I heard you, Dionysos.
So, as I begin to delve into the idea of Ariadne as a goddess, equal in stature to Dionysos, I know that I will have to dig deep and be exhaustive. Before I even begin, I know that the source material that exists on Ariadne is a mess. I know that I may be embarking on what could wind up being years, rather than days or weeks, of intensive research.
There are three different version of why Ariadne isn’t with Theseus, at least two different versions of what her relationship with Dionysos is like, and a half dozen versions of how or why she died.
The story we all think of, naturally, is Ariadne with her golden string, helping Theseus escape from the labyrinth and the Minotaur because she was in love with him. She sails away with him, and then he leaves her on an island. Dionysos then marries her. Then, Ariadne dies.
Dionysos then descends to the underworld to rescue Ariadne and Semele (his mother), and everyone lives happily ever after.
The source texts we have present a slightly different picture, one that is not nearly so neat and tidy. What I am going to do, in this blog post, is to take a look at some ancient sources, sort through the inconsistencies, delve a little into what I can find out about Minoan religion, and form a solid hypothesis for later library research. Could Ariadne be the long lost Great Goddess of Minoan society?
What The Classical Sources Agree On, and My Take
Theseus was sent by his father to convey the tribute of the Athenians to Minotauros. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, and gave him the string which she had received from Hephaestos, explaining to him that he should use it to find his way back out of the Labyrinth. Theseus in return promised to marry her (Plut. Thes. 19; Hygin. Fab. 42 ; Didym. ad Odyss. xi. 320)
I’ll break that down for you.
Daedalus created the labyrinth himself. He had constructed the puzzle to be so difficult that he, himself, nearly did not escape from it. (Doob 1992, p. 36.) Minos was using it as a practical execution chamber. It was the mythic place from whence no man could return.
Yet Ariadne looked at the puzzle and said, “simple.”
Finding a simple work around to an impossible problem is her thing. She’s clever, cunning, and a great engineer. No doubt, this is why Hephaestos took notice of her to begin with, and made her a skein of yarn. Is anyone else a little confused about why the Blacksmith is spinning thread, especially given that this was a traditionally feminine undertaking? Mythological scripton? Clever lie told by Ariadne for some reason? Who can say?
Minos intended for Theseus to die. By means of her clever and simple scheme, Ariadne defied her father, and undermined the will of a mighty king.
Without digging any deeper, we begin to wonder if this goddess might have an element of the trickster lurking in her being.
The Shortest Narrative: Ariadne Dies At Dia
Keep your eye on the number of deaths now.
“And Phaedra and Procris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of baneful mind, whom once Theseus was fain to bear from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens; but he had no joy of her, for ere that Artemis slew her in sea-girt Dia because of the witness of Dionysos.” (Homers Odyssey, Book 11, lines 324 – 325)
In this, the shortest of the narratives, Theseus never meant to leave Ariadne. Instead, she was slain by Artemis. We have a confusing phrase, “because of the witness of Dionysos.”
The word “witness” here, in the Greek is “μαρτυρίῃσιν” (transliteration: marturiesin), similar to the less Epic word μαρτυ^ρ-ία. It can be translated as “evidences” or “testimony.” What are the connotations? Well, I’m not a fluent speaker of ancient Greek, but given that it can also be translated as “commendations,” or “demonstrations of favor,” I’d say that the interpretation that Theseus and Ariadne were caught shagging in Sea-girt Dia is a little off.
Further, we are told, in this particular text that Theseus had no joy in her. IE, they had not yet consummated the marriage. Further, even if they had, you would expect that Ariadne, being the grand daughter of Helios, and a full blooded Greek Heroine, at the very least, in her own right, would not be held more culpable in that consensual act than Theseus. Yet, no arrows for Theseus. So, desecrating Dia? In this text, no. I think something else is going on here.
Another interesting translation might be “Subpoena.”
Perhaps our clever, trouble-making Ariadne had gotten up to many adventures before now, and she was being slain so that her soul could go to instantly stand trial for the many annoyances she had caused the wine god? I rather like that. Or perhaps Dionysos saw what was about to happen, and, as her immortal husband, said, “Fuck no. Ok, fun’s over, lady. Artemis, reel her in!”
