ERECHTHEUS, king of Athens, had a beautiful daughter named Creusa. Without her parents’ knowledge she had become the bride of Apollo and borne him a son whom, for fear of her father’s wrath, she hid in a basket and placed in the grotto where she and the sun-god had so often met secretly. Her hope was that the immortals would have pity on the child. In order that the newborn boy might not be without some token of his identity, she put upon him a necklace linked of small golden dragons, which she had worn as a girl. Apollo, whose divine insight revealed to him the birth of his son, did not want to betray his beloved nor fail to help the boy, so he turned to his brother Hermes, the messenger of the gods, for—since he was a go-between familiar to both heaven and earth—he could walk among men without attracting undue attention.
“Dear brother,” said Phoebus, “a mortal, the daughter of the king of Athens, has borne me a child and, for fear of her father, has hidden it in a grotto. Help me rescue my son! Take him to my oracle at Delphi in the basket in which you will find him, and with the linen in which he is wrapped, and lay him down on the threshold of the temple. The rest you may leave to me, for he is my own child, and I shall see to him.”
And Hermes, the winged god, sped to Athens, found the boy in the hiding-place Apollo had described, and carried him to Delphi in the basket woven of willow withes. There he set it down at the gates of the temple and raised the lid a little, so that the child might be seen easily. This he did by night. The next morning at sunrise, when the Delphic priestess moved toward the temple, her eyes fell on the infant asleep in the basket. She took it for the child of some ne’er-do-well and was about to thrust it away from the sacred threshold when the god filled her spirit with compassion for his son. So she lifted him tenderly and reared him herself, and the boy played about his father’s altar and knew nothing of his parents. He grew tall and handsome, and the inhabitants of Delphi, who had become accustomed to seeing in him a little guardian of the temple, now put him in charge of the precious offerings made to the god. He lived an honorable and dedicate life in the precincts of Phoebus Apollo.
In all these years Creusa had heard nothing from her divine husband and could not help thinking he had forgotten both her and her son. About this time the Athenians began to wage a fierce war with the people of the neighboring island of Euboea, and in the end the Euboeans were defeated, largely because a certain stranger from Achaea brought particularly effective aid to the Athenians. It was Xuthus, a son of Aeolus, who was himself a son of Zeus. In return for his assistance he asked, and was granted, Creusa’s hand in marriage. But it seemed as though the sun-god took revenge on his beloved for marrying another, for she did not conceive, but lived childless. After a number of years it occurred to her to go to the oracle of Delphi and pray for the fertility of her womb. This was just what Apollo wanted.
The princess and her husband, accompanied by a small retinue of servants, set out for Delphi. At the very moment they reached the temple, the son of Apollo crossed the threshold to sweep the court with laurel twigs, according to the custom. His glance rested on the woman of noble bearing who came toward the temple, weeping at sight of the sanctuary. Struck by her air of majesty, he ventured to ask the cause of her sorrow.
“I do not wonder,” she answered with a sigh, “that my sadness drew your attention to me. For the fate I mourn may well be visible in my face.”
“It is not my wish to intrude upon your grief,” said the boy. “But—if you will—tell me who you are and from whence you have come.”
“I am Creusa,” the princess replied. “My father’s name is Erechtheus, and Athens is my native land.”
In eager excitement the boy cried out: “What a glorious land! How famous the family from which you are descended! Is it true—what we have seen pictured—that your father’s grandfather Erichthonius came up out of the earth like a young tree? That the goddess Athene placed the earth-born child in a chest, with two dragons to guard it, and brought it for safekeeping to the daughters of Cecrops? And that these could not check their curiosity, opened the chest and—beholding the boy—were stricken with madness, so that they hurled themselves to their death from the rocks of the citadel?”
Creusa nodded silently, for the story of her ancestors had reminded her of the fate of her lost son. But he, standing before her, continued his guileless questioning. “And tell me, noble princess,” he asked, “is it also true that in obedience to an oracle your father Erechtheus sacrificed his daughters, your sisters, with their full consent, in order to overcome his foes? And if so, how is it that you alone escaped death?”
“I was only just born,” said Creusa. “I lay in my mother’s arms.”
“And did the earth split and devour your father Erechtheus?” persisted the boy. “Did Poseidon really destroy him with his trident, and is his grave near a grotto dear to Pythian Apollo, whom I serve?”
