Homeric Ariadne:
The Poetics of the Bridal Dance

Maria Sarinaki

The University of Texas at Austin

Ariadne occurs once in each Homeric epic. In the Iliad (18.590-606) Hephaistos models the dancing ground on the shield of Achilles on the one Daidalos made for Ariadne at Knossos. In the Odyssey (11.321-325) the narrator describes how Dionysos and Artemis kill Ariadne as she leaves Crete with Theseus. The brevity of these references and their different points of emphasis have obscured for commentators the significance of this figure in epic. In this paper, I examine the epic Ariadne in her immediate and broader narrative context, and propose the following: a) both accounts draw on the same thematic associations of Ariadne's myth; b) the correspondences between her status and that of the heroes indicate her generic function in epic; and c) her representation possibly alludes to her ritual background on Crete, and is suggestive for the literary construction of the island.

Ariadne's biography exemplifies the interface of orderly and perverted marital competition. In the Iliad, the structural and thematic analogies between the bridal dance and the homicide court (18.497-508) suggest that erotic rivalry may acquire extreme forms, such as the intervention by a third party, or even death. These themes are confirmed in the Odyssey: Ariadne, victim of the rivalry of Theseus and Dionysos, is the only heroine in the Nekyia whose marriage involves adjudication (cf. Dionysos' martyriai, 11.325); as such, she is balanced with Minos judging the dead (11.568-571). Ariadne's associations illuminate major events in both poems. Achilles' conflict with Agamemnon over Briseis, Helen's abduction by Paris, as re-enacted in the teikhoskopia, and the disrupted marriage of Hektor and Andromakhe may all be read as problematic versions of Ariadne's marriage ritual; Zeus balances these situations when he deceives Hera in the Apate (Il. 14.153-15.77) to symbolically restore his canceled union with Thetis. When Odysseus, on the other hand, emphatically reserves Ariadne for the end of his female catalogue, he cancels Nausika's expectations for a union, but is ultimately defending his marriage to Penelope. The bridal contest for Penelope ending with the death of the suitors integrates Ithake's political order in the cosmic order that Ariadne's dance encapsulates on the shield.

Moreover, in both cases Ariadne participates in solidifying cosmic boundaries: Achilles' shield displaces successional strife from gods to mortals, while the Phaiakes, the audience of Odysseus' Apologoi, become permanently dissociated from men shortly after he leaves Skherie. At the same time, Ariadne appears when both Achilles and Odysseus consciously choose their mortality, and so the possibility of winning undying kleos. The shield leads Achilles closer to his death, but also glorifies him in battle; similarly, through the narrative of his wanderings, Odysseus rejects the godlike Phaiakes for a nostos that entails his aristeia over the suitors. Since Ariadne herself experiences death before joining the gods, she shares the heroes' destiny, and oversees their transition. Ariadne's appearance in artistic contexts that reflect the self-consciousness of the poems as epic compositions (the shield and the Apologoi, respectively) reaffirms that she has a generic role in epic.

Homer's Ariadne, finally, alludes to broader Cretan themes. In the Iliad, her capacity to conquer death underlies Zeus' own 'death and rebirth' in the Apate, after which he asserts cosmic and narrative order. She thus evokes the Cretan tradition of Zeus as a kouros who dies and is reborn every year. In fact, the conjunction of dance and war on Achilles' shield alludes to the Kouretes who rescued the god on Crete. Ariadne thus designates the goal of epic to celebrate Olympian order. In the Odyssey, the mention of Ariadne right before Odysseus secures conveyance home thanks to his storytelling foregrounds his Cretan tales, which gradually rehabilitate a marginalized protagonist, and are the most prominent epic performances after the Apologoi. In performing the Apologoi and the Cretan tales, Odysseus undergoes a  'death and rebirth' comparable to that of Zeus and Ariadne. If in the Nekyia Odysseus insists on Ariadne's death rather than her immortalization, he does so to advocate Theseus' innocence. This apologetic stance to the Cretan myth is a Homeric innovation evidently dictated by our 'Athenian' version of he Odyssey.


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