Text of the Poem
Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Theseus is the son of King Aegeus of Athens. As a result of the murder of King Minos' son by the Athenians, Athens was been forced to send a tribute of young men and women to Crete to be sent into the Labyrinth as food for the fearsome Minotaur (a monstrous half-man, half-bull who also happened to be Ariadne's half-brother). Theseus came to Crete as one of the Athenian captives, vowing to kill the Minotaur and end the tribute. Ariadne fell in love with him, and Theseus promised to marry her if she would help him. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur, and found his way back out of the Labyrinth guided by a thread that Ariadne had given him. The two of them fled from Crete together. On the way back to Athens, however, they stopped at the island of Naxos, and Theseus sailed away, leaving Ariadne behind alone on the island. Ariadne writes to Theseus from Naxos, bewailing her loneliness and the hazards of her situation, reproaching Theseus for deserting her, and asking him to return for her.
The background to this letter involves the intertwined fates of two families: the family of King Minos of Crete, and that of King Aegeus of Athens. We should start with Aegeus.
Aegeus had been married twice, but had had no children. He went to the oracle at Delphi--the most famous source of prophecies in the ancient world--to ask for help. The oracle gave him an enigmatic response: he was told that he should not open the wineskin until he reached home. He did not understand the oracle, and on the way home he stopped at the city of Troezen. Pittheus, the ruler of Troezen, did understand the oracle, and he determined that his daughter, Aethra, should be the one to bear the prophesied child. He arranged for Aethra to sleep with Aegeus, and she became pregnant. (It should be noted that, in another version of the myth, the god Neptune slept with Aethra on the same night that Aegeus did, and that he, not Aegeus. was the true father of Aethra's child.) Before he left, Aegeus hid a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a large stone; he told Aethra that, if she bore a son, the boy should take the sword and sandals when he was old enough to lift the rock, and come to Athens. After Aegeus' departure, Aethra bore a son, Theseus.
When Theseus became a young man, he lifted the rock, took the sword and sandals, and set out for Athens. The safe and sensible route would have been by sea. However, Theseus was eager to prove himself, and so he chose the more dangerous land route. His journey took him across the Isthmus of Corinth, an area which at that time was infested with robbers and bandits of all descriptions. Theseus proved himself a hero by clearing the Isthmus of its most dangerous inhabitants.
When Theseus arrived in Athens, he found Aegeus married to Medea, one of the most famous sorceresses of the ancient world, and a woman with a bloody and unscrupulous past. She saw Theseus as a threat to the inheritance of her own son, Molossus. She persuaded Aegeus that this stranger was a danger to him, and so Theseus was sent to deal with the deadly bull of Marathon, which had been ravaging the countryside. When Theseus was unexpectedly successful in this venture, Medea prepared a cup of poison which Aegeus presented to Theseus at a feast. At the last moment, Aegeus recognized Theseus' sword, and knocked the cup from his lips. He accepted Theseus as his son, and Medea was banished.
Now we must go a little farther back in time, to the parents of King Minos (and the grandparents of Ariadne, the writer of the letter). Europa was the beautiful daughter of King Agenor of Tyre. Jove, the king of the gods, was enamored of her. Jove took the form of a beautiful white bull in order to approach her while she was on the seashore. By appearing to be very tame, he coaxed her to climb onto his back; he then swam off with her across the sea to the island of Crete. There Europa bore three sons, Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. When the sons grew to manhood, they had a dispute over who should be king of Crete. Minos prayed to the god Neptune to send a sign that he was the chosen one. Neptune sent a beautiful bull from the sea, with the understanding that Minos would sacrifice the bull to him. Minos became king because of Neptune's sign, but he was so taken with the beauty of the bull that he kept it, sacrificing an ordinary bull instead. As punishment, Neptune made Minos' wife, Pasiphae (the daughter of the sun-god Apollo--or in some accounts of the sun-god Helios), conceive an unnatural sexual desire for the bull. Pasiphae satisfied this desire by having the master craftsman, Daedalus, build a hollow replica of a cow; she climbed inside the cow, the bull mounted it, and Pasiphae bore a son that was half human and half bull--the Minotaur. The Minotaur was so savage and uncontrollable that Minos had to call Daedalus back to build a Labyrinth--a maze of passages through which the creature could wander, but from which it could never find its way out. Minos and Pasiphae also had three other children: a son, Androgeos, and two daughters, Ariadne and Phaedra. When Androgeos traveled to Athens and defeated everyone at the Pan-Athenian games, the Athenians killed him. In retaliation, Minos made war on Athens. As part of the peace settlement, he demanded tribute from the Athenians--seven young men and seven young women to be sent to Crete each year. These young people were sent into the Lanyrinth as food for the Minotaur.
