Before I go any further, I would be remiss if I didn't address the bias of the source material I'm drawing from -- Plutarch had his own agenda in writing down the story of Theseus. He meant to show a parallel between Theseus and Romulus, the founder of Rome, and by doing so, demonstrate Rome's greatness by the greatness of its founder. In this, it behooved Plutarch to show Theseus in a favorable light so that favor would reflect on Romulus and Rome itself. The other bias of Plutarch is his habit of discounting all godly influence, and without the involvement of the gods, these mythologies alter pretty dramatically.
|Ariadne and Dionysus|
(photo by me, but I believe it's this work, by Foggini)
For instance, if Theseus was compelled to leave Ariadne behind that she might be made the bride of Dionysus, and through this, a goddess, that is a different thing entirely than his sailing off into the sunset to abandon her of his own accord, showing no regret. Or, in Paris's case, if Aphrodite swept Paris off the battlefield during that crucial fight with Menelaus against Paris's own wishes to deposit him in Helen's arms, that is a very different story than one in which Paris consciously flees from Menelaus, giving up the fight when he realizes he will die, and hiding in the palace in Helen's bed to let Hector do his fighting for him.
But even putting the issue of the gods and their absent-influences aside, I would argue that the same young man, who, seeing the pain of the people in Athens at having to give up their own sons and daughters, volunteers himself to travel to Crete and be part of this tribute to do what he can to lift their suffering would not, after showing such empathy, then callously abandon a woman who mothered his sons (Plutarch tells us that with the other women he may or may not have met along the way previous to this who gave him sons, he then took responsibility for seeing them married.), or callously abandon any woman who might have helped him in general, even without children. After all, hasn't he just risked his life for seven virgin Athenian girls? And the last woman who helped him and offered him kindness on his quest against the Marathon Bull, he repaid by creating what amounts to an annual holiday in her name, to honor her in perpetuity with sacrifices.
Theseus was not raised in Athens. He did not even know who his father (the Aegeus half) was until he was a young man strong enough to lift a boulder. After being made Aegeus's heir it was probably wise of him to make nice to the people he would rule, but to appease them, all he would have needed to do was throw his name into the lottery-- or APPEAR to throw his name into the lottery. Who would have known otherwise? Plutarch specifically states (emphasis mine):
So what's the truth about Theseus and Ariadne? Judging by Plutarch and the character he's presented, it seems improbable that Theseus would change his colors so completely as to utterly abandon Ariadne, having taken responsibility for her. But that doesn't mean he didn't abduct her. The truth is, there's just no knowing what exactly went on between them, or what promises were made and broken. The only thing we can say is that once upon a time, there was a woman named Ariadne, and a young hero named Theseus, and when they crossed paths, a kingdom fell.
For my part, I'd like to believe Theseus treated Ariadne honorably, as far as he was able within the boundaries set by his culture and the gods. I certainly don't think we need to slave ourselves to the idea that Ariadne was wronged -- and if Plutarch makes anything clear, it's that there's room for us to tell a different story. A story in which Ariadne is neither abandoned nor abused, but following a course of her own making.
I, for one, think it's long past time we did so.