Expanding the Liberty Canon: Euripides’ Tragedy Ion

Euripides lived from about 480 BCE to 406 BCE. Though he is one of the three great figures of Athenian tragedy, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, who have already been discussed, he may have been born outside Athens and died outside Athens.  This relatively mobile life is itself an issue at a time when identity with the city of one’s both and ancestors was  taken very seriously, and it was very difficult for anyone not born of parents of that city on both sides to become a citizen and participate in politics. It is an issue considered in the play considered here.

Euripides’ way of writing is distinct from that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in that it is more discursive, with long prologues and characters speaking in short essays sometimes. There is less of the feeling than in Aeschylus and Sophocles of writing that is purely poetic and arises unreflectively from a world of myth, gods, and heroes. We should not think of Aeschylus and Sophocles as spontaneous poets of a mythical world view, there is a reflective designed element. Anyway, in Euripides we are likely to feel more part of a world of conscious reflection and debate on the limits of the customs and laws of the time. The mythical is not absent, but is more open to question. The writing style is more like an assembly of short essays joined by dramatic action, which is a slightly harsh way of distinguishing Euripides from the more continuous intense poetry of the other two great Attic tragedians.

More plays survive by Euripides than the other two writers of tragedies, and I hope to turn to some of those later in this series. For an entry in the Euripidean world, Ion is ideal form the point of view of questioning of the politics and religion of the time. The background to the play is that the God Apollo, also referred to as Phoebus, made the young woman Creusa pregnant.  She abandoned the resulting baby boy and believes him to have died. Apollo arranges for the boy to be raised as a servant at his temple in Delphi. The temple is connected with the Delphic Oracle, one of the major institutions of the ancient Greek world and one of the few things giving some unity to the great number of Greek states, along with the Olympic games. The oracles was a woman speaking in a riddling manner, whose words were interpreted  by priests. People came from all over the greek world to hear the prophecies and use them as advise. This include state representatives considering issues like war, so the Oracle has a political function, and may have been manipulated to serve political purposes.

Euripides does not engage directly with the political role of the  Oracle, but the story of Ion revolves around the mythical history of Athens and the early Greek states. Ion is the name of the boy abandoned by Creusa. Creausa comes to the temple with her husband Xuthus when Ion is a young man, with no idea of what has happened to him. Xuthus is a powerful man in Athens, who came from outside the city, but became an important citizen after helping the city to victory in war.

When Xuthus sees Ion at the temple, he is misled by a prophecy of Apollo into believing that Ion is his son, by a brief liaison at a festivity. He makes this belief clear to Ion and invites him to come to Athens as his son and heir, since he has had no children with Creusa. Ion has doubts about going to Athens because of the issue f excluding foreigners from public life, but is assured that that he will be able to speak in public debates. So we see an indication of how citizenship was seen in Athens in the time of the great tragedies, which is to say as participating in public affairs on the basis of a right and duty to speak one’s mind as far as it is directed to issues of the public good.

Creusa does not realise that Ion is her son and when he realises that Xuthus will take him up as his son and heir is angered that a stranger is taking over her family.  She plots to kill Ion with poison. This looming crime and its motives refers both to an ancient Greek tendency to see women as driven by uncontrolled dangerous passions, and to an expectation that the woman has some rights in the marriage and the family that should not be violated. When Ion discovers her murderous intentions, she flees to an alter where she cannot be killed without sacrilege, indicating the role that ideas of divine force and protection had in the  Greek understanding of law. Apollo sends Athena, the goddess associated with Athens, to prevent the sacrilegious murder by explaining that Ion is the son of Creusa and not Xuthus. Ion and Creusa are reconciled, but Xuthus is not informed of the truth. He is allowed to continue to believe that Ion is his biological son. The lie is excused with the suggestion that Ion is his son  by a gift of Apollo.

The play suggests that the interventions of the gods are full of deception and force, so casts some doubt on the perfection of the gods, and on divine justice. That is practice means casting doubt on the foundation of customs and laws, suggesting that they can be debated according to the rights of citizens in Athens that concern Ion. The idea of a city unified by common ancestry rather than residence and citizenship is questioned.

It is the mother who links Ion to Athens through descent and though she is portrayed as murderous, her son’s anger is no less demented and dangerous, so at least suggesting some sense that both men and women need to restrain their most destructive impulse.  she is allowed to known the truth and bears the burden of Apollo’s seduction, or even rape, and subsequent abandonment. It is the priestess of the temple who starts to lead Creusa towards the truth, which is fully explained by Athena.

Euripides expresses the need to question the grip of myth, archaic law, and ancestral custom if there is to be public truth and political justice. He shows some awareness that a community rests on the participation of women not just their subordination to men, even if he does not erectly challenge that subordination. He suggests that violent revenge must be constrained not just by the divine order, which also sets up cycles of revenge, but more by recognition of truth, rational discussion, and debate about the public good, with the possibility of integration of outsiders into a community of free debate about laws and the good of the city.