Ariadne and Theseus

Theseus led away from sleeping Ariadne by Athena. South Italian Red-Figure Vase attributed to Pan Painter, now in Taranto National Museum. 500-450BC.

You probably heard the phrase Ariadne’s thread and maybe you are familiar with the story of a minotaur but are you sure you know how it ends?

Ariadne was a daughter of the Cretan king Minos, who famously asked Daedalus to build a labyrinth which would host a Minotaur Рa half bull and half man creature. Seven boys and seven girls were needed to feed the monster. One day, Theseus, the son of Athenian king, decided he was going to challenge the monster. As soon as he arrived in Crete Ariadne fell in love with him. In exchange for the promise that he would take her to Athens and marry her, she gave Theseus a thread which, when tied to the entrance of the labyrinth, would allow him to find his way out of the maze. Theseus killed the Minotaur with his bare hands and escaped from the labyrinth, freeing the city from the monster.

This is where the most popular part of the story finishes but it is also where it becomes more interesting. If you were reading carefully you will remember that Ariadne’s help had its price. Did the hero keep his promise? The stories are far from consistent. Almost every poet gives his own version of events, and Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus, helpfully lists some of them. It seems that at some point the prevailing version was that Ariadne left Crete with Theseus but the couple stopped on the Island of Naxos. Here Theseus abandoned the sleeping Ariadne because he was in love with another woman called Aigle. When Ariadne woke up and realised what happened she started weeping and this is where she was found by the god of theatre and wine – Dionysus, who fell in love with her and married her.

This version of the story doesn’t show Theseus in a positive light and Athenians, who believed him to be their national hero, weren’t happy about it. Some of the ancient accounts suggest that tyrant Pisistratus, who ruled Athens from 560 – 527 BC, put a more positive spin of to the story. In this version of the story Dionysus falls in love with Ariadne as soon as she and Theseus set foot on the island. As the god wants Ariadne for himself he asks Athena to lead Theseus away from the island so he can marry Ariadne. The outcome is the same but Theseus is transformed from the cheater who tricked Ariadne and broke his promise to a pious man who follows the will of gods.

Pisistratus was quite successful in making his version popular. We see it on the vases like the one above where Theseus is led away by the goddess Athena. The majority of images on vases Ariadne show Ariadne marrying Dionysus, rather than weeping after being abandoned by Theseus.

Ariadne got her happy ending in the god’s embrace although her path was even more complicated than finding a way out of the labyrinth!

-Michalina Szymanska
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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