(Adapted from a map by Pinpin.)

Early one fine spring morning in the time after Perseus’s great adventures, the Delphi oracle left her humble lodgings to go to Apollo’s temple. Just as she was mounting the steps that led inside, she was distracted by the sound of a baby’s cries. Looking around in surprise, she noticed a wicker basket lying just next to the door. Inside the basket she found a baby boy in swaddling clothes, his bright eyes staring at her with an expression of curiosity and, she could swear, entreaty.

The oracle fell in love with the child immediately. Naming him Ion, she took him to her bosom and raised him like a son. This prompted some measure of gossip and speculation in the town — the oracle was expected to remain a virgin, after all — but no one who saw them together could bear the thought of separating them.

As soon as Ion was old enough, he took upon himself the job of steward of Apollo’s temple, for he loved the god of Delphi as much as he loved the town’s oracle, his adoptive mother. At dawn every day, he prepared himself for his duties by walking down to the sacred spring known as Castalia and purifying himself in its waters. Then he garlanded the temple’s entrance with freshly plucked flowers intertwined with branches of bay; he scrubbed the floors with clean, fresh water; he swept clear the pathway leading up to the temple using sweet-smelling laurel branches; he drove off with his bow and arrow the birds which wished to befoul the grounds — even the eagles and swans, both of which types were beloved by Zeus, but which were nevertheless judged by Ion not to be fit to perch in the cornice of Apollo’s temple. He allowed only doves, the sacred birds of Apollo himself, near the temple. In this fashion, then, the boy grew up handsome and strong and gentle in the clean air of Mount Parnassus.

One day as Ion was going about his duties, he was approached by a group of foreign suppliants. Such were hardly unusual in this crossroads of Greek civilization, and Ion was always patient with the visitors. This conversation started out much like a hundred others before it. “Is it true that Apollo’s temple really contains the omphalos stone which marks the world’s center?” asked one of the group with wide eyes. “That is the story we have heard.”

“Yes, it is true, but the stone is not for the eyes of you and me,” replied Ion. “If you have a question for Apollo to answer, you may apply with the town council for permission to go inside the temple and ask it of the oracle. But you may not under any circumstances attempt to pass into the inner sanctum where the omphalos stone lies, surrounded by the sacred vapors of Apollo; this place is reserved for the oracle alone.”

“I understand,” replied his interlocutor. “We are not for transgressing Apollo’s law. The outside charms us enough.”

“Very well, then. Look where you please at what is lawful,” said Ion. Then, in the interest of conversation: “In whose house do you serve?”

“We come from Athens. But the person we serve is here. She is coming now.”

And indeed, he saw walking up the path a woman, well past girlhood but still short of middle age, opulently dressed and coiffed. Yet her countenance belied her proud carriage. Her eyes were red with tears. For reasons he could not explain, Ion was struck to the heart by her evident sorrow. “You stand before Apollo’s holy temple, which most are glad to see,” he said kindly. “But your eyes are filled with tears. What reason can there be for your distraction?”

“It is reasonable for you to be surprised at my tears in such a wondrous place as this,” the woman said. “But when I saw this temple, I was struck by an old memory.”

“What sort of memory can be the cause of this strange melancholy?”

She waved off the question. “You should not worry over it.”

“Then tell me at least your name.”

“Creusa is my name,” replied the woman. “I am a princess of Athens — a daughter of Erechtheus, the king there.”

“And have you a husband?” asked Ion, feeling more drawn to her than ever.

“Yes,” she said. “His name is Xuthus. He is one of my father’s most trusted advisors.”

“But you have come to Delphi alone?”

“No, no,” she answered. “He will be along soon. He is just now arranging an audience with the oracle. We have a question for her.”

Ion knew he shouldn’t meddle in the business of the oracle, but he couldn’t restrain his curiosity. The most common question which drew powerful families like this to Delphi was actually a rather plebeian one. “Is it about your land’s recent and upcoming harvests?”

“No,” said Creusa slowly. “It is a different kind of fertility we seek. Though married long ago, we have no children.”

“No children? You have never had a child?”

She looked away. “Apollo knows my childlessness.” Quickly, she changed the subject. “And who are you? Your mother must be proud of you.”

“My name is Ion,” he said. “But my parents are unknown to me.”

“But when did you come here?”

“As a child, say they who seem to know. I was raised by the oracle herself. I think of her as my mother.”

“But have you never tried to find your real parents?”

“How can I when I have no clues to guide me?” When Creusa looked meaningfully at the temple, he shook his head. “The oracle has asked the god several times, but he volunteers nothing. The last time she asked, he grew angry, and shook the entire mountainside to show his displeasure — not something any mortal wishes to experience a second time. I must accept my fate — which is not, all things considered, a bad one.”

