how merry will we be at
the festal board!" The wind and sea continued propitious. Not a
cloud dimmed the firmament. He had not trusted too much to the
ocean, but he had to man. He overheard the seamen exchanging
hints with one another, and found they were plotting to possess
themselves of his treasure. Presently they surrounded him loud
and mutinous, and said, "Arion, you must die! If you would have
a grave on shore, yield yourself to die on this spot; but if
otherwise, cast yourself into the sea." "Will nothing satisfy
you but my life?" said he. "Take my gold, and welcome. I
willingly buy my life at that price." "No, no; we cannot spare
you. Your life will be too dangerous to us. Where could we go
to escape from Periander, if he should know that you had been
robbed by us? Your gold would be of little use to us, if, on
returning home, we could never more be free from fear." "Grant
me, then," said he, "a last request, since nought will avail to
save my life, that I may die as I have lived, as becomes a bard.
When I shall have sung my death-song, and my harp-strings shall
cease to vibrate, then I will bid farewell to life, and yield
uncomplaining to my fate." This prayer, like the others, would
have been unheeded, they thought only of their booty, but to
hear so famous a musician, that moved their rude hearts. "Suffer
me," he added, "to arrange my dress. Apollo will not favor me
unless I be clad in my minstrel garb."

He clothed his well-proportioned limbs in gold and purple fair to
see, his tunic fell around him in graceful folds, jewels adorned
his arms, his brow was crowned with a golden wreath, and over his
neck and shoulders flowed his hair perfumed with odors. His left
hand held the lyre, his right the ivory wand with which he struck
its chords. Like one inspired, he seemed to drink the morning
air and glitter in the morning ray. The seamen gazed with
admiration. He strode forward to the vessel's side and looked
down into the blue sea. Addressing his lyre, he sang, "Companion
of my voice, come with me to the realm of shades. Though
Cerberus may growl, we know the power of song can tame his rage.
Ye heroes of Elysium, who have passed the darkling flood, ye
happy souls, soon shall I join your band. Yet can ye relieve my
grief? Alas, I leave my friend behind me. Thou, who didst find
thy Eurydice, and lose her again as soon as found; when she had
vanished like a dream, how didst thou hate the cheerful light! I
must away, but I will not fear. The gods look down upon us. Ye
who slay me unoffending, when I am no more, your time of
trembling shall come. Ye Nereids, receive your guest, who throws
himself upon your mercy!" So saying, he sprang into the deep
sea. The waves covered him, and the seamen held on their way,
fancying themselves safe from all danger of detection.

But the strains of his music had drawn round him the inhabitants
of the deep to listen, and dolphins followed the ship as if
chained by a spell. While he struggled in the waves, a dolphin
offered him his back, and carried him mounted thereon safe to
shore. At the spot where he landed, a monument of brass was
afterwards erected upon the rocky shore, to preserve the memory
of the event.

When Arion and the dolphin parted, each to his own element, Arion
thus poured forth his thanks. "Farewell, thou faithful, friendly
fish! Would that I could reward thee; but thou canst not wend
with me, nor I with thee. Companionship we may not have. May
Galatea, queen of the deep, accord thee her favor, and thou,
proud of the burden, draw her chariot over the smooth mirror of
the deep."

Arion hastened from the shore, and soon saw before him the towers
of Corinth. He journeyed on, harp in hand, singing as he went,
full of love and happiness, forgetting his losses, and mindful
only of what remained, his friend and his lyre. He entered the
hospitable halls, and was soon clasped in the embrace of
Periander. "I come back to thee, my friend," he said. "The
talent which a god bestowed has been the delight of thousands,
but false knaves have stripped me of my well-earned treasure; yet
I retain the consciousness of wide-spread fame." Then he told
Periander all the wonderful events that had befallen him, who
heard him with amazement. "Shall such wickedness triumph?" said
he. "Then in vain is power lodged in my hands. That we may
discover the criminals, you must remain here in concealment, and
so they will approach without suspicion." When the ship arrived
in the harbor, he summoned the mariners before him. "Have you
heard anything of Arion?" he inquired. "I anxiously look for his
return." They replied, "We left him well and prosperous in
Tarentum." As they said these words, Arion stepped forth and
faced them. His well proportioned limbs were arrayed in gold and
purple fair to see, his tunic fell around him in graceful folds,
jewels adorned his arms, his brow was crowned with a golden
wreath, and over his neck and shoulders flowed his hair perfumed
with odors; his left hand held the lyre, his right the ivory wand
with which he struck its chords. They fell prostrate at his
feet, as if a lightning bolt had struck them. "We meant to
murder him, and he has become a god. O Earth, open and receive
us!" Then Periander spoke. "He lives, the master of the lay!
Kind Heaven protects the poet's life. As for you, I invoke not
the spirit of vengeance; Arion wishes not your blood. Ye slaves
of avarice, begone! Seek some barbarous land, and never may
aught beautiful delight your souls!"

