Creusa, daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens, is raped by Apollo and leaves the babe to die. Apollo rescues the baby and tasks Hermes to leave it anonymously at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle. The child, Ion, is raised by the Priestess but does not know his ancestry.
Years later, Creusa marries Xuthus, a foreigner who aided Athens in its war against Euboea. Both childless, they visit the Delphic Oracle to see if they will ever have children. They each meet Ion, and when Xuthus visits the Oracle, he is told that Ion is his son. Creusa is then encouraged by her servants to plot the death of this usurper to her throne, who in turn discovers the attempt and strives to kill Creusa – mother and son unknown to each other, desperate to discover each other, yet on a collision course to kill each other.
My Penguin edition The Bacchae and other plays (ISBN 0140440445) translated by Philip Vellacott. Unusually this edition contains very few footnotes, and those at the back of the volume are only linked to the text by page number. However, I found very little in this play requiring explanation (the one exception appears below) and the story moved along at a relatively quick pace for a Greek tragedy.
Creusa really carries the play, from her anguish being taken by Apollo, keeping her pregnancy secret, delivering the baby alone in a cave and leaving it there at the mercy of the elements, to her later unhappiness at remaining childless, and then being convinced to commit murder, and being hounded through the streets by a sword-wielding mob. Ion is not so well depicted, and takes little convincing to swing immediately from one extreme to another.
It is mentioned that Creusa’s father Erechtheus killed his other daughters to ensure success for Athens in another war, like Agamemmon killing his daughter Iphigenia to secure good weather for the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. As a father, I find these paternal filicides quite the most horrendous acts depicted in the Greek plays, so the next play on my list Iphigenia in Tauris which reboots the story to allow Iphigenia’s survival will be a relief.
Ion’s very strong criticism of the gods, particularly Apollo, is tantamount to blasphemy but the protection of free speech allows the play to consider the Gods’ imperfections in an even more critical light
” …. I must remonstrate with Apollo: what can have come over him? He ravishes girls by force, then abandons them? He begets children by stealth, then leaves them to die? Apollo, no! Since you possess power, pursue goodness! Why, if a man is bad, it is the gods who punish him, How can it be right for you to make laws for men, and appear as lawbreakers yourselves? …. You put pleasure first, and wisdom after – and it is a sin!”
Ion, page 55.
and the sheer venom of the Chorus’ entreaty to Hecate to grant the success of Creusa’s plan to poison Ion
“Hecate, goddess of darkened ways
Queen of wandering ghosts that haunt the night
Visit this day with deadly power
Guide the cup that my lady Creusa sends
Blended with blood
Caught from the Gorgon’s gory throat –
Guide the cup to his thirsty lips,
Who comes to usurp Erechtheus’ palace”
Chorus, page 72
Quite a few interesting things arose during this read. Firstly, what is a thyrsus? The footnotes did not help so I had to Google this and discovered it is a staff topped by a pine cone carried by followers of Bacchus/Dionysus and seen as a fertility symbol.
Secondly, petitioners visiting the Delphi Oracle could sacrifice oil and honey at the outside altar, but were required to sacrifice a sheep if they wanted admittance to the inside of the temple.
Lastly, and it had to happen, one of my favourite blogs also discussing classic literature Behold the stars posted a review of Ion today as well
Once I finish writing this, I will be off to read their thoughts, and based on previous posts, I highly recommend their site to interested readers as well.
Personal rating : Improved as it sped up and reached the climax, a 6 from me.
Next: As mentioned, Iphigenia in Tauris, also by Euripides