Ariadne was a princess of Crete, and without her, Theseus never would have escaped the Labyrinth. Her quick-thinking and cleverness gave her the idea of using string to help Theseus find his way out of the Labyrinth. Yet, despite her help, Theseus abandoned her on an island on his way back home.
Or is there more to the story?
Of course, each storyteller has a different intention: to create tragedy, or a bittersweet romance, or simply strong emotion. In the end, Ariadne’s myth is open to a plethora of re-imaginings and interpretations.
Ariadne – The Beginning
Let’s start at the beginning. Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. He was one of the most powerful Kings in Greece at that time and often forced other kingdoms into crippling submission. One of these kingdoms was Athens; the relationship between the two kingdoms would have a detrimental effect on Ariadne’s life, as will be related in due time.
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Ariadne’s mother was Queen Pasiphae — and she was very unlucky. When her husband, Minos, offended the god Poseidon, the sea god in retaliation cursed Pasiphae with an uncontrollable lust for the King’s prized bull. The outcome of the curse was that Pasiphae was compelled to mate with the animal, and she later bore a child who was half-man, half-bull. He was called Asterion, meaning “little star”, although he is most commonly referred to as the Minotaur, which means “the bull of Minos.” Asterion the Minotaur was Ariadne’s half-brother.
The family was disjointed from the beginning. Ariadne was never allowed to interact with her half-brother, and she was raised to see him as a monster. Disgusted at his hybrid form, King Minos trapped Asterion in an unnavigable labyrinth, designed by the renowned inventor Daedalus. Asterion the Minotaur, after being isolated and cruelly treated by Minos, grew to become a flesh-eating monster.
Death Of A Brother
One of Ariadne’s siblings, Androgeus, traveled to Athens, a kingdom across the sea from Crete, to help the Athenians try to kill the Marathonian Bull. This Bull was trampling people and wreaking havoc. Unfortunately, Androgeus was murdered whilst trying to kill the Bull. When King Minos heard of the death of his son, he did not believe that it was an accident but instead was deeply suspicious of Athens. Therefore, he waged war on King Aegeus and Athens, for he believed that they had intentionally murdered his heir.
Athens agreed to give a tribute to the Cretans in retribution for the death of Androgeus, and yet they still had the problem of the Marathonian Bull! King Minos demanded a tribute that seven young boys and girls should be sent as sacrifices to Crete every year. The young boys and girls were maliciously sent into the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. Ariadne, along with her siblings, were subjected to watch this monstrosity every year.
Eventually, back in Athens, a young adolescent called Theseus, killed the Marathonian Bull that had caused all the trouble. After successfully killing the Bull, Theseus revealed himself to be the long-lost son of King Aegeus, king of Athens.
Theseus then volunteered to be one of the tributes for that year. He wanted to save Athens from the gruesome yearly tribute and to do this, he had to kill the Minotaur. And so, he set sail.
Love At First Sight?
Ariadne and the rest of her family awaited the arrival of the Athenian tribute in the throne hall of King Minos’ palace. The story goes that when Theseus and Ariadne laid eyes on one another, they fell in love. Therefore, Ariadne began to devise a plan to save him.
Before Theseus entered the labyrinth, Ariadne visited him secretly. She gave him a ball of thread and told him to tie the end to the door of the labyrinth and unravel the ball of string as he traveled deeper inside. That way, once he had killed the Minotaur, he would be able to find his way back out.
Theseus, appreciative of the gift and advice, vowed that he would marry Ariadne if he was successful. Some versions say that Ariadne asked Theseus to marry her if he came out alive, because she would be an outcast for helping him, and so would need his protection through marriage. And so, their illicit love began.
After Theseus defeated the Minotaur, he followed the advice of Ariadne, and used the string to guide himself and the other tributes back out of the maze. Once out, he joined Ariadne and they quietly snuck back onto Theseus’ ship and sailed away before King Minos could learn what they had done.
Theseus in elation at their victory promised again to marry Ariadne and take her home to Athens. Ariadne was delighted and relieved at this proposition because she had conspired against her father by helping Theseus and so needed to escape his impending wrath.
