This was written at the behest of Syna as part of the “Oh shit! Sannion spent too much during Anthesteria” creative writing pledge drive. If you would like to commission a poem, short story or essay click here for details.
The key to understanding Ariadne is freedom: she craves it with every ounce of her being.
As the story goes, back in Crete she had everything a person could ever want — wealth, power, family, purpose — everything but what she actually wanted. Her life had grown too small, too familiar, too confining. She ached to experience something new, something different. And as if in answer to her prayers along came Theseus, a pretty stranger from a distant land full of dark and dangerous promises, and the second she set eyes on him she knew he was her way out of there. So she helped him murder her brother and torch her father’s kingdom and all she asked in return was that he take her with him when he left. She loved what he represented, how thoroughly he had destroyed her life — but Ariadne never loved the man himself. That much became apparent on the ship back to Athens when all he’d talk of was love and home and starting a family with her as his cherished wife, the fine mother of his fine sons, his pampered queen who would want for nothing. Nothing except the freedom and adventure she so desperately craved. Slowly she came to realize that she had made a horrible mistake, swapping one prison for another. Only this prison was far more restrictive than the labyrinth had ever been. There, at least, she had been free to be a monster with her misshapen brother, but Theseus saw only the woman in her. And so she went to sleep to destroy her life once again, went to sleep so that he would leave her behind and choose a wife more suited to him such as her brainless sister Phaidra. Theseus never looked back; he knew what he was abandoning on Dia and was glad to be rid of her — a woman whose restless soul meant that she would never be truly happy, one who would gladly choose death over comfort and boredom.
It wasn’t Haides that came to rapture her. Though there is a certain resemblance between them, her demon lover was younger, crazier and filled with a lust for life and adventure equal to Ariadne’s own. Dionysos offered to make her dreams a reality. Together they would hunt and revel and exhaust themselves in the pursuit of ephemeral desire. He promised she would never be bored, never be satisfied, never be comfortable. He would destroy her over and over again and abandon her only if she stopped being a monster. He has never abandoned her.
Not only is it the greatest love story ever told — echoed down the centuries with Antony and Kleopatra, Simon and Helena, Arlecchino and Columbina, Mickey and Mallory — but it sheds important light on why Ariadne has such an ambiguous relationship with the goddess Artemis. In many ways they are almost doubles — but that “almost” is quite telling, for their differences seem far more important than the similarities.
To begin with we must go back to how Ariadne was worshiped on Crete, before the poets of Greek myth began weaving their stories about her. Little can be said with certainty for it is hard to decipher the language of images and cultus, to really understand what such things meant to her original worshipers, how they experienced the reality of this great goddess. And to the Cretans Ariadne was a great goddess, with little trace of the mortal princess of later legend about her. She seems to have been a goddess of fertility and especially the fertility of vegetation and animals. (They had other deities whose concern was human fertility.) Trees and birds were the primary means by which she made her presence felt and sometimes her images combined the two in fantastic ways — human torso, avian head and arms reaching up to the heavens like branches full of ripe fruit. They celebrated her coming and going with the cyclical seasons, mounting her image on a cart and leading it into the temple at the start of spring amid riotous throngs. One of these carts, of unparalleled craftsmanship and closely resembling an early Model-T Ford, has been preserved and you can still see the designs of birds and animals and lush vegetation that were worked into it. What a wonder it must have been to see that curious vehicle trundling along through the streets with its crowds of dancers following behind, stirring the luxuriant energy in the land. Many centuries later the Roman author Philostratus the Younger still remembered how important dance had been in the worship of Cretan Ariadne:
“Behold the troup of dancers, like the chorus which Daidalos is said to have invented for Ariadne, daughter of Minos; young men and maidens with hands clasped and going about in a circle.” (Imagines 10)
When the cult of Ariadne was brought from Crete to Delos (and thence to Athens) these fertility dances remained its primary form of expression:
