The Story of Ion

In the temple of Apollo at Delphi there dwelt a fair youth, whose name was Ion. Tall he was and comely, like to the son of a King, but of his birth no man knew anything; for he had been laid, being yet a babe, at the door of the temple, and the priestess had brought him up for her son. So he had served the God from a child, being fed from the altar and from the gifts of the strangers that were wont to resort to the place. Now it was the lad’s custom to rise early in the morning and to sweep the temple with boughs of bay, and to sprinkle it with water from the fountain of Castalia. Also he was wont to keep the birds from the temple—for they would come from the woods of Parnassus hard by, eagles, and swans, and others—lest they should settle on the pinnacles or defile the altar with their prey. And for this end he carried arrows and a bow, slaying the birds if need was, but rather seeking to frighten them away, for he knew that some carried messages from the Gods to mortal men, and warned them of things to come, even as did Apollo that was his master.

Now it befell on a day, when he had done his office in the temple, that there drew near to the doors a company of women. Maidens they were from the land of Attica, and they had come with Creüsa, who was Queen of the country. And first they marvelled at the graved work that was on the doors and in the porch, for some cunning workmen had wrought thereon Hercules slaying the great dragon of Lerna, and Iolaüs standing with a torch to sear that which he cut with his knife. Also Bellerophon was to be seen on a horse with wings, slaying the Chimæra; and Pallas fighting against the Sons of Earth, with the thunderbolt of her father Zeus and the shield of the Gorgon head. And when they had made an end of seeing these things came the Queen Creüsa herself and had speech with Ion. And she told him that she was the daughter of Erechtheus, King of Athens, and that she was married to Xuthus, a Prince from the island of Pelops. And when Ion would know how it had come to pass that Xuthus, being a stranger and a foreigner, had received her that was a Princess of the land in marriage, she said that the Prince had fought for the men of Athens against the land of Eubœa, and had subdued it, and so had won for himself this reward. Also when the youth would know for what end she had come to the oracles of Delphi, she said that she had come because having been long married she was yet childless, and that her husband also was with her, and that he was even then making inquiry about this same matter in the cave of Trophonius. For there also was an oracle giving answers to men about things to come. Then the Queen asked Ion of his estate, and heard from him that the priestess of Apollo had brought him up, having found him laid at the door of the temple.

After these things came King Xuthus himself, who, after he had greeted the Queen, said that Trophonius would not indeed go before the answer of Apollo, yet promised this, that he should not go to his home childless. So the two went together into the shrine that they might inquire yet further of the matter; and Ion abode without, meditating much on the things which these strangers had said.

But after a while the King came forth in great joy, and when he saw the youth Ion standing without the shrine, he caught him by the hand, and would have thrown his arms about him, but the youth drew back, thinking that the God had smitten him with madness, and even would have drawn his bow against him. Then the King set forth to him the answer that Apollo had given him. For the God had said, “Thou art not childless as thou thinkest, but the father of a fair son. And thy son is he whom first thou shalt meet going forth from my shrine.” “And now,” said the King, “thou art he whom first I meet coming forth, and I claim thee to be my son.” And when Ion would know how this might be, the King said that in days past, before he had married the Princess Creüsa, being young and foolish, he had taken to wife a maiden of low degree in this very city of Delphi, and that if she had borne him a son—for that he knew not, having left her long since—the child would bear such age as Ion. And when Ion heard this he was glad, for he had feared lest haply he should be found to be the son of some slave. Only he said to himself, “O my dear mother, shall I ever see thee? For now do I long more than ever to look upon thee; but haply thou art dead and this may never be.”

And the maidens of Athens standing by heard the talk between the two, and said, “It is well for the people that the royal house should prosper. Yet it had pleased us well that our lady the Queen should have hope of offspring, and that the house of Erechtheus should not be left without an heir.”

Then said the King to Ion, “My son, it is well both with thee and me, for I have found that which I most desired and thou also. And as to that which thou now sayest about thy mother, haply, if only we have patience, this also shall be as thou wouldst have it. But now I would have thee leave the temple of Apollo and this thy subsistence of alms, and come with me to the great city of Athens, where thou shalt have great wealth, and in due time this sceptre that I hold. But why art thou silent and castest thine eyes to the ground? Suddenly art thou changed from joy to sorrow, and the heart of thy father misgiveth him.”

