The Origins of the Goddess Ariadne

IV. Crete and Naxos

Although the Cypriote, Delian, and Argive variants are set apart from the Cretan and Naxian by virtue of their mention of Aphrodite, a single salient feature, which occurs in at least one variant from each locality, draws all the different versions together: the death of Ariadne. Assuredly, the death of the heroine does not occupy the central position within each retelling, as the Delian and Argive variants indicate. However, the importance of her death, and of the manner of her death, can easily be seen in the Cypriote, Cretan, and Naxian accounts. At Amathus, she died in childbed and her tomb in the grove of Ariadne Aphrodite has already been discussed. In Crete, she hanged herself after being abandoned by Theseus; and on Dia/Naxos she was slain by Artemis. “No other heroine suffered death in so many ways as Ariadne, and these different versions can only be explained as originating in a cult in which her death was celebrated.” [1]

That the Artemis of classical mythology is of Minoan origin is evidenced both by the similarity of form between the Minoan and Greek Mistresses of Animals in artistic representations, and by the internal similarity of the two deities in divine nature and function. [5] The Minoan Artemis is, however, “a ruder and more primitive type of deity … wide-spread especially in the Peloponnesus and among the Dorian peoples.” [6] She is the goddess of wild nature untouched by the hand of man. Hence her epithet ἀγροτέρα. Accordingly, although she is a goddess of fertility, it is not agrarian fertility which concerns her but rather the fertility of man and animal. She is also associated with the tree cult, and the sacred bough which conveys life and fertility has a conspicuous place in her worship. Such a bough, called κορυθάλη, was set up in the Spartan festival of the Tithenidia, which was celebrated on behalf of small children. [7] {47|48} Finally, as the Mistress of Animals, she is closely associated with certain classes of beasts, particularly bears. The nymph Callisto, “whose name so strongly suggests Artemis’ own title Calliste (Fairest) as to make it highly likely that she was origi­nally Artemis herself,” [8] was changed into a bear. “Athenian maidens of proper age and kin dressed themselves in yellow-brown robes and presented themselves as bears to be enrolled in the clan” [9] of the Brauronian Artemis. Indeed, as Carpenter notes, Artemis was no doubt, among many other things, a bear divinity as well. [10]

In view of these internal similarities in divine nature and function, and in view of the shared Minoan origin of Artemis and Ariadne, it seems reasonable to hypothesize some degree of complementarity between the two goddesses, if not a partial identification of one with the other. There is obviously some level of development in both Ariadne and Artemis from lesser goddesses concerned only with specialized aspects of either the life of man or of nature. Thus, the two may well represent a substantially advanced stage in an evolution from one Great Minoan Goddess, their natures and functions overlapping in such areas as the dance and the tree cult, but becoming complementary in the area of custody of human and vegetable fertility. Eventually, Artemis ousts Ariadne in the various pantheons, but the degeneration of Ariadne from goddess to heroine must have gone on long before Artemis appeared as the agent of revenge in the Homeric variant.

The acceptance of the Ariadne-Artemis duality sets the stage for the historical entrance of Dionysus. It is the realm of these two older goddesses which the later god impinges upon, and indeed the possibilities of resolving the situation would appear to be two in number: association and subjugation. That the marriage {50|51} of Ariadne and Dionysus is indicative of at least a partial association of their cults, as Nilsson’s already-mentioned hypothesis suggests, seems clear. The variants include two related by Diodorus, two more by Pausanias, and a Hesiodic version. All these attest to the marriage of the two deities, although they differ on the means of bringing such a relationship about. Moreover, the similar nature of the cult practices associated with Ariadne and Dionysus suggests that a partial association of the cults might be the most natural, the most logical, step in resolving such a confrontation, although there seems to be an inherently temporary quality about it.

Temporary or not, the association of Ariadne and Dionysus serves effectively to exempt Artemis and to place her in a position of opposition. Why Artemis becomes dissociated in such fashion is difficult to say. Possibly it is the result of her natural concern for human rather than agrarian fertility: this predilection, an element which necessarily prevents her identification with Ariadne, may make her a less favorable candidate for merger with Dionysus. The essential point, however, remains this: the polarization of Ariadne and Artemis is the basis for the next stage of Ariadne’s deterioration, her supersession by Artemis. {51|52}

The fact that only one variant attests to the slaying of Ariadne by Artemis at the instigation of Dionysus does not damage the validity of the mythical occurrence; rather, the fact that this attestation is of Homeric pedigree only enhances the position of the variant itself. Yet the controversy surrounding this myth, as has already been implied, is quite extensive.

The Artemis who does finally supersede Ariadne is not, however, the same Artemis who had originally shared her divine nature and functions. This Artemis is more the goddess of classical mythology, the stern virgin and goddess of hunters; her development was virtually antithetical to that of the Great Mountain Mother of Asia Minor. Indeed, this is the Artemis whom the Greeks shaped from a Minoan antecedent, eliminating overt associations with the dying and reviving nature and, consequently, the ecstatic and orgiastic elements of her cult.

