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by Euripides

Summary by Michael McClain
February 21, 2012
Based on a translation by Ronald Frederick Willetts


Outside the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Hermes recalls the time when Creusa, the daughter of Erectheus, was raped by Apollo in a cave at Long Rocks under the Acropolis. Creusa secretly gave birth to a child, whom she left in a basket, along with some trinkets, expecting that he would be devoured by beasts. Apollo sent Hermes to bring the boy to Delphi where he has grown up as an attendant at the temple.

Creusa, meanwhile, was married to the foreign-born Xuthus, son of Aeolus, the son of Zeus. Xuthus won Creusa by assisting the Athenians in a war against the Chalcidians. Xuthus and Creusa have come to Delphi to ask if they can have children. Hermes says that Apollo will give the boy, soon to be named Ion, to Xuthus who will take him home to Athens where he will be recognized by his mother.

Hermes steps into a wooded grove when Ion arrives to begin his morning chores. As Ion sweeps the steps of the temple with a broom of laurel, he sings the praise of the god who is like a father to him. His reveries are disturbed by birds which he shoos away with his arrows, though not without a twinge of regret.

A group of Athenian maidens arrive at the temple to marvel at the stonework depicting ancient legends. They identify themselves to Ion as servants of the Athenian rulers and soon spot their mistress arriving at the temple door.

Creusa introduces herself to Ion as the daughter of Erectheus and Ion is impressed. He is familiar with the old stories about her family. Ion's casual mention of Long Rocks startles Creusa but she reveals nothing of her past. She tells him that she has married a foreigner, Xuthus, who won her as a prize for helping the Athenians in battle. They are here to ask about having children.

Ion introduces himself as an orphan slave who was brought up by the priestess of Apollo. When Creusa asks if he has ever tried to find his mother, he says he has no token of her. Moved by the thought of his mother, Creusa tells Ion that she has come in advance of her husband to question the oracle on behalf of "a friend" who had a child by Apollo, which she abandoned. She has come, she tells him, to ask the god if her friend's child is still alive. He would be about your age now, she tells him. Ion warns her to abandon the inquiry, saying that no one would dare accuse the god of such a deed in his own temple. Seeing Xuthus approaching, Creusa asks Ion to reveal nothing of their conversation.

Xuthus is confident that he will receive good news from the oracle. Before he goes into the sanctuary, he sends Creusa with laurel branches to make the rounds of the external altars. After she leaves, Ion questions how the gods, who punish evildoing among mortals, can engage in abusive behavior themselves. Before going off to finish his chores, he indignantly advises the gods not to rape young women just because they can.

While Xuthus is inside, Creusa's servants pray to Athena and Artemis, recalling the joys of fertility and raising children. Recalling the story of the daughters of Cecrops and Aglauros, they conclude that children born of mortals by gods are fated for ill fortune.

Ion returns as Xuthus emerges from the inner sanctuary. He calls the young man "my boy" and rushes to embrace him. A wary Ion treats him as if he were a pederast. At one point he even draws his bow. Xuthus explains that the god told him that the first person he encountered when he came out of the shrine would be his natural son. When Ion questions who his mother might be, Xuthus says that perhaps she was someone he met at a Bacchic festival. Ion accepts Xuthus as his father, but thinks wistfully of the mother he longs to meet. Creusa's servants wish that their mistress could share in the happiness.

Xuthus proposes that Ion come back to Athens with him, but the young man is reluctant to take on the role of "the bastard son of an imported father." He compares the happiness of kings to an outward façade of prosperity masking fear and suspicion within. When he says that he would prefer to remain a temple attendant, Xuthus breaks off the conversation with "Enough of that. You must learn to be happy." Ion will come back with him as a house guest. When the time is right, he will arrange for Ion to be his heir. As he leaves to offer sacrifice, he names the boy Ion because he met him 'coming out' and tells him to arrange for a banquet to celebrate his departure from Delphi. He enjoins the chorus to reveal nothing of what has happened. Ion reluctantly agrees to go to Athens, but he longs to meet his unknown mother and fears he will not be well received.

Creusa's maids, suspecting treachery, pray for the death of Xuthus and Ion, whom they consider interlopers. Creusa returns to the temple gate accompanied by her father's ancient tutor. Sensing that something is amiss, Creusa presses her maids to tell what they know. They reveal that Apollo gave Ion to Xuthus as a son while she will remain childless. The old tutor speculates that Xuthus discovered that Creusa was barren, sired the child by a slave and gave him to a Delphian to raise. The old man tells Creusa that she must not allow the bastard child of a foreigner to inherit the throne. Instead, she must kill her husband and his son to prevent further treachery. He volunteers to help her. The servants pledge their support.