But Creusa shook her head sadly. “Your poor birth mother… how she must be suffering still! I have a… friend who suffers similarly.”

Forgetting himself amidst the flow of his feelings for this strange, pensive woman whose station was far above his own, Ion seized her hand. He led her around the side of the temple, away from the rest of her party, who were gazing upon the two of them with more than a hint of curiosity. “Tell me, and I will try to help.”

“My friend was forced against her will by the god Apollo himself to lie with him.” While Ion gasped, she continued: “And she became pregnant. Desperate to avoid her father’s scorn, she went off and had the child in seclusion. Then she left him in the wilderness to die.”

Ion looked at her in shock. “Such a crime is an affront to her fellow men and the gods alike!”

“I know it well,” said Creusa, her tears now falling freely. The pretense of a friend was now forgotten. “I thought better of it within a few hours, and went back to the cave where I had left my child. But it was gone. It must have been carried off by birds or beasts. I have lived with this private shame ever since. Every night when I lay my head on my pillow, I see my child stretching out its hands toward me, reaching for my breasts — for what I am so cruelly refusing. I wish to confess my crime every day, but have lacked the strength… until now.” And she looked with a certain wonder upon this placid young man who had somehow coaxed out of her within minutes what she had kept hidden for so long.

Ion’s head was spinning, not only at the revelation of this crime that was punishable by death anywhere in Greece but at the other, even greater crime which Creusa claimed had been committed by the god he himself worshiped every day — that of raping and impregnating a young girl and then leaving her and her child to their fate. This crime was greater because it was so premeditated, so knowing, and because its perpetrator had so manifestly not thought better of his deed, as Creusa had — too late, alas! — of hers. Could Apollo really have done such a thing? Ion might have expected it of Dionysus, what with his devotion to his animal impulses, but not of the god of order and intellect. “How long ago did this happen?” he managed at last.

“My son would be about your age now.” Then Creusa grabbed his hand again. “I feel I must speak to Apollo. I must know why he has done this thing to me.” With explosive suddenness, her grief was replaced with rage. “Unhappy women! Where shall we appeal for justice when the injustice of power is our oppression?”

Ion looked away. “It is madness to press a god to reveal his shame.”

“But our shared shame is my suffering!”

“You must know that to speak of this to the oracle would be a mistake!”

“What is not a mistake for a wretched woman in this patriarchy?”

Ion knew less than ever what to make of this woman who vacillated so quickly between abject grief and bootless rage. “It is not just your own fate which is at stake here. Accused of an evil deed like this one inside his own temple, Apollo might take vengeance on the oracle who dared to broach the subject — possibly on all of Delphi! Put it out of your mind, now and forever! Go on with your life, and attempt to forget your shame. You have suffered enough from it.”

Just then, he noticed that a tall man with an air of authority about him had joined the rest of Creusa’s party in front of the temple. She saw the man at the same time. “That is my husband, Xuthus. I beg you, tell him nothing of what we have been discussing.” Then, wiping the tears from her eyes and arranging herself again as best she could, she walked over to her husband, followed at a distance by Ion.

Xuthus looked at his clearly discomfited wife in surprise. “Has my delay caused you alarm, my dear?”

“No, no… everything is fine.”

After peering at her for another moment, he seemed to accept her denial. He nodded and turned to Ion, treating the youth as if he was one of his personal underlings. “Do you speak for Apollo?”

“Sir, I am only a steward of the temple. Only the oracle can speak for the god.”

Xuthus nodded brusquely at this. “Then I shall go inside. I have just secured permission to do so from your town council. Perhaps you, Creusa, could go round to the lesser altars praying to the other gods, asking them to convince Apollo to help us with our problem.” And with that, he flashed ever so briefly for Ion the council’s seal giving him permission to speak to the oracle and passed into the temple. He was plainly a man who didn’t expect to be questioned. Creusa dutifully set out for the other altars without another word to Ion. It was obvious that she already regretted having said so much to him.

Ion as well turned back to his duties, determined to put the affairs of these strangers out of his mind. But he found that the simple labors in which he normally took such pride and pleasure now felt hollow. Had the god he served really done the things described by Creusa? He had heard many times how Apollo exacted terrible retribution on mortals who committed similar deeds, and he had always believed the punishments to be just. But how could it be just for the god to violate the laws he himself had lain down as sacred? Zeus’s amorous intrigues were of course legendary. But Apollo? Ion had believed Apollo to be more compassionate toward mortals and more consistent in matching his behavior to his rhetoric.

