According to Greek myth, Ariadne was a princess of ancient Crete whose name meant “most holy.” Ariadne, along with the Greek hero Theseus, was responsible for destroying the monstrous Minotaur, the fearful bull-man who inhabited the famous Cretan Labyrinth (built by master craftsman Daedalus) in the land of King Minos. Most of us are aware of this story in one of its versions, ancient or modern. It is a perennial favorite with multiple variations, played with by such storytellers as Homer, Hesiod, Diodorus, Ovid, Geoffrey Chaucer, Mary Renault, Rick Riordan, and Madeline Miller.
I love this story, too. It’s full of questions. Stories that remain this popular over the years - AND spin off several versions - generally have very juicy centers, psychologically potent centers. They easily lodge themselves in our individual or collective psyches. “What is really going on in Ariadne’s story?” we might ask. I, for one, am much more interested in her story than in the story of Theseus.
Ariadne, 1898 John William Waterhouse
Here is a summary of the story of the Minotaur’s defeat
(skip this refresh if you already know the story):
King Minos of Crete loses his son in Athens, during the attempted subjugation of the Marathonian Bull. Believing his son was actually murdered, Minos demands that Athens pay reparation with an annual tribute of 7 Athenian youths and 7 Athenian maidens. These young Athenians become fodder for the dreaded Cretan monster, the Minotaur - a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull who is kept in a sunless, tangled, inescapable prison called the Labyrinth.
Youthfully confident Theseus, prince of Athens, one year volunteers (against his father’s will) to participate as one of Athens’ sacrificial youth in order to sneak into the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur.
Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, discovering the presence of a prince among the Athenian youth, secretly meets with Theseus before the ordeal. She offers him freedom in exchange for help with her own escape from Crete. When the hero refuses to leave his countrymen (and women) behind, Ariadne offers to help Theseus defeat the Minotaur. Most of us know what follows: Ariadne provides Theseus with a ball of thread and detailed instructions on how to use it to navigate into and out of the center of Labyrinth. The details of slaying the monster she leaves to Theseus.
Theseus, as is expected from a hero, defeats the Minotaur and escapes by following Ariadne’s instructions. He is able to free his fellow Athenians and flee by sea, taking Ariadne with him. On the journey home to Athens, Theseus leaves Ariadne on the island of Naxos. In some versions of the tale, this is presented as abandonment; in others it is a result of Ariadne’s marriage to the god Dionysus. In still another version, Ariadne hangs herself in distress while on Naxos. In all cases, the princess is ultimately immortalized in the heavens as the constellation Corona.
Now, Here are some additional details about Ariadne and
her family that inspire us to look a little deeper into her part of the story:
Ariadne is the daughter of Queen Pasiphae. Pasiphae is the daughter of the Titan Helios, and thus belongs to a lineage of gods that is older than the Olympians. Her name, meaning “all-shining,” associates her with the moon. She is also closely affiliated with a pre-Mycenean Cretan moon goddess. AND, Pasiphae is the sister of the witch Circe - both are powerful practitioners of pharmakeia (sorcery, herbal wisdom). Ariadne is part of this lineage, leading us to assume that she is a character in possession of the same wisdom, wits, and agency.
Ariadne’s father, King Minos, is a son of the Olympian god king, Zeus, and Europa, a Phoenician princess he abducted in the form of a beautiful white bull.
The Minotaur is the product of a punishment imposed on Minos by Poseidon, who cursed the Cretan king by proxy of his wife, causing her to lust after an “enchanted” bull. The product of this illicit cross-species affair was the Minotaur, a source of shame to both Pasiphae and Minos. The Minotaur is also the half-brother of Ariadne. She helps bring about his death.
Here are some things I wonder about:
what happens to the story when we assign Ariadne agency? what was her motive in offering to help Theseus? to avenge her mother? to escape her father’s kingdom? she wanted something from him in exchange for her help - what does this say about her intention?
what happens when we assign Ariadne as much power as Theseus in this story? after all, their collaboration is necessary to defeat the monster - what does this mean, especially metaphorically?
why might a powerful witch wish to leave the kingdom of a corrupt king (her father) and seek a life of power elsewhere? to fully develop her abilities? to exonerate her mother’s lineage?
why is Ariadne left in the stories to reside on Naxos, an island deeply sacred to multiple gods and especially associated with the wild god, Dionysus? what does her partnership with this deity represent or say about her as a character? did she not intend to land here all along (abandoned? really?)
why all the bulls? Theseus succeeds in slaying the Marathonian Bull near Athens prior to his trip to Crete (the same escapade that killed Ariadne’s other brother); Minos was the product of Zeus’ seduction of Europa in the form of a bull; Pasiphae gave birth to a bull-man; Ariadne is half-sister to the Minotaur, part bull; Dionysus’ mother, the Theban princess Semele, attracted the attention of Zeus (his father) while sacrificing a bull. Bulls were important symbols of power and fertility in ancient Crete and in mainland Greece (and all over the Mediterranean, actually) - how does this inform Ariadne’s story? Metaphorically, male power and fertility run rampant through the story, through Ariadne’s life. Does she succeed in any way in reclaiming her agency?
AND. . .
finally, ask yourself this: why did the ancients honor Ariadne with the constellation Corona Borealis, the “northern crown,” and NOT provide the hero Theseus with this same honor?