Reimagining the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth

1998_7.19_620wBritish mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says that the stories we most need now arrived right on schedule, 3,000 years ago. This story is a reimagining of the Greek myth of Ariadne that I put together from various sources. (Since this isn’t a scholarly work, I didn’t footnote it, but the references are cited at the end). I told it last weekend at the Restorying the Heroine’s Journey retreat to a circle of women gathered in a clearing in a very special forest in West Virginia. While it is about a woman’s journey to authenticity, it is relevant to men, and to our culture at large.

When Martin Shaw told an old fairy tale to our group seated around a campfire on a rainy summer day at Schumacher College, he prefaced it with a suggestion. Certainly, the effect of a story is heightened in a setting like that, gathered in a circle before a fire, listening to a master storyteller. Reading written words off a computer screen strips out the mysterious process that the collective unconscious works on us, the sensual connection to ancient practices. Since these old stories carry their own power, his advice has a place even here.

As you read, ask yourself, where do I find myself in this story? After you’ve finished, go back in your imagination to that section and simply name the image. It’s not necessary to say what the image means. That would kill it. Put yourself there, just imagine, and let the story do its work on you.

We usually hear the story this way: Ariadne is the beautiful daughter of King Minos of Crete who falls in love with Theseus, helps him to slay the Minotaur, and elopes with him, only to be abandoned on an island as he continues on to Athens and glory without her. And while that is all true, such a telling relegates Ariadne to a supporting player in a drama of men and their heroic deeds.

If we shift our view just a bit, we see many facets of Ariadne that carry messages for our ears to hear and our hearts to feel. And that is the story that I will tell now.

Growing up in her father’s kingdom, Ariadne had a secret love of snakes. She would spend hours in the forest with them, letting them twine around her arms, reveling in their power and devotion to her. She was a good daughter, but she was bored in her father’s palace. She wandered aimlessly through the maze of polished marble rooms by day and dreamed of ancient rites and sacred dances by night. She felt the presence of the labyrinth that wound deep beneath her father’s palace, but in her dreams it was not a Monster’s Lair. It was a Great Womb, out of which the world was born. And into which, each night, she would return, to become the Lady of the Labyrinth whose name means Most Holy, a sacred guide to those in dark, difficult passages.

One morning, at last, something exciting was going to happen. When the fourteen youths from Athens had last arrived in Crete, she had been fourteen, just on the cusp of maidenhood. It was after that, her nightly dreams of the labyrinth had begun. While her father never spoke of it, she suspected that he had locked the Athenians in the labyrinth, to be hunted and devoured by the Minotaur.

When they arrived this time, she watched the parade of the Athenian Tributes from the balcony of the palace, shaded from the hot sun. The sounds of music and the cheering of the gathered crowd floated up to her on the breeze. She stood proudly at her father’s side, robed in her finest silk tunic with its edging of gold and red threads in an intricate pattern resembling the labyrinth itself. The seven young women passed first, their faces showing mingled excitement and fear. When Ariadne saw the tallest young man, her heart quickened, for she knew instantly that he was different from the others. The noise quieted, the breeze stilled, his face turned towards her and their eyes met. Time stopped. She knew in that moment the two things that had been true before she was born: she loved this beautiful Athenian and he had no intention of dying in the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

A week of feasting and celebrations commenced. But Ariadne would have none of it. She went straight to her old tutor, Daedalus, and commanded him to tell her the truth about the Minotaur and the Tributes. She learned that he was the cursed offspring of Minos’ Queen Pasiphae, whose lovestruck dalliance with a bull had been engineered by Poseidon as punishment for the King’s failure to properly sacrifice to him. When his only son died while visiting King Aegeus of Athens, Minos demanded as payment of this debt that seven youths and seven maidens be sent as Tributes every seven years to Crete. Their fates were an open secret. Disgusted at her father’s cruelty, Ariadne demanded that Daedalus show her a way out of the labyrinth he had designed so long ago.

Determined to escape the island of Crete and the horrors wrought by her father, Ariadne engineered a meeting with Theseus, summoning him during the last of the great feasts. He regaled her with his many exploits, including graphic details of how he had slain the most notorious and feared bandits plaguing the road between southern Greece and Athens. The food, wine, and her great beauty loosened his tongue and he told her of his plan to spare his fellow and all future Tributes from the horrible fate that awaited them. Theseus would enter the labyrinth, find the Minotaur and slay him. Ariadne agreed:

You’ll need my help to do it. I have no doubt you are brave and strong enough to take on the beast, but you will become lost in the twists and turns of the labyrinth and wander there in the darkness until you die.