Variations – A Death Together
Here is where the myth becomes extensively ambiguous. An important thing to note is that myths are defined by their malleability. Versions upon versions have been created by storytellers. The one consistent part of Ariadne’s myth is that she was a princess of Crete, and without her, Theseus would never have escaped the Labyrinth. Aside from this strand of the narrative, Ariadne’s myth differs in each interpretation. Some storytellers attempt to ameliorate, others expose the foul.
In one early version, Homer, in the Odyssey, writes that when Ariadne and the crew of the ship landed at Naxos, she was killed by the goddess Artemis.
“Before that [marriage] could be, she was slain by Artemis in the isle of Dia [Naxos] because of the witness of Dionysos.”
(Homer, Odyssey 11.320)
The common interpretation of “because of the witness of Dionysos” is that Theseus and Ariadne offended Dionysus by consummating their love in his sacred grove. This is a similar ending to the Atalanta myth that also includes a brief allusion to a happy ending before an angry god condemns the lovers. Perhaps this variation of the tale attempts to have a bittersweet ending that ends with a traditional tragic godly intervention.
Variations – Unwilling Separation
1. Another version, mainly recorded by Diodorus claims that upon reaching Naxos, Theseus was forced by the wine-god Dionysus to abandon Ariadne because the god wanted Ariadne to be his wife.
“Theseus, seeing in a dream Dionysos threatening him if he would not forsake Ariadne in favour of the god, left her behind him there in his fear and sailed away. And Dionysos led Ariadne away…”
(Diodorus, Library of History, 5. 51. 4)
This version brings out the tragic theme again, but this time because the lovers are separated. Although Ariadne was turned into a goddess and immortalized in a constellation as part of her marriage to the god Dionysus, it is saddening that her romance with Theseus was torn apart so abruptly by the selfish pursuit of a god.
2. Paion the Amathusian, a writer quoted by Plutarch, claimed that Theseus accidentally left Ariadne whilst trying to rescue his ship, and then came back for her — but was too late.
“Theseus, driven out of his course by a storm to Kypros, and having with him Ariadne, who was big with child and in sore sickness and distress from the tossing of the sea, set her on shore alone, but that he himself, while trying to succour the ship, was borne out to sea again.”
(Plutarch, Life of Theseus 20.1)
Paion then writes that Ariadne died from her sickness, and when Theseus came back for her, he was distraught. He set up memorial statuettes of Ariadne, and entombed Ariadne’s body in a peaceful grove. He asked the people of the island to sacrifice to ‘Ariadne Aphrodite.’
These two portrayals of Ariadne’s story imply that the separation was unwilling, and that forces — fate, illness, the gods, etc. — conspired against them.
Variations – Theseus’ Betrayal
3. The most popular version told by many writers is that Theseus was willingly disloyal to Ariadne, and he secretly abandoned her of his own volition.
The author Mary Renault, in The King Must Die, follows this narrative, but adds a slight spin to it. In Renault’s version of the myth, once Theseus and Ariadne reach Naxos, they take part in the bacchanal celebrations to honor the god Dionysus. Whilst drunk and high on festival feeling, Ariadne along with other women on the island dismember the King of Naxos in a frenzied sacrifice to Dionysus. Theseus is disgusted by Ariadne’s involvement in the violence, and so leaves for Athens without her. Here we can see how Renault’s versions attempts to create a realistic narrative that includes all the major plots/characters: Ariadne, Theseus’ abandonment, and involvement with the bacchic god, Dionysus.
Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women includes his own episode on Ariadne. In this revival, Ariadne is cast as a victim of the self-serving Theseus, who is ungrateful for the help that Ariadne bravely gave him. Chaucer calls Theseus “the grete untrouthe of love” and criticizes him for seeking Ariadne’s sister – Phaedra – to be his wife instead.
In Euripides’ play, it is implied that Theseus left Ariadne because the goddess Athena, the patron of his hometown, convinced Theseus that Ariadne was a distraction, and that his future was with Athens. This plays on the idea that Ariadne as Theseus’ Queen would bring disgrace to Athens. Ariadne was a Cretan — a foreigner — which in the xenophobic society of ancient Greece meant that she was not suitable for the soon-to-be king of Athens.
Variations – Catullus And Ariadne’s Raw Perspective
Catullus the Roman poet explored an interpretation of Ariadne’s perspective in Poem 64. Ariadne’s monologue is blazing with rage at Theseus’ betrayal, irate that she had saved him from the perilous labyrinth, and had allowed Theseus to kill her half-brother (the Minotaur) to save his own life… just to be cast aside.
