It happened once upon a time, in the olden days that a young man, Periander of Corinth, started from a port in the south of Greece to sail to Miletus. Being caught in a storm, the boat was carried out of her course as far as the island of Lesbos, where she stayed for several days, in order that the damage caused by the storm might be repaired. In the meantime, Periander landed and occupied himself in wandering about the island and watching the inhabitants. In his wanderings, he came one evening upon a group of men and women, the sight of whom made him pause with a longing to join them. They had been working hard all day, gathering the grapes, and pressing them in big, wooden vats, to extract the wine for which Lesbos was famous; and now, in the beautiful autumn evening, they were making merry after their labors.
No wonder Periander stayed to watch them, for they made a very pretty picture, the handsome youths, with their bronzed faces and strong, fine limbs; the women with their gay dresses and bare feet, that seemed to have been made for dancing; the vine-clad hill at the back, and, over it all, the glow of the setting sun. In the center of the dancers sat a boy, playing upon a small lute with seven strings. To this accompaniment, the dancers chanted a song in praise of Dionysus, the god of the vine. Gradually the music went faster and faster; and faster and faster the feet of the dancers sped over the ground, until they were all out of breath, and lay laughing on the grass.
Then, as the boy struck another chord, all laughter was hushed, and he began to sing; it was a simple, plaintive little song, but there was a magic in his voice which held the listeners spellbound. The last rays of the setting sun played about his golden curls, and lit up his sweet, childish face, as he sang:-
“Why should you grieve for me, my love,
When I am laid to rest?
Our lives are shaped by the gods above,
And they know best.
What though I stand on the farther shore,
Others have crossed the stream before
Why weep in vain?
Life is but a drop in the deep,
Soon we wake from the last, lone sleep, And meet again.”
As the last note died away, a sigh came from the listeners; some of the women turned away their faces, and the young men began to talk hastily as if to hide their emotion.
Periander waited until the group began to break up. Then he stepped forward and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy looked up with a smile.
“What is your name, my fair minstrel?” asked Periander.
“My name is Arion,” answered the boy, as if he were used to being questioned. “I come from Methymna beyond the hills, where I used to tend the goats.” And he told Periander that his mother and father died before he could remember and that he was brought up by an old goat-herd; until a traveling minstrel, who happened one day to hear him singing on the hills, took charge of him and taught him to play the lute.
“That was one of his own songs I was singing,” said Arion. “He always liked me to sing his songs; but, when I am a man, I shall make my own songs, and sing them in the great cities over the sea.”
“And so you shall,” said Periander. “Now, listen to me, Arion! Someday, perhaps, I also may be a great man, able to help you to become a great singer. Remember, when you have need of a friend, that Periander of Corinth will help you if he can!”
And, when he departed, Periander left a sum of money with a worthy old couple, who promised to look after the boy, and see that he wanted nothing.
After some years, Periander became king of Corinth, and having a love of everything beautiful, he soon gathered about him a little band of poets, artists, and musicians. One day, when he was listening to one of the court musicians, something it might have been a chord in the music reminded him of the little Lesbian Arion. He seemed to see once more the boy with the golden light on his curls, and the upturned faces of the peasants grouped around him; and the very words of the song ran in his head.
“By Apollo!” he cried, so suddenly that the musician nearly fell off his seat. “We will have the little Lesbian at court, and make a famous singer of him. Where is Glaucus? Ho, there! Bid Glaucus attend the king!”
When Glaucus appeared, the king bade him take a boat and sail for Lesbos. “There you will make a search for one Arion, a singer,” he said. “And when you have found him, say, ‘Periander of Corinth has need of his friend Arion.’ And see that you bring him safely to Corinth!”
Glaucus did as he was bidden, and in due time found Arion, now grown into a tall, graceful youth. Arion, when he heard the message, consented to accompany Glaucus to Corinth, where he was greeted with great kindness by Periander. He very soon became a great favorite among the Corinthians, and all the musicians envied him his beautiful voice and his skill in playing on the lute. No one had such power to soothe the king in his black moods; nor was it at court alone that his fame as a singer was known, for he was ever ready to sing to the people, who idolized him and called him the son of Apollo. Among other things he taught them the song and dance of the Lesbians in honor of Dionysus and the vine; it afterward became one of the most famous songs of Greece.
Many years Arion stayed with Periander, who held him in high honor and loaded him with costly presents. His fame spread as far as Italy and Sicily, and he had many requests that he would go over and sing to the people there.
At length, he determined to make the journey, not only from curiosity to see new countries, but also because he had heard of the songs sung by the Sicilian shepherds, and had a great desire to study them. Periander tried to dissuade him, but, finding him resolved, he assisted him in his preparations, and on his departure exacted from him a promise that he would return to Corinth.
Arion traveled about Italy and Sicily for a long time and made a great fortune by his singing. But growing tired at last of the wandering life, he went to Tarentum to find a ship that would take him back to Corinth. There were two or three ships ready to make the journey, among them one named the Nausicaa, which was manned by a crew of Corinthians. This he chose, being somewhat nervous about the large sum of money he was carrying, and thinking that he could trust the Corinthians, whom he knew, better than a crew of foreigners.
The Nausicaa was a strange-looking vessel, with a single sail, and long oars pulled by men who sat on benches along the side.
The prow, which was carved to represent the maiden Nausicaa, stood well out of the water, and the bulwarks descended in a graceful curve to rise again at the stern, where the captain stood and shaped his course by means of a broad paddle, which was hung over the side.