With her hopes in the god completely dashed, Creusa finally reveals what Apollo did to her. She describes how he came upon her as she was gathering flowers — a shining god who grabbed her by the wrists and dragged her into a cave as she screamed for her mother. She gave birth to a child and left him in the cave in the hope that the god would save him. Now she realizes that Apollo has completely abandoned her and their son.

The tutor encourages her to avenge herself by torching Apollo's temple, but she refuses. When she also refuses to kill her husband, the tutor suggests that she kill the young man. Creusa agrees, telling him that she has two drops of the Gorgon's blood which Erichthonius received from Athena. One drop kills and the other cures. She gives the deadly drop to the old man to poison Ion during his farewell banquet, then they go their separate ways.

The maids pray for the plot's success, fearing that if it fails, Creusa will take her own life before allowing a foreigner to take over Athenian rule. They condemn the ingratitude of Apollo who gave preference to Xuthus over their mistress.

The maids prayer is answered by the arrival of a messenger announcing that the plot has failed. He tells them that a Delphian mob is searching for Creusa to stone her to death. He says that Xuthus arranged for Ion to host a banquet under a tent, while he went off to offer sacrifice. After a description of the banquet tent, the messenger tells them how the plan went awry. Ingratiating himself with the crowd, the old tutor took on the role of wine steward and slipped the poison into Ion's cup as planned; but just as they were about to drink, someone made an ill-omened remark and Ion called on the company to pour our their cups. When a flock of doves drank the spilled wine, all survived except the dove that drank the wine intended for Ion. The bird died in torment, revealing the plot. Ion grabbed the old man, found the vial and forced a confession from him. Then he successfully brought a charge of murder against Creusa at a hastily assembled court of Delphian leaders. Now the entire city is searching for her.

Creusa runs up the steps pursued by the Delphian mob. On the advice of her servants, she seeks sanctuary at the altar of Apollo, just as Ion arrives with sword in hand. Each accuse the other of treachery. He says that she tried to murder him; she says that he tried to overturn the house of her fathers.

As Ion rails against the laws that protect convicted assassins, the Pythian priestess emerges from the inner sanctum to prevent pollution. Advising Ion to go to Athens with his father, she shows him the basket he was found in. She has kept it secret all these years, but now that Ion's father has been revealed, she can give it to him to help in the search for his mother. Ion vows to travel all of Asia and Europe to search for her. She advises him to start his search in Delphi.

As he peers into the basket, Ion marvels at the fact that it shows no sign of age or decay. Recognizing the basket, Creusa knows immediately that Ion is her son. She leaves the altar to embrace him even at the risk of her life. When she announces that she is his mother, Ion accuses her of lying. In an attempt to discredit her, he challenges her to name what is in the basket. There is an unfinished weaving with a Gorgon in the center fringed with serpents like an aegis; a pair of golden serpents in memory of Erichthonius, fashioned into a necklace; and a wreath of olive branches which ought to still be green. Convinced, Ion flies to Creusa's welcoming arms — her long dead son has been returned alive.

Embracing her son and heir, Creusa expresses her joy. There is no more unlikely chance than this, Ion tells her, than to discover that you are my mother. I am childless no longer, she tells him. When Ion questions her about his father, Creusa tells him with some embarrassment that he is the son of Apollo and that she reluctantly abandoned him in a deserted cave to be the prey of birds. As they celebrate their change of fortune, Ion takes her aside to ask if perhaps she conceived him with a mortal father and made up the story about Apollo. After all, Apollo said that Xuthus was his father. Convinced that only Apollo can tell him for certain who his father is, he starts toward the sanctuary to confront the god, but he is stopped by the appearance of Athena on the roof of the temple. She explains that Apollo thought it best not to show himself in person lest he be blamed for what happened. He sent her in his place to tell Ion that he is Ion's father and Creusa is his mother.

The goddess tells Ion that Apollo brought them together on purpose, to provide Ion with a proper place in a noble house. Apollo had planned for Ion to discover the truth after he went to Athens, but since the plot was discovered, he decided to reveal the secret here to prevent either of them from killing the other.

The goddess tells Creusa to establish Ion on the ancient Athenian throne where he will be famous throughout Hellas. He and his half brothers will establish the Ionian, Dorian and Achaean races. Apollo, the goddess concludes, has managed all things well.

As she leaves, Athena orders them not to tell Xuthus but to let him think that Ion is his son. The testimony of the goddess convinces Ion, who affirms that Apollo is his father and Creusa his mother. For her part, Creusa swears that she will now praise Apollo because he gave her son back. The gods may be slow to action, Athena observes, but in the end they show their strength.

Image: Lisa Harrow as Creusa and Keith Eric Chappelle as Ion in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Ion, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Texts on line:

Perseus Collection translation by Robert Potter,

Perseus Collection Greek text