Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In the Myth of the Minotaur, if not for the ministrations of the humble Princess Ariadne, Theseus—the Greek hero—would not have had a prayer.
Although often portrayed as a mere maiden, truth be told, providing back-up for a leading man was the very least of her qualities. Springing from the heavens, Ariadne’s origins beckon from the primordial mist of Bronze Age Minoan Crete where she was the overarching mother goddess in the Minoan pantheon—the all-important fertility goddess who is believed to have answered to such titles as goddess-on-earth, weaver of life and mistress of the labyrinth.
With the destiny of mortals in her hands, Ariadne was considered a bright goddess, often compared to Demeter—whose celestial origins were from Crete as well. In some ways Ariadne is analogous both to the goddess of the harvest—and her daughter Persephone—queen of the underworld. Predating patriarchy, the mother goddess’s role was paramount—in agricultural societies religion was centered on fertility and everything was centered on religion.
Because Minoan Crete was a matrilineal society with women leading lives of independence, like all goddesses in the Minoan pantheon, Ariadne ruled alone without a male consort. Toward the close of the Minoan civilization—with the Mycenaeans’ influence keenly felt—Ariadne began to be accompanied by a young male consort.
Her insignia, the labyrinth—a square or circular structure with multiple circuits spiraling to the center and back again—figures prominently in her mythology and is believed to have been a place of initiation where mortals moved from one realm to another with the bull-god—the Minotaur (Hades-like)—occupying its deepest and darkest center.
The decline of the Minoan Civilization was accompanied by the expansion of the Mycenaeans—as is often the case when one culture subsumes another—when the Myceneans overtook the Minoans in about fourteen hundred BCE, they recast the Minoan myths; the invader gods married the indigenous goddesses replacing matricentric elements with patriarchal ones.
By rewriting mythology the Mycenaean Greeks provoked the systemic suppression of goddess worship which would encourage the widespread denigration of women. But the patriarchal reformulating of the tales did not stop with the Mycenaeans, it continued apace into the Greek and Roman cultures. In reviewing the myths surrounding Ariadne, the purpose of this paper is to expose the patriarchal tropes that have dogged her many guises for thousands of years.
Ariadne is best known from a Mycenaean-era myth in which the all-important great mother goddess is reduced to an unassuming princess offering succor to the invading Theseus, the legendary first hero-king of Athens.
The tale begins when Poseidon—god of the earth and sea—gifts a rare white bull to King Minos of Crete with the expectation of it being sacrificed in his honor. Ever greedy to have the prized bull play stud in his herd, Minos tries to pull a fast one on the god by sacrificing a lesser bull in Poseidon’s honor instead. Because he was all-seeing and all-knowing, an infuriated Poseidon casts a spell on Minos’ Queen Pasiphae so she would fall hopelessly in love with the striking snow-white bull.
The hex worked. In fact, Pasiphae’s desire for the bull was so strong that she enlisted the help of the famed artificer, Daedalus, into crafting a wooden cow with a cowhide covering so that she could copulate with the beast. The product of their coupling was the Minotaur, a monster who was a cross between human and bull. Uncared for and unloved, the Minotaur was confined to the labyrinth—which was, once-again, designed by the perennial inventor.
The story leading up to the Minotaur’s malevolence toward Athenians is illustrative of a time of high tension between Minoan Crete and Athens; when Crete was the powerhouse of the Aegean and Athens a mere fledgling state.
Legend has it that King Minos’ son Androgeus had been treacherously killed by Athenians for nothing more than taking all the prizes in their Panathenaic Games. In retribution for his death, each year Athens had to send seven young men and seven young women as tribute to Crete. Essentially hostages, the unarmed Athenian youth were placed in the labyrinth where they would either hopelessly lose their way in its endless sinuous passages or be devoured by the man-eating Minotaur confined there. This burdensome tribute went on for years until Theseus, son of Aegeus, King of Athens steps up to the plate volunteering to be one of the seven male victims.
Finally, Ariadne enters the myth. Daughter of Minos and Pasiphae thus sister to the Minotaur she is instantly besotted with the Athenian hero and promptly forsakes her family for the stranger from Athens. She arms Theseus with a sword to kill her brother, the Minotaur. Then to escape from the complex Daedalean maze she gives him a ball of thread, ingeniously advising him to tie one end of the thread at the entrance and let the thread unspool as he tunnels deeper into the labyrinth’s undulating paths.
Ever the headliner, Theseus succeeds in his quest to destroy the Minotaur and follows the thread back to the entrance where the love-struck Ariadne awaits. From there they sail off together to Athens but before getting there they make a detour to the island of Dia (Naxos) where Theseus sees fit to abandon Ariadne.
Many have chimed in about the possible reasons for the Greek hero defaulting on his Minoan savior. Both Hesiod (circa 750 BCE-650 BCE) and Plutarch (50 CE- 120 CE) contrive that Theseus left Ariadne because he was in love with Aigle, the goddess of good health.
In Euripides’ (480 BCE-406 BCE) lost play Theseus, the theme of the play suggests that Theseus—much like Aeneas deserting Dido in the Aeneid—left the Minoan princess at the provocation of father-serving Athena herself (the patron goddess of Athens) because he had a heroic career ahead of him and the exotic Ariadne could prove a distraction.
Along these same lines, Latin author and scholar, Hyginus (64 BCE-17 CE) suggests that Theseus thought Ariadne would bring disgrace on him in Athens—presumably because she was a foreigner. The notion of Greek identity began to take form with the advent of conquering and/or colonizing into foreign lands beginning in the eighth century BCE when they began defining themselves—xenophobically—vis a vis everyone else.
End of Part 1