But why Artemis?
He had no joy in her. In other words, she was still under the protection of Artemis, being a virgin. Perhaps only Artemis had the right to slay her.
In this version, Ariadne dies at the command of Dionysos, but at the hand of Artemis. Death Count: 1.
The Second and Third Version
“Paion the Amathusian says that Theseus, driven out of his course by a storm to Kypros (Cyprus), 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. The women of the island, accordingly, took Ariadne into their care . . . and gave her burial when she died before her child was born . . .
Some of the Naxians also have a story of their own, that there were two Minoses and two Ariadnes, one of whom, they say, was married to Dionysos in Naxos and bore him Staphylos and his brother, and the other, of a later time, having been carried off by Theseus and then abandoned by him, came to Naxos, accompanied by a nurse named Korkyne, whose tomb they show; and that this Ariadne also died there.” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 20. 1)
Here, we have Theseus abandoning Ariadne. Truth, says Plutarch, this was no goddess. Rather, she was a mortal woman whom Theseus accidentally abandoned, because of a storm. The Naxians claim that there are two Ariadnes, an earlier one who was a wife of Dionysos, and a later one who was a mortal, both daughters of one Minos or another.
In this version, Ariadne dies because Theseus is a boob. Death Count: 2.
Conflicting Accounts from Diodoros
“He [Theseus] carried off Ariadne [from Krete] and sailed out unobserved during the night, after which he put in at the island which at that time was called Dia, but is now called Naxos. At this same time, the myths relate, Dionysos showed himself on the island, and because of the beauty of Ariadne he took the maiden away from Theseus and kept her as his lawful wife, loving her exceedingly. Indeed, after her death he considered her worthy of immortal honours because of the affection he had for her, and placed among the stars of heaven the Crown of Ariadne [the constellation Corona].” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 61. 5)
“Theseus, on his voyage back from Krete together with Ariadne, was entertained as a guest by the inhabitants of the island [of Naxos]; and Theseus, seeing in a dream Dionysos threatening him if he would not forsake Ariadne in favour of the god, elft her behind him there in his fear and sailed away. And Dionysos led Ariadne away by night to the mountain which is know as Drios; and first of all the god disappeared, and later Ariadne also was never seen again.” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 51. 4 : )
So, Ariadne dies, again, possibly twice, if you consider ascending to heaven with your body intact a kind of death. Here, though, we get the more remembered part of the tale, where Theseus leaves Ariadne because Dionysos demanded her as a bride.
Death Count: 3
Two Deaths, One Source
“[Perseus, king of Argos, battles the armies of Dionysos:] [The River] Inakhos was witness to both [Perseus and Dionysos], when the heavy bronze pikes of Mykenai (Mycenae) resisted the ivy and deadly fennel, when Perseus sickle in hand gave way to Bakkhos with his wand, and fled before the fury of Satyroi cyring Euoi; Perseus cast a raging spear, and hit frail Ariadne unarmed instead of Lyaios the warrior. I do not admire Perseus for killing one woman, in her bridal dress still breathing of love.” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25. 104 ff )
“[Dionysos] went in dainty revel to the vineclad district of Naxos. About him bold Eros (Love) beat his wings, and Kythereia [Aphrodite] led, before the coming of Lyaios [Dionysos] the bridegroom. For Theseus had just sailed away, and left without pity the banished maiden asleep on the shore, scattering his promises to the winds. When Dionysos beheld deserted Ariadne sleeping, he mingled love with wonder, and spoke out his admiration cautiously to the danceweaving Bakkhantes: ‘[Dionysos compares the sleeping Ariadne to various goddesses.] . . .’ (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 265 ff )
“[Perseus, king of Argos, battles the armies of Dionysos:] He [Perseus] shook in his hand the deadly face of Medousa [i.e. the decapitated head of the Gorgon Medusa], and turned armed Ariadne into stone. Bakkhos [Dionysos] was even more furious when he saw his bride all stone . . .” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 665 ff)
“Ariadne . . . was a stone in a foreign land like the statue of Akhaian Hera.” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 48. 449 ff : )
Here, faithless Theseus abandons Ariadne while she sleeps, and Dionysos marries her instead. In this version of the story, Ariadne goes on to stand by the side of Dionysos as he does battle against Perseus. Keep in mind: one battle, one source. Ariadne dies because she was hit with a spear… and THEN Perseus turns her to stone. One frail woman, indeed! Why was she on the battle field? And seriously, why bother to turn a woman into stone after you’ve shot her down with a spear?
