Ariadne, a Twisted Tale

I’m fascinated by the myth of Ariadne partially because her end can be either a tragic romance or of becoming a goddess. Her tales vary widely. And my idea of her is completely colored by art.

A quick summary of the myth: The first King of Crete, Minos, had a labyrinth built for the Minotaur. Every year he ordered 14 Athenian youths to their death in the labyrinth as “tribute”. Theseus was sent to destroy the beast, and so he did.

But not without the help of Ariadne, the Princess of Crete – the daughter of the cruel King and sister of the Minotaur (a story for another day).

Upon the arrival of Theseus, Ariadne fell instantly in love with him (god knows why). Girlfriend had brains and looks though. She gave him a ball of thread so he could find himself out of the labyrinth.

Ariadne and Theseus, Niccolo Bambini
Niccolo Bambini, Ariadne and Theseus

Theseus promised to take her away after defeating the minotaur. Good thing too as she would now be considered a traitor.

Thésée et le Minotaure, Maître des Cassoni Campana, between 1500 and 1525

(I love how different the Minotaur looks here.)

Theseus kills the Minotaur thanks to Ariadne’s thread and advice. They escape.

Love in a Tangle, Edward Burne-Jones, 1905
Love in a Tangle, Edward Burne-Jones, 1905

Now things get slippery.

They arrive at the island of Naxos. And in one way or another the couple separates. Theseus leaves her while she sleeps. Like a frayed rope, the end is freaking everywhere.

Ariadne, Sir John Lavery, 1886
Ariadne, Sir John Lavery, 1886

However, artists have latched onto the forlorn beauty left alone on the beach.

Ariadne in Naxos, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1877
Ariadne in Naxos, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1877

At least Theseus left her some jewels in this one. No food but diamonds, darling.

Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, Angelica Kauffmann, 1774
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, Angelica Kauffmann, 1774

In one version of the myth Ariadne had previously abandoned the god Dionysus for Theseus – and didn’t mention it. For this slight Artemis kills her. In some versions Theseus loved someone at home in Athens so the scumbag dumps Ariadne on an island. In others Athena tells Theseus to leave her ’cause reasons. Athenian writers often showed Theseus following a moral duty to the gods. Maybe her being Crete would be a disgrace (but he marries her sister later – Theseus was awful).

But the version most often seen in art is where Dionysus finds Ariadne, they fall instantly in love, and she becomes immortal in body or as a constellation.

Artists have often chosen to give her the happy ending. Theseus’s ship has only set sail and she’s found a new beau. And a step up too, a god of wine.

Bacchus and Ariadne, Jacopo Amigoni, 1740-2
Bacchus and Ariadne, Jacopo Amigoni, 1740-2

But, the masterpiece is undoubtedly by Titian. Ariadne turns away from Theseus’s ship and towards the god and his followers. Dionysus promises Ariadne the Corona Borealis, that crown of stars in the top left, as a wedding gift.

Ignore the bits of torn up cow and it looks like a fun occasion.

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520–1523
Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520–1523

Art has informed her tale to modern audiences. Artemis and Athena and the various other versions are ignored – and so this is the most popular version today. It’s an interesting case of media changing perceptions. (Much like film and books do.)

Ariadne gets passed from a cruel father to a cruel “hero”, then to a god. In many versions she becomes a goddess. As far as Greek myths go, it’s not a bad ending for a woman.


3 thoughts on “Ariadne, a Twisted Tale”

  1. I actually never knew the ending to the story. I prefer the sad version with Ariadne abandoned on the beach, like in Evelyn De Morgan’s painting. Love the drapery there and the grace and sadness that she exudes. Wonderful colors too.

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