“O stranger, speak not of that grotto!” Creusa interrupted him with mournful agitation. “It was the scene of a breach of faith and a great wrong.” For a while she was silent; then she collected herself and told the youth, in whom she saw only the guard of the temple, that she was the wife of Prince Xuthus and had come to Delphi with him to implore the god to grant her sons. “Phoebus Apollo,” she said with a sigh, “knows the cause of my childlessness. He alone can help me.”
“So you have no children?” the youth asked her sadly.
“None,” said Creusa. “And I envy your mother so fair a son.”
“I know nothing of my mother, nor of my father,” the boy answered dejectedly. “I never lay at my mother’s breast, nor do I know how I came here. All that my foster-mother, the priestess of this temple, told me is that she took pity upon me once and brought me up. As far back as I can remember, the house of the god has been my dwelling. I am his servant.”
As she listened the princess grew thoughtful, but her thoughts were vague and did not take definite shape. “I know a woman whose fate is very like your mother’s,” she said. “It is for her sake I have come to consult the oracle. And I shall confide her secret to you, who are the god’s servant, before her husband arrives. He accompanied her upon this journey but stopped on the way to hear the oracle of Trophonius. This woman claims that she was the wife of Phoebus Apollo before she married the man who is now her husband, and that she bore the god a child. This son she exposed in a certain place, and ever since that time she has not known whether he is alive or dead. On this my friend’s behalf I have come to ask whether her son yet lives or is long since dead.”
“How long ago was all this?” asked the youth.
“If the child lived,” said Creusa, “he would be of your age.”
“Oh, how like my own is the destiny of your friend!” cried the youth sorrowfully. “She is looking for her son, and I seek my mother. But what happened to her took place in a far-off land, and we are strangers to each other. Do not hope, however, that the god will give you the answer you desire. For in your friend’s name you have come to accuse him of faithlessness, and he will not wish to pronounce judgment upon himself.”
“Stop!” said Creusa. “There comes the husband of the woman I was speaking of. Try to forget what I have told you—perhaps too readily and openly.”
Xuthus advanced joyfully toward his wife. “Creusa!” he called out to her, “Trophonius has given me happy tidings. I shall not leave this place without a child! But who is this with you? Who is this youthful priest?”
The boy modestly approached the prince and told him that he was only Apollo’s servant, that the noblest among the men of Delphi, chosen by lot, were in the innermost sanctuary, seated around the tripod from which the priestess was preparing to issue the oracle. When the prince heard this, he bade Creusa adorn herself with the sprays which suppliants must carry, and implore a favorable answer from Apollo at the god’s altar, which stood in the open under the sky and was wreathed about with branches of laurel. He himself hastened to the shrine within, while the boy remained on guard in the outer court. Before long he heard the doors open and close with a sound like thunder. Then he saw Xuthus hurrying forth with an air of happy bewilderment. Impetuously he flung his arms about the boy, called him “son” over and over, and begged him to clasp him in return and kiss him with filial devotion, until the young servant of Apollo thought the old man must be out of his mind and thrust him aside with youthful strength. But Xuthus would not accept such denial. “The god himself revealed this to me,” he insisted. “The oracle issued to me was that the first person I met outside should be my son—a gift of the immortals. How this can be I do not know, for my wife has never borne me a child. But I trust in the god. If and when he will, let him lay bare the secret.”
And now the boy too gave up his reserve and yielded himself up to happiness. But not utterly, for even as he kissed and embraced his father he sighed: “O darling mother, where are you? When may I look on your dear face?” He was, moreover, in grave doubt as to what the childless wife of Xuthus, whom—so he thought—he had never seen, would say to this unexpected stepson, and how the city of Athens would receive one who was not his father’s legitimate heir. But Xuthus bade him be of good courage, promising to present him to his wife and to his people, not as his son, but as a stranger. He then gave him the name of Ion, the Pacer, because he had clasped him to his breast as his son while the boy paced the court of the temple.
Creusa, in the meantime, had not stirred from Apollo’s altar, at which she had prostrated herself in prayer. But her earnest supplication was interrupted by her servants, who came to her lamenting loudly. “Unhappy mistress!” they called out to her, “your husband rejoices, but you will never hold a child in your arms or suckle it at your breast. Apollo has granted him a son, a son full-grown, who was probably borne to him years ago by heaven knows what concubine. He came to meet Xuthus, as he was coming from the temple. And now the father will delight in the son he has recovered while you will live in your empty house like a widow.”
