Ariadne, Theseus & Dionysus: A Greek Love Triangle

Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze - 19th century painting by Pelagio Palagi

Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze – 19th century painting by Pelagio Palagi

In Greek mythology, the islands of Crete and Naxos were each the setting of different chapters in the life and times of the deified princess Ariadne. She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur, the part bull-part man conceived by her mother Pasiphae after a short affair with a bull.

Pasiphae wasn’t generally attracted to bulls, rather, she was used by the gods to punish Minos for failing to follow through with a promise. After praying to Poseidon for help winning the crown of Crete, he was given a perfect white bull. The bull was meant to be sacrificed, but Minos decided to keep the beautiful bull and made an offering of an ordinary bull to Poseidon instead.

Poseidon was not pleased and he had Aphrodite, goddess of love, cause Pasiphae to be irresistibly drawn to the white bull. She couldn’t help herself.

The Minotaur grew into a terrible beast that could only survive by eating people. Why Minos didn’t just kill it, I don’t know. Perhaps he felt responsible. To contain the Minotaur, he had a labyrinth built; and to feed it, he bullied Athens into sending a tribute of 7 boys and 7 girls every 7 years.

painting of the Minotaur from an ancient cup

painting of the Minotaur from an ancient cup, Are those human hearts in his hands?

One year, when the tribute was due, the Athenian boy Theseus volunteered to be one of the 7 young men sacrificed. He was a half-son of the god Poseidon (that’s another story), so he was stronger and braver than the average youth. He planned to kill the Minotaur, save his fellow tributes from a gruesome death and relieve his city from its heavy burden.

Minos’ daughter Ariadne watched from the palace as the young Athenians were led into the labyrinth and she instantly fell in love with Theseus. She couldn’t let him be eaten, so she told him how to find the Minotaur deep inside the labyrinth and gave him a ball of string so that he could find his way back out. The Minotaur would not expect anyone to come voluntarily to his lair and Theseus would have the element of surprise to his advantage.

Theseus tied the yarn to a column at the entrance of the labyrinth and walked into the pitch black maze, unrolling the yarn behind him. He walked around and around and around and around, making numerous switchbacks on the way. When, just at the edge of his senses, he perceived a dim glow and a beastly smell, he knew he was getting close. He gripped the sword he had hidden under his tunic and continued towards the light. At the center of the labyrinth, the tight corridor opened onto a chamber so large Theseus couldn’t see its end. A single torch shone feebly on a near wall and within its circle of light lay a great, snoring heap of malodorous bullman. Should he wake the Minotaur and fight him or kill him as he slept? While Theseus wrestled with this moral question, it was answered for him.The Minotaur snorted, blinked twice and lunged. Thoughts of the unexpected snack he was about to enjoy were interrupted when his head was separated from his body. The Minotaur was dead and Theseus’ honor was in tact, for now.

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur, 19th century bronze by Antoine-Louis Barye

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur, 19th century bronze by Antoine-Louis Barye

Theseus wound his way back out of the Labyrinth, following Ariadne’s thread. She opened the gates so he and the other young Athenians could escape and she went with them. They wasted no time sailing over the horizon from Crete but then stopped on the island of Naxos to collect their wits and celebrate a new lease on life. The group gathered around Theseus to hear the story of his triumph over the Minotaur. Lulled by the sweet tone of her new love’s voice and the gentle, rhythm of the surf, Ariadne fell asleep on the beach. She was, after all, exhausted by the major detour her life had taken in recent hours.

When Ariadne awoke, she was alone. Theseus, his friends, and his ship were gone, sailing back to Athens without her. She was devastated. Before judging Theseus too harshly, we should consider the possibility that he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by a meddling immortal. The god Dionysus wanted Ariadne for himself. By some accounts, she was already married to Dionysus when she ran off with Theseus. In any case, Ariadne never fully recovered from the heartbreak of being abandoned by Theseus. Nevertheless, she dutifully spent her life married to Dionysus and raising their children. When she died, Dionysus retrieved her from Hades and she joined the immortals on Mt. Olympus.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 16th century painting by Titian

Bacchus and Ariadne, 16th century painting by Titian (Bacchus is the Roman name for Dionysus)

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