Ion was still wrestling with these doubts, as unfamiliar as they were unwelcome, when Xuthus reemerged from the temple. Much to the boy’s shock, he rushed over to him and hugged him. “My son! Let me kiss your hand!”

“Has the god driven you mad somehow?” asked an incredulous Ion, struggling to extricate himself from the embrace.

“Mad? Anything but! I have found my own at last!” And he merely hugged the boy all the tighter.

This was simply too much to bear. Ion reached for one of the arrows slung at his back. “Must I stab you, or will you loose me?”

Xuthus stepped back reluctantly. “Why do you threaten me?” he cried.

“I treat you as I do all mad and boorish strangers!”

“Kill me, then,” said Xuthus. “But know that in doing so, you will kill your own father.”

“What did you say?” demanded Ion.

“I am your father. You are my son.”

“Who has told you this?”

“Why, Apollo’s oracle, who heard it directly from the god himself.”

“The god often speaks in riddles,” said Ion. “You merely mistook one of them. What exactly were the oracle’s words to you?”

Xuthus shrugged. “It was all quite clear. She said that the first person I saw after I left the temple would be my son.”

Ion looked at him with narrowed eyes. “He is your son, or you should adopt him as your son?”

“The first, as I understood it,” said Xuthus.

“If you are my father, who then is my mother? For I have spoken with your wife at some length. I know that the two of you have not been married long enough for me to have been born in your wedlock.”

“I cannot say,” said Xuthus. “Happy as I was with the news, I did not ask.”

“Am I then to believe that Gaia herself is my mother?” asked Ion sarcastically.

“Apollo has the answer, not I.”

After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, Ion spoke again. “Let us try another track: have you had a lover other than Creusa?”

Xuthus looked pained. “Yes, some youthful follies.”

“Before you were married?”

“Yes — but never afterward! In fact… I came to Delphi once before, as a youth of about your age. It was during the winter months…”

“Ah!” exclaimed Ion. “You joined the bacchanals in the Corycian Cave?”


“And you drank?”


“And there were girls?”


A possibility dawned upon Ion. He quickly explained to Xuthus how he had been found as a baby at the entrance to Apollo’s temple. “Perhaps my real mother was one of the girls of the town, who found a way to hide her pregnancy and then left me on the temple steps, knowing I would be found and taken care of.”

“Perhaps so,” said the older man. “But will you not at least accept me now as your father?”

“I could not wish for a better,” replied Ion, politely if a little stiffly. And finally he embraced Xuthus with free will, if still with a measure of grudging reserve.

“I also hope that we can find your mother, assuming she still lives,” Xuthus said somewhat unconvincingly. “But let me persuade you now to return with me to Athens. I promise that power and great wealth await you there. You shall know no more of this waif’s life as a temple steward.” But Ion’s eyes were downcast. “What is wrong?” asked Xuthus. “You change your father’s joy to fear.”

Ion spoke slowly. “I would come to Athens as a bastard, however high-born my father. I shall be mocked and scorned by the city’s elite, no matter how I comport myself. And Creusa… without a child herself, she will not kindly regard your own. I fear she will come to hate me, and you will be forced to choose between your wife and your son. The praise of royalty is false — a fair façade to hide the pain within. What happiness or blessing has the man who must constantly live in fear of violence? I would prefer to be a happy citizen than be a king. You might reply that gold outweighs all this, the joys of wealth — but it is no real joy to guard a fortune. Consider the good points of my life here in Delphi. I serve the happy, not the discontented. I receive guests, a fresh face smiling on other fresh faces. I have what all men should pray to have: a firm duty, a set direction to my days. When I compare the two, I think I would be more happy here than in Athens. Yes, let me continue to live here! Happiness in splendor is no more happy than happiness with little, which I already have here. Moderation should hold sway in all things, as Apollo says.”

Xuthus put his arm around the youth with forced jocularity. “I can see you have absorbed the homilies in the air of this place,” he said. “But come… no more of this nonsense. To allay your concerns, I will bring you back to Athens as a guest rather than a son. We will not reveal the truth even to Creusa. But when you have dwelt with us for a time and have proved your worth, as I am sure you shall, I will persuade her and the rest of the city to accept you as my heir. I am sure she will come to love you under these conditions as I already do.” Then his face hardened, took on once again some of the proud bearing which Ion had remarked upon first seeing him. “You speak to me of duty — but you have a duty to your blood in Athens. Will you return there with me or will you shirk this duty?”

Ion bowed his head; he had no counterargument for such an appeal. “Yes, I will go. I only pray that my real mother is Athenian, and I am the product of some other dalliance of yours than those which took place in the cave above us. For it breaks my heart to know that she may be right here in Delphi, and I may be about to leave her behind forever.” And with that he bade his newly discovered father farewell for the nonce and walked away to tell his adoptive mother his news.

