‘Ariadne in Naxos’ (1877) by Evelyn De Morgan.

The Descent of Ariadne: Minoan Queen of the Dead to Mistress of the Labyrinth?

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"Mistress of the Labyrinth", "the Great Goddess", "The Potnia." These three terms have long been used, somewhat interchangeably, to describe the original forms of Ariadne, a Cretan princess who has a sidelined role in Classical Greek myth. Known especially for her advice to the Athenian hero Theseus, Ariadne was long ago regulated from "the only reason Theseus survived the battle with the Minotaur" to the "cast-away damsel saved by Dionysus".

A Minoan and Mycenaean Mistress

It is rather widely accepted that Ariadne has origins in the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. The extent to which those origins were retained after the Greek Dark ages and into the Classical era are debated. What scholars do agree on is the following: the Minoans were a female-centered culture, evidenced by their wall paintings and various presumed references to a Great Goddess. Correlations between Ariadne's character in the Greek myth about the Minotaur and the religious aspects of the Minoan sites on Knossos abound. She has also been likened to both Helen of Troy and Persephone, more often as an earlier version of the latter.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (c. 1740-1742) by Jacopo Amigoni.

Bacchus and Ariadne’ (c. 1740-1742) by Jacopo Amigoni. ( Public Domain )

This article sheds further light on the correlations between Ariadne and Persephone, the aforementioned Mistress of the Labyrinth and the Queen of the Underworld.

Ariadne and the Minotaur

The daughter of the semi-divine Minos and the semi-divine Pasiphae, Ariadne is the princess of the Minoan complex at Knossos, and the half-sister of the infamous and dangerous half-man, half-bull Minotaur. As the (likely) eldest princess, Ariadne serves as the priestess of the Labyrinth in which her half-brother is imprisoned. It is she who judges the victims who are sent to be sacrificed to her half-brother, and it is she who appears to hold the most sway. Ariadne alone is the reason for Theseus' success against the Minotaur.

When Theseus arrives on Crete, he is among the seven sons and daughters to be given as tribute to the Minotaur. As judge, Ariadne first lays eyes on Theseus in the judgment stage. Ancient authors claim she immediately falls in love with him and aids in the vanquish of the Minotaur. In fact, some scholars argue that the method for slaying the Minotaur was Ariadne’s idea—she approached the creator of the Labyrinth for the secrets to escape it; she ensured Theseus could descend and ascend, and further, she provided him with the weapon to succeed in her half-brother’s death. Here, one must pause and consider the implications of this.

‘Ariadne and Theseus’ (1657) by Willem Strijcker.

‘Ariadne and Theseus’ (1657) by Willem Strijcker. ( Public Domain )

Aside from a need for strength, the Minotaur could have been vanquished at any time—supposing the gods would have allowed this. (However, as the Minotaur is eventually vanquished, this assumption seems plausible). His life-sentence within the Labyrinth is the stuff of fairy tales rather than a sensible solution to an embarrassing child. Ariadne’s high-ranking role as the judge of the sacrificial victims implies that she holds more than a crown—she was likely historically the high-priestess of the Minoan bull-cult. Her position within the Labyrinth can be considered akin to a guardianship of the doors to the Underworld as well. It is here one must examine Persephone’s role as Queen of the Dead, to correlate the two positions thoroughly.

Statue of a Minoan snake goddess.

Statue of a Minoan snake goddess. (C messier/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Ariadne and Persephone

Persephone, unlike her Cretan counterpart, was the victim of a crime; supposedly, while picking flowers with her maiden nymphs, a gaping black hole opened nearby and out rode her uncle Hades in a chariot pulled by black horses. Before the nymphs could save her, Persephone had been whisked off to the Underworld as his bride.

Here, just as in the tale of Ariadne, Persephone is painted as a victim. Yet if one examines the pre-sky god cults of ancient Greece (also known as the pre-Dorian period), there are references to Persephone throughout the Aegean as a goddess of the underworld. In these instances, Persephone is not a goddess forced into a marriage-bed; rather, she is purported to be the primary underworld deity—a chthonic goddess of dark power and resurrection. In the post-Dark Age world of the sky-gods however, there is no place for an all-powerful underworld queen; so, she is given a husband, who's role overshadows her old one, except for among those who refused to let the old religion die.

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