Ariadne Asleep and Frenzied

The Sleeping Ariadne in Naxos by John Vanderlyn (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In a recent post we shared a description of Ariadne as offered by Philostratus the Elder:

But look at Ariadne, or rather her sleep. Her breasts are bare to her navel, her neck is back and her soft throat, and her armpit, the right one, is all visible. Her left hand lies upon her cloak, lest a breeze [anemos] shame her. What a sleep, Dionysus, and how sweet the breath! Whether it smells of apples or grapes, after making love you will tell. (Imagines 1. 15.3.5-11)

Many versions of the Ariadne myth focus on her sleeping while Theseus departs on his ship. In “Virgil’s verse invitus, regina … and its poetic antecedents,” Gregory Nagy discusses an important multiform as it appears on a lekythos from 470 BCE.

Line drawing by Tina Ross. Lekythos attributed to the Pan Painter, dated around 470 BCE (Taranto IG 4545).

Below is Nagy’s analysis:

This picture captures the moment when Athena appears to Theseus after he has made love with Ariadne. The couple has fallen asleep after the lovemaking, but Athena awakens Theseus, gently gesturing for him to be quiet and not to awaken Ariadne, who is held fast in her sleep by a little figure of Hypnos perched on top of her head. The details have been described this way:

Here we see the couple at the moment of separation. Athena has just wakened Theseus, and as she bends over him he begins to rise, bending one leg and sitting up from the pillow on which he has lain next to Ariadne. Athena tries to quiet him as he stretches out his arm, a gesture of remonstration or inquiry. In the upper left hand corner is a small female figure flying into the night. [12]

I note that the small female figure who is “flying into the night” is disheveled, with her hair flying in the wind and with her clothing in disarray. I interpret this figure as a prefiguring of Ariadne herself at a later moment, the morning after, when she wakes up to find that she has been abandoned by Theseus. I recall here the verse in Catullus 64.63 where the headdress that had held the hair of Ariadne together has now come undone, and she looks like a bacchant, a frenzied devotee of Bacchus, that is, of the god Dionysus. And it is this same Bacchic frenzy, signaled by her disheveled hair, that will now attract Dionysus to her. [13]

In contrast to the morning after, when Ariadne in her Bacchic frenzy will come undone, the picture of Ariadne in the present is eerily peaceful:

Ariadne faces us directly, an unusual pose that points to her oblivion to what is happening behind her as well as allowing us a clear view of the peaceful contentment registered on her face. Her eyes are closed tight, and she will not awaken as Theseus departs, for the figure of Hypnos, Sleep, sits on her head with legs drawn up as he sleeps. [14]

Richard Strauss’ 1916 opera Ariadne auf Naxos begins in a time-frame after Ariadne has learned of Theseus’ departure. In the opening scene, Ariadne is asleep on Naxos but she is crying in her sleep. When she wakes, she begins to wonder if she is dead or alive and then immediately expresses her desire to die. In fact, Ariadne expects and even hopes for the arrival of Hermes, the messenger of death and sleep. Instead she is surprised at the end of the opera by the arrival of the god Bacchus.
At first, Ariadne is unaware of the god’s identity and she still longs for the serenity of death.

Ich weiß, so ist es dort, wohin du mich führest!
Wer dort verweilet, der vergißt gar schnell!
Das Wort, der Atemzug ist gleich dahin!
Man ruht und ruht vom Ruhen wieder aus;
Denn dort ist keiner matt vom Weinen –
Er hat vergessen, was ihn schmerzen sollte:
Nichts gilt, was hier gegolten hat, ich weiß –

I know how it will be when you take me there.
In that place, all is forgotten.
Words and breath cease to be.
There is only endless rest.
There is no weeping,
for the causes of tears are forgotten.
All that mattered in this world falls away.
(translation Kelley Rourke)

Bacchus immediately falls in love with the heroine. Longing for death quickly turns to the erotic longing of a marriage bed.
As we saw above, ancient sources also juxtapose images and moments of serenity and emotional excitement when depicting this myth. Here is another example from a late Greek epic:

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 265-452 (trans. Rouse, revised by C. Filos, inspired by selections on

