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Ariadne auf Naxos

the myth, the opera, the painting


Ariadne auf Naxos by John Vanderlyn

The painting reproduced above gives some idea as to the reason why this Greek myth proved popular with poets and painters alike. To tell it in brief, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. She took a fancy to the Athenian prince and hero Theseus when he arrived in Knossos (on the island of Crete) as a human sacrifice, part of the tribute of seven youths and seven maids that Athens agreed to pay to Crete each year to end a disastrous war which Minos had waged against them in revenge for the death of his son, Androgeos, who had been murdered on the road between Athens and Thebes. Minos laid the responsibility for this murder on Athens. According to the myth, the luckless youths and maids were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a creature half-man and half-bull, who occupied a labyrinth which formed part of the palace at Knossos. The Minotaur itself was a product of the unnatural liaison that had taken place between Minos' queen, Pasiphaë, and a bull. But that's another story.

Ariadne gave Theseus a thread so that, once he had killed the Minotaur, he was able to retrace his steps out of the labyrinth. She then fled Crete with her hero, only to be abandoned shortly afterwards on the island of Naxos.


Ariadne abandoned on Naxos: engraving from an eighteenth century edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Ovid writes:

'In there (the labyrinth), Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man, and twice nourished it on Athenian blood, but the third repetition of the nine-year tribute by lot, caused the monster's downfall. When, through the help of the virgin princess, Ariadne, by rewinding the thread, Theseus, son of Aegeus, won his way back to the elusive threshold, that no one had previously regained, he immediately set sail for Dia (Naxos), stealing the daughter of Minos away with him, then cruelly abandoned his companion on that shore. Deserted and weeping bitterly, as she was, Bacchus-Liber (Dionysos) brought her help and comfort. So that she might shine among the eternal stars, he took the crown from her forehead, and set it in the sky. It soared through the rarefied air, and as it soared its jewels changed to bright fires, and took their place, retaining the appearance of a crown, as the Corona Borealis, between the kneeling Hercules and the head of the serpent.'

Ovid Metamorphoses Book VIII lines 152-182, translated by Anthony S. Kline

map of some of the constellations corresponding to Greek myth

Myths, of course, eschew historical accuracy as being of minor importance in the search for the truth, which requires above all a concordance between the human spirit and the physical world in which it lives and moves. The appeal to the stars is much more likely to find this concordance. Imagine yourself as a child listening to a storyteller who, having told his story, points upwards at the night sky to indicate just where Ariadne's crown ended up. What more proof do you need? There they are, the jewels of her crown, twinkling at you from above. And this type of apotheosis (the metamorphosis of an idea in the form of a character in a story into a pattern in the sky) applies not just to one story, but to many. The night sky becomes a catalogue of myths, the constellations an ever-present reminder of their stories, the stars themselves, like the myths they represent, forever radiating their subtle but powerful influence on our everyday lives. The greater truth lies in this concordance.

Titian (1488-1576) : Bacchus and Ariadne presently in the National Gallery, London

But to return to Ariadne. Her fate on Naxos was somewhat softened by the arrival of Dionysos (the Roman Bacchus) and his crew, who were responsible in the main for wild revels in nature, as the more rationally inclined King Pentheus found to his cost. Pentheus refused to accept that Dionysos was in fact a god,and bizarrely dressed himself as a woman then climbed a pine tree to observe what was going on in the Dionysiac rites being celebrated by, among others, his mother and his aunts. Having discovered him spying on them, the enraged Bacchantes tore the poor man limb from limb. Pentheus, of course, never got to the stars.


Ariadne got to marry Dionysos, and had children by him, according to one version of the myth anyway, though what it was like to be married to such a disorderly god is nowhere documented. In other versions, she hanged herself or died in childbirth. Myth is not required to be consistent. Indeed, it would seem impossible that it should be since the stories are put together at different times and by different people with no organising principle, conflated, revised, added to, subtracted from, misremembered, misrecorded, curtailed, extended, developed, summarised, and bowdlerised. The only editing principles are time and the chance of history. It's really a question of the survival of the luckiest.

Peculiarly, the opera Ariadne auf Naxos (music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal) has a similar much chopped and changed history, having been originally conceived as a thirty minute divertissement adjoined to a performance of Hofmannthall's adaptation of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and taking the place of the original Turquerie at the end of the play. It was then fleshed out into a work of ninety minutes. But this gave a total running time of six hours for the two works played together, and Hofmannsthall later suggested writing a prologue and playing the Ariadne as a standalone work. It is this version of the work which is now normally performed.

take your pick of extravagant productions of Ariadne auf Naxos

The gestation of the work is certainly strange, but the work itself is even stranger. The action begins with two groups of actors / singers who have been hired to give performances of two musical pieces after a meal that the richest man in Vienna is giving for some important guests. A serious opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, is to be followed by a slapstick piece of the Commedia dell'Arte, and this is to be followed by a firework display at nine o'clock sharp. After a heated exchange between the composer of the opera, sung by a female mezzo-soprano, and Zerbinetta, the main character of the Commedia dell'Arte troupe, in which they express conflicting views about the nature of art and music in particular, the major domo returns to announce that the plans have changed, and that the two pieces must be given together as the meal has overrun, and there is not enough time for one to follow the other. The man action, the play within a play, then begins with an aria sung by Ariadne lamenting the loss of Theseus in which she asserts that she is inconsolable. This is followed by an attempt by the members of the Commedia dell'Arte to cheer her up, and then a showy monologue by Zerbinetta in which she tries to convince Ariadne that she will get over her abandonment when she meets somebody new. The finale begins with the arrival of Bacchus, who has just escaped from the clutches of the magician / sorceress Circe (the enchantress who delayed Ulysees / Odysseus and turned his men into swine), and who Ariadne mistakes for Hermes, the conductor of souls into the underworld. In the event, they find an echo of their own sufferings in each other. Whether Ariadne marries Bacchus, hangs herself or dies in childbirth is a question that is left unanswered at the end.


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