Tuesday 30 May 2017

World-Building and The Mythic Origins of Ariadne

Greetings all - Dr. Wotan has just recently returned from The International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo Michigan and is now busy preparing for giving two Tolkien papers for the 2017 International Medieval Conference at Leeds in July!   Couple of items to share with you this time coming from the two areas of the life I lead!

First - just posted to the brilliant The Journal of Tolkien Research is my book review of two seminal works from Professor Mark J.P. Wolf of Concordia University Wisconsin which explores the worlds that exist and are waiting to be discovered in all forms of narratives.   As I say in this review Wolf's work here is revelatory and represents an exciting new contextual framework for exploring texts which I am using in all my research on Tolkien and other invented worlds.

These two books are:

And my review (with a special focus on the Tolkien elements in them) is here - http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol4/iss1/10/

Image result for Glyndebourne Ariadne auf NaxosSecondly, I was very excited earlier this year to be asked to write an article for the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival  on 'The Mythic Origins of Ariadne' for the must see production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos which opens at Glyndebourne on the 25th of June and runs through the 27 July.    With kind permission of Glyndebourne I am posting this article which was really fun to do (an excuse to dig back into Homeric Greek!)

         ‘Sic Itur ad astra’- The Mythic Origins of Ariadne 

In constructing their Ariadne, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal drew from a rich ‘soup’ of Greek and Roman myths.  The word Ariadne itself is not a name but an epithet derived from two words in a Cretan dialect of Ancient Greek: αρι [ari] “most” and αδνος [adnos] “holy.”  This epithet originally signified a major goddess on the island of Crete during the Minoan period (c. 3650 to 1400 B.C.E.) who scholars have argued was associated with nature, snakes, orgiastic dancing and, most interestingly for the stories that would follow about her, labyrinths.  She may be signified on a tablet written in the syllabic script used by the Mycenaean Greeks known as Linear B (c. 1450 B.C.E.) in the votive offering ‘to all the gods, honey… to the mistress of the labyrinth, honey’.  This epithet would become personified in the later Greek and Roman character of Ariadne who would become bound up with the Cretan cycle of Greek and Roman myths.    

Image result for Ariadne Classical Greek VasesAriadne as a personified character emerges early in Greek mythology being mentioned in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony.   She is associated with several key mythic stories; namely the slaying of the Minotaur and her abandonment of the island of Naxos.  She also is associated with several important characters in Greek mythology; especially the hero Theseus and the god of fertility, winemaking and madness Dionysus; also known as Bacchus in the Roman myths.   The trajectory of the Ariadne myth can be divided into two main strands: one her origins and life on Crete and two her fate after she leaves Crete.  

The sources for the first strand are fairly consistent over the many versions and variations of her story.     Ariadne is one of two daughters of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphaë, daughter of the sun god Helios.   By offering an unfavourable sacrifice Minos offends the sea God Poseidon who in punishment causes Pasiphaë to fall in love with one of Minos’s prize bulls.  Pasiphaë enlists the help of the artificer Daedalus to build a wooden cow.   Pasiphaë insert’s herself into the cow so she can copulate with the bull.  The result of this union is the monstrous Minotaur, half man half bull who is kept by Minos in a labyrinth also constructed by Daedalus.  The hero Theseus is sent by his father Aegus, King of Athens to Crete to slay the Minotaur.   The princess Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, and gives him the golden thread which she had received from the god Hephaestos, explaining to Theseus that he should use it to find his way back out of the labyrinth after he kills the Minotaur who is by the way Ariadne’s step-brother.  Theseus in return promises to marry Ariadne.  When the Minotaur is slain they both sail to the island of Naxos, an island that is under the protection of the god Dionysus, where she is subsequently for various reasons abandoned by Theseus.   

When we come to the second strand of Ariadne’s story – her departure from Crete the story gets quite complicated.   In the many versions of what happened next to Ariadne there are two types of fate she endures for leaving Crete with the hero Theseus.  One type is just plain tragic while the other starts off tragic but results in a  ‘eucatastrophic’ ending; a term coined by the author J R.R. Tolkien to describe a sudden turn of events in a story that ensures the protagonist does not meet some terrible end    

The very tragic ending was perhaps the earliest version of the Ariadne story.  In book eleven of the Odyssey Homer states that Theseus ‘had no joy of Ariadne because she was slain by Artemis on the isle of Dia because of the witness of Dionysus’ (Odyssey Book 11, 320ff).  Dia is the Homeric name for the island of Naxos.  The Greek word for ‘witness’ μαρτυρίσιν has been taken by scholars to mean that Ariadne actually had been married to Dionysus before meeting and falling in love with Theseus on Crete.   When Dionysus saw both Ariadne and Theseus on Naxos, an island under his protection, he was enraged and called on the chaste goddess Artemis to punish this desecration of their marriage by slaying Ariadne.  Homer’s statement that Theseus ‘had no joy of Ariadne’ seems to indicate that Ariadne was slain before she consummated her love with Theseus.  Alternative versions of this strand paint an even bleaker picture for Ariadne.  In one version, there is no betrayal of Dionysus and Ariadne is slain by Artemis just to put her out of her misery of being abandoned by Theseus.  In another version Ariadne just hangs herself out of grief.   

Then there is the ‘eucatastrophic’ type of Ariadne’s fate which Strauss and Hofmannstahl clearly drew from.  This strand first appears in Hesiod’s account of the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods, the Theogony composed in c. 700 B.C.E. In this poem, Hesiod’s relates how ‘gold haired Dionysus made blonde-haired Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, his wife, and Zeus made her deathless and un-ageing for him’ (Theogony, l. 947).  In later versions of this strand of the myth the two ideas of Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus is combined with the idea of Dionysus finding and wedding Ariadne.   Hesiod’s idea of Ariadne being made ‘deathless’ and ‘unageing’ is further developed in later Greek and Roman versions of the story with the actual apotheosis of Ariadne   In the Greek epic poem the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, from the 3rd century B.C.E., Ariadne is not only made an immortal goddess but she is given a wedding present by Dionysus; a jewelled crown which in some versions of this story Dionysus later hurls into the sky where it becomes the constellation Corona Borealis which still can be seen in the northern celestial hemisphere.   In the Roman poet Ovid’s poem on mythic transformations Metamorphoses (c. 1st century C.E.) the different strands of Ariadne’s fate are woven together: she is abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, she finds comfort in the arms of the god Bacchus who marks their love by taking her crown and setting in heaven as a star which shone ‘as a gem which turned to gleaming fires’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses, l. 177). 


It is this Ariadne that we can see in the final scene of Strauss’s opera – the Cretan princess first abandoned by a hero and then rescued by a god who raises her to heaven and the stars - sic itur ad astra! 

This article first appeared in the 2017 edition of Glyndebourne's Festival Programme Book, and is reproduced with permission.  Check www.glyndebourne.com for ticket availability for Glyndebourne Festival 2017 performances of Ariadne auf Naxos.  

That's it for now - back to paper writing!

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