Spencer represents Arion, mounted on his dolphin, accompanying
the train of Neptune and Amphitrite:

"Then was there heard a most celestial sound
Of dainty music which did next ensue,
And, on the floating waters as enthroned,
Arion with his harp unto him drew
The ears and hearts of all that goodly crew;
Even when as yet the dolphin which him bore
Through the Aegean Seas from pirates' view,
Stood still, by him astonished at his love,
And all the raging seas for joy forgot to roar."

Byron, in his Childe Harold, Canto II., alludes to the story of
Arion, when, describing his voyage, he represents one of the
seamen making music to entertain the rest:

"The moon is up; by Heaven, a lovely eve!
Long streams of light o'er dancing waves expand;
Now lads on shore may sigh and maids believe;
Such be our fate when we return to land!
Meantime some rude Arion's restless hand
Wakes the brisk harmony that sailors love;
A circle there of merry listeners stand,
Or to some well-known measure featly move
Thoughtless as if on shore they still were free to rove."


In order to understand the story of Ibycus which follows, it is
necessary to remember, first, that the theatres of the ancients
were immense buildings providing seats for from ten to thirty
thousand spectators, and as they were used only on festal
occasions, and admission was free to all, they were usually
filled. They were without roofs and open to the sky, and the
performances were in the daytime. Secondly, the appalling
representation of the Furies is not exaggerated in the story. It
is recorded that AEschylus, the tragic poet, having on one
occasion represented the Furies in a chorus of fifty performers,
the terror of the spectators was such that many fainted and were
thrown into convulsions, and the magistrates forbade a like
representation for the future.

Ibycus, the pious poet, was on his way to the chariot races and
musical competitions held at the Isthmus of Corinth, which
attracted all of Grecian lineage. Apollo had bestowed on him the
gift of song, the honeyed lips of the poet, and he pursued his
way with lightsome step, full of the god. Already the towers of
Corinth crowning the height appeared in view, and he had entered
with pious awe the sacred grove of Neptune. No living object was
in sight, only a flock of cranes flew overhead, taking the same
course as himself in their migration to a southern clime. "Good
luck to you, ye friendly squadrons," he exclaimed, "my companions
from across the sea. I take your company for a good omen. We
come from far, and fly in search of hospitality. May both of us
meet that kind reception which shields the stranger guest from

He paced briskly on, and soon was in the middle of the wood.
There suddenly, at a narrow pass, two robbers stepped forth and
barred his way. He must yield or fight. But his hand,
accustomed to the lyre and not to the strife of arms, sank
powerless. He called for help on men and gods, but his cry
reached no defender's ear. "Then here must I die," said he, "in
a strange land, unlamented, cut off by the hand of outlaws, and
see none to avenge my cause." Sore wounded he sank to the earth,
when hoarse screamed the cranes overhead. "Take up my cause, ye
cranes," he said, "since no voice but yours answers to my cry."
So saying, he closed his eyes in death.

The body, despoiled and mangled, was found, and though disfigured
with wounds, was recognized by the friend in Corinth who had
expected him as a guest. "Is it thus I find you restored to me?"
he exclaimed; "I who hoped to entwine your temples with the
wreath of triumph in the strife of song!"

The guests assembled at the festival heard the tidings with
dismay. All Greece felt the wound, every heart owned its loss.
They crowded round the tribunal of the magistrates, and demanded
vengeance on the murderers and expiation with their blood.

But what trace or mark shall point out the perpetrator from
amidst the vast multitude attracted by the splendor of the feat?
Did he fall by the hands of robbers, or did some private enemy
slay him? The all-discerning sun alone can tell, for no other
eye beheld it. Yet not improbably the murderer even now walks in
the midst of the throng, and enjoys the fruits of his crime,
while vengeance seeks for him in vain. Perhaps in their own
temple's enclosure he defies the gods, mingling freely in this
throng of men that now presses into the ampitheatre.

For now crowded together, row on row, the multitude fill the
seats till it seems as if the very fabric would give way. The
murmur of voices sounds like the roar of the sea, while the
circles widening in their ascent rise, tier on tier, as if they
would reach the sky.

And now the vast assemblage listens to the awful voice of the
chorus personating the Furies, which in solemn guise advances
with measured step, and moves around the circuit of the theatre.
Can they be mortal women who compose that awful group, and can
that vast concourse of silent forms be living beings!

The choristers, clad in black, bore in their fleshless hands
torches blazing with a pitchy flame. Their cheeks were
bloodless, and in place of hair, writing and swelling serpents
curled around their brows. Forming a circle, these awful beings
sang their hymn, rending the hearts of the guilty, and enchaining
all their faculties. It rose and swelled, overpowering the sound
of the instruments, stealing the judgment, palsying the heart,
curdling the blood.