Now Bacchus left the honey-flowing streams of Ilissos, and went in dainty revel to the vine-clad district of Naxos. About him bold Eros beat his wings, and Cythereia [=Aphrodite] led, before the coming of Lyaios the bridegroom. For Theseus had just sailed away, and left without pity the banished maiden [Ariadne] asleep on the shore, scattering his promises to the winds.” When Dionysus beheld deserted Ariadne sleeping, he mingled love with wonder, and spoke out his admiration cautiously to the dance weaving Bacchants : (lines 265-274)

[lines 275-294, Bacchus equates Ariadne to many goddesses. For a translation of this lament and more on the theme of being equal to a divinity, stay tuned for a future post]

So cried Bacchus—Sleep flew away, the poor lovelorn girl scattered sleep, awoke and rose from the sand, and she saw no fleet, no husband the deceiver! But the Cydonian maiden [Ariadne] lamented with the kingfishers, and paced the heavy murmuring shore which was all that the Loves had given her. She called on the young man’s name, madly she sought his vessel along the seaside, scolded the envious sleep, reproached even more the Paphian’s [Aphrodite’s] mother, the sea ; she prayed to Boreas and adjured the wind, adjured Oreithyia to bring back the boy [=Theseus] to the land of Naxos and to let her see that sweet ship again. She besought hardhearted Aiolos yet more ; he heard her prayer and obeyed, sending a contrary wind to blow, but Boreas lovelorn himself cared nothing for the maid stricken with desire yes, even the breezes themselves must have had a spite against the maiden when they carried the ship to the Athenian land. Eros himself admired the maiden, and thought he saw Aphrodite lamenting in Naxos where all is joy. She was even more resplendent in her grief, and pain was a grace to the sorrower. Compare the two, and Aphrodite gently smiling and laughing with love must give place to Ariadne in sorrow, the delectable eyes of Peitho or the Graces or Love himself must yield to the maiden’s tears. (lines 295-318)

[Ariadne laments, 318-418]

Bacchus was enraptured to hear this lament. He noticed Kekropia, and knew the name of Theseus and the deceitful voyage from Crete. Before the girl he appeared in his radiant godhead; Eros moved swiftly about, and with stinging cestus he whipt the maiden into a nobler love, that he might lead Minos’s daughter to join willingly with his brother Dionysus. Then Bacchus comforted Ariadne, lovelorn and lamenting, with these words in his mind-charming voice: (lines 419-427)

“Maiden, why do you sorrow for the deceitful man of Athens ? Let pass the memory of Theseus; you have Dionysus for your lover, a husband incor- ruptible for the husband of a day ! If you are pleased with the mortal body of a youthful yearsmate, Theseus can never challenge Dionysus in manhood or comeliness. But you will say, ‘ He shed the blood of the halfbull man whose den was the earthdug labyrinth ‘ But you know your thread was his saviour for the man of Athens with his club would never have found victory in that contest without a rosy red girl to help him. I need not tell you of Eros and the Paphian and Ariadne’s distaff. You will not say that Athens is greater than heaven. Minos your father was not the equal of Zeus Almighty, Knossos is not like Olympus. Not for nothing did that fleet sail from my Naxos, but Desire preserved you for a nobler bridal. Happy girl, that you leave the poor bed of Theseus to look on the couch of Dionysus the desirable! What could you pray for higher than that ? You have both heaven for your home and Cronion for yourgoodfather. Cassiopeia will not be equal to you because of her daughter’s Olympian glory ; for Perseus has left her heavenly chains to Andromeda even in the stars, but for you I will make a starry crown,” that you may be called the shining bedfellow of crownloving Dionysus.” (lines 428-452)


 Image: Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the images above, Ariadne was in the foreground and seemed unaware of what was happening behind her. In Titian’s painting, the viewer is now behind Ariadne, but she is turning back, aware of the arrival of the god and the frenzied nature of his followers. The two make eye contact. The garland constellation in the blue sky at the top left corner hints at a more permanent state of bliss in Ariadne’s future.
For an in depth discussion on the poetics of Dionysiac dishevelment and eroticism, read Nagy’s “Did Sappho and Alcaeus Ever Meet?” on the CHS website.
Footnotes from Gregory Nagy’s “Virgil’s verse invitus, regina … and its poetic antecedents”
[12] Oakley and Sinos 1993:37. Their interpretation of this painting differs from mine in some other respects.
[13] I [=G. Nagy] have much more to say about the poetics of Dionysiac dishevelment and eroticism in Nagy 2007.

[14] Oakley and Sinos 1993:37.