Recently my attention was drawn to the story of the singer Arion in Herodotus (1.24), as my daughter had to prepare this text for school. If I remember well, a Latin adaption serves as easy reading in the Oxford or Cambridge Latin course. By chance I found a version of the same story in Ovid’s Fasti in a reader with selections of Latin poetry. Taking this as a divine command, I started working on this text.
Little is known about the historical Arion, except that he lived in the 7th century BC and came from Lesbos. He was a musician at the court of Periander, ruler of Corinth, and was said –wrongly – to have invented the dithyramb, a song and dance in honour of Dionysus. According to the story, he tried his luck away from the court of Periander and amassed a lot of wealth at Sicily. On his way back on a ship to Corinth, Corinthian sailors - eager for his gold – wanted to kill him, but Arion asked to perform a song first. The sailors agreed and Arion sings a song and attracts a dolphin by his singing. He jumps overboard and the dolphin takes him back o Corinth. Of course the sailors were punished afterwards!
Like that other famous singer Orpheus, Arion was believed to perform miracles with his lyre and voice: nature was enchanted by his playing and singing and so water stopped running and animals gave up their natural behaviour and lived in peace with each other.
The dolphin saving Arion is also credited with another good deed, namely serving as a postilion d’amour (felix index) between the god Poseidon and the Nereid Amphitrite. Poseidon wanted to marry this beautiful sea nymph, but she was not so happy about this prospect and fled away. Sent out as a searcher, the dolphin found her and persuaded here to accept Poseidon’s love. In return for his good behaviour the dolphin was made into a constellation.
It is this constellation Delphinus of which the mythological background is told by Ovid. His Fasti is a kind of festival calendar, describing the various festivals for each month. In order to have more material, Ovid also tells about myths which have no relation with some religious custom and this is an example of that. It is assigned to the third of February for the sole reason that this constellation is then about to disappear (fugiet visus nocte sequente tuos) for a few months from the sky.
Ovid, Fasti II, 78-118
Quem modo caelatum stellis Delphina videbas,
is fugiet visus nocte sequente tuos,
seu fuit occultis felix in amoribus index,
Lesbida cum domino seu tulit ille lyram.
quod mare non novit, quae nescit Ariona tellus?
carmine currentes ille tenebat aquas.
saepe sequens agnam lupus est a voce retentus, 85
saepe avidum fugiens restitit agna lupum;
saepe canes leporesque umbra iacuere sub una,
et stetit in saxo proxima cerva leae,
et sine lite loquax cum Palladis alite cornix
sedit, et accipitri iuncta columba fuit. 90
Cynthia saepe tuis fertur, vocalis Arion,
tamquam fraternis obstipuisse modis.
nomen Arionium Siculas impleverat urbes
captaque erat lyricis Ausonis ora sonis;
inde domum repetens puppem conscendit Arion, 95
atque ita quaesitas arte ferebat opes.
forsitan, infelix, ventos undasque timebas:
at tibi nave tua tutius aequor erat.
namque gubernator destricto constitit ense
ceteraque armata conscia turba manu. 100
quid tibi cum gladio? dubiam rege, navita, puppem:
non haec sunt digitis arma tenenda tuis.
ille, metu pavidus, 'mortem non deprecor' inquit,
'sed liceat sumpta pauca referre lyra.'
dant veniam ridentque moram: capit ille coronam, 105
quae possit crines, Phoebe, decere tuos;
induerat Tyrio bis tinctam murice pallam:
reddidit icta suos pollice chorda sonos,
flebilibus numeris veluti canentia dura
traiectus penna tempora cantat olor. 110
protinus in medias ornatus desilit undas;
spargitur impulsa caerula puppis aqua.
inde (fide maius) tergo delphina recurvo
se memorant oneri subposuisse novo.
ille, sedens citharamque tenens, pretiumque vehendi 115
cantat et aequoreas carmine mulcet aquas.
di pia facta vident: astris delphina recepit
Iuppiter et stellas iussit habere novem.
caelo: to engrave, embroid
nocte sequente: i.e. the constellation is about to disappear
seu…seu: according to one tradition the dolphin was made a constellation by Poseidon and according to another by Jupiter.
index, indicis (f.): informer
teneo tenui: hold back, restrain
tellus, telluris (f.): earth, country
saepe: not the pathetic repetition of this word
lepus, leporis (m.): hare
iacuere = iacuerunt
cerva: female deer
proximus (+ dat.): near to
lis, litis (f.): quarrel
loquax, loquacis: talkative
Palladis alite: the Palladis ales is of course the owl
cornix, cornicis (f.): crow (the owl took the place of the crow as bird of Athena and hence they are always quarrelling , cf. Ovid, Met. II, 562 )
accipiter, accipitris (m.): hawk (probably from *acupeter, from Greek ὠκυπέτης `the fast flying”, but with folk etymology association with accipere.)
Cynthia: Artemis, sister of Apollo, the divine lyre player
fertur…obstipuisse: is said to have been stupefied
Ausonis ora: the coast of Italy (Ausonis is the Greek form of Aurunci, an Oscan tribe living in mid-Italy, and by extension a name for Italy as a whole.)
Inde domum repetens puppem conscendit: from where striving to go home he boards a ship (puppis f. the stern of a ship)
quaesitas arte opes: his wealth won by his art
forsitan: may be
nave tua tutius aequor erat: the sea was more save than your ship
districto ense: with drawn sword
armata with manu
conscia turba: the crew participating
quid ( + dat.) x cum y?: what has x to do with y?
dubiam: as without steering the ship would not hold its course
navita = nauta
ille = Arion
deprecor deprecatus: seek to avoid
sumpta lyra: the lyre being taken up
refero: to tell, sing
dant veniam: they give permission (litt. forgiveness)
corona: singers had a wreath
crinis crinis (m.): hair
deceo: to be fitting, suitable (mostly used as an impersonal verb)
Phoebus = Apollo
induerat Tyrio bis tinctam murice pallam: he put on his mantle, twice dyed with Tyrian purple (murex) (and hence very expensive!)
reddidit icta pollice chorda: the string, plucked by the thumb (pollex) returned
canentia dura / traiectus penna tempora = canentia tempora traiectus pinna dura: the whitening temples transfixed by a hard arrow (lit. transfixed with regard to his whitening temples (canentia tempora acc. Graecus)
pinna = sagitta (as an arrow had a feather at the end of the shaft
olor, oloris (m.): swan (referring to the belief the swans sing at their most beautiful when dying.)
ornatus: as he had his wreath and purple mantle on
desilio desilui desultus: to jump down
spargo sparsi sparsum: to sprinkle, splash
caerulus: bleu, dark (with puppis)
fide maius: greater than belief = beyond belief
delphina: Greek accusative ending (not uncommon with Greek loanwords)
tergo delphina recurvo / se memorant oneri subposuisse novo: litt. people remember a dolphin with a curved back to have put himself (se) under a new load
pretium vehendi: as prize for transporting
aequoreus: of the sea
mulceo mulsi mulsum: to touch lightly
astris: amidst the stars
novem: the constellation has 9 stars