"Happy the man who keeps his heart pure from guilt and crime!
Him we avengers touch not; he treads the path of life secure from
us. But woe! Woe! To him who has done the deed of secret
murder. We, the fearful family of Night, fasten ourselves upon
his whole being. Thinks he by flight to escape us? We fly still
faster in pursuit, twine our snakes around his feet and bring him
to the ground. Unwearied we pursue; no pity checks our course;
still on and on to the end of life, we give him no peace nor
rest." Thus the Eumenides sang, and moved in solemn cadence,
while stillness like the stillness of death sat over the whole
assembly as if in the presence of superhuman beings; and then in
solemn march completing the circuit of the theatre, they passed
out at the back of the stage.

Every heart fluttered between illusion and reality, and every
breast panted with undefined terror, quailing before the awful
power that watches secret crimes and winds unseen the skein of
destiny. At that moment a cry burst forth from one of the
uppermost benches "Look! Look! Comrade, yonder are the cranes
of Ibycus!" And suddenly there appeared sailing across the sky a
dark object which a moment's inspection showed to be a flock of
cranes flying directly over the theatre. "Of Ibycus! did he
say?" The beloved name revived the sorrow in every breast. As
wave follows wave over the face of the sea, so ran from mouth to
mouth the words, "Of Ibycus! Him whom we all lament, with some
murderer's hand laid low! What have the cranes to do with him?"
And louder grew the swell of voices, while like a lightning's
flash the thought sped through every heart, "Observe the power of
the Eumenides! The pious poet shall be avenged! The murderer
has informed against himself. Seize the man who uttered that cry
and the other to whom he spoke!"

The culprit would gladly have recalled his words, but it was too
late. The faces of the murderers pale with terror betrayed their
guilt. The people took them before the judge, they confessed
their crime and suffered the punishment they deserved.


Simonides was one of the most prolific of the early poets of
Greece, but only a few fragments of his compositions have
descended to us. He wrote hymns, triumphal odes, and elegies.
In the last species of composition he particularly excelled. His
genius was inclined to the pathetic, and none could touch with
truer effect the chords of human sympathy. The Lamentation of
Danae, the most important of the fragments which remain of his
poetry is based upon the tradition that Danae and her infant son
were confined by order of her father Acrisius in a chest and set
adrift on the sea. The chest floated towards the island of
Seriphus, where both were rescued by Dictys, a fisherman, and
carried to Polydectes, king of the country, who received and
protected them. The child Perseus when grown up became a famous
hero, whose adventures have been recorded in a previous chapter.

Simonides passed much of his life at the courts of princes, and
often employed his talents in panegyric and festal odes,
receiving his reward from the munificence of those whose exploits
he celebrated. This employment was not derogatory, but closely
resembles that of the earliest bards, such as Demodocus,
described by Homer, or of Homer himself as recorded by tradition.

On one occasion when residing at the court of Scopas, king of
Thessaly, the prince desired him to prepare a poem in celebration
of his exploits, to be recited at a banquet. In order to
diversify his theme, Simonides, who was celebrated for his piety,
introduced into his poem the exploits of Castor and Pollux. Such
digressions were not unusual with the poets on similar occasions,
and one might suppose an ordinary mortal might have been content
to share the praises of the sons of Leda. But vanity is
exacting; and as Scopas sat at his festal board among his
courtiers and sycophants, he grudged every verse that did not
rehearse his own praises. When Simonides approached to receive
the promised reward Scopas bestowed but half the expected sum,
saying, "Here is payment for my portion of the performance,
Castor and Pollux will doubtless compensate thee for so much as
relates to them." The disconcerted poet returned to his seat
amidst the laughter which followed the great man's jest. In a
little time he received a message that two young men on horseback
were waiting without and anxious to see him. Simonides hastened
to the door, but looked in vain for the visitors. Scarcely
however had he left the banqueting-hall when the roof fell in
with a loud crash, burying Scopas and all his guests beneath the
ruins. On inquiring as to the appearance of the young men who
had sent for him, Simonides was satisfied that they were no other
than Castor and Pollux themselves.


Sappho was a poetess who flourished in a very early age of Greek
literature. Of her works few fragments remain, but they are
enough to establish her claim to eminent poetical genius. The
story of Sappho commonly alluded to is that she was passionately
in love with a beautiful youth named Phaon, and failing to obtain
a return of affection she threw herself from the promontory of
Leucadia into the sea, under a superstition that those who should
take that "Lover's-leap," would, if not destroyed, be cured of
their love.

Byron alludes to the story of Sappho in Childe Harold, Canto II.:

Those who wish to know more of Sappho and her leap, are referred
to the Spectator, Nos. 223 and 229, and also to Moore's Evenings
in Greece.

Thomas Bulfinch

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