By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The myth of Ariadne is inextricably bound up, like her delicate thread she gives to him, with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. But what’s the full story with Ariadne in Greek mythology? Let’s take a closer look, beginning with a summary of Ariadne’s story, followed by an analysis of its possible meanings.
Ariadne myth: plot summary
In the Labyrinth on the island of Crete, the Minotaur lived: a man with the head and tail of a bull. Every nine years, King Minos demanded seven Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens be given to the Minotaur as sacrifices.
Theseus was a brave Athenian youth who put himself forward as one of the tributes. Theseus and the other tributes then travelled to Crete and were thrown in the Labyrinth, the palace of the Minotaur. When Theseus arrived on Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, clapped eyes on him and promptly fell in love with the Athenian youth.
She gave him a ball of thread so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth: as he weaved his way through its various corridors he would unravel the thread on the floor beneath him, allowing him to retrace his journey back out of the maze.
A ball of thread is known as a clew or, in an alternative spelling, a clue. To this day, we talk about following the ‘clues’ to discover something, and it’s all thanks to the story of Theseus and Ariadne’s thread.
Unfortunately, after Ariadne had helped him to accomplish his task and the pair had travelled to the island of Naxos, Theseus abandoned her. Why? Accounts vary at this point, with some authors having Theseus desert Ariadne because he had fallen in love with another woman, named Aegle, and other authors claiming that the gods forced him to abandon Ariadne because he was forbidden to marry her.
Indeed, in this alternative ending to the Ariadne story, she was spotted by the god Dionysus, who forbade Theseus to remain with her, and then married her himself, taking her with him to Mount Olympus, the seat of the gods. The pair had four children.
At least, that’s one version of the culmination of the Ariadne story: the ‘happy ever after’ one (although how ‘happy’ it was for Ariadne, and whether she wanted the god to carry her off with him, is another matter).
In another version, when Theseus left her, Ariadne went to the island of Dia, a small island off the northern coast of Crete, where she was killed by Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and it was Dionysus who himself ordered the killing.
In yet another version, Ariadne fell pregnant by Theseus and his ship was blown out to sea when Ariadne was still on land, and the pair were separated. Ariadne died in childbirth while being looked after by the women of the island.
Ariadne myth: analysis
This story has been told many times, and there are some interesting variations. For example, in one version, Ariadne doesn’t give Theseus a ball of thread (or wool) but a luminous crown (a wedding gift from Dionysus, who desired Ariadne). This was, then, a glow-in-the-dark tool which Theseus could use to illuminate his way around the darkened Labyrinth.
However, both Apollodorus and Plutarch mention only a ball of thread or wool, and this is the version that has taken hold. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, also has Ariadne give Theseus a ball of thread, and Ovid’s retelling of these classic myths has become, in many cases, the canonical one.
Theseus’ subsequent abandonment of Ariadne, whether down to personal choice or not, shows how messy things could get even in the most archetypal myths. Even after she had helped him to defeat the Minotaur, putting herself at risk if her father discovered the truth, he is quick to cut himself loose of her. What is the meaning of his abandonment? Is it merely divine will: he had no say in the matter, because Dionysus or one of the other gods commanded it?
In that case, it’s a great adventure story – and love story – with an unhappy ending, since the two lovers are forced to drift apart. If Theseus’ ship was blown out to sea, making it impossible for him to return to Naxos and be with Ariadne, was this also a divine intervention, or a mere whim of nature? Can there ever be such a thing in Greek mythology, when there was a god or goddess, seemingly, for everything?
Perhaps this ambiguity about his motives for deserting Ariadne is what makes the myth so compelling, even for modern readers living in a more secular age. As Oliver Tearle’s poem ‘Ariadne’, a contemporary take on the Ariadne myth, suggests, sometimes people just drift apart, and the intensity of the moment that brought two people together fades away:
It wasn’t him abandoned her. The stars
made sure of it that they should walk apart.
The memory is good. But that’s tonight:
morning will come and take it all away.
To seagirt Dia (wherever that was) she went,
he weaving home, slowly losing the thread.