Ariadne was a princess of Crete, daughter of Minos, the king that created the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur. There is a dark family history here–the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, was the son of a pure white bull and the queen, Ariadne’s mother. He was a monstrous creature who devoured innocent men and women, and so was imprisoned within a dark and twisting labyrinth far beneath the palace.
The hero Theseus arrived from Athens intent on destroying the monster. For love of him, the princess Ariadne betrayed her father and family and promised the hero her help. She gave Theseus a ball of red thread, and told him that if he would unwind it as he made his way through the labyrinth, he would then be able to follow the thread out again.
Did Theseus need the red thread? Or was Ariadne’s gift one of hope and comfort? A labyrinth, unlike a maze, is not always a place of dead-ends and twisting turns. A labyrinth may be a direct, although curving, journey to the center of the self, a winding path that is nevertheless sure in its destination and in the return. It is, in fact, a mirror of our own lives. We can see ourselves as lost in a frightening maze, unsure of the terrors around the next corner. Or we can see ourselves in a true labyrinth, in which we cannot see what lies ahead but know we will ultimately be led to the center of our souls, and back again. The fact that we cannot see what is coming next is the gift of time.
We fear that, buried deep within our souls, far below the realm of our daily lives, there lives within us a beast, an unknown and unfaced aspect of ourselves that cannot be controlled. But into the labyrinth we must go, as Theseus did, to face the part of ourselves that we would hide.
Whatever the Minotaur represents, and whether his home was a maze or a labyrinth, Theseus took Ariadne’s thread with him and was able to slay the beast. On finding his way safely out, from darkness into the light, he stole away with Ariadne, sailing back towards Athens with the promise that he would make her his wife.
And then he left her, alone and sleeping, on the shore of a small island. Some versions of the tale say he was unwillingly swept away in a storm, in grief over her loss; others that he had no care for her and abandoned her at the first opportunity. And yet other versions claim that he was forced to leave by the God of Wine, Dionysus, who loved her and desired her for himself.
When Ariadne awoke, alone on the sandy beach, she thought herself abandoned and betrayed, whatever the reality might have been. She had left her family, her home, her life, to sail away with a man who did not or could not love her as she loved him. She did not realize that, whatever Theseus’ intent, a better future awaited her. One in which she was the chosen, the beloved, of a god, brought into the heavens and made a goddess in her own right. Her wedding crown, the Corona, was placed in the night sky as a constellation, as a tribute to the endless love between Dionysus and Ariadne.
Like Psyche, Ariadne could not have known what future awaited her; none of us can. But it is usually better than we could ever hope or imagine.