The oracle did her best to congratulate Ion at his presumed good fortune, but her own heart misgave her as much as his did. Something hadn’t felt right about Apollo’s message — she would have said it felt almost fraudulent, if the very idea wasn’t such blasphemy. She had never felt this way when communing with the god before. Searching her heart, she truly believed her feeling was not just the result of her sorrow at being forced to say an unexpected farewell to the boy she had raised as her son. But she knew no more than that.

Her mind was still occupied with these disturbing thoughts that evening as she doused the torches and emptied the offering plates in preparation for closing up the temple for the night. When she walked out of the temple and pulled the doors shut behind her, she espied a form hovering there in the darkness at the bottom of the steps, as if hesitating between coming and going. The light of Xuthus’s encampment just outside of town shined behind the figure, highlighting it before her gaze despite its manifest reluctance. “May I help you?” she asked, not unkindly.

As if coming to a firm decision at last, the woman — for it was a woman — raised her head. “It is I, Creusa, wife of Xuthus. I know it is late, but I wonder if I might consult the oracle. We leave for Athens in the morning, you see.”

This was highly irregular. There were official channels to be gone through, seals to be procured — and women seldom visited the oracle under any circumstances. The oracle did not even know if this woman had properly purified herself. Further, everything in Creusa’s bearing said that she was deceiving her husband, that she was willfully sneaking up here at night. But, perhaps because of the pain and doubt etched so clearly on the woman’s face, perhaps merely because of the all-encompassing strangeness of this day, the oracle elected now to ignore the rules she had always lived by. “Come inside. We will find out if the god is still listening at this hour.”

Once inside the temple again, she lit a pair of votive lamps and repeated the phrase she had used with thousands of suppliants before this latest one. “What would you ask of the great god Apollo?”

“As you know from my husband,” came the reply, “I have been barren since the beginning of my marriage, despite youth and good health. I would ask the god why, and whether there is anything I can do to change my condition before I grow too old to think of such things.” As she said this, a gleam — almost of defiance? — came into her eyes.

“I will ask,” said the oracle. And she retired into her inner sanctum, leaving Creusa there to fidget nervously.

She returned some minutes later. “Did the god answer?” asked Creusa anxiously.

“Yes, he gave an answer,” said the oracle softly. “But I am afraid his answer is the one you least wish to hear. You will never have a child to hold or take to your breast — not if you live two mortal lifetimes. He does not explain why. He simply states what is to be.”

Raising herself to her feet, Creusa stumbled blindly toward the doors leading outside. “Cruel, selfish god!” she shouted behind her as she passed through the portal.

The oracle ought to have shrunk before this blatant blasphemy, ought to have reported the transgressor to the town authorities and gathered the people to spend the night in prayers, apologies, and sacrifices before the altar of Apollo. Instead, she committed an even bigger transgression of her own: she violated the vow of silence that prevented her from sharing any of the questions which others asked of her or the god’s answers to them. Following the blasphemer out the doors, she asked, “Have you spoken with your husband about his own visit to the temple earlier today?”

“Yes… he said nothing useful came of it.”

“That is not true,” said the oracle. “Apollo told your husband that the first person he saw upon leaving the temple would be his son. That person was Ion, the steward here, the same one who plans to return with you and your husband to Athens tomorrow as your invited guest.”

“But… who then is his mother?”

“I do not know.”

“I will no longer conceal it,” muttered Creusa under her breath. While the oracle puzzled over her meaning, Creusa spun on her heels and marched back into the temple. “On you, Leto’s son, here and now I will lay blame!” she declaimed. “You came with hair flashing gold, as I gathered into my cloak flowers. Pulling me by the wrists as I screamed for my mother, you forced me into your bed in a nearby cave. Later I bore a son in misery, whom in fear of my parents I placed in that same bed. He is lost now, snatched as food for birds, my son and yours. Lost! But you play the lyre, chanting your paeans. Hear me, son of Leto! From here where you assign your prophecies at the center of the world, I will proclaim my words to your ears. You are evil! Though you owed no debt to my husband, you have set a son in his house. But my son — yes, and yours — is lost, carried away by birds. Gods and men are alike, betrayers of women both!” To the oracle’s amazement, Apollo remained silent in the face of this blasphemy, by far the worst the oracle had ever heard. Having said her piece, Creusa fled into the night.

