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

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


"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.

Oil painting of Hades abducting Persephone. Oil on wood with gilt background. 18th century.

Oil painting of Hades abducting Persephone. Oil on wood with gilt background. 18th century. ( Public Domain )

However, the journey to the underworld is not an exclusively Greek story. Apart from the more well-known heroic journeys of Odysseus or Orpheus from Greece, mythological characters who visit the underworld include the Ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna, the Japanese gods Izanagi and Izanami, the goddess Guanyin of Buddhist mythology, and the Emperor Yudhisthira in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies.

Heaven, the Underworld and the Descending Kings

An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.

Batara Guru

Batara Guru ( CC BY-SA 3.0 / Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures)

Such is the case with the Eleusinian Mysteries of Persephone and her mother, Demeter. The Eleusinian Mysteries were a prominent part of ancient Greek religion, with roots preceding those of the masculine religious hierarchy. The actions that occurred during the Mysteries were kept secret, and it is believed that much of the Eleusinian rites harkened back to Persephone's (and possibly Demeter's) ancient chthonic cult. As this cult had been displaced and had no role in the male dominated society, it is unsurprising that the precise nature of the rituals was never exposed. What scholars have ascertained is an outline of a ritual. Allegedly it was broken into three parts mirroring Persephone's abduction: there is a Descent, a Search, and an Ascent. In laymen's terms, a reenactment of Persephone's capture, Demeter's search, and Persephone's partial rescue.

This is the part that is critical to the argument of this article —that Ariadne is a predecessor of Persephone. The pattern of Descent, the Search, and the Ascent applies to another familiar tale: that of Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne, from the background, pulls all the strings—pun intended. If scholars Kerenyi and Burkert are correct in their assumptions that the story of Theseus and the Minotaur is based on an older version relating to the Minoan religion, then the likelihood that Ariadne entered the labyrinth herself—particularly considering her role in Greek mythology as the judge of the sacrificial victims—remains plausible.

The Return of Persephone.

The Return of Persephone. ( Public Domain )

When positioning Ariadne and Persephone in a similar light, the correlations would be as follows:

The Greek Ariadne represents some variation of an older Minoan goddess—whether the Great Goddess or merely the Mistress of the Labyrinth—pertaining to the journey of the soul to the afterlife. When one considers the story of Theseus and the Minotaur without emphasizing Theseus as the hero, the myth's structure follows that of Persephone: the Descent into the underground Labyrinth; the search for a subterranean obstacle, and its subsequent defeat; and then the Ascent back into the realm of the living.

‘Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus’ (1774) by Angelica Kauffman.

‘Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus’ (1774) by Angelica Kauffman. (Public Domain)

To put this in better context, consider the various myths of underworld travel in Greek mythology alone. Orpheus, searching for his recently dead bride, travels to the underworld and maneuvers his way to the court of the subterranean leaders Persephone and Hades. He then requests the return of his wife, which is granted, on the condition that he not attempt to look upon Eurydice until the Ascent is complete.

In another tale, Herakles' final labor involves traveling to the underworld to capture Cerberus, Hades' guard dog. There is once again a pattern of Descent, Search, and Ascent. Roman mythology continues this tradition in the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Apuleius' The Golden Ass; Psyche, as part of her atonement for disobeying Cupid's orders, must travel to the underworld, find Proserpina, retrieve a bit of Proserpina's beauty, and return to the surface. Again: Descent, Search, and Ascent.

Theseus' Descent, Search, and Ascent in the tale of the Minotaur mirrors that of Persephone and Hades except for a few minor details. (For example, Theseus is not abducted.) But without Ariadne, he would probably not have been successful in his task. It seems likely that Burkert and Kerenyi were correct in presuming Ariadne was once a Minoan goddess of the underworld, to whom Theseus had to make promises before she allowed him passage into and out of her dark domain.

The same is true of Persephone's role in Orpheus's rescue mission, as well as in Psyche's; the alterations of Ariadne and Persephone's roles came after the alleged Dorian invasions of Greece in which goddesses were demoted in favor of sky gods. The power of the Woman was depleted; the power of the Earth was set aside for sky worship; and mortal men suddenly became heroes.

‘Ariadne’ (c. 1905) by Herbert James Draper.

‘Ariadne’ (c. 1905) by Herbert James Draper. (Public Domain)

Top Image: ‘Ariadne in Naxos’ (1877) by Evelyn De Morgan. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters


Apuleius. The Golden Ass. (trans. by PG Walsh). The World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walter Burkert. 1991. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. (trans. John Raffan.) Wiley & Blackwell.

Robert Graves. The Greek Myths: The Complete Definitive Edition. Penguin UK. (reprint 2011)

Felix Guirand. 1987. New Larousse Encyclopedia Of Mythology (trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, with introduction by Robert Graves). Crescent Books.

Karl Kerenyi. 1976.  Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, part I.iii "The Cretan core of the Dionysos myth" Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Karl Kerenyi. 1980. The Gods of the Greeks. Thames & Hudson.

"Ariadne." Theoi Project- Greek Mythology. Accessed December 22, 2017.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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