“On his voyage from Crete Theseus put in at Delos, and having sacrificed to the god and dedicated in his temple the image of Aphrodite which he had received from Ariadne, he danced with his youths a dance which they say is still performed by the Delians, being an imitation of the circling passages in the labyrinth, and consisting of certain rhythmic involutions and evolutions. This kind of dance, as Dikaiarchos tells us, is called by the Delians The Crane, and Theseus danced it round the altar called Keraton, which is constructed of horns taken entirely from the left side of the head.” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 21.1-2)
This is one of the strongest points of connection between Ariadne and Artemis, for Zeus’ daughter also leads her nymph companions in nature’s dance:
“Caught up from the dance of huntress Artemis, she of the golden arrows and strong-voiced. There were many nymphai and cattle-earning maidens playing together and an innumerable company encircled us.” (Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite 115 ff)
But the labyrinth is polysemic — it is both the dancing ground and the hunting ground of Ariadne:
“The structure was designed by Daedalus, that famous architect. Appearances were all confused; he led the eye astray by a mazy multitude of winding ways … Daedalus in countless corridors built bafflement, and hardly could himself make his way out, so puzzling was the maze. Within this labyrinth Minos shut fast the beast, half bull, half man, and fed him twice on Attic blood, lot-chosen each nine years, until the third choice mastered him. The door, so difficult, which none of those before could find again, by Ariadne’s aid was found.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.150 ff)
Many have compared the labyrinth to the intricate design of a spider’s web, which gives added resonance to how Ariadne was said to have assisted Theseus:
“Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread as he entered. He fastened this to the door and let it trail behind him as he went in. He came across the Minotaur in the furthest section of the labyrinth, killed him with jabs of his fist, and then made his way out again by pulling himself along the thread.” (Apollodoros, Library E1. 7-1.9)
Cretan intaglio rings show that as a hunting goddess Ariadne’s weapon of choice was the net — a preference shared by her husband Zagreus who used the net to capture animals alive and set them free, according to Carl Kerényi. This gave rise to Ariadne’s epithet Diktynna or Mistress of the Net, which later Greek poets treated as a distinct being, a nymph companion of Artemis also known as Britomartis who was sometimes equated with her mistress:
“Britomartis was born at Kaino in Crete of Zeus and Karme, the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter; she invented the nets which are used in hunting, whence she has been called Diktynna, and she passed her time in the company of Artemis, this being the reason why some men think Diktynna and Artemis are one and the same goddess; and the Cretans have instituted sacrifices and built temples in honor of this goddess. But those men who tell the tale that she has been named Diktynna because she fled into some fishermen’s nets when she was pursued by Minos, who would have ravished her, have missed the truth; for its is not a probable story that the goddess should ever have got into so helpless a state that she would have required the aid that men can give, being as she is the daughter of the greatest one of the gods.” (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.76.3)
The spidery traits of Ariadne are further strengthened when we consider that like Arachne (and Erigone) she was said to have killed herself by hanging:
“There are many other stories about these matters, and also about Ariadne, but they do not agree at all. Some say that she hung herself because she was abandoned by Theseus.” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 20.1)
Which puts one in mind of the local tradition which the Greek traveler Pausanias encountered and found deeply troubling regarding the goddess Artemis:
“About a stade distant from Caphyae is a place called Condylea, where there are a grove and a temple of Artemis called of old Condyleatis. They say that the name of the goddess was changed for the following reason. Some children, the number of whom is not recorded, while playing about the sanctuary found a rope, and tying it round the neck of the image said that Artemis was being strangled. The Caphyans, detecting what the children had done, stoned them to death. When they had done this, a malady befell their women, whose babies were stillborn, until the Pythian priestess bade them bury the children, and sacrifice to them every year as sacrifice is made to heroes, because they had been wrongly put to death. The Caphyans still obey this oracle, and call the goddess at Condyleae, as they say the oracle also bade them, the Strangled Lady from that day to this.” (Guide to Greece 8.23.5-6)
