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Definition: Ariadne from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Greek mythology, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. When Theseus came from Athens as one of the sacrificial victims offered to the Minotaur, she fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread, which enabled him to find his way out of the labyrinth. When Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos, she married Dionysus.


Summary Article: ARIADNE from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

The daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae, Ariadne played a crucial role in the slaying of the Minotaur by the Athenian hero Theseus. However, despite promising to marry her, Theseus later abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos.

Theseus arrived in Crete as one of the 14 young people sent every year from Athens, as reparation for the murder of a Cretan prince. They were all sacrificed to the Minotaur. This monstrous creature, half bull and half man, was the result of Pasiphae's unnatural coupling with the white bull of Poseidon. He was kept hidden in a palace of winding corridors and hidden rooms, the Labyrinth, built by the inventor and architect Daedalus. None of the young sacrificial victims had managed to kill the Minotaur or escape the Labyrinth.

Ariadne's plan

Ariadne caught sight of Theseus on his arrival in Crete and immediately fell in love with him. She promised to supply him with a way to escape from the Labyrinth if he agreed to marry her and take her back to Athens with him. Theseus agreed and Ariadne gave him a ball of twine (or, in some versions, golden thread) that Daedalus had previously given to her. By tying one end of the thread to the doorway at the entrance to the maze and then unraveling the ball as he went, Theseus was able to retrace his steps once he had slain the Minotaur.

When he emerged, Ariadne guided Theseus and the other surviving Athenians to the harbor, where they boarded his ship and fled toward Athens. At this point, the various versions of the myth diverge. In the most widespread version, the Athenian ship arrived at the island of Naxos and Ariadne fell asleep on the shore. Theseus embarked with his companions and abandoned her there. Ariadne awoke to find herself alone and deserted by her lover, for whom she had sacrificed family and homeland. However, Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine, had fallen in love with her and descended from heaven to carry her away to be his bride.

This carving on a fragment of a sarcophagus depicts Ariadne as a Cretan goddess of fertility. She is shown with Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and abundance, who fell in love with her.

Variations in the legend

Another version of the myth says that Dionysus himself ordered Theseus to leave Ariadne, since the god had chosen her as his bride. Other variations tell that Ariadne was so distraught on waking and finding herself abandoned that she hanged herself. In yet another version of the myth, Theseus and the pregnant Ariadne were driven by a storm to Cyprus, where she died in childbirth.

Historical context and links

The story of Ariadne and Theseus illustrates the process whereby Athens freed itself from Crete, which, until about 1200 BCE, was a the leading power in the Mediterranean world. The Athenian Theseus puts an end to Cretan demands for reparations and gains a princess as his bride.

Ariadne herself, whose name means "most pure" or "most pleasing," was at one time worshiped as a fertility goddess in Crete and the eastern Mediterranean. Her union with Dionysus, the god of not only wine but also dance, excess, and abundance, seems to be a link between earlier Eastern and later Greek divinities of renewal and growth. A circular fertility dance led by Theseus is described in Callimachus's Hymn to Delos, written in the third century BCE, and Ariadne herself may well have led such a dance in Crete, on a labyrinthine-patterned floor constructed for this purpose by Daedalus.

The image of the solitary and inconsolable Ariadne was a popular theme in the visual art and poetry of antiquity, and she has remained a symbol of loss and abandonment in Western art. The Renaissance Italian artists Titian and Guido Reni both painted her, as did the French artist Jean-Baptiste Regnault at the start of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Ariadne was the subject of an opera, Ariadne on Naxos, by German composer Richard Strauss. More recently, because of Ariadne's part in overcoming the horrors of the Labyrinth, her name has been used by a variety of projects related to information retrieval on the Internet.

See also: BACCHUS; CRETE; DAEDALUS; DIONYSUS; MINOS; PASIPHAE; POSEIDON; THESEUS.

Further reading
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.
  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin, 1993.
PETER CONNOR
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