The poor princess, whose spirit the gods must have struck with blindness, since she did not solve so transparent a secret, brooded over her sad fate in silence. After a little she inquired after the name and person of this stepson she seemed to have acquired.
“He is the young guard of the temple, the one you spoke with,” her servants replied. “His father has named him Ion. We do not know who his mother is. And now your husband has gone to the altar of Dionysus to make secret sacrifice for his son. Later there will be a solemn banquet. He threatened us with death if we told you these things, and only the love we bear you compels us to disobey him. But do not betray us to him!”
And now an old servant, who was completely loyal to the house of Erechtheus and loved his mistress with deep devotion, separated himself from the rest and began to rail against Prince Xuthus, calling him a faithless adulterer. In his passionate zeal he even offered to do away with this bastard son, who would otherwise unlawfully acquire the heritage of the Erechthides. Creusa thought herself deserted both by her husband and her lover of long ago. Confused with sorrow and hopelessness she agreed to the evil plans of the old man and, in return, confided to him her relationship to the god.
When Xuthus left the temple with Ion, he took him to the double peak of Mount Parnassus, where the people of Delphi used to worship Dionysus, whom they held no less sacred than Apollo himself and celebrated with wild orgies. After the prince had poured a libation in gratitude for his son, the boy—with the help of the servants who had accompanied him—set up a large and magnificent tent under the open sky and covered it with tapestries finely woven, which he had bidden them bring from the temple of Apollo. Long tables were placed within, and on them silver platters heaped with rich and dainty foods, and golden cups of fragrant wine. Then Xuthus sent his herald down to the city of Delphi and invited all its inhabitants to share in his joy. Soon the great tent was filled with guests whose heads were garlanded with wreaths. They dined in gaiety and splendor, and when the dessert was served, an aged man, whose curious gestures amused the guests, came out into their midst and took upon himself the office of cup-bearer. Xuthus recognized him as Creusa’s old servant, praised his industry and faithfulness, and, for the rest, let him do as he pleased. So he went to the board which held the wines and saw to the cups and the needs of the guests. Toward the end of the banquet, when the flutes were beginning to play, he bade the serving-boys take the small cups from the festal board and set large vessels of gold and silver before the guests. He himself took the most beautiful of all and filled it to the brim with the noblest wine, as if to honor his new young lord, but secretly he added a deadly poison. As he approached Ion and poured a few drops on the ground as a libation, a servant who stood close by inadvertently uttered a curse. Ion, who had grown up among the sacred rites of the temple, knew this for an evil omen, emptied all the wine, and asked for a fresh draught from another cup, from which he himself solemnly poured the libation. All the guests followed his example. Just then a flock of holy doves, bred and fed in the temple of Apollo, under the god’s protection, fluttered into the tent, and when they saw the streams of wine flowing on all sides, greedily alighted and began to sip with thrust-out bills. And none was harmed save one which settled where Ion had emptied his first cup. Hardly had she wetted her bill when she began to beat her wings and reel about, until at last she died in spasms of pain, while the guests looked on in amazement.
At this Ion rose from his seat, angrily shook his arms free of his robe, clenched his fists, and cried: “Who is it that wanted to kill me? Speak, old man, for it was you who lent your aid. You blended the draught and handed me the cup!” And he gripped the servant’s shoulder and would not release him. Taken off his guard and alarmed, he confessed his crime but shifted all the blame to Creusa. Then Ion, whom Apollo’s oracle had declared son of Xuthus, left the tent, and all crowded after him in wild confusion. Under the open sky, within a circle of the noblest Delphians, he lifted his hands and said: “Holy Earth, you are witness that this alien woman of the line of the Erechthides wanted to kill me with poison!”
“Stone her, stone her!” clamored the people as if with a single voice, and they followed Ion in search of Creusa. Xuthus himself was swept away with the rest, hardly aware of what he was about, for the dreadful discovery had dulled his reason.
Creusa was awaiting the outcome of her desperate attempt at Apollo’s altar. But it was quite other from what she expected. A gust of sound from far off roused her from her lonely brooding, and as it swelled and came nearer, one of her husband’s serving-men, who was loyal to her above all others, ran in the van of the surging mob to tell her that her plot had been discovered and that the people of Delphi were resolved to kill her. “Hold fast to the altar,” her women counseled, pressing about her, “and if this holy place does not save you from your murderers, they will, at least, incur blood guilt which no penance can atone for.”