He was only too happy to agree to her terms: to take her with him back to Athens and marry her. She gave him a ball of red thread, instructing him to fasten it at the entrance to the labyrinth and unwind it as he went. She unrolled a large scroll, Daedalus’ drawing, and traced the path he should take to find the Minotaur.

That night, Ariadne packed her finest tunics and sandals, then went to the forest to bid farewell to her snake friends. They wished her well and hinted that her journey would not unfold as she expected. She returned to the palace, where her father was still up with his cronies drinking and singing rude songs. She felt the ocean within her as she slept, tossing on waves and washing up on the shore of morning full of the reckless daring of what she was about to do.

Onboard Theseus’ ship, Ariadne became his bride. Her world had expanded to become full of his heroism and independence. She stood at his side in the bow of his ship and exulted in the spray of salt foam on her face. She felt freer and more alive than ever before, and she gave herself without reservation to this new version of herself, and to him. The world spread out before them as a great bowl of ocean and sky, and all was well.

A storm enters the story at this point. Where it came from has never been told, but it drove Theseus’ ship to seek the shelter of a nearby island, called Naxos. Ariadne, far from being afraid, was delighted by this new adventure. A wild place, far removed from the stifling civilization of her home, to explore with her lover. What could be better? They passed an idyllic evening under the stars and moon and Ariadne fell into a deep sleep lulled by the sound of waves crashing on the shore far below.

In the morning, she woke alone. Thinking Theseus must have climbed down to the shore to fish for breakfast, she threw on her tunic and stood, her golden hair unbound and flying in the wind, on the cliff overlooking the sea. To her great confusion, she spotted Theseus’ ship in full sail. She glanced around in alarm, ready to tell him that the crew had commandeered his ship. Her mind could not process that her true love would leave her behind.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, she watched Theseus’ ship grow smaller and smaller until it was but a dot on the horizon. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks, and emptiness bloomed inside her chest, spread down to her belly, up into her shoulders and head, and out her limbs. She felt her life force draining from her, leaving her inconsequential, transparent.

What suffering had she brought upon herself by rejecting the kingdom of her father? In that moment she saw her error: she had traded one king for another, albeit a young and beautiful one, only to be abandoned on this desolate island. Just then, a movement off to her left caught her eye. A snake had crawled to the edge of the forest and was now shedding its skin. She smiled through her tears, in recognition of her kin. The feeling returned to her body. She rejoiced in the feel of the rocky earth beneath her bare feet, the sun on her skin, the breeze in her hair, and the heart in beating in her breast. She knew she would find her own way.

But wait! Would she really have thought that? Many versions of this story tell us that Ariadne could not bear her separation from her true love and that she died, alone and heartbroken, here on Naxos. Even in the versions with the god of love discovering her, she never gets over Theseus. Well, as is often the case, there is more to her story than that.

Yes, Dionysus did just then land his chariot drawn by two great panthers, and trailing his retinue of rowdy followers and merry-makers. Ariadne turned from her cliffside revelation, surprised at the sight. In that moment, Dionysus, the god of women and of dance, the god of joy, creativity, spirit and wine, the god of ecstasy—who, by the way, also loved snakes—yes, he did fall instantly in love with Ariadne. When he leapt out of his chariot to console her, Ariadne’s surprise melted into curiosity, and she thought to herself:

Oh, my! What’s this?

They married, creating a deep and lasting love. Dionysus gave Ariadne a beautiful diadem as a sign of his devotion. She bore him twelve children, including Oenopion, the personification of wine. She also became the leader of the annual sacred dance performed by the maenads, the dancing women who honor Dionysus. Ariadne became a wise mentor who initiated many women into the feminine journey.

The exact circumstances of her death are disputed. She may have been killed by Perseus at Argos, or she may have hanged herself—a popular mythic theme in the Mediterranean. In any case, being mortal, she did die. As part of his grieving, Dionysus threw her wedding crown up into the vast night sky, to become an eternal part of the stars as the constellation Corona Borealis. Because he could, he also descended into Hades and brought her and his mother Semele back. They then joined the gods in Olympus. Ariadne was enshrined in the Villa of Mysteries near Pompeii in a series of frescoes depicting initiation rites of women. To this day, she is known as the Mistress of the Labyrinth. When women dance the ancient steps of the labyrinth, we are celebrating our connection with the primordial womb of the earth.

Sources: Edith Hamilton, Mythology; Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter; National Gallery, London, curatorial notes for Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne; Taschen’s Book of Symbols; Wikipedia entries on Naxos, Ariadne, and Villa of the Mysteries

2 thoughts on “Reimagining the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth

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