44 pages 1 hour read

Ed. John C. Gilbert, Euripides


Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The first performance of Euripides’s Ion was probably in or around 412 BCE. Euripides was by this point a well-known playwright, as the premier of Ion followed the production of his most-famous play Medea (431 BCE). The play’s title character is the god Apollo’s mortal son Ion. In other versions of the myth, Ion is the son of another of the play’s mortal characters, Xuthus. Euripides thus alters mythic material in pursuit of the following story, which holds that the god Apollo raped the noble Athenian mortal woman Creusa, who abandoned their son in a cave for fear of shame. Though not one of Euripides’s most famous plays, Ion was sufficiently well received in antiquity to survive among the classical canon. Moreover, scholars adduce Ion as one of the best examples of the playwright’s trademark ability to innovate with traditional material.

This study guide refers to the Oxford University Press edition (1954) translated by George Gilbert Aimé Murray, and the citations refer to line numbers.

Plot Summary

The messenger god Hermes begins the play with a speech that gives the following exposition: Apollo raped the mortal Athenian noblewoman Creusa (whose father is Erechtheus, the king of Athens). Creusa, for fear of being shamed by the birth of the illegitimate infant, left the child in a cave. Hermes transported the child to the Greek sanctuary of Delphi (unbeknownst to Creusa, who supposed her son dead). Meanwhile, Creusa has since wed Xuthus, a war hero from Thessaly to whom Creusa was given in marriage in exchange for his gallantry in the Athenian war against Eubea. The couple remained childless for years, for which reason they traveled to Delphi, where they hoped to procure answers from the famous oracle who resides there, the Pythian priestess.

Ion next appears on stage, sweeping the floor of the temple and introducing himself as the lifelong caretaker of the sanctuary, the only work he has ever known, which he enjoys. The chorus of Creusa’s handmaidens appear next on stage. They collectively marvel at the city of Delphi, noting the various scenes depicted on the temple of Apollo there. Creusa appears shortly thereafter, and when she encounters Ion, though strangers, they commiserate with one another: Ion for never having known his mother, and Creusa for remaining childless. Creusa thinly veils her circumstances by confessing that she has a friend who was raped by Apollo, whom Creusa dares to insult within his own temple.

Xuthus hurries onto the stage, eager to get to the temple, as he was told at the shrine of Trophonius that he would not return to Athens childless. When Xuthus emerges from the temple, he immediately and enthusiastically greets Ion, whom he supposes to be his son; the oracle within the temple had reported that the first person Xuthus would see coming out of the temple is in fact his son. Xuthus first names his son “Ion,” from the Greek participle for “going.” Ion is shocked and wants to know who his mother is. Xuthus admits that his mother was most likely a Delphian woman with whom he had an affair during a celebration of the Bacchic rites. Though glad that he has determined his parentage, Ion has reservations about going to Athens, since he is content living at the sanctuary and fears that Creusa (and the rest of Athens) will resent a son who is not biologically hers. Nevertheless, they agree that Ion will go to Athens after Xuthus holds a banquet in Delphi in his newly discovered son’s honor.

When Creusa returns to the stage escorting her elderly slave, her handmaidens reluctantly share Xuthus’s discovery with their mistress. Creusa proposes to kill Ion, now suspecting him to be the son of Xuthus by another woman. As a direct descendent of Athena’s founding king, Creusa has a jewel with blood from a Gorgon snake whose poison will cause immediate death. Rather than fall under suspicion herself, Creusa, supported by her chorus of handmaidens, gives the poison to her slave to administer to Ion at the banquet.

After a lengthy speech from the chorus, in which they denounce the unfaithful gods who wrong mortal women, a messenger announces that Creusa’s plot was discovered when a bird drank the cup of wine intended for Ion. The servant confessed the scene under the pressure of torture. Ion, supported by the people at Delphi, claims to seek revenge on Creusa for attempting to murder him, moreover in the sacred sanctuary of Apollo. Creusa is hopeless when she hears this news. Her handmaidens suggest that she seek refuge at the temple of Apollo, where religious law prohibits inflicting harm on a suppliant.

When Ion and the Delphian lords find Creusa, Ion threatens her with death anyway, as the law prohibiting death at an altar was not intended to protect the guilty. The Pythia, Apollo’s oracular priestess, narrowly averts this fatal encounter when she appears onstage (claiming to have been instructed by Apollo to do so) bearing the crib in which Creusa deposited the illegitimate Ion when he was an infant. When Creusa correctly predicts the unseen tokens inside the crib (a half-woven blanket, infant necklaces in the shapes of serpents, and a wreath of olive branches), all discover that Ion is Creusa’s son. Creusa is seized with a frenzy of joy, but the astounded Ion remains incredulous. Athena appears as a deus ex machina, assuaging Ion’s doubt and discouraging both mother and son from exposing the truth to Xuthus, who would prefer to think of Ion as his own natural heir. Creusa and Ion plan to depart for Athens. The chorus, delighted that the Athenian royal family now has a legitimate heir, remark on how powerful the gods truly are.