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Musical Myths of Lesvos

Orpheus's Head and Arion

Arion Riding a Dolphin by Albrecht Dürer

Even in myth Lesvos is linked with music. After the great Orpheus was torn to pieces by the maenads of Diónysos and thrown into a river of Thrace, his beautiful head floated to Lésvos, where the inhabitants carried it to a cave. The head sang and prophesied so well that people stopped ­patronizing the Delphic oracle— angering Apollo, who went to Lésvos and ordered it to shut up.

But they say its presence deep in the earth was enough to inspire the poets and musicians who came after, including Arion, accredited with the invention of the dithyramb (the forerunner of tragedy). When he was returning home after a musical contest in Italy, where he had won all the prizes, the crew of his ship decided to throw him overboard and keep his prizes for themselves.

Arion was allowed to sing one last tune, then dived into the sea. But his swan song had charmed the dolphins, and they saved his life, carrying him safely to shore, while the ship’s crew was executed for their treachery. Greek fishermen will tell you that dolphins do love music, and will often hang about if there’s a radio on the boat, so the story of Arion may even have an element of truth.

Sidelights and Myths

Text © Dana Facaros

Image by PD Art