This is an exploration of the myth of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. Yet I have to proceed in the same way as Tristram Shandy did. He wrote of his birth, but then needed to first tell a story about the midwife. Then there was the remark about winding a clock which was made at the moment of conception, to momentous consequence. Tristram Shandy is recommended reading for all those who wonder, as I do, which is more important, the beginning or the end.
But the myth, first of all, if you don’t know it.
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and sister to the horrible Minotaur, who ate people. She met a handsome prince from Athens called Theseus and fell in love. But Theseus was a deceiver. He pretended to return her love, and persuaded Ariadne to help him after he had killed the Minotaur. The beast was kept inside a labyrinth beneath the palace of Minos from which no one could escape. Theseus killed the Minotaur and Ariadne showed him how to get free, by means of unwinding a thread which he left behind him as he went towards the Minotaur and which helped him retrace his steps. Theseus fled from Crete with Ariadne before he could be punished by Minos. The couple went north to Naxos in the Cyclades, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne while she slept, and returned to Athens. Poor Ariadne. The overwhelming picture we have of her is as victim, abandoned by a man (even though she’s not wearing any clothes).
Does this sound familiar? A beautiful princess is kept prisoner in a tower by her evil father. A handsome prince comes, and succeeds in killing the monster her father uses to terrify the populace. The prince pretends to fall in love with the princess, she helps him escape from the enchanted island, and then he dumps her when he is safely on his way home. Sounds like a potent mixture of fairy tale and lurid melodrama to me. Reeks of Oilcan Harry tying Pearl Pureheart to the railway tracks. Invites an Eugene Sue or Grace Metalious treatment, even (shudder) an opera libretto.
But it’s not a myth. It’s a mixture of folk hero tale and sentimental love story. The ancient Greeks told the story for almost a thousand years, yet not many of them understood its origins.
There is a sequence of treatments with which the ancient Greek writers retold old tales. It goes something like this:
myth (religious treatment)
folk tale (usually tales of the hero, sometimes epic poetry)
legendary stories of the ancestors
Take the case of Alexander the Great. His story started as history, written by contemporaries. Later writers turned this into a folk tale of a legendary hero, the Alexander Romance, and then it became a moral history, the story of a man who conquered the whole world and died aged 32.
The myth of Ariadne is really a hero tale of Theseus, legendary king of Athens, and hero. Theseus was a bit like Herakles, or Jason, or Perseus. He had to battle a succession of monsters and beasts, all of whom he defeated and killed, before he could ascend the throne. On to this hero tale has been grafted a bit of Mycenean history. The island kingdom of Crete once held power throughout the Aegean. One subject city was Athens, who paid tribute, and eventually threw off its allegiance when Cretan power was destroyed by a gigantic volcanic eruption.
Could there have been a more remote origin, on Crete itself, for the story of Ariadne? The name Ariadne is Greek, not Minoan. It means ‘the holy one’, probably a title, ‘priestess’. We have Minoan statues surviving from about 1700 BC, about 300 years before the time of Theseus, in which a woman, either a goddess or a priestess, performs some kind of religious ritual while holding aloft a small snake in each hand (is that a cat as her hat?). There is evidence of the same period of bull worship, and of a dance in which young people vaulted over the horns of a massive bull. Could the story of Ariadne and the Minotaur fit into this scenario?
Before investigating this, and with a passing reference again to Tristram Shandy, it is necessary to look at just what we are talking about.
What, for instance, is a labyrinth? One thing is certain. It is not a maze. It is not a place to imprison people, from which they can find no exit. It doesn’t keep you in. It is the opposite thing, a way to lead you out. We use the two words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ synonymously, as the ancient Greeks did. Yet for all that, the two words are opposite in meaning. At least for the even more ancient Minoans. The word is derived from the Minoan ‘labrys’, a double headed axe on a long staff which was an attribute of the Great Goddess, and a symbol of her power over birth, life and death. The labyrinth was at the heart of each underground Minoan temple, often located in caves on the island (the gods in that culture were in the earth, chthonic). The markings on it designated lines of power, a path along which the priestess approached the god so as to become one with it during the ritual. It was easy to follow, not difficult, and was meant as a mode of meditation. In many ways the labyrinth was the same for the Minoans as the mandala was for the Hindus. OED says “mandalas may be employed for focusing the attention of aspirants and adepts…for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction”. They are used in Hinduism as part of tantra for propitiation of goddesses.