Something had snapped inside Creusa. Driven mad by her grief and rage, she now plotted murder in the darkness of the night. She would kill her latest mortal male oppressor in lieu of the god she could not reach; she would kill the charming youth who had, she was now convinced, wheedled her shameful secret out of her by wiles, who was himself the product of some sordid liaison on her husband’s part. And she knew just how she would go about it. Some time ago, Perseus, the now-aged king of Argos, had given her father a vial of Gorgon’s blood during a visit of state. It was a deadly poison, Perseus had explained, to be used only in the service of an urgent need of state. Her father had passed this dangerous gift on to Xuthus, his most faithful lieutenant. Now, as always, it lay in Xuthus’s pack in his camp.

A great feast had long been underway down in the Athenian camp, one to which all of those in and around Delphi had been invited. There had been sumptuous food, and enough wine to satisfy even Dionysus himself, and entertainment in the form of jugglers, magicians, and musicians. By the time Creusa made a belated appearance, the party was winding down already, with many of the residents of Delphi having already given way to the rule of moderation that governed their lives at this time of year and gone to their beds. Xuthus too was gone. He had walked down to the Castalian Spring to spend the night in prayer, meditation, and sacrifice, to express his gratitude to Apollo for the deliverance of his son.

Notwithstanding her earlier absence, Creusa now gave every indication to those diehard partiers who remained of being in the highest of spirits. Ion was still among them, and was in an unusually boisterous mood, thanks no doubt to the amount of strong drink he had already consumed. “Enough of these small cups!” he shouted to his companions. “We must have large! The company will then be all in good spirits!”

As he made this call, Creusa appeared suddenly at his elbow and handed him an enormous flagon filled to the brim with wine. Ion looked at her in surprise; an expression he couldn’t identify flickered across her face. His glance darted back to his drinking companions. When it returned to where Creusa had stood, she was gone. He scanned the area all around, but could spot her nowhere.

So, Ion raised the flagon and prepared to drink a toast. But just at that instant, he heard a message in his head as clearly as he heard the shouts and cheers of the company around him: “Do not drink the wine!”

Steward of Apollo’s temple that he had so long been, he knew a divine message when he heard one. He shouted, “This libation we shall offer to the two gods on Mount Parnassus, Apollo and Dionysus,” and poured the wine onto the ground before him. His companions were surprised and a little consternated, but they followed his lead.

There appeared within the circle of firelight a flight of doves, Apollo’s own birds. While the feasters looked on, the doves waddled over to the puddles of wine on the ground and dipped their beaks into them. Most of them then flew away, none the worse for wear. But the one who had perched over Ion’s discarded libation began to shake and quiver, then to screech in anguish. Then she rolled onto her back and was still.

A wave of shock swept through the gathering. What could this mean? Ion was the first to find his voice. “Creusa tried to poison me!”

Soon after, the Delphi town elder was awakened by a tremendous banging at his door. When he opened it, he was surprised to find Ion standing on the threshold, begging for an immediate meeting of the town council. The youth being as loved as he was trusted in the town, the elder agreed. Some short time later, a dozen bleary-eyed old men gathered in the town hall to listen to Ion’s complaint. “Oh, rulers of the sacred city,” he said formally, “a foreign woman, daughter of Erechtheus, has tried to poison me. Only the intervention of the god Apollo saved my life.” And he briefly told his tale.

Such crimes could not be tolerated here in the orderly domain of Apollo. Incensed, the council took a hasty vote; the unanimous verdict was for death by stoning, never mind the lady’s highborn status. So, they woke the rest of the town with a great hue and cry. The people, as outraged as their leaders by this attempted crime against one of their own, fanned out with torches to find the perpetrator of the foul deed. Yet they could not find her.

Then Ion had a thought, whence he knew not. He walked over to the altar of Apollo which stood before his temple and looked behind it. And there, huddled against the cold stone, he saw Creusa. He looked on her with contempt. “The altar will not save you, nor Apollo’s house.” And he turned his back on her to shout to the people. “You see her treachery — how she can twist one scheme upon another! She has fled to cower at the god’s own altar, hoping thus to avoid her penalty for wrong.” He was remembering as he did so the story of filicide the woman had told him earlier in the day. This story he now saw in an entirely different light. Once a killer, always a killer, he thought to himself. Delphi and Athens alike would be better off without her.

But Creusa had now ceased to cower. Drawing herself to her full height, she said, “I warn you not to kill me — and I speak not only for myself but for the god who guards this place.”

“What can you have in common with the god?”

“My body is his to save, a sacred charge.”

Ion looked upon her incredulously. “You tried to poison me! I have the piety you lack.”

“I tried to kill the enemy of my house,” said Creusa defiantly.

“What? I did not march upon your land with arms.”

“You hoped to force possession of my home from inside it.”

“You planned my death out of fear of my intentions?”

“To save my life in case you stopped intending.”