It is at this point that Theseus first crosses paths with the family of Minos. Soon after Theseus settled down in Athens, he volunteered to be one of the seven young men sent to Crete, vowing to kill the Minotaur and end the tribute. When he arrived in Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him, and she offered to help him if he would marry her. She gave him a ball of string, one end of which he tied to the entrance of the Labyrinth. He then proceeded in, unwinding the string as he went. He killed the Minotaur and followed the string back out. (It should be noted that in some versions of the myth, Ariadne also supplied Theseus with a weapon to use against the Minotaur. In Ovid's version, however, he appears to have used a club--probably the huge club he took from Periphetes, one of the bandits he killed when he was crossing the Isthmus to Athens.)
Theseus and Ariadne then fled together from Crete. By helping Theseus, Ariadne had betrayed her father and could no longer stay in Crete, but she expected to return to Athens as Theseus' wife. Along the way, their ship stopped at the island of Naxos. While Ariadne slept, Theseus and the others set sail for home, leaving her stranded on the deserted island. There are various stories about why Theseus left without her. In some versions, the gods afflicted him with a sort of magical fit of forgetfulness and he just wandered away. In others, the god Bacchus, who was in love with Ariadne himself, asked Theseus to leave her behind. Some later versions of the story reject supernatural explanations altogether, and make Ariadne the victim of simple, cold-hearted desertion. In any case, Ariadne was left alone on the island, and it is here that she writes her letter, shortly after her abandonment by Theseus.
The later careers of Theseus and Ariadne are worth mentioning as well. While Ariadne was on Naxos, she was courted by Bacchus, the god of wine, fertility and song. Bacchus carried her off to the island of Lemnos and married her, and they had several children, among them Thoas, who became king of Lemnos. Thoas was the father of Hypsipyle, who is the writer of Heroides VI. Bacchus also took the crown which he had given to Ariadne and made it a constellation in the heavens.
Theseus became king of Athens in a rather tragic fashion when he returned from Crete. Before he set out, he had promised his father, Aegeus, that he would raise a white sail on his ship if he were returning safely. As he neared Athens on the voyage home, he forgot to raise the white sail. Aegeus, thinking his son was dead, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea from a high cliff. Thus Theseus became king, and the sea was thereafter called the "Aegean" Sea. Theseus had a number of other heroic exploits after he became king. He also later married Ariadne's sister, Phaedra. Phaedra conceived an incestuous passion for her step-son, Hippolytus, which is the subject of Heroides IV.
Lines 1-6: Ariadne opens the letter with an accusation: Theseus is harsher than "every kind of wild beast," and he has "betrayed" her by sailing away while she slept and leaving her abandoned on the island. She sets up several of the themes that are going to dominate the letter: the concern with wild beasts, the recurring emphasis on the ship by which Theseus left her, the notion that even her own sleep conspired against her, and the more general motif of treachery or betrayal.
Lines 7-16: Ariadne does not immediately pursue the accusations she set up in the opening section. Instead, she gives a vivid and personal description of her first discovery of her own isolation on Naxos. She starts by setting the time ("when the earth was first sprinkled with hoarfrost," etc.). Lying in her bed half-awake, she reaches out for Theseus and does not find him. She reaches out again, this time stretching her "hands all over the bed." Realizing that he is gone, she comes suddenly awake ("fear struck away sleep") and leaps up from the "widowed bed." The section closes with the actions that were the conventional signs of extreme grief in the ancient world, as Ariadne beats her breast and tears her hair.
Lines 17-24: In this section, Ariadne continues her narration of her abandonment. The section opens dramatically, with "There was a moon," and goes on to describe what she can see--"nothing but the shore." She runs back and forth along the beach, calling Theseus' name. She closes the section on a poignant note: the only replies she hears are echoes from the rocks, which she interprets as even "the place itself" wishing "to give help" to her in her misery.
Lines 25-36: This section opens like the previous one, with a simple declarative statement about the setting: "There was a mountain." She makes the difficult climb ("my spirit gave me strength") to an overhanging cliff and looks out to sea ("with a broad view scan across the deep waters"). She sees the sails of Theseus' departing ship. Once again she credits the natural world as being consciously involved with her plight; this time the "cruel winds" are conspiring against her to speed her lover on his way. She describes herself as "colder than ice and half-dead," but says that she was "aroused" but her "suffering" and shouts for Theseus to turn back. Once again the section ends on a pathetic note, as she complains that the ship "does not have all of her crew."
Lines 37-58: In this section, she continues with her description of her behavior after Theseus' departure. She continues trying to signal his ship. She calls out an beats her breast ("my blows were mingled with my words"); she waves at the ship ("I gave broad signals with my waving hands") and hangs her white dress on a tree limb to attract their attention. When the ship is finally out of sight, she weeps. She then goes on to describe her actions in the time since the morning of Theseus' departure. She has wandered wildly over the island, like a Bacchante, or worshipper of the god Bacchus. (The mention of Bacchus is interesting here, since Ariadne is supposed to have married Bacchus after Theseus' departure.) She has sat looking out to sea "upon the cold stone." She has returned to the bed to touch the place where Theseus lay, "watering the bed with flowing tears." She ends the section by once again accusing an inanimate object of being involved in her betrayal: "Treacherous couch, where is the greater part of me?"