The voyage began happily enough, the wind being favorable, and the captain and crew all deference and politeness. But when they were well out to sea, the behavior of the crew changed; they answered Arion’s questions with scant politeness and held many whispered consultations, which, from the black glances cast at him, made him uneasy as to his safety.
On the second evening, waking out of light sleep, he heard them conspiring to throw him overboard and divide his wealth among them. Arion started up and implored them not to carry out their evil purpose, offering to hand over all his wealth, if they would spare his life. His entreaties and promises were all in vain.
“We give you a fair choice,” said the captain brutally. “Either leap into the sea at once, or kill yourself in some other way, and we will bury you decently onshore.”
Abandoning his vain appeals for mercy, Arion begged them, as a last favor, to let him sing once more before he died.
“That we will not refuse,” the captain answered; “though, if you think to move us by your wailing, let me tell you that you waste your breath!” In reality, he was not displeased to have an opportunity of hearing the most famous singer in the world.
Arion put on his sacred robes, in which he used to sing in the temple of Apollo, and taking his lute he stepped firmly to the prow of the vessel. There he stood, pale and calm, in the silvery light of the moon, his fair hair playing with the wind, while the little waves lifted themselves to look at him, and then ran playfully into the shadow of the boat, to dash their heads against the beams and be broken into the spray. The sailors were awed in spite of themselves, as that beautiful voice rose on the breeze. He sang the old song which he had sung in the Lesbian vineyards when Periander saw him first. And when he came to the last lines,
“Life is but a drop in the deep,
Soon we wake from the last, lone sleep,
And meet again,”
Arion leaped over the side of the vessel, just as he was.
The captain, fearing that some of the crew might be moved to lend him assistance, gave the order to make all speed ahead. Had he waited, he might have seen the most wonderful sight.
For, as Arion fell into the sea, the water seemed to become alive beneath him, and he felt it lifting him up, and carrying him rapidly away from the ship. Then he discovered that he was seated astride on a great, blackfish, which was swimming very rapidly on the top of the water, and he knew it must be a dolphin, which had been attracted by his singing; for the dolphins, unlike most things that live in the sea, have sharp ears, and are very fond of music. He touched his lute, to see if the strings had suffered from the water, and, as he did so, the great back quivered beneath him. Finding, therefore, that the dolphin liked the music, and thinking that he owed it some return for saving his life, Arion began to sing, and sang song after song; whenever he stopped, the dolphin ceased from swimming, as if to inquire the reason; and when Arion began again, the dolphin bounded through the water with great strokes of his broad tail. A strange sight it must have been, had there been anyone there to see! But the dolphin went straight across the open sea, where no ships were to be seen; for the sailors of that day did not care to lose sight of the coast, but would sail all the way around a large bay rather than straight across it. So it was that Arion came to Tænarus in Greece, without having been seen by any man. The dolphin took him close to the shore, where he bade it good-by, and watched it swim away disconsolately.
From Tænarus he made his way on foot to Corinth. Periander was overjoyed to see him once more; and when he marveled at the strange costume in which Arion had traveled, Arion related the whole story.
Periander listened attentively, and, when it was finished, remarked gravely, “Are you then so little satisfied with your victories over the musicians, Arion, that you have determined to be king of story-tellers also?”
“Does your majesty intend to throw doubt on my story?” asked Arion.
“Far be it from me!” answered Periander. “The story pleases me well, and if you will tell me another such, I will take pains to believe that also.”
“Then Zeus be my witness! I will find means to prove it,” cried Arion.
“Have I not said that I doubted not?” asked Periander. “Yet I would gladly see the proof. My crown to your lute upon the issue!”
“So be it!” said Arion. “But first I must ask your majesty that none may speak of my return; and when the ship Nausicaa comes to port, let the seamen be dealt with as I shall appoint!”
The king assented laughing, for he deemed the tale impossible. After some days, however, it was announced that the ship Nausicaa was in the harbor. Periander summoned the captain and all the crew to the palace and asked them whether they had brought any news of his minstrel Arion. The captain replied that men said at Tarentum that Arion was still in Italy, traveling from place to place, and received everywhere with great honor. The rest of the sailors confirmed the story, and one of them added that Arion was said to prefer Italy to Greece, nor had he any intention of returning to Corinth.
At that moment a curtain was drawn and disclosed Arion, standing in his sacred robes and holding his lute, just as they had seen him last in the prow of the ship. The sailors, supposing that they beheld his spirit, were seized with terror, and fell at the king’s feet, confessing all their wickedness and begging for mercy. But Periander was filled with indignation and spurned them angrily. Arion interposed, urging the king to be merciful, now that the seamen had seen their wickedness, and were willing to make restitution. Periander, however, would not hear of mercy.
“Your compassion bears witness to your noble spirit, Arion,” he replied. “But these men have planned a cruelest and cowardly murder, and cruelly shall they suffer for it. Seize me these men, guards, and bind them!”
The guards came forward and began to lead away from the trembling wretches.
“Stay!” cried Arion. “It is I who am king. Did not your majesty stake your crown against my lute, and can the royal word be broken? Back, guards! I claim my wager.”
Periander could not refrain from laughter but confessed himself beaten by this piece of strategy. “The wit of Arion,” he said, “is stronger than the tears of repentance. Release the prisoners!”
“That being so,” said Arion, “and seeing that I find myself more easy with the lute, I will restore the royal crown to Periander.”
So the men were set at liberty, after having restored the property of Arion, and departed full of gratitude, invoking blessings on his head.
And lest any man should doubt the truth of the story in time to come, Arion erected at Tænarus a statue in bronze, representing a man riding on a dolphin’s back.