“Is it thus, O perfidious, when dragged from my motherland’s shores… is it thus, O false Theseus, that you leave me on this desolate strand? … I snatched you from the midst of the whirlpool of death, preferring to suffer the loss of a brother rather than fail your need in the supreme hour, O ingrate.”
In this version, Ariadne’s voice is brought to life by the poet’s ingenuity, which is different to other adaptations of Ariadne’s myth which explore the abandonment from Theseus’ perspective.
In Catullus’ poem Ariadne curses Theseus, which causes catastrophic consequences for him. In the canonical versions of Theseus’ myth, Theseus does indeed face awful events after the abandonment of Ariadne. Catullus’ invention that these events are the fallout of Ariadne’s curse is an interesting link that adds a poignant edge.
Ariadne’s curse is the following: “with such mind as Theseus forsook me, with like mind, O goddesses, may he bring evil on himself and on his kin.”
In Theseus’ myth, he causes the destruction of his own kin, as referenced in the curse. His father, Aegeus, dies because Theseus forgets to change the sails that signal his survival, so Aegeus commits suicide out of grief. Theseus’ wife, Phaedra, kills herself when her stepson rejects her advances. After that, Theseus, wrongly thinking that his son had attempted to have sex with his wife, wishes a death curse on his son, which Poseidon grants.
“Theseus, savage with slaughter, met with like-grief as that which with unmemoried mind he had dealt to Minos’ daughter.” (Catullus 64)
Marriage To Dionysus
After Ariadne was abandoned, she was in deep despair. In some versions, Ariadne is so distraught that she ends her own life. In other versions, the god Dionysus, also called Bacchus, finds her alone, and consoles her. The two then eventually fall in love. After Ariadne died, Dionysus traveled to the Underworld and brought her back to life to be his immortal wife. He deified her as the Goddess of Paths and Labyrinths.
Ovid’s version of the myth immortalizes the meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne:
“Now the God in his chariot, wreathed with vines,
curbing his team of tigers, with golden reins:
the girl’s voice and color and Theseus all lost:
To whom the god said: ‘See, I come, more faithful in love:
have no fear: Cretan, you’ll be bride to Bacchus.
Take the heavens for dowry: be seen as heavenly stars:
and guide the anxious sailor often to your Cretan Crown.’ ”
Dionysus took Ariadne’s royal Cretan crown and threw it into the sky, where it became the constellation Corona Borealis, as ‘corona’ means ‘crown’ in Latin.
This version of the Ariadne myth is revived in the popular Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. In this modern myth adaptation, Dionysus is happily married to Ariadne, who lives on Olympus with the other Greek gods. In relation to the myth written by Ovid, Riordan’s Dionysus character is given a distasteful attitude towards heroes; he dislikes them for their fickle nature and ingratitude.
In this union, Riordan, and many other storytellers who write of the love between Ariadne and Dionysus, give Ariadne an uplifting and pleasant ending.
A Final Interpretation Of Ariadne
An interesting interpretation of the myth, that takes a perspective that denies the fantastic and increases the historical element, is the theory that Ariadne could have been a famous bull-leaper from Crete. This narrative follows the line that the Minotaur was actually just a spectacularly grown bull, which was used in a Cretan tradition called the ‘bull-leaping games.’
Myth is often engendered by cultural misunderstandings; in this case, the Greeks from the Grecian mainland attempted to understand the unfamiliar customs of the Cretans across the sea. In ancient Crete, bull-leaping games were part of cultural rituals, and both boys and girls participated, performing a dance-like acrobatic practice with the bull. Therefore, it has been suggested that Ariadne could have been one of the girls who partook in the ritual.
The ancient Greeks were famously of the opinion that foreigners were lesser beings. They labeled foreigners as “bar-bars,” which is where we get the modern term “barbarian,” although it has held a slightly different connotation over the years. The ancient Greeks might have attempted to assimilate Cretan customs to their own understanding, but, having a prejudice towards other cultures, they may have created the outlandish myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur to present the foreign culture to their own people.
With all these different endings, who can know which is the ‘true’ myth? And that’s because there are no ‘true’ myths; myths are created by storytellers to reflect cultural moments, individual thinking, or entertainment. Ariadne’s myth stands as a testament to the human capacity for creative imagination.