Lines 59-74: In this section, she moves away from narrating the past to consider her present and future, asking "what am I to do?" The land is unihabited, and it is an island, without ships or sailors to enable her to escape. Even if she did have the means necessary to depart, "where would I go?" She cannot go home ("My native land forbids my approach"), even if she had a "fortunate ship" and "peaceful seas," because her homeland ("Crete separated out into a hundred cities") was "betrayed by my deed." She ends the section by reminding Theseus of what she has done for him and what he promised to her: she gave him the thread that guided him safely out of the Labyrinth, and he promised that "so long as we both live, you shall be mine."
Lines 75-88: In this section, she reproaches Theseus and gives a highly colored picture of the perils that she imagines around her. She opens with a heavily ironic echo of his promise: "We live, and I am not yours, Theseus." She tells him that he should have killed her as he killed her half-brother, the Minotaur, noting (again with heavy irony) that his promise would have been "dissolved by death." She describes her own sufferings, not only from being abandoned by the man she loves, but from the fear of death ("death has less pain than the delay of death"). She then describes all the perils that she imagines around her--wolves, lions, tigers, "great seals" from the sea, and the "swords" that no one will defend her from.
Lines 89-98: In this section, she goes on to further fears. She prays that she will not be "bound fast with hard chains" and made a slave, and she reminds Theseus of who she is--the daughter of King Minos, the granddaughter of the god Apollo ("Phoebus") and Theseus' own intended bride ("betrothed to you"). She then speaks more generally of her dangers ("many things threaten me"), extending her fears even to the empty sky ("I fear phantoms of the gods"). She ends the section by re-emphasizing her isolation ("I am abandoned"), and rejecting even the possibility of human aid--Theseus has taught her to "fear foreign men."
Lines 99-110: In this section, she turns from the threats of the present and future to regrets for the past. She starts with her brother Androgeos, whose death at the hands of the Athenians started the chain of events that led Theseus to Crete. She wishes that he were alive, and that Athens ("land of Cecrops") had never had to send its human tribute. She wishes that Theseus had never killed the Minotaur ("part man, part bull"), and that she had not helped him escape the Labyrinth ("the threads that showed your return"). She then directs bitter sarcasm at Theseus, saying that it is no wonder that he defeated the Minotaur, since "your iron heart could not be pierced by the horn." She closes the section by elaborating on this theme a little, comparing his heart to hard stone ("there you bear flint, there adamant"), and saying that he himself is even harder.
Lines 111-118: In this section, she shifts away from reproaching Theseus, and recounts the other "causes" of her betrayal. She starts with the inanimate objects she mentioned earlier in the letter: she blames sleep ("why did you hold me unmoving?"), and the winds that were "too well prepared" to carry Theseus' ship away. She then blames a part of Theseus himself, his "right hand," for killing the Minotaur ("my brother") and for figuratively killing her. Finally she blames Theseus' "promise" to marry her, noting for the first time that she was the one who asked for that promise ("given at my request"). She ends the section by summarizing the "three causes" of her betrayal ("sleep and wind and promise").
Lines 119-132: In this section Ariadne shifts again from past to future, imagining first the circumstances of her own death and then the triumphant arrival of Theseus in Athens. She emphasizes the loneliness of her coming end, without her "mother's tears" or even anyone to close her eyes or arrange her body after death. She imagines that sea-birds will "hover over my unburied bones," and reminds Theseus of the "kindnesses" that merited a better fate than this. Then she goes on to Theseus' arrival before the welcoming crowds in Athens ("port of Cecrops"), and imagines how he will tell of his combat with the Minotaur ("the man-bull") and his escape from the Labyrinth ("the building of rock cut in uncertain paths"). With a return to bitter irony, she urges him to tell also of her, "abandoned in an uninhabited land," so that she will not be "stolen from your honors." She ends the section with a renewed attack on his hardness, saying that Aegeus and Aethra were not his parents, but rather "the rocks and the sea."
Lines 133-144: In this section, she begins her final appeal to Theseus. She says that her "sad form" would have moved him if he had seen her from the "height of the stern" as he sailed away. Since he cannot see her now her now with his eyes, she urges him to visualize her "with your mind." She paints a vivid and pathetic picture of herself "hanging on a cliff," her "garments heavy with tears as if with rain." She describes her shuddering body ("like a cornfield struck by the north wind") and the trembling hand with which she writes the letter. She then says that she expects no reward for her help ("Let no thanks be owed for my deed"), but begs that she at least not be punished.
Lines 145-150: In this last section, Ariadne brings her final appeal to a climax. She reinforces the visual image of herself which she began in the last section. She presents herself as stretching out her hands to him from the shore, her hair torn and disheveled in grief, and she reminds him of her tears, "which your deeds have caused." As she closes the letter, she urges him one last time to "turn your ship," so that, at the very least, he can be the one to "bear away my bones."
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