“This is absurd,” said Ion. “The fact is, I am Xuthus’s son.”

“I know this already,” replied Creusa levelly.

“And yet you tried to murder me anyway? Had I no right to share my father’s state?”

Creusa merely shook her head, still using the altar as a barrier between her and Ion.

“Come,” said Ion. “Leave the altar and the shrine of the god.”

“If you wish to kill me, you must do it here before Apollo’s shrine. I shall thus injure the one who has injured me.”

Ion hesitated. Enraged though he was by this impossible woman, he knew well the prohibition against shedding human blood within the sacred domain of the temple grounds. Even if the god spared him, he had no guarantee that the pious people standing behind him, witnessing everything that transpired, would do the same.

Just then, the doors to the temple swung open, and the oracle came down the steps. “Stop, my son!” she shouted.

“Dear mother!” said Ion, as a wave of affection swept over him; his anger at the one woman was drowned in his love for the other. “Mother of my heart if not of my blood.”

“Then let me be so called. It pleases me,” said the oracle with no less affection.

“You heard how she planned to murder me?”

The oracle’s voice became less doting. “I heard — but your own cruelty too is sinful.”

This was all too much for Ion. “Have I no right to kill a murderer?”

The oracle looked upon Creusa with pity in her eyes. “Wives are often unkind to children not their own.”

“Then what must I do?”

“Desist from this foolish revenge,” said the oracle. “And go to Athens with good omens, though it pains me gravely to say farewell.”

Now Ion saw that the oracle carried something with her: a wicker basket whose top was covered with a woolen blanket. The oracle had few possessions, and he had thought he knew them all — but he had never seen this one before. “What is this basket you carry?” he asked.

“This is the basket in which I found you,” she answered. “I have kept it hidden even from you all these years, at the express bidding of Apollo. Inside it are the swaddling clothes you wore.”

“These clues could help me to find my birth mother!” exclaimed Ion.

“Yes. And this the god now desires, as he has just informed me. Take the basket with you, and begin your search for her.”

“I will search to the ends of the earth if necessary,” said Ion as he grabbed the basket eagerly.

“That may not be necessary,” said the oracle. “Your mother might have been a Delphi girl who left you at the temple in her shame, just as you have often speculated. If you will take my advice, you should inquire here first, then broaden your search gradually to encompass the rest of Greece. Only if that too turns up nothing should you think about the barbarian world beyond.” She paused briefly, then steeled herself and spoke again. “And now farewell. I will kiss you one last time as my son before I set you free.”

And this she did. As she mounted the steps back up to the temple and pulled the doors shut behind her, Ion thought to himself that she had never looked so aged to his eyes before. Gazing upon her bowed back, he understood for the first time what a burden it must be to serve as the intermediary between the mortal and divine worlds, confronting every day the unending tragedies of human existence.

Ion stood there in these contemplations in the flickering torchlight, his rage forgotten along with the very presence of Creusa there in the shadow of the altar. The people too stood transfixed. At last, Ion set the basket on the ground and removed its woolen covering. He was amazed as he did so to see that the basket seemed unaffected by its age; the wicker was still as fine and supple as new. As the oracle had promised, he found swaddling clothes inside.

While he peered into the basket, Creusa crept out of the shadows to stand beside him, staring in wonder. “What is this I see?”

Ion turned to her with a start. “Silence! I have just about decided to spare you on my adoptive mother’s advice, but do not tempt me.”

“This is no time for silence!” said Creusa excitedly. “Do not try to check me. In that basket I exposed you then, my son, as a newborn child.” And she threw her arms around his neck.

“Seize her!” demanded Ion of the people in response to this unwelcome embrace, the second he had endured that day. But the people hesitated, confused by all that had just transpired, mesmerized by the light of love in the woman’s eyes.

“I will not lose you again,” she said. “They will have to kill me to take you from me.”

“Yet you tried to kill me!”

“That was before I knew you were my son. A mother must love her son.”

“Stop spinning lies!” yelled Ion. Then he quieted, looked at her shrewdly. “The basket — has it anything inside?”

“It has the things you wore when I exposed you, as the oracle said.”

“And can you describe them for me before you see them?”

“I can. And if I fail, I consent to die.”

“Then speak. Your audacity is strange indeed.” And Ion, disentangling himself from Creusa, moved several paces away with the basket, peering inside it secretively.

“It contains the weaving I did in childhood,” said Creusa.

“Describe it, I said!”

“It is unfinished, a kind of trial piece. The loom work of a girl still learning the craft.”

“And its design?”

“There is a Gorgon in the center part. It is fringed with serpents like an aegis.”

Ion could not conceal his surprise at her accurate report. “And is there anything else in the basket?”

