Ariadne and the Tales of Theseus and the Minotaur | History Hit

Ariadne and the Tales of Theseus and the Minotaur

Ariadne asleep at Hypnos's side. Detail of ancient fresco in Pompeii
Image Credit: Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous figures from Greek mythology is the Cretan princess, Ariadne. Although there are many variations of her story, she is most famous for her involvement in the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The myth of the minotaur

The myth began with the death of King Minos of Crete’s son, Androgeus, caused by the city of Athens. As a result, the people of Athens were forced to endure a terrible punishment. Every 7 years, 7 young men and 7 maidens were sent to Crete aboard a ship with black sails. On arrival, they would be forced into a labyrinth which housed a Minotaur – a creature with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man. Here, the young Athenians would perish, lost in the labyrinth and devoured by the minotaur.

One year, the sacrificial party included the son of King Aegeus, Prince Theseus. He set out on an audacious mission to try and kill the Minotaur. When Theseus arrived on the Cretan shores, he caught the heart of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. Determined to save her new lover, Ariadne aided Theseus’ mission, giving him a sword and ball of thread which would enable him to slay the minotaur and retrace his steps through the labyrinth. After successfully doing so, Theseus and Ariadne – who was betraying her father and her country – eloped.

Pasiphaë and the Minotaur, Attic red-figure kylix found at Etruscan Vulci in Italy

Image Credit: Cabinet des Médailles, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But this romance was not to last long. In many versions of the myth, Theseus soon abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. With Theseus gone, Ariadne married the god of wine, Dionysus. Together they had several children including Oenopion, Staphylus and Thoas. Ariadne lived happily and faithfully with Dionysus, until she was killed by the hero, Perseus, who turned her to stone by holding up the head of Medusa.

A grand canvas 

The turbulent life of Ariadne has been a source of inspiration for many great artists. In the early 1520s, the Renaissance master, Titian, produced a number of paintings with mythological subjects, one of which featured Ariadne on Naxos. It was created for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, to be displayed in his magnificent palazzo, the Camerino d’Alabastro.

Based on preliminary drawings by Raphael, the subject matter derived from the texts of the Roman poets, Catullus and Ovid. It depicts the moment Ariadne has been deserted by Theseus, whose ship sails into the distance. She is interrupted by Dionysus (who named her as the Roman equivalent, Bacchus), who leads a procession of revellers in a chariot. The painting communicates Ariadne’s initial fear of Bacchus, who falls in love with her at first site. But it also indicates the years of happiness to come, now Ariadne is paired with an immortal lover: Bacchus raised her to heaven, represented by the constellation above her head.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, c. 1520–1523 by Titian (cropped)

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Kauffman take

In 1774, a female artist, Angelica Kauffman, dedicated a canvas to Ariadne’s struggle, titled Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus. It shows Ariadne alone, reclining on a low, cushioned bed which is covered with a bright red blanket and adorned with gold tassels. She is draped in sheer white fabric, and her head is turned downward as another arm reaches back towards the sea – towards Theseus’ ship in the distance. This is a vision of despair.

The painting was exhibited in London’s Royal Academy in 1774, alongside two of her other works; Calypso Assenting to the Departure of Ulysses and Penelope Invoking Minerva’s Aid for the Safe Return of Telemachus. All three paintings had a common theme – they all depict women in the absence of a lover or a son.

A surreal vision 

Over two centuries later, Giorgio de Chirico, presented a starkly different interpretation of the moment of Ariadne’s abandonment. De Chirico’s Ariadne is depicted as a sleeping statue in the centre of a desolate public square. It’s believed this evocation of loneliness was a reflection of the artist’s personal life – when he moved to Paris in 1911 he faced a period of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this dreamlike, unsettling vision with classical themes also reflects a longing for the comfort of his childhood years in Greece.

Located in modern day Ukraine, Olbia was the largest ancient Greek settlement on the coast of the Black Sea. A mix of Scythian and Greek culture, Olbia interacted with settlements and cultures across the ancient world.
Listen Now

The striking, enigmatic canvas is typical of de Chirico’s ‘Metaphysical’ style, developed between 1910 and 1917. His canvases are filled with dream-like imagery, cramped interiors and deserted city squares filled with apparently random collections of unrelated objects, and all kinds of curiosities: stopped clocks, faceless mannequins, mysterious shadows and sleeping statues.

This style was particularly suitable for paintings with classical themes, adding to the intermixing and overlapping between myth and reality. It also had a significant influence on modern art, particularly the Surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.

Alice Loxton