According to Plutarch, this wasn’t her only brush with the gallows:
“The temple of Artemis Themistokles established near his house in Melite, where now the public officers cast out the bodies of those who have been put to death, and carry forth the garments and the nooses of those who have dispatched themselves by hanging.” (Life of Themistokles 22.1)
Further hinting at a connection between Ariadne and Artemis is this legend related by Pausanias:
“In the market-place of Troizen is a temple of Artemis Soteira, with images of the goddess. It was said that the temple was founded and the name Savior given by Theseus when he returned from Crete after overcoming Asterion the son of Minos.” (2.31.1)
So far we’ve been considering fairly superficial connections — but there is one that goes much deeper. Artemis’ virginity is fundamental to her nature, not just in the sense that she shuns sexual contact with mortal men and her fellow gods (though apparently not her nymph and other female companions) but why she does so. She will have nothing to do with the domain of Aphrodite so that she can retain her individual freedom, remain aloof, unbound, unconstrained by all social roles and obligations. She is a fiercely independent goddess who keeps to herself in the pristine forests where she nurtures the wild beasts and takes pleasure only in the hunt:
“Of Artemis we hymn – no light thing is it for singers to forget her – whose study is the bow and the shooting of hares and the spacious dance and sport upon the mountains; beginning with the time when sitting on her father’s knees – still a little maid – she spake these words to her sire: ‘Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever: and give me to be of many names, that Phoibos may not vie with me. And give me arrows and a bow – stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver or for mighty bow: for me the Kyklopes will straightway fashion arrows and fashion for me a well-bent bow. But give me to be Phaesphoria and give me to gird me in a tunic with embroidered border reaching to the knee, that I may slay wild beasts. And give me sixty daughters of Okeanos for my choir – all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled; and give me for handmaidens twenty nymphs of the Amnisos river who shall tend well my buskins, and, when I shoot no more at lynx or stag, shall tend my swift hounds. And give to me all mountains; and for city, assign me any, even whatsoever thou wilt: for seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town. On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid – even in the hour when I was born the Moirai ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.’ So spake the child and would have touched her father’s beard, but many a hand did she reach forth in vain, that she might touch it in supplication. And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘When goddesses bear me children like this, little need I heed the wrath of jealous Hera. Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily.” (Kallimachos, Hymn 3 to Artemis)
Ariadne’s name means the very, very holy one with that same sense of untouchable, primal purity. She left behind the world of her father with all of its social obligations to remain true to herself and her desires. And she refused to be owned by any man, especially not a man such as Theseus.
But at the point where they are most similar they are also most different. For Ariadne’s independence is not based on chastity — quite the opposite, in fact. She used her sexual allure to bend Theseus to her will and gladly joined with Dionysos because he never sought to own or control her. There are also indications that though the marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne was regarded as a romantic ideal by the ancients, sexual fidelity was never a part of it. Plutarch (Life of Theseus 20) mentions that Ariadne took Oinaros, a priest of Dionysos, as her lover and had children by Theseus as well as those she bore to the god. (Some have also inferred that there was an incestuous element to her relationship with Asterios, the bull of Minos.)
This may well explain the curious incident related by Homer:
“And Ariadne, daughter of Minos, the grim king. Theseus took her abroad with him from Crete for the terraced land of ancient Athens; but he had no joy of her. Artemis killed her on the Isle of Dia because of what Dionysos said.” (Odyssey 11. 320)
Artemis’ choices take her outside the world of conventional gender relations — but she still affirms them as the norm and smites those who transgress their bounds.
