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Snakes and Birds in Euripides' Ion

Kathryn A. Thomas

Creighton University

Euripides' Ion enjoyed an excellent production in Athens as part of the Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004.  This is appropriate, since "Athens is the sole subject of Euripides' Ion, the Akropolis its sole hero."[1]  The tragedy is set in Delphi, the title character has lived at the Temple of Apollo as a slave since infancy; but the play is all about Athens.

Today. an early-morning visitor might delight in the melodious songs and antics of the resident birds who nest in the rebuilt ruins of the Treasury of the Athenians, but Ion did not appreciate their presence in the Sanctuary of Apollo.  Indeed, in his opening speech in Euripides' play, Ion launches out at them:  With my bow and arrow I'll send a-flying the birds that befoul the temple. . . . Let them fly away to Delos, . . . to the banks of the River Alpheus, . . . or to Isthmia.  Why does Ion not mention Nemea?  More importantly, why does Ion hate the birds, aside from the obvious answer that he must clean up their mess on the columns and walls of the Temple of Apollo?

One answer is that Ion is autochthonous, even though he does not know it.  Through his mother Creusa, Ion is native-born to Athens, is a direct descendent from Erechtheus, even from Erechthonius, who had serpent-like tails.  Autochthonous gods and heroes and their descendents stay close to the earth, to their native land or city; and they find their way home if they become separated somehow.  They do not fly away like birds, and they resent those who do.   Birds and snakes are natural enemies; and Creusa regrets that she left the infant Ion in a deserted cave to die, a banquet for vicious birds.

For Athenians, pride in autochthonous status was especially powerful.  Among the major, and not-so-major, powers of Greece in the archaic period Athens alone was not a major colonizing city-state.  Yet, in the Ion, Athena recites for Creusa a legacy of something even greater than colonization for the offspring of Creusa and even for the offspring of Ion's step-father Xuthus.  Historically, Athens was a magnet for those who would become residents without citizenship in a great city, the city into which Euripides was born in the wake of the victories of Athens and her allies over the Persians at Plataia and Salamis.  This great city, however, by the time Euripides started writing tragedies, was experienced in the trials of war and disease, the bitterness of poverty, and uncertainty about traditional values.  Did one choose to move to Athens or leave Athens?

For the Athenians of this era, Aristophanes wrote his comedy The Birds, in which two Athenians seek a better city, two Athenians dare to think that there might be a city better than Athens in all the world, dare to fly away like birds to found a new city.  Euripides himself not only contemplated taking flight; he did indeed fly away to Macedonia.  Was he contemplating his own metamorphosis from autochthonos to eleutheros when he wrote the Ion? Were the snakes and the birds holding combat in Euripides' soul?



[1] Nicole Loraux, “Kreousa the Autochthon: A Study of Euripides’ Ion in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

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