If the labyrinth doesn’t work as a prison, then the thread to escape from it seems pointless. I always thought it was pointless anyway. What kind of simpleton was Theseus if he couldn’t think of that idea for himself? But the connection between ‘thread’ and Ariadne was clearly too strong for the ancient story tellers to break. Why a thread? (It’s a valid question, like the Marx Brothers asking “Why a duck?” in The Coconuts). The connection that seems most obvious is that with Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Allotter, and Atropos the Cutter. These were the Moirai, the Fates (or Kismet). Fate the inexorable, a power controlling both men and gods. The Spinner spun the fragile thread of each man’s life, the Allotter measured how long it would be, and the inexorable Cutter cut the thread when the time came. The three had knowledge and could impart it to the priestess: Clotho sang the things that were, Lachesis the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be. For a vivid picture of what these figures might have looked like, see the scenes of Madame Hortense’s death in Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek. There is a possibility these goddesses were once one. Scholars link them with the Cretan goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, and she, in turn, was likely an aspect of the goddess later known as Aphrodite. Aphrodite had many aspects in early times. Goddess of love, sexual desire, allure (there’s an Aphrodite “of the beautiful buttocks”), technique of coition (porne), contraception, fertility, childbirth, new life but also of disease, drought, war, barrenness and death. Triple aspect Goddess of birth, life and death, which are the three fates awaiting all mankind. The Aphrodite of Classical Greece is a specialisation of the Great Goddess the Minoans worshipped, whose name we don’t know. In her aspect as priestess Ariadne might have had knowledge of the thread of a man’s life. Knowing, for instance, if in a moment of danger or illness he was to live or die. In her aspect as goddess she would have had power over this fragile thread, to spin, measure or cut, and to her there was no appeal.
How does the evil Minotaur fit into this Minoan context? Half man, half bull, the product of a bestial passion Pasiphaë, King Minos’ wife, had for a bull. Can a woman mate with a bull and produce hybrid offspring? In case you were wondering, no. Sounds like the ancient Greeks had a bit of nudge, nudge, wink, wink about what a large penis could do for a woman, but aside from that, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like the Greeks had a story that they couldn’t make much sense of either. But we can explain the bull man. A priest with a mask, that of a bull. In the ritual the priest became the god, who was also personified in the sacred bull. The bull represented potency, the source of new life, and was the most important aspect of many ancient religious rites. The priest as god appears in French neolithic cave paintings, as stag. A man with antlers as a headress. Perhaps the depictions of the gods of ancient Egypt are portraits of priests assuming the appearance of the gods, and wearing an animal headdress. Many Egyptian gods have dual representation as animal and as animal headed human. The ancient Greeks did not have this ritual. So an animal headed man must have looked a hybrid to them, a product of bestiality. Native Americans were astonished when they first saw Spanish soldiers on horseback, never having seen a horse before, and thought they were a new species of animal, half human, half horse.
The bull is everywhere in Cretan iconography. But also in what the Greeks knew of Minoan myth. Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. Europa was a princess of Phoenician Tyre who was mated with Zeus in the form of a bull. Note we are talking about Phoenician myth here, and the Phoenicians had settlements on ancient Crete. They would have called Zeus Baal, and Europa Astarte. Europa was herself incarnated as a heifer. Her name refers to her beautiful cow’s eyes. Lucian of Samosata says there was a temple of Astarte in Sidon, and that their coinage showed Zeus (Baal) carrying her off to Crete in the form of a bull. The mating of bull and heifer in religious ritual is very ancient. Europa is said to be the descendant of Io, another maiden/heifer carried off by Zeus (or Middle East equivalent god) in the form of a bull. The role is made clearer by later Greek mythographers’ identification of Europa as Demeter, goddess of crops. The bull dance frescoes, the Minotaur, the bull from the sea, the bull played an important part in ancient Cretan religion. And if the passion of Pasiphaë sounds far fetched, it is still possible there was ritual, tantric, sex between bull headed priest, or potency, and the ariadne or priestess, representing fertility. If fertility rituals seem an old fashioned theory (they were big in the 19th century among anthropologists), consider that ancient societies like the Cretan were agricultural, always at the risk of the food supply failing and having to face starvation. Behind the cult figures are the ancient perceptions of the seasons. The bull’s horns represent the moon, and Pasiphaë is the daughter of the sun, Helios, her name meaning ‘wide shining’.
But now, Tristram Shandy like, I want to go further back, and look at just what a myth is. The first thing to say is that it is not a story. Not a fanciful tale of origins, of gods seducing Greek maidens and giving opportunities to 18th century painters to employ a nude model. A myth is part of a religion. In Christianity, for example, Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day. That is a myth. The question of it being true or false is totally irrelevant to its function as a myth. A myth satisfies a deep need for spiritual fulfillment in the human mind. It takes us along a path in the brain that gives us certainty, reassurance and evokes a strongly emotional reaction. People experiencing their faith often laugh or cry (well, perhaps not Anglo Saxons). The myth treads a path in the brain not unlike the labyrinth/mandala trod by the priestess of Crete. The myth is sacred drama, like the Christian Passion. All religions have myths. That is why they have and have had followers. We need such an experience to stay sane (though some invent their own myths, of ‘science’, of no god, of rational doubt). The myth is the structure on which the ritual, ceremony, prayers and other activities depend in a faith. But we don’t know what these components were in ancient faiths. There are no believers left to tell us. All we have are the stories, and these in a late, heavily romanticised form. We have to use our imagination to try and realise what they originally meant.