In the meantime the furious Delphians, led by Ion, came closer and closer, and even before they reached the temple, the boy’s angry words were carried to her by the wind. “The gods have favored me!” he cried. “For this crime, which was never accomplished, was intended to free me of a hostile stepmother. Where is she? Where is that viper with poisonous fangs, that she-dragon with eyes flashing flames of death? Let us hurl the murderess from the highest cliff!” And the throngs around him howled their applause.
They reached the altar, and Ion seized the woman who was his mother, but who seemed to him his deadly foe, and tried to drag her from the sanctuary whose holiness she had invoked to save herself. But Apollo did not wish the son to murder his mother. His divine will carried the news of Creusa’s attempted crime and of the punishment to be meted out to her to the ears of his priestess and illumined her spirit, so that she suddenly grasped the meaning in all that had happened and knew that her foster child Ion was not the son of Xuthus, as she herself had declared in ambiguous prophecy, but of Apollo and Creusa. She left her tripod and fetched forth the basket in which the newborn babe, together with certain tokens she had carefully preserved, had once been found at the gates of the temple at Delphi. With these in her hands, she hastened to the altar where Creusa was struggling with Ion for her very life. When Ion saw the priestess, he at once loosened his hold and advanced toward her reverently. “Welcome, dear mother,” he said, “for so I must call you, although you did not give birth to me. Have you heard what wicked designs I have just escaped? Scarcely had I found a father, when my evil stepmother planned my destruction! Now tell me what to do, and I will obey your command.”
The priestess lifted a warning finger and said: “Ion, start for Athens with unstained hands, and under favorable auspices.”
Ion thought for a moment and then countered: “Is he not stainless who kills his foes?”
“Do not kill until you have heard me,” said the priestess in majesty. “Do you see this basket in my hands? And the fresh garlands I have twined around the old withes? In this you were once exposed; from this I took you and reared you.”
Ion looked at her in astonishment. “You never told me anything of this, mother,” he said. “Why have you kept this secret so long?”
“Because the god wanted you to serve him all these years,” she answered. “Now that he has given you a father, he has freed you to go to Athens.”
“But how is this basket to help me?” asked Ion.
“It contains the linen in which you were wrapped, dear son,” said the priestess.
“Linen?” exclaimed Ion. “Why, that is a token which may lead me to my rightful mother!”
The priestess held out the basket to him, and he eagerly thrust his hand into it and drew out the folded linen. While his eyes, dim with tears, rested on this treasured keepsake, Creusa had gradually regained her composure. A glance at the basket discovered the whole truth to her. She rushed from the altar, and with a single jubilant word, “Son!” clasped Ion in her arms.
With renewed suspicion he tried to free himself from her embraces, thinking that this was only another ruse. But Creusa herself released him and stepping back said: “This linen shall testify to the truth of my words. Do not hesitate to undo the folds. You will find the tokens I shall describe to you. The embroidery which adorns them I myself stitched long ago, when I was a girl. In the middle of the stuff you will see the Gorgon’s head, ringed with serpents, as it appears on the shield of Athene.”
Dubiously Ion unfolded the linen, but suddenly he cried out joyfully: “O mighty Zeus, here is the Medusa, and these are the serpents!”
“It is not enough,” said Creusa. “There must be a necklace of small dragons, wrought of gold, in memory of the dragons in the chest of Erichthonius.”
Ion searched the basket and, smiling in delight, drew out the necklace.
“And the last token,” said Creusa, “is a wreath of unfading olive leaves which I set on the head of my newborn son. They come from the first olive tree planted in Athens.”
Ion put his hand into the bottom of the basket and lifted out a fresh green olive wreath. “Mother, mother!” he cried in a voice broken with sobs, flung his arms around Creusa, and covered her face with kisses. At last he tore himself away and asked about Xuthus, his father. Then Creusa told him the secret of his birth, that he was the son of the god in whose temple he had served so long and faithfully. Now he understood the mystery of those early events and Creusa’s mistake and was glad to pardon her designs upon one she did not know. Xuthus embraced Ion, whom he accepted as a stepson and a cherished gift of the gods, and all three went into the temple to give thanks to Apollo. Seated at her tripod, the priestess prophesied that Ion would be the father of a glorious race, to be named Ionians, in honor of him. And to Xuthus she prophesied that Creusa would bear him a son, Dorus, who would father the Dorians, famed throughout the world. Rejoicing in fulfilment and hope, Xuthus and Creusa set out for Athens with the son who had been restored to her, and all the people of Delphi came to speed them on their way.