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Ariadne

by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee Ph.D.
Ariadne; marble head. 4th century BCE, National Museum Athens. Originally Ariadne was a vegetation goddess in Crete related to the other Cretan goddesses especially to Britomartis. Sometimes Ariadne was associated with the surname "Very Holy Maid," because her name is a variant of Ariagne from the Greek word àgni, which means "the most holy." Under this title -- àgni -- Aphrodite on Delos was honoured.

According to the Greek myths Ariadne was the daughter of the Cretan king Minos and his wife Pasiphae. The story about her life and death was narrated by many ways in the different regions, but in all of her legends she left Crete and she suffered terrible sorrow.

In the Odyssey is told that Ariadne was abducted and taken to the island of Dia where she died, because Artemis put her to death. According to the myth which was the most known, she fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus, who was coming to Crete to kill the Minotaur and to rescue the Athenian youth. In the older version of the myth she was already the loved one of Dionysus, when Theseus came to Crete. Thus Ariadne helped Theseus by promising her to take her to Athens as his wife. She gave him two special gifts -- a sword and a clue of thread -- to find a way back from the Cnossian Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.

As promised, she left Crete with Theseus and with the Athenian youth and they stopped on the island of Naxos. While Ariadne was asleep, in her dream (or in Theseus' dream?) the god Dionysus appeared on her and gave her a divine command to stay in Naxos, because he wanted to marry her. Interestingly, we know also some other versions, why Theseus deserted his sleeping Ariadne in Naxos: maybe he had already a new lover or he was afraid to bring Ariadne with him to Athens? So, Theseus with the rescued Athenian youth, but without Ariadne, sailed to Attica over Delos (a small island near Mykonos), where they performed some rites (a special dance) and dedicated the old statue of the goddess from Crete to the local sanctuary.

Ariadne; detail from a red-figured vase with the Minotaur. 4th century BCE, National Museum Athens. Ariadne in the meantime felt extremely unhappy, when Dionysus came to save her in Naxos. So, trying to make her feel better he put on her head a golden crown of Thetis, a work of Hephaestus. Nevertheless we have to mention that in the other version of the Ariadne-myth, she received this crown from Theseus (and not from Dionysus) as a gift of Amphitrite. After this gift Dionysus immediately married her. Short while after Ariadne gave birth to many famous children -- first of all to Staphylus, Thoas and Oenopion. The last two became the kings of the islands Lemnos and Chios and in some other versions of the myth they are represented as the sons of Theseus.

Another totally different version of this myth about Ariadne and Theseus is known to be originating from Cyprus. According to this story, the Cretans and the Athenians made an agreement about their friendship, which was ratified with the union of their crowns -- which means with the marriage of Ariadne and Theseus. After the long celebrations in Crete, the married couple sailed to Athens, but a storm pushed them to the shores of Cyprus. Ariadne was already in a high stage of pregnancy, so she stayed in Amathus on the island of Cyprus, but unfortunately she died on this place during her childbirth. She was buried there in a small grove called in her honour Aridela. It is also said that Ariadne never married Dionysus, on the contrary that he was angry with her and with Theseus, because they desecrated his cave in Naxos. Due to this reason the goddess Artemis killed Ariadne during her childbirth by her arrows.

But the Homeric report was giving a different explanation about her death when noted that Artemis felt pity for Ariadne and that she killed her because Ariadne was very unhappy without Theseus. According to the other version of the myth, Ariadne hung herself on a tree, fearing the anger of Artemis. Finally Pausanias is telling, that some people from Argos believed, that Ariadne who followed Dionysus to Argos, was buried there in an earthenware coffin in a shrine of Dionysus called "the Cretan."

The mythical stories about Ariadne refer to places of her influence and her worshipping. Her cult spread from Crete over the islands Naxos, Delos, Cyprus, Chios, Lemnos to Athens and Peloponnes, specially Argos. Due to her influence over the islands she was sometimes named "the sea woman." This title was used for her in Argos. On the contrary, in Amathus (Cyprus) she was worshipped as Aphrodite-Ariadne.

The cult of Ariadne consisted of a ceremonial dance, the orgiastic rites and some lamentations. In the Iliad, Homer mentioned the Ariadne's dancing place (choros) prepared by the craftsman Daedalus in the Cnossian Palace. According to the Delian myth the famous Cretan Crane Dance was performed for the first time on the island of Delos by rescued youth, who were travelling with Theseus from Crete to Athens. So, this dance and image of Ariadne played always an important role in the cult on Delos. Also some vase painters depicted Ariadne in a context with dancing. There is a supposition that this ceremonial dance was a part of the collective marriage ritual for marrying couples.

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. Ariadne was also remembered in the Athenian festival The Oschophoria (celebration in honour of Theseus) and in the other Athenian festival The Anthesteria (performed in honour of Dionysus) as the wife of both of these two protagonists.

A few Greek vase-painters depicted the Ariadne's life or Ariadne with Dionysus accompanied by satyrs and maenads on numerous vases from between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Her tragic fate was expressed in the famous melancholic head created in the second part of the 4th century BCE. actually in the National Museum of Athens. Also the Roman copy of a Hellenistic work in the Vatican museums named "The Sleeping Ariadne," the relief "Theseus and Ariadne" from the 2nd century in the collection of the Capitol Museum in Rome, the fresco "Wedding of Ariadne and Dionysus" in the Villa dei Mysteri in Pompeji and the mosaics with the same theme from the museums in Thesaloniki (Greece) and Bardo (Tunesia) are between the most important artistic works representing this subject.

Concluding, we can say that Ariadne represented a tragic heroine figure in all the different versions of her myth. Therefore we can also understand that she was suffering from a terrible dilemma, namely between her wish for happiness and the obligation to obey to a divine command. Due to this internal fight, she felt a great sorrow and suffered death in so many different ways. With her influence over the islands we can relate her personage to the Cretan goddess Britomartis. In some parts of her myths, there is clear evidence that she is closely associated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Finally, Ariadne's cult was performed in different ways on various places and consisted of Cretan features mixed with some local rituals as well as with some orgiastic aspects, used during the celebrations of Dionysus.


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  • Pronunciation:
    air-ee-ad'-nee
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