Myths often seem to parallel one another. They served the same functions, in different societies. In the story of Medea, for instance, the hero Jason comes to the remote kingdom of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. He pretends to fall in love with the king’s daughter Medea, who is a priestess (“witch”). She helps him slay the dragon who guards the treasure, and he escapes Colchis with Medea, only to abandon her for another woman. Medea, significantly enough, was Pasiphaë’s sister, part of the same culture that worshipped the Great Goddess.
The abstract of this is: a king’s son must prove his worth by defeating a monster. He tricks the priestess of the cult by pretending to fall in love, defeats the monster, escapes, dumps the priestess, ascends his throne. It is the same story as Ariadne. Only the names have been changed. This is actually the story of a clash of cultures, of patrilinear, sky god worshipping warriors conquering matrilinear, earth goddess worshipping agricultural peoples, the story of the Greeks invading Greece in the 15th century BC. On a minor note, a matrilinear society which celebrated the female by the custom of exposing her breasts was supplanted by a patrilinear society in which the male nude was celebrated in sacred games and statuary, leaving a later age to add a fig leaf.
Looking behind a myth we can sometimes find faint traces of a religion. In the story of Ariadne, for example, Theseus takes her north to the Cyclades, to Naxos. There was an ancient culture on these islands of the same nature as the Minoan one in Crete. On Crete the Great Goddess was dominant, and her mate was the lunar Great Bull. On Naxos the people worshipped the god Dionysios, perhaps not under that name. The god of fertility, vegetation and the vine, a male version of the Great Goddess. Ariadne was said to become the consort of Dionysios on Naxos. It is the same story we can discern on Crete. The goddess/priestess unites with the god/sacred bull to give fertility to the people. This was a faith, a religion. We have it in a trivialised love story, a bit like a plastic Jesus that glows in the dark.
One strand of the myth of Ariadne is more explicit. On Naxos she dies and descends to Hades, as Inanna of Sumer had before her. Dionysios follows her to Hades and resurrects her. She is here a form of Demeter/Persephone best known from the Athenian Eleusian Mysteries, who represented the dying and reborn crops as well as human conception of new life, a very widespread cult in the ancient world in one form or another.
So what could the ritual be, the one Ariadne participated in on Crete? I think it likely the most prevalent cult was an oracular one. Oracles were the most popular forms of classical Greek religion, and Apollo had his shrines all over the Greek world, Delos, Didyma, Delphi and many other places, where the faithful could learn their fate. It was told them by a priestess called the Pythia. She represented Apollo Pytho, who himself had replaced the Python, a primitive earth spirit in snake form who could foretell the future.
The snake, for the Greeks as for the Minoans, represented wisdom. The Cretan statues of the priestess holding snakes aloft in her hands (not pythons, lucky girl) is most likely an oracular rite during which she received the answer to the suppliant’s question. Perhaps as Eve did in the Garden of Eden, before the second Genesis author got to the story. Taking the story of Ariadne’s thread at more than face value, I think it possible she may also sometimes have held a thread between her hands, representing the thread of the suppliant’s fate, when she asked the Goddess for guidance on their behalf.
The other rite most likely would have been a fertility one, held at the solar summer or winter solstice and other periods of observed seasonal change. It may have involved the bull dance, and its sacrifice to ensure the renewal of life in the Spring. The potency of the beast entered the priest at the moment of sacrifice, and he, in turn, made the priestess fertile during a ritual of sacred sex.
The figure of Daedalus, the artificer, seems not to fit all these conjectures. In the myth he is a Leonardo da Vinci like figure who invents things, learns to fly and is a great craftsman like Hephaistos and yet is pursued by the evil King Minos. He is mentioned by Homer as constructing the labyrinth for Ariadne. Homer calls it a dancing ground (which is reminiscent of the orchestra where the dithyramb, the early Dionysian ritual that became drama, was enacted). This is an indication it was not an imprisoning maze, but a place of ritual performance. It is possible that to the Minoans Daedalus was a god, a bringer of benefits to humanity much like the Greek Prometheus.
I think Ariadne’s thread stands for our knowledge of our own mortality. All over the world religions exist which try to help us come to terms with this uncomfortable fact. In Crete in 1500 BC and before, a priestess perhaps known as Ariadne, or as an ariadne, took the thread representing a suppliant’s fate in her hands and asked their question of the Great Goddess. And the suppliant guided what they did on the Goddess’ answer.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.