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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ariadne and Dionysus

We've talked a little bit about Ariadne before, in relation to the role of women in Mycenaean civilization (and the truth is, there is no certainty at all, in that regard) but I wanted to talk a little bit more about her, and her relationship to the gods -- particularly Dionysus.

Ariadne and Dionysus -- Ariadne looks a little
bit annoyed with her husband/consort.
Ariadne was a daughter of Minos, sometimes considered a high priestess, sometimes associated with the goddess of the labyrinth, if such a goddess existed. Certainly she was no less a princess than Theseus was a king, and just as certainly, her life was turned upside down by Theseus' arrival on Crete with the tributes sent to King Minos (and King Minos himself was a son of Europa, most probably by Zeus -- more on him in a future post.)

Whether Ariadne deliberately cultivated Theseus or was simply taken in by his charm and valor, there isn't really any knowing. Some people theorize that she, as a goddess/high priestess herself, used Theseus to escape the Labyrinth and whatever magic held her upon Crete (and I kind of like that idea, if only because it gives Ariadne some agency of her own), but more often, she's just in love with our hero, and she and Theseus run off together after his triumph over the Minotaur. At which point Theseus either abandons her (with no scruples at all) or is made to give her up to the god Dionysus. Sometimes she dies in childbirth on the island or just of grief, too, though it's generally agreed she ends up as Dionysus' consort and wife, and elevated to the rank of goddess. All in all, not SO bad a fate, if so!

Ariadne looks a lot happier from this angle
Dionysus himself is an interesting character, though, and as a son of Zeus himself, Ariadne would be both his niece and his wife, before all was said and done. This isn't anywhere close to the worst case of incest among the gods, and doesn't really seem to occur to anyone as worth commenting upon, in the source material. And I wonder what drew Dionysus to Ariadne in particular -- if he did not specifically demand her, might he have been summoned to her because she had abandoned herself to her grief, wholeheartedly? Or perhaps the fact that she had given herself up completely into Theseus' keeping, given herself up to her emotions in the face of all reason. That does seem like kind of Dionysus' specialty, after all, as a god of  madness. If he had already claimed her as his own before Theseus ever arrived -- well, I'm not sure why, but beauty has been reason enough in the past for any god to act.

One thing we know for certain: no one can agree on exactly what happened between Ariadne and Theseus, or even between Ariadne and Dionysus. But maybe that isn't what matters. Maybe what matters is that we're still wondering, all these years later.

above images © Amalia


  1. This is helpful in setting out the ambiguities of the Theseus/Ariadne story that tend to be characteristic of nearly every major episode in the life of Theseus - from his paternity to his death. One notion that I've toyed with before: if Ariadne was "fated" to be loved by Dionysus, then there was no changing anything about that. Then there's the question of whether she betrayed her father out of love for Theseus, or whether that love was a fateful error that led to a "truer" love that would extinguish her human love. It is entirely up in the air whether Theseus lost or won, even as it's difficult for us to judge whether Ariadne's ultimate contentment. Both characters gain and lose. The tale is rich and seems purposive, but what purposes are served, and whose, seems an open question.

    1. you're right. There is a lot of ambiguity that I hadn't really thought about -- I haven't talked about it here, yet, but this whole "did he or didn't he?" "was she or wasn't she?" is repeated again with Theseus and his Amazon Queen. I mean, nobody can even agree about WHICH Amazon Queen ended up as Theseus' consort, it's so convoluted!

      But is this really that much different from other heroes? I suppose Heracles is the person to really look to for comparison, since Theseus is kind of supposed to be his regional equivalent. There's a lot of ambiguity in how things went down in Heracles' stories, too, from what I've read. Did he murder his wife and children before his Labors, or after? If after what is the purpose of his Labors at all?

      The other thing to consider is -- what if Ariadne didn't love Theseus at all? What if she was just using him? What if her father kept her against her will? What if she wasn't just a pawn, but rather, the player? We know that Europa, her grandmother, is known for her "deviance" when she climbs up on the back of the bull purposely, "allowing" herself to be stolen away. What if Ariadne has some similar agency of her own?