Ion is an odd play for a Euripidian tragedy. Unlike many of his other works, Ion prominently features the gods, including a closing scene in which Athena resolves the impending conflict of the play. Apollo, though silent throughout the play, is portrayed in an unflattering light, while Athena is cast as all-knowing, not unlike the Athena who appears at the end of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Nevertheless, Euripides’s impiousness is more prevalent elsewhere in his writings, plays which have often been accused of taking part in the jaded intellectualism spawned by Socrates and his followers.
The play tells the story of Ion, the ancient forefather of the Ionian race of peoples. Like Oedipus, he does not know of the origins of his birth. The Greek tragic art is obsessed with man’s search for his own origins, the true nature of his birth, Aristotle first “material” cause. Creusa was the daughter of Erechtheus, the king of Athens. When she was young, she was seduced by Apollo and gave birth to a child. She left the baby alone to die in the wilderness. Apollo sent Hermes to take the child and leave it at the foot of the Temple at Delphi. The child was raised by the prophetess of Delphi in a happy and pious childhood. Meanwhile his mother, Creusa, married Xuthus, a foreigner who won his bride for his service to Athens in war. Together they come to the Oracle at Delphi to consult why they cannot conceive a child. Creusa unknowingly speaks to her long-lost orphan child, while her husband Xuthus receives a prophecy that the first man he meets at the temple will be his son. Separately, he runs into Ion and begins hugging him as his son, while Creusa and the Chorus become jealous, believing Xuthus to be engaging in infidelity. She devises a plan to poison Ion. She is discovered by Ion and he tries to kill her as she flees back into the temple. At the last moment, Athena appears and resolves the crisis by revealing Ion’s true identity and predicting that his name will last through the land of Greece.
During his day, Euripides was often attacked for degrading the tragic art from its heights with Aeschylus and Sophocles. He took the illusory worlds created by prior tragedians, and instead put the spectator, or the common audience member on the stage and in the shoes of the suffering characters. With the Ion, Euripides plays to his audience. He attacks Apollo as a thieving rapist, and vindicates Athena as the dea ex machina at the close of the play. As mentioned above, Euripides’s atheism comes to the fore more prominently elsewhere in his writings.