It is perhaps in the very characteristics of this later Artemis that the most substantial reasons for Ariadne’s supersession are embedded. For it is apparent that, in the course of Artemis’ development, almost every characteristic of the true nature goddess, from custody of agrarian fertility to biformal rituals, was excised. How then, in a context where Artemis is {54|55} clearly alien, can Ariadne be expected to be less so? Assuredly, she cannot, as she represents the extreme among nature goddesses, in that she alone actually dies. Moreover, just as Artemis has grown closer to her later Panhellenic form in the period of time afforded by the partial association of the cults of Dionysus and Ariadne, so has Dionysus grown toward his ideal Panhellenic embodiment, thus necessitating the elimination of the one member of the triangle possessing only inferior status. Ariadne, then, is superseded by Artemis as a result of her extreme status as a nature goddess, which was either found incompatible in itself or believed to be repetitious of the characteristics of some earlier figure. Besides, Ariadne did not even achieve Panhellenic status, but remained restricted to local affiliations.

With the succession of Ariadne by Artemis, the transformation of the old nature goddess into the familiar heroine of classical mythology is completed. Ariadne is no longer the vegetation goddess honored on Crete, Naxos, and other of the islands of the Aegean; rather, she is the mythical princess, the daughter of Minos, king of Crete. No longer is she the consort of Dionysus, but rather she appears in the vast majority of the variants as the counterpart {55|56} of the hero Theseus. Her former divinity, however, seems in certain instances not to have been forgotten. Indeed, Zeus immortalizes her in the Hesiodic variant, [22] while Dionysus places her diadem among the stars in one variant from Diodorus, [23] or brings about her disappearance in another variant, [24] thus achieving virtually the same purpose. These attempts at deification are surely indications of the efforts directed at reconciling the heroic, semi-mortal Ariadne of classical myth with the divine Ariadne of a prior time. The clearest example, however, of such attempted reconciliation would have to be the two major versions of the tale which the Naxian mythographers devised. It has already been suggested that the notion of two different Ariadnes, one earlier and one later, is far-fetched. The fact that there are two different myths, one associating her as a nature goddess with the intruding Dionysus and one associating her as a mythical princess with Theseus at a later point in time, is on the contrary quite feasible, whence the proposal that the divine stature of the figure of Ariadne was later reduced to human proportions.

The establishment of Ariadne as a heroine of classical mythology brings to an end the process of {56|57} her demotion. However, certain variants of the Ariadne-Theseus tale imply that the stability of her position, even on the heroic level, was by no means great. Perhaps the most significant in this regard is the Cretan variant in which Theseus abandons Ariadne out of love for Aegle. There is a suggestion here of a conflict of traditions involving the association of Theseus with both Ariadne and Aegle that is highly reminiscent of the conflict of the cults of Ariadne and Dionysus. The amount of information still available concerning this alternative tradition is, however, far smaller than that concerning the Ariadne-Theseus tradition. The identity of this Aegle can be nothing more than the subject of conjecture. Possibly she was in some way associated with the Coronis mentioned above. The manner in which the confrontation of the two traditions arose must be viewed as equally mysterious. Whatever the nature of this Aegle, however, and whatever the nature of her earliest relations with Ariadne, the Cretan variant makes it quite clear that in the end her tradition is wholly victorious over that of Ariadne. Theseus turns his back on the old nature goddess and follows her adversary off into the distance. Ariadne has been abandoned yet again, and this time no clue is given about what the future holds in store for her. {57|58}


[ back ] 1. Nilsson, p. 527.

[ back ] 2. This passage is a paraphrase of Nilsson’s views: Minoan-Mycenaean Religion, pp. 527–528.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Nilsson, p. 525.

[ back ] 4. Puhvel, p. 167.

[ back ] 5. Nilsson, pp. 502–503.

[ back ] 6. Nilsson, p. 503.

[ back ] 7. Nilsson, pp. 503–504.

[ back ] 8. H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, 6th ed. (London, 1958), p. 114.

[ back ] 9. Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley, 1956), p. 121.

[ back ] 10. Carpenter, p. 121.

[ back ] 11. Nilsson, p. 509.

[ back ] 12. Homer, Iliad XVIII 590–592.

[ back ] 13. Nilsson, p. 524.

[ back ] 14. Cf. also H. Jeanmaire, Dionysos: Histoire du Culte de Bacchus (Paris, 1951), pp. 223ff.

[ back ] 15. Euripides, Helen 1470ff.; Nikandros, Theriaka 902ff.; Apollodorus I.16–17, III 116; Ovid, Metamorphoses X 162ff.

[ back ] 16. Nilsson, p. 470.

[ back ] 17. Pausanias III.19.4.

[ back ] 18. Athenaeus 139 d ff.

[ back ] 19. Hesiod, Fragments 122ff.; Pindar, Pythian III with scholiast; Ovid, Metamorphoses II.542ff.

[ back ] 20. Puhvel, p. 166.

[ back ] 21. A. J. B. Wace, “The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, Supplement V, p. 457.

[ back ] 22. Hesiod, Theogony 947–949.

[ back ] 23. Diodorus Siculus IV.61.5.

[ back ] 24. Diodorus Siculus V.51.3–4.