Then spoke Ion, saying, “My father, the aspect of many things changeth according as a man seeth them, whether it be near or afar off. Right glad was I to find a father in thee; but as to what else thou sayest, hearken to me. Men say that the Athenians are a people that have dwelt in the land from the beginning. Wherefore I shall have among them a double reproach, being both basely born and also a foreigner. And if I come to high place in the state, they that are beneath me shall hate me, seeing that men love not those that are above them. Also those that are of high account among the citizens shall have much jealousy against me, for such men have ever great enmity against their rivals. Think also of thy house, how matters shall stand there. For before, thy wife the Queen shared with thee this reproach of childlessness, but now will she stand alone and bear her sorrow by herself. How then shall she not hate me when she seeth me at thy right hand? And so shalt thou either for love of her go back from what thou hast promised to me, or else, seeking my profit, shalt trouble thine own house. For thou knowest what deadly deeds with the sword and with poison women holding themselves to be wronged have wrought against their husbands. And of a truth, my father, I hold that thy wife, seeing that she groweth old without hope of children, is most miserable among women. And then as to kingship, I count that this is more pleasant to regard from afar than to possess; for how can he be happy who liveth in daily fear of death? And if thou sayest that great store of wealth out-weigheth all other things, and that it is pleasant to be rich, I hold otherwise. I would have neither poverty nor riches, but to live quietly and without trouble. For listen, my father, to the good things that I have had in this place—that which all men count dear, even leisure; and such labour as I did, not toilsome, and to be free from all ill company, and to be constant in prayers to the Gods, or in talk with men, ever consorting with new company among such as came to inquire of the god. Surely, my father, this life is better than that which thou promisest to me.”

“My son,” the King made answer, “learn to take the good which the Gods have provided for thee. First, then, I will bring thee to the feast which I purpose to hold in this place as though thou wert a stranger. And afterwards I will take thee to the city of Athens, yet not declaring at the first thy birth, for I would not vex my wife with my good luck, seeing that she is yet childless. Only in time I will work with her that thou shalt bear rule in the land with her good will. And now call such of thy friends as thou wilt to the feast, for thou must even bid farewell to this city of Delphi.”

And Ion made answer, “Let it be so; only if I find not my mother, my life is nothing worth.”

And to the maidens the King said, “Take heed that ye keep silence on these matters, or ye shall surely die.”

But they were much troubled in heart for their mistress that she should be childless, while the King her husband had found a son. Also they doubted much whether they should not tell the Queen the things which they had heard.

And now there was seen to come near to the shrine an old man who had in days past been servant to King Erechtheus; and when the Queen saw him, she reached her hand to him, and helped him to climb the steps of the temple, for he was very feeble with age. And when he was come to the top, the Queen turned her to the maidens that stood by and inquired of them whether they knew aught of the answer which the God had given to her husband in the matter of his childlessness. But they were loath to make answer, remembering that the King had bidden them to be silent under pain of death; but at the last, for the thing pleased them not, both for pity of their mistress and also for hatred that a stranger should be King in Athens, they said, “O lady, thou must never hold a child in thy arms or nurse a babe at thy breast.” And when the old man asked—for the Queen was distraught with grief—whether the King also shared this trouble, they said, “Not so, old man; to him Apollo giveth a son.”

“How so?” said he; “is this son yet to be born, or doth he live already?”

“He is a youth full grown. For the God said, ‘He whom thou shalt first meet, coming forth from this shrine, is thy son.’ And know, lady, that this youth is he who is wont to serve in this shrine, with whom thou talkedst at the first. But more than this I know not; only that thy husband is gone without thy knowledge to hold a great feast, and that the lad sitteth thereat in much honour.”

And when the old man heard these things he waxed wroth and said, “Lady, there is treachery in this matter. We are betrayed by thy husband, and of fixed purpose set at naught, that he may drive us out of the house of thy father, King Erechtheus. And this I say not because I hate thy husband, but that I love thee more. Hearken, then, to my words. He came a stranger to the city of Athens, and took thee to wife, and had with thee the inheritance of thy father’s kingdom; and when he found thee childless, he was not content to bear this reproach with thee, but wedded secretly some slave woman, and gave the child whom she bare to him to some citizen of Delphi to rear for him. And the child grew up, as thou knowest, a minister in the temple of Apollo. And when thy husband knew that he was come to full age he devised this device that thou and he should come to this place, and make inquiry of the god, whether there might be any remedy for thy childlessness. And now thou wilt suffer the foulest wrong, for he will bring this son of a bondwoman to be lord in thy house. Wherefore I give thee this counsel. Devise some device, and be it with the sword or with poison, or with whatever thou wilt, slay thy husband and his son, or they shall surely slay thee. For if thou spare them thou wilt surely die. For if there be two enemies under one roof, it must needs be that the one perish. And now, if thou wilt, I will do this deed for thee, and slay them at the feast which he prepareth; for I have had sustenance in the house of thy father to this day, for which I would fain make this return.”

