I have been late finishing a sequence of nine posts on the Ancient Greek tragedies I taught during the past semester. A very large part of this is due to finding Euripides rather flat compared with Aeschylus and Sophocles. I feel ready to return to Euripides and not just think about the ways he seems less of a pure poet, who reveal through the figurative power of language, rather than through explicit communication.
Euripides’ Ion has some similarities to Oedipus the King, and it’s possible Euripides wanted to find a different perspective on some underlying issues in the Sophocles play. The most obvious similarity is that Ion was abandoned by his mother soon after birth, but lived on, and they meet in later life. The play opens with Hermes, messenger of the gods, who explain how Ion’s father is the god Apollo who rapes Creusa, a woman of divine origins. She abandons the baby son who results. Ion is taken to a temple of Apollo with the help of Hermes and is raised as a temple slave, a comfortable form of servitude. Creusa visits the temple, when Ion is grown, and they meet without understanding how they are connected. She tells the story to Ion of her rape by Apollo, and abandoning her baby, attributing it to a friend. Ion does not realise this has anything to do with him. He advise her not to try to get the story from Apollo about what happened to the baby. Ion referred to the rituals of divination normal for the Ancient Greeks, which he suggests are a kind of aggression against a god, trying to make him speak. He demands a respectful attitude to Apollo, despite Apollo’s crime against Creusa. After Creusa has gone, Ion is less respectful of Apollo. He questions how the gods can do things which are crimes for humans and how gods can get away with breaking law, which leads to punishment for humans.
Creusa is now married to Xuthus, who is also of divine origin. Unlike Creusa, he is not an Athenian though he has been made King of Athens. Creusa’s grandfather, Erichthonious was one of the first Athenians, who are referred to as autochthonous, that is born from the Earth. The Thebans, of whom Oedipus was king, were also believed to have been born from the earth, after it was sown with a dragon’s teeth. This kind of story shows the intensity with which Ancient Greeks believed they belong to the city, which was the city of their ancestors. However, the story of Xuthus also shows that the connection was not always so clear, that there were doubts about these assumptions of absolute belonging. Xuthus has been offered the crown because of his military triumphs while allied with Athens.
Xuthus enters the temple of Apollo. We learn from his speech that through a temple oracle, he has heard that the first man he sees in the temple afterwards will be Apollo’s gift of a son. Xuthus and Creusa are disappointed by their lack of children. Xuthus had a child with a woman he met during Bacchic (Dionysian) festivals, but knows nothing of that child. Xuthus sees Ion first on emerging from the meeting with the oracle, and appears to assume that Ion is not just a gift of a son, but the child he had with the woman, that Ion is a birth son as well as a gift son. We see here the importance of children and carrying on a family name for the Ancient Greeks, as well as the tendency for babies from relationships outside marriage to be abandoned and to disappear. Like Sophocles, Euripides plays on what must have been a quite widespread experience for Ancient Greeks, abandonment of a baby to probable death, as a substitute for effective contraception or for abortion. Abandonment of unhealthy babies was even a legal requirement in Sparta. We also see here an interaction between Apollo and Dionysus. That may be partly the consequence of Nietzsche sensitising us to the distinction he placed at the heart of Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche was not just making up that opposition and unity of two divine forces. The tragedies revolve around contrasts between clarity and darkness, order and chaos, life and death, and so on, which often include reference to Apollo and Dionysus.
İn the action of the play, Xuthus greets Ion as his son, much to Ion’s embarrassment, until Xuthus explains the situation. Ion says he would prefer a quiet life to the pressures of Athens, and knows he would be a complete outsider there as Athenian’s put great emphasis on origins. Later he suggests that he could not benefit from the free speech of the Athenians as an outsider. His view of free speech is being able to influence fellow citizens in political meetings, not just the right to express opinions. Ion does not like the idea of being a king, the responsibility and pressure. Xuthus explains that he would be gradually introduced to the city, so the citizens would get used to him gradually. He would also gradually bring him into family life with Creusa, so that she has time to get used to the situation. Ion is aware that Creusa might have a very negative attitude to a child in the family who is not hers. Issues of the family and the city as places of complete integration, where there is a very big divide between those who belong and those who do not, are apparent. The rift is brought to life, but so is a sense that the opposition s unreal, that family and city life depend on outsiders. Apparent outsiders may be the greatest sons and citizen leaders.
Returning to the action, a slave informs Creusa of Xuthus’ plan to adopt Ion and claims that the oracle has said Creusa will have no children. The slave is a negative character (suggesting the considerable moral limits of the Athenian tragedians by our standards) who provokes Creusa to murder Ion. So we move towards a reversal of Oedipus murdering his father, as Creusa moves towards murdering her son. Creusa is shown to have an intense jealousy of a son of Xuthus who is not her son, to the extent that he is willing to kill him. She discusses different possible forms of murder with her slave, but settles on poison of divine origin, dating from a war between gods and giants, which is the time the first Athenians were born from the ground, including her grandfather. She will poison wine at Ion’s temple. The plan does not work though as Ion senses something wrong (possibly under the influence of Apollo) and tips the wine onto the ground. A temple dove drinks some of the wine and dies. Ion tries to arrest Creusa, but she takes sanctuary at Apollo’s alter where she cannot legally be arrested. It is at this point that a servant woman of the temple is moved by Apollo to explain to Ion how he was found as a baby. Creusa realises that the things the woman describes as being found with Ion are things she left with her baby. She leaves the alter and convinces Ion that she is his mother. They reproach Apollo, who sends Pallas Athene (the goddess linked with Athens) as his representative. Athene explains Apollo’s rape as part of a plan which will enable Xuthus to have a son, and in which Ion goes onto found the Ionian Greeks (those Greeks who settled western Anatolia), and has 4 children who are the other 4 major ethnic groups of major Greece. Creusa is now reconciled with Apollo.
Like the other Attic tragedies, this play has an element of Athenian nationalism, Athens is presented as the centre of the Greek world and the origin of all the nations of Greece, which is of course completely mythical. We see a great deal of emphasis on speech, truth and communication. Apollo is the sun god, so the god of clarity. Athene is the goddess of wisdom. Hermes is the messenger god, so all the gods associated with the play are concerned with truth and communicating truth. The play is dominated by secrets and the revelation of secrets, which is necessary to avoid violence. Without the truth speaking at the end, Creusa would have murdered Ion. Bringing secrets to light brings the play to its end, unites a family and prevents murder. In the background is the Athenian belief in free speech as public truth telling.