“A necklace suitable for a newborn child, woven in the form of a serpent. And an olive wreath, taken from a tree that is holy to Athena. For that reason, it should remain as green as ever today.”

In response to these final proofs of her honesty, Ion dropped the basket and rushed into his mother’s arms. “Oh, dearest mother, what happiness to see you!”

“Oh, child! To have you in my arms, whom I thought dead. It is as if you have died and returned to me alive. My child, you were born in tears, in sorrow torn from your mother. But now I can breathe on your cheek, and am blessed with tender joy.”

But after some more endearments of this sort from both parties, Creusa stepped back with a thoughtful look on her face. “Who then brought you here, to Apollo’s house?”

“It must have been the work of a god,” shrugged Ion. He had something else on his mind. “Mother, my father should be here with us to share our happiness. Let us find Xuthus.”

But Creusa pulled him back as he tried to lead her away. “My child, my child… How I am put to shame…”

“Yes? Tell me…”

“You do not know your father.”

“So I was born before your marriage?”

“The marriage which gave you birth saw no torches or dancing, my son,” Creusa sighed.

And suddenly everything became clear to Ion, as he remembered the sad tale she had told him earlier. “My father is… Apollo?”

She nodded. “In fear of my parents I wrapped you in those swaddling clothes, the careless work of a girl at her loom. I gave you no milk. You were not washed with my hands, but in a deserted cave delivered to death, prey for the beaks of birds. I cast you away in the bondage of fear, then tried to kill you a second time on this night in the bondage of bitter anger.”

“And I too attempted an impious murder…” said Ion.

“Let it rest,” decided his mother firmly. “We have endured sorrows enough. There is no harbor from the changing waves of joy and despair. We should not question this favoring breeze that has rescued us for the moment.”

But Ion still looked at her doubtfully. Why had Apollo told Xuthus that the latter was Ion’s father, if it was in reality the god himself? And the old problem as well still remained to torment him: how could the god he had spent his life worshiping have committed such a shameful act as the one Creusa had described to him earlier in the day, which he now knew had led to his own conception? “Come here with me,” Ion said, pulling Creusa around to the side of the temple, away from the crowd. “My words are for your ears alone.” He looked at her hard. “Now search your memory and your conscience, and tell me truly,” he said. “Many young girls are deceived by passing strangers, and many others attempt to lay blame on a god to escape their own shame. Are you certain my father was the god Apollo?”

“I swear by all that is holy, here in this holiest of places,” replied Creusa without hesitation. “Your father was no mortal, but the very god of Delphi.”

“But Mother, this means that either Apollo has spoken falsely to the oracle or she has given a false report of her dialog with him. I hardly know which charge is the more disturbing. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“Why persist in this questioning?” begged Creusa. All of her old rage against Apollo had been forgotten in her joy. “Is it not enough that the god is placing you within a noble house? He is giving you another father. Perhaps that is what he meant when he told Xuthus that the first person he saw would be his son. Xuthus is indeed ready to make you his son by law if not by blood. Is that not enough?”

“No,” persisted Ion. “My questions cannot be waved off so lightly. I will ask Apollo to explain himself. It is the least he can do.”

But as he turned toward the temple entrance to do this ill-advised thing, a bright glow filled the air before him, gradually resolving itself into a majestic figure. It turned out not to be Apollo, as both Ion and Creusa expected and feared, but rather… a woman dressed in shining armor, bearing a shield with the head of a Gorgon embossed at its center. Both mortals quailed in the face of her splendor and prepared to flee. But when the goddess spoke, her voice and words, commanding but by no means cruel, arrested their flight.

“No, stay. I am no enemy. I am Athena. I have come in haste, sent by Apollo, who did not think it wise to come himself, lest he should be blamed for what has happened in the past. He has sent me to bring these messages.

“To you, Ion, he says that this woman is your mother. Your father is Apollo himself. It was also Apollo who asked Hermes to bring you to Delphi when your mother abandoned you, and Apollo too who decided to subtly mislead Xuthus with his words in order to give you a place in a noble house. When the oracle in her misguided kindness repeated his message to your mother, and your mother hatched a scheme of murder, he was forced to find a way of saving you. This he did by means of the premonition he planted in your head and the doves he sent to reveal the existence of the poison.

“To you, Creusa, Apollo notes that you have sinned gravely against the laws of gods and men twice now in your life. The first sin prompted him to make you barren henceforward in retribution — a mild punishment, all things considered. For the second sin, he would happily have seen you executed.” When Creusa began to protest, Athena held up her hand. “Wait! Apollo has decided now to forgive you both sins. Go back to Athens with your husband and son. Your curse is lifted. You will have more children with Xuthus, provided you never reveal the true origin of your first. Let your husband believe that Ion is his son. It will do neither of them any harm. This Apollo promises you.