For instance, she punished Kallisto for violating her virginity:
“Kallisto was the daughter of Lykaon and lived in Arcadia. She chose to occupy herself with wild beasts in the mountains together with Artemis, and, when she was seduced by Zeus, continued some time undetected by the goddess, but afterwards, when she was already with child, was seen by her bathing and so discovered. Upon this, the goddess was enraged and changed her into a beast. Thus she became a bear and gave birth to a son called Arkas but later Zeus delivered her because of her connection with him and put her among the stars, giving her the name Bear because of the misfortune which had befallen her.” (Eratosthenes, Catasterismi Frag 1.2)
And Koronis for committing adultery:
“Koronis, while pregnant with Asklepios, had intercourse with Ischys, son of Elatos. She was killed by Artemis to punish her for the insult done to Apollon, but when the pyre was already lighted Hermes is said to have snatched the child from the flames.” (Pausanias 2.26.6)
And Aktaion either because he sought to intrude into women-only space or to cuckold Zeus:
“On the road from Megara there is a spring on the right, and a little farther on a rock. It is called the bed of Aktaion, for it is said that he slept thereon when weary with hunting, and that into this spring he looked while Artemis was bathing with her nymphs. Stesichoros of Himera says that the goddess cast a deer-skin round Aktaion to make sure that his hounds would kill him, so as to prevent his taking Semele to wife.” (Pausanias 9.2.3)
Ariadne, on the other hand, finds liberation through love. So that she will belong to none, she gives herself to many. More, she refuses to play by the rules of the game. Not just going outside them, as Artemis does, but by completely blurring the lines of what is considered normal and acceptable behavior, especially with regard to gender.
She takes up arms and leads her husband’s troops in battle, earning a glorious death for herself:
“Perseus shook in his hand the deadly face of Medousa, and turned armed Ariadne into stone. Bakchos was even more furious when he saw his bride all stone … Hermes descended upon the battlefield and spoke to Dionysos these words, ‘She has died in battle, a glorious fate, and you ought to think Ariadne happy in her death, because she found one so great to slay her … Come now, lay down your thyrsos, let the winds blow battle away, and fix the selfmade image of mortal Ariadne where the image of heavenly Hera stands.’” (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 47.665 ff)
She is worshiped by transvestite males who on Kypros simulate the birth-pangs of Ariadne when she died in labor:
“Paion the Amathusian says also that at the sacrifice in her honor on the second day of the month Gorpiaeus, one of their young men lies down and imitates the cries and gestures of women in travail; and that they call the grove in which they show her tomb, the grove of Ariadne Aphrodite.” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 20.1 ff)
And in Athens by transvestite youths in honor of the vintage:
“It was Theseus who instituted also the Athenian festival of the Oschophoria. For it is said that he did not take away with him all the maidens on whom the lot fell at that time, but picked out two young men of his acquaintance who had fresh and girlish faces, but eager and manly spirits, and changed their outward appearance almost entirely by giving them warn baths and keeping them out of the sun, by arranging their hair, and by smoothing their skin and beautifying their complexions with unguents; he also taught them to imitate maidens as closely as possible in their speech, their dress, and their gait, and to leave no difference that could be observed, and then enrolled them among the maidens who were going to Crete, and was undiscovered by any. And when he was come back, he himself and these two young men headed a procession, arrayed as those are now arrayed who carry the vine-branches. They carry these in honor of Dionysos and Ariadne, and because of their part in the story; or rather, because they came back home at the time of the vintage. And the women called Deipnophoroi, or supper-carriers, take part in the procession and share in the sacrifice, in imitation of the mothers of the young men and maidens on whom the lot fell, for these kept coming with bread and meat for their children. And tales are told at this festival, because these mothers, for the sake of comforting and encouraging their children, spun out tales for them. At any rate, these details are to be found in the history of Damon.” (Ibid. 23.2)
Ariadne even transcends the immutable line separating gods and mortals by becoming a goddess herself:
“And golden-haired Dionysos made blonde-haired Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, his buxom wife: and the son of Kronos made her deathless and unageing for him.” (Hesiod, Theogony 947 ff)
“Deathless” isn’t quite accurate, since in addition to the deaths of Ariadne I’ve already mentioned I’m aware of several others and who knows how many more were once preserved in the lore but are now lost to us. I suspect this motif of death and rebirth hearkens back to her Cretan festivals of seasonal katagogia and anagogia.
So in these and many other ways the differences between Ariadne and Artemis stand out more starkly than their similarities.