Then the Queen and the old man talked together about the matter. And when he would have had her slay her husband, she refused, saying that she could not do the deed, for that she thought of the time when he was faithful and loving to her. But when he would have her execute vengeance on the youth, she consented. Only she doubted how this might be done. Then the old man cried, “Arm thine attendants with the sword and slay him.”

“Aye,” said the Queen, “and I would lead them myself; but where shall I slay him?”

“Slay him,” said the old man, “in the tent where he feasteth his friends.”

“Nay,” answered the Queen, “the deed would be too manifest; the hands also of slaves are ever feeble.”

Then the old man cried in a rage, “I see thou playest the coward. Take counsel for thyself.”

Then said the Queen, “I have a plan in my heart that is both crafty and sure. Listen now, and I will unfold it to thee. Thou knowest how in time past the Giants that were the sons of Earth made war against the Gods in the plain of Phlegra; and that Earth, seeking to help her children, brought forth the Gorgon; and that Pallas, the daughter of Zeus, slew the monster. Know then that Pallas gave to Ericthonius, who was the first King of the land of Attica, being sprung from the earth, two drops of the blood of the Gorgon, whereof the one hath the power to kill whomsoever it shall touch, and the other to heal all manner of diseases. And these she shut in gold to keep them; and Ericthonius gave them to King Erechtheus my father, and he, when he died, gave them to me. And I carry them in a bracelet on my wrist. And thou shalt take the one that worketh death, and with it thou shalt slay this youth.”

“‘Tis well thought,” the old man made answer; “but where shall I do the deed?”

“In Athens,” said the Queen, “when he shall have come to my house.”

But the old man said, “That is not well; for thou wilt have the repute of the deed, even if thou slay him not. Slay him rather in this place, where thou shalt be more likely to deceive thy husband, for it must not be that he know it.”

When the Queen heard this she said, “Hear, then, what thou must do. Go to the place where my husband maketh a sacrifice and a feast following. And when the guests are even now ready to cease from their feasting and make libations to the Gods, drop his drop of death into the cup of him who would lord it over my house. Of a surety if it pass his throat he shall never come to the city of Athens.”

So the old man went on his errand, and as he went he said to himself, “Old foot of mine, do this thy business as though thou wert young. Thou hast to help the house of thy master against an enemy. Let them that are happy talk of piety; he that would work his adversary woe must take no account of laws.”

But meanwhile Xuthus had bidden the youth Ion have a care for the feast, for that he himself had yet sacrifice to make, at which he might haply tarry long time. Wherefore Ion set up a great tent on poles, looking neither wholly to the south nor to the west, but between the two. And the tent he made foursquare, being of a hundred feet each way, for he purposed to call the whole people of Delphi to the feast. Then he took curtains from the treasure-house to cover it within, very marvellous to behold; for on them was wrought the Heaven with all the gathering of the stars, and the Sun driving his chariot to the west, and dark-robed Night, with the stars following her, the Pleiades, and Orion with his sword, and the Bear turning about the Pole, and the bright circle of the Moon; and on the other side the Morning chasing the stars. Also there were tapestries from foreign land, ships fighting with ships, and strange shapes, half men half beasts, and the hunting of stags and lions.

But in the midst of the tent great bowls were set for wine; and a herald bade all the men of Delphi to the feast. But when they had had enough of eating and drinking, the old man, the servant of the Queen, came forward; and all men laughed to see him how busy he was. For he took the water that should have been mixed with the wine and used it for the washing of hands, and burnt the incense, and took upon himself the ordering of the cups. And after a while he said, “Take away those cups, and bring greater that we may be merry.” So they brought great cups of gold and silver. And the old man took one that was more beautiful than the rest, and filled it to the brim and gave it to the youth Ion, as though he would do him great honour; but he dropped into it the deadly drop. Only no man saw the thing that he did. But when they were all about to drink, some one spake an evil word to his neighbour, and Ion heard it, and having full knowledge of augury, held it to be of ill omen, and bade them fill another bowl; and that every one should pour out upon the ground that which was in his cup. And on this there came down a flight of doves, for such dwelt in the temple of Apollo without fear, and sipped of the wine that had been poured forth. And all the rest drank and suffered no harm; but that which had settled where the youth Ion had poured out from his cup shook and reeled and screamed aloud, and so died, being sorely rent with the pangs of death. And when the youth saw this he cried, “Who is it that hath plotted my death? Tell me, old man, for thou gavest me the cup.” And he leapt over the table and laid hands on him. And at last the old man, being sorely pressed, unfolded the whole matter. Then Ion gathered all the Princes of Delphi together, and told them that the strange woman, the daughter of Erechtheus, had plotted his death by poison. And the sentence of the Princes was that she should be cast down from the rock on which their city was built, because she had sought to slay with poison the minister of the god.