“Now farewell to you both. You are delivered of your present evil, and your future holds good fortune.” And she faded from their view in the same manner that she had come.

The futures of Xuthus, Creusa, and Ion unfolded just as Apollo and Athena had promised. Ion explained to Xuthus and the rest of his party that the poison he had almost drunk proved not to have come from Creusa at all, but rather from some other, unknown source — likely as not from some passing scoundrel looking to cause mischief for his own amusement. What did it matter who the poisoner had been, really? The Athenians weren’t sure what to make of his sudden disinterest in bringing his would-be murderer to justice — nothing he had said rang terribly true — but they loved Creusa, and were willing to forgive and forget any crime she may have committed when her would-be victim was so clearly willing to do the same.

Ion conducted himself so nobly and wisely, and was accepted so wholeheartedly into the family by Creusa after that strange night, that the prejudice he had feared in Athens, while by no means nonexistent in the beginning, was soon overcome. Indeed, Ion became such a valued citizen that the people all but forgot that he was in reality a bastard. Thus when old king Erechtheus died, the people elevated Ion to the throne, simply because it was so obvious to everyone that he was the man in the city best suited to the office. Meanwhile Xuthus and Creusa had two more strong sons, who acquitted themselves well as servants of the city and begrudged Ion neither his questionable birthright nor his position of power. All was harmonious in the family and in the city.

Yet the bizarre climax of that strange night in Delphi was never entirely forgotten — neither by Creusa and Ion nor by the populace of Delphi who had witnessed it firsthand. It was hard to justify Apollo’s rape of a helpless young girl, hard to avoid the feeling that he had behaved like a guilty, cowardly mortal in lying to his own oracle in spirit if not in so many words, then sending Athena to deliver his final message to a victim he preferred not to face again. On the dark, cool winter nights in Delphi, when the temple of Apollo was shuttered, visitors were nonexistent, and most of the town’s younger population was frolicking up in the Corycian Cave, the older men would sometimes dare to approach the subject, albeit only in the most circumspect fashion. Some of them — perhaps the wisest among them — would note obliquely that an occasional transgression on the part of their patron god could serve as a healthy warning that no one is morally unblemished, and that sins once acknowledged can often be rectified. For others, however, such explanations weren’t enough. Wasn’t their god supposed to be above human foibles? And besides, he hadn’t really acknowledged his sins at all, had he? Just what kind of being was it that they worshiped?

But then the winter months of discontent would pass away. Spring would come, and Delphi would become bright and clean and beautiful again, full of all those earnest faces with their heartfelt entreaties for the oracle, and the rhythm of life at the center of the world would resume.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.

(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 4: The Birthright of Ion"

  • Martin

    This is one of the myths I haven’t heard before.

    You have to wonder whether the ancient Greeks addored, worshipped or just appeased their gods out of fear. Or is this just putting your “modern” bias on the stories. I can’t blame you if it I’d the latter, as I never thought the Greek gods were any kind of good model themselves of how they expected their subjects to be.

    • Jimmy Maher

      The doubts expressed here also existed during the classical age. In fact, as time went on more and more of them emerged. This story is drawn entirely from Euripides, the last of the three great Athenian tragedians, who is famous for giving lip service to piety but not-so-subtly hiding uncomfortable questions just beneath the surface of the text. (Not least for this reason, he’s my favorite of the three.) Perhaps not coincidentally, Euripides wrote when Athenian power was on the wane and the citizens’ confidence that they were a special, chosen people was coming more and more into doubt. Edith Hamilton wrote of Euripides’s Ion, “The end of Greek mythology was at hand when such plays drew full houses in Athens.” But it seems safe to say that the private doubts expressed there about the gods’ “do as I say, not as I do” attitude toward morality existed long before Euripides.

    • Derek

      I recently came across a blog post that explains this point (for polytheistic systems in general, but focused primarily on Greek and Roman religion). It doesn’t address the thorny moral issues directly, but it emphasizes that moral questions were very much secondary:

      The other three posts in the series are also worth reading.

  • Aula

    “That was before you I knew you were my son.”

    the first “you” shouldn’t be there

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Will Moczarski

    And there , huddled

    I found nothing except this minor spacing issue this time.
    Also, this was another beautifully written chapter!

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks on both counts!

  • Leo Vellés

    Another great chapter. As i was reading it, i thought “well, this time it seems all ended well for almost everyone under these not so gracious gods…but the last paragraph, although seems full of hope and light, seems also suspiciously anouncing more tragedies for the people under their merciless rule.


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