Aspects of Ariadne
PLUS: Minoan Classical Wisdom Litterae Magazine
Dear Classical Wisdom Members,
One of the things that surprised me most about Crete is just how many Minoan ruins are around. It was already so impressive that the Palace of Knossos - the famed location of Theseus and the Minotaur - had somehow managed to survive the ravages of time… As well as the Palace of Phaistos, the location of that mysterious disk… but two other major palaces, Malia in the region of Heraklion, and Kato Zakros in Lasithi, have also been unearthed.
(Fun fact: Did you know that all the palaces have the same orientation, from north to south, very advanced and complex drainage system with running water and none of them have fortifications?)
Indeed, driving across the island, you can’t help but notice not only the iconic brown archeology signs everywhere, but actual stones piled by the roadside. Whether it’s a town, a well, or a fortress… you can seem to throw a stick without hitting some ancient structure… or the remains of one.
And that included the farthest corners of the island. Today, for instance, I’m writing to you from Sitia, on the north east edge of Crete. While it may be about as far away from the main palaces as possible, it was a centre of refuge for native Cretans after the fall of the major Minoan settlements. The fact that all these sites have surivived 4,000 years just blows me away…
There is much to be learned still about the Minoans (so much!) in terms of archeology, history, religion and mythology… so today we will do our part to try to understand them a bit more…. Starting with the famed princess and hero rescuer, Ariadne.
Who was she… really? Why was she so important to the ancients? And what can her story teach us today?
Read on to learn all about the different aspects of Ariadne…
Also, Members, you can enjoy the full Classical Wisdom Litterae Magazine dedicated to the Minoans below. Included are Ariadne, the Palace of Knossos, Linear A and B as well as a look at Sir Arthur Evans.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom
P.S. If you aren’t a member yet, you can subscribe today and unlock all our resources! Including the in-depth articles, the Classical Wisdom Litterae archives as well as our Roundtable Discussions.
Aspects of Ariadne
By Mary Naples
In the Myth of the Minotaur, if not for the ministrations of the humble Princess Ariadne, Theseus—the Greek hero—would not have had a prayer.
Although often portrayed as a mere maiden, truth be told, providing back-up for a leading man was the very least of her qualities. Springing from the heavens, Ariadne’s origins beckon from the primordial mist of Bronze Age Minoan Crete where she was the overarching mother goddess in the Minoan pantheon—the all-important fertility goddess who is believed to have answered to such titles as goddess-on-earth, weaver of life and mistress of the labyrinth.
With the destiny of mortals in her hands, Ariadne was considered a bright goddess, often compared to Demeter—whose celestial origins were from Crete as well. In some ways Ariadne is analogous both to the goddess of the harvest—and her daughter Persephone—queen of the underworld. Predating patriarchy, the mother goddess’s role was paramount—in agricultural societies religion was centered on fertility and everything was centered on religion.
Because Minoan Crete was a matrilineal society with women leading lives of independence, like all goddesses in the Minoan pantheon, Ariadne ruled alone without a male consort. Toward the close of the Minoan civilization—with the Mycenaeans’ influence keenly felt—Ariadne began to be accompanied by a young male consort.
Her insignia, the labyrinth—a square or circular structure with multiple circuits spiraling to the center and back again—figures prominently in her mythology and is believed to have been a place of initiation where mortals moved from one realm to another with the bull-god—the Minotaur (Hades-like)—occupying its deepest and darkest center.
The decline of the Minoan Civilization was accompanied by the expansion of the Mycenaeans—as is often the case when one culture subsumes another—when the Mycenaeans overtook the Minoans in about fourteen hundred BCE, they recast the Minoan myths; the invader gods married the indigenous goddesses replacing matricentric elements with patriarchal ones.
By rewriting mythology the Mycenaean Greeks provoked the systemic suppression of goddess worship which would encourage the widespread denigration of women. But the patriarchal reformulating of the tales did not stop with the Mycenaeans, it continued apace into the Greek and Roman cultures.
In reviewing the myths surrounding Ariadne, can we expose the patriarchal tropes that have dogged her many guises for thousands of years?
Ariadne is best known from a Mycenaean-era myth in which the all-important great mother goddess is reduced to an unassuming princess offering succor to the invading Theseus, the legendary first hero-king of Athens.
The tale begins when Poseidon—god of the earth and sea—gifts a rare white bull to King Minos of Crete with the expectation of it being sacrificed in his honor. Ever greedy to have the prized bull play stud in his herd, Minos tries to pull a fast one on the god by sacrificing a lesser bull in Poseidon’s honor instead. Because he was all-seeing and all-knowing, an infuriated Poseidon casts a spell on Minos’ Queen Pasiphae so she would fall hopelessly in love with the striking snow-white bull.
The hex worked. In fact, Pasiphae’s desire for the bull was so strong that she enlisted the help of the famed artificer, Daedalus, into crafting a wooden cow with a cowhide covering so that she could copulate with the beast. The product of their coupling was the Minotaur, a monster who was a cross between human and bull. Uncared for and unloved, the Minotaur was confined to the labyrinth—which was, once-again, designed by the perennial inventor.
The story leading up to the Minotaur’s malevolence toward Athenians is illustrative of a time of high tension between Minoan Crete and Athens; when Crete was the powerhouse of the Aegean and Athens a mere fledgling state.
Legend has it that King Minos’ son Androgeus had been treacherously killed by Athenians for nothing more than taking all the prizes in their Panathenaic Games. In retribution for his death, each year Athens had to send seven young men and seven young women as tribute to Crete. Essentially hostages, the unarmed Athenian youth
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Classical Wisdom to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.