Tag Archives: Theseus and Ariadne

We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for all of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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When A Man Tells You He’s a Monster: The Ariadne Myth in Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. Oil on Canvas. 1520-3.

In Greek myth, Ariadne is the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Pasiphae, whose horrifying union with the Cretan bull produces the legendary monster, the Minotaur. We don’t hear very much about Ariadne’s life in the ancient narratives until her encounter with Theseus; she immediately falls in love with this Athenian hero who is sent to defeat the Minotaur and release Athens from its obligation of sending seven men and seven women every nine years to Crete where they are locked in the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur. In her eagerness to capture his attention and secure his affections she stealthily offers him the tools to defeat the labyrinth and the Minotaur: a ball of thread and a sword. But through the act of helping this hero she also betrays her home and her family. Theseus professes his love and appreciation for Ariadne and takes her with him when he sails home to Athens. After a brief stop, however, on the island of Naxos, Theseus “forgets” Ariadne on the shores of the island and sets sail to Athens without her.

The Roman poet Catullus writes an epyllion, his longest poem, Carmen 64, in which Ariadne is given her own voice and tells her own side of the story. When she is abandoned on Naxos, she immediately realizes her mistake in trusting this man who was supposed to be a hero. In Carmen 64.132-148 Ariadne speaks to a now absent Theseus and gives full vent to her anger, her heartache and her grief (translation is my own):

You treacherous and dishonest man, Theseus! Have you really carried me away from my father’s home and abandoned me on this deserted shore? Are you really being so forgetful and leaving me behind, completely neglecting the divine will of the gods, and carrying the curse of such false oaths back to your own home? Is there nothing that could change this decision of your cruel mind? Do you truly possess no mercy that would have allowed your ruthless heart to take pity on me? You certainly didn’t act this way when you were lavishing promises on me with your flattering voice. And you certainly didn’t act like this when you were giving me hope of a happy marriage and wedded bliss, all of which futile promises are now dispersed by the light winds. From now on may no woman ever put her trust in any man who makes promises; from now on may no women believe that the words of any man can be trusted. While a man’s mind is set on getting something and his mind eagerly longs to gain that thing, then he will swear to anything, he will promise anything. But as soon as the desire of his greedy mind is sated, he remembers none of his previous words, he cares nothing about his false promises.

Many of the poems in Analicia Sotelo’s new collection of poems, entitled Virgin, drawn on the plot, theme and point of view of the Ariadne and Theseus myth as it is described by Catullus. As I was reading Sotelo’s poems throughout the course of the last few days I was captivated by her interpretation of this myth for a 21st century audience. Ariadne’s rejection, self-doubt, and heartbreak are placed into contexts that make her story meaningful for a modern reader. In “Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation to the Minotaur,” Sotelo’s Ariadne, similar to the character we hear from in Catullus, also has a dire warning for other women:

When a man tells you he’s a monster,
believe him.

When a man says you will get hurt

leave…

Sotelo’s Ariadne also has trust issues after being abandoned by a lover. But, if she could do things over again, would she really be able to resist this man? Once again reminiscent of the laments expressed by Catullus’s Ariadne, Sotelo’s poem “Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man” incisively describes the tension that one suffers in a lost love, the alternating feelings of remorse and a longing to continue that human connection. Catullus’s Ariadne dreams of wedded bliss, Sotelo’s Ariadne remembers the feel of her lover’s body under her hands. The last line of this stanza is like a punch in the face when Ariadne is brought back to the reality of her situation when she remembers what love did to her mother:

Do you trust him? No, but everyone has left you
to take in the country air.
Three nights later you see him again—
his tall, crepuscular body separates itself from the lilies.
And you realize the body is not grotesque—that it is, in fact,
like a bolt of fine batiste gathered in your hand,
but first you must give up
a willingness to be right about the world.
Your brother is howling.
Your brother is howling
because your mother chose love and look where it left her.

And in one of my favorite poems in the collection Ariadne is viewed through the eyes of her brother, the Minotaur. Catullus’s Ariadne also expresses deep remorse for what she does to him even though he is a monster. Similar to Georgi Gospodinov”s novel The Physics of Sorrow and Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The House of Asterion,” Sotelo’s poetry shows pity for the Minotaur and she gives him his own story. After all, he, too, is a victim of fate. In “The Minotaur’s Letter to Ariadne,” Sotelo’s monster tugs at the heart strings:

Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand
in the field when we were children
Crown myrtle in your hair,
a gurgling song
Then you grew
delicate as an ox,
obstinate as a—It was you
who taught me metaphor,
said, Mother is a door
I said, What does that mean?
All those years I misheard the men
say, Your mother is a whore,
thinking it was
something that swung open
so almost anything could enter
Oh sister, do not go
Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand.

But through the raw emotions, self-doubt, grief and heartache, Sotelo does offer small glimpses of hope for the abandoned. In Catullus’s version, Ariadne is saved by the god Bacchus who finds her wandering the shores of Naxos and whisks her away to heaven where she also becomes divine. In Sotelo’s version, “Ariadne plays the Physician”, she attempts to heal her own wounds:

We must set this story straight
We must say there is another angle

to this foreign particle

lodged in my ribs like a small ivory
tiger or a Chinese lamp, the oil

coating my bones. Theseus,
you know you didn’t break me.

Sotelo’s collection includes additional, brilliant reworkings of myth. Another of my favorites is “South Texas Persephone” which is a rather sad commentary on marriage that uses inspiration from the Demeter, Persephone and Hades myth. I am glad to have encountered such a raw, emotional, and passionate collection like Sotelo’s that makes Greek and Roman myth accessible to and relevant for a current audience.

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Filed under Classics, Poetry