Then one who had seen the whole matter from the beginning to the end, ran with all speed and told it to the Queen; and she, when she heard it, and that the officers of the people were coming to lay hands on her, fled to the altar of Apollo, and sat upon it in the place whereon the sacrifice was laid; for they that flee to the altar are sacred, and it is a sin against the god if any man touch them. But in a short space came Ion with a troop of armed men, breathing out threats and fury against the Queen. And when he saw her he said, “What a viper is this that thou hast brought forth, land of Attica! Worse is she than the drop of Gorgon’s blood wherewith she would have slain me. Seize her that she may be thrown from the rock. ‘Tis well for me that I set not foot in her house in Athens; for then had she caught me in a net, and I had surely died. But now the altar of Apollo shall not save her.”

And he bade the men drag her from the holy place. But even as he spake came in the Pythia, the priestess. And when Ion had greeted her, asking her whether she knew how this woman had sought to slay him, she answered that she knew it, but that he too was fierce above measure, and that he must not defile with blood the house whereto he went in the city of Athens. And when he was loath to listen to her, she said, “Seest thou this that I hold in my hand?” Now what she held was a basket with tufts of wool about it. “This is that in which I found thee, long ago, a new-born babe. And Apollo hath laid it upon me not to say aught of this before, but now to give it into thy hands. Take it, therefore, for the swaddling clothes wherein thou wast wrapped are within, and find out for thyself of what race thou art. And now, farewell; for I love thee as a mother loveth her child.”

Then Ion said to himself, “This is a sorrowful thing to see, this basket in which my mother laid me long since, putting me away from her in secret, so that I have grown up as one without a name in this temple. The god hath dealt kindly with me, yet hath my fortune and the fortune of my mother been but ill. And what if I find that I am the son of some bondwoman. It was better to know nought than to know this. But I may not fight against the will of the god; wherefore I will open it and hear my past whatever it be.”

So he opened the basket, and marvelled that it was not wasted with time, and that there was no decay upon that which was within. But when the Queen saw the basket, she knew it, and leapt from where she sat upon the altar, and told him all that was in her heart, that in time past, before she was wedded to King Xuthus, she had borne a son to Apollo, and had laid the babe in this basket, and with him swaddling clothes of things which she had woven with her own hands, and “Thou,” she said, “art my son, whom I see after this long time.”

And when the young man doubted whether this was so, the Queen told him the pattern of the clothes; that there was one which she had woven being yet a girl, not finished with skill, but like rather to the task of one that learns, and that there was wrought upon it the head of the Gorgon, and that it was fringed about with snakes, like to Pallas’s shield, the ægis. Also she said that there were necklaces wrought like to the scales of a snake, and a wreath of olive besides, as befitted the child of a daughter of Athens.

Then Ion knew that the Queen was his mother; yet was he sore perplexed, for the god had given him as a son to King Xuthus, nor did he doubt but that the god ever speaketh that which is true. Then he said that he would himself inquire of Apollo. But as he turned to go, lo! a great brightness in the air, and the shape as of one of the dwellers in heaven. And when he was afraid, and would have fled with the Queen, there came a voice, saying, “Flee not, for I am a friend and not an enemy. I am Pallas, and I come from King Apollo with a message to this youth and to the Queen. To Ion he saith, ‘Thou art my son, whom this woman bare to me in time past.’ And to the Queen, ‘Take this thy son with thee to the city of Athens, and set him on the throne of thy father, for it is meet that he, being of the race of Erechtheus, should sit thereon. And know that he shall become a great nation, and that his children in time to come shall dwell in the islands of the sea, and in the lands that border thereon, and that they shall be called Ionians after his name. Know also that thou shalt bear children to Xuthus—Dorus and Æolus—and that these also shall become fathers of nations.’”

And when the goddess had thus spoken she departed; and the two, Ion and Queen Creüsa, with King Xuthus also, went to their home in great joy and peace.

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