The imagination reels.
In my mind’s eye, I envision a woman in frenetic battle dance, undeterred by a spear piercing most of her vital organs. If at first the aim was in error, terrified Perseus changes the maiden into stone, because HOLY SHIT.
Death Count: 4…? 5…?
Who Was She Really?
“to all the gods, honey… to the mistress of the labyrinth, honey” — ( Kerenyi 1976, p 90f: translation of a linear B inscription)
Linguistic clues suggest that the name “Ariadne” is not a proper name, but rather, a title, derives from two words in Cretan Greek: αρι [ari] “most” and αδνος [adnos] “holy.” The above inscription, if you believe that the Lady of the Labyrinth and Ariadne are the same entity, suggests that she was no minor deity in Minoan religion, but rather, a goddess equal in stature to all of the rest of her pantheon combined.
Like another goddess in the mostly-matriarchal Minoan pantheon, Britomartis, mythology of later eras sought to reduce Ariadne’s scope and power. We do know, however, that she was associated with panthers, that she was a Minoan goddess.
“The Ariadne’s cult on Naxos was performed also with the orgiastic rites (like the festivals of joy) together with lamentations and expressions of sorrow (like during funeral ceremonies). In Amathus the sacrifices were brought in honour of Ariadne and at this place a special cult was practised in which a young man was simulating the pains of a woman giving childbirth with some screaming.” (According to Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee, ,Encyclopedia Mythica, No source texts or archeology cited.)
Could this be a the Minoan Goddess of fertility? Let me show you a few pictures, also of ladies on cats.
Inanna and Ishtar, standing on lions. Curiously, these two Mesopotamian figures (considered the same, or at least similar by most) partake of the snake goddess archetype, are deities of fertility, die during the course of their mythology, arise from the underworld and are associated with The Bull of Heaven.
More eerily, both are given the title of Princess of Heaven. They are involved with subtleness and trickery, even going so far as to pull one over on the King of Gods, Enki/Ea.
They are Chthonic deities of fertility and love. Their stories involve a consort deity who is a god of intoxication (Dumuzi/Tammuz), curiously, one who dies in the Winter, only to be reborn in the Spring. (Dionysia/Anthesteria).
I am not suggesting, of course, that Minoan religion is in any way the same as Mesopotamian religion, or that Minoan gods and Mesopotamian gods are in any way the same gods. I do indeed believe that they are from entirely different tribes of gods. Rather, I want to suggest that these are neighboring cultures which exchanged deities, symbolism and religious concepts. Consequently, we can probably make some intelligent guesses about what it means to be a fertility goddess, and what the meaning of being associated with long, phallic objects and wild cats might mean in that context. We can also draw some assumptions about what it means to be married to that dead and resurrected deity of intoxication.
Let me show you just one more picture, and you can draw your own conclusions from there.
You may need to take my word for it, but that’s a wild cat sitting on her head. In my opinion, this image depicts the same entity which was later rendered into Hellenic mythology as Ariadne. A great goddess of fertility, married to a god of intoxication orgiastic rites. Suddenly, the whole world makes just a little more sense.
I will, of course, follow up with further research, probably into Minoan culture, but for now, I feel that this lays out a pretty solid hypothesis.
Edited: I was made aware that this article contained a factual mistake. While Mediterranean cultures did undergo a lot of interchange, Egyptian and Mesopotamian Languages are from Afro-Asiatic roots, whereas Greek is from the Indo-European language family. The Minoan language is, as yet, unknown and unclassified.