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Theseus and Ariadne in Naxian Identity

Zeren Ataçocuğu | Newcastle University

“Beautiful Ariadne, the daughter of cruel-hearted Minos, whom once Theseus was bringing from Crete to Athens, but he had no joy of her.” (Homer, Odyssey, 11.321)

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520 – 1523), Titian. Oil on canvas, 69x75”. National Gallery: London.
‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520 – 1523), Titian. Oil on canvas, 69x75”. National Gallery: London.

Myth and identity in the ancient world were often intimately connected; the stories communities shared could reflect their ideas of self and understanding of their origins. The myth of Theseus and Ariadne was one such story known throughout ancient Greece but found special significance in its telling on the island of Naxos. The traditional myth of Theseus and Ariadne is as follows.

Theseus was the son of the Athenian king Aegeus, who set out to Crete to kill the Minotaur. This half-bull, half-human beast liked to feast on human flesh and famously lived in the labyrinth beneath the palace of Minos, the Cretan king. With the help of the king’s daughter, Ariadne, Theseus successfully slays the beast and flees Crete, taking Ariadne with him. On their journey back to Athens, Theseus and Ariadne used the island of Naxos as a stopping point due to its central location in the waters between Athens and Crete. Here, Theseus betrayed Ariadne and continued on his journey alone, abandoning her. Dionysus, the god of wine and merriment, found Ariadne and carried her away into the mountains. The renaissance painter Titian chose to depict this moment of abandonment; Ariadne can be seen on the left despairing as she watches Theseus’ ship sail into the horizon, and Dionysus appears, draped in a red cloak and accompanied by a band of revellers, ready to carry her away.

Myths in the ancient world were not just stories. They were a powerful tool, working to form ideas of identity and belonging and playing an important role in the religious customs central to ancient Greek culture and society. The stories that formed these myths bound together those who told them. Over many generations of word-and-mouth transmission, they became deeply complex and meaningful things fundamental to ancient Greek peoples’ and communities’ understanding of themselves.

Both Theseus and Ariadne are named in the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems attributed to Homer dating between the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE; as such, we can date the origin of the myth to at least this time period, although it could be reasonably assumed it is even earlier in date.

During the late fourth and early third centuries BCE, authors native to Naxos produced written works about their homeland. These works have not been preserved in their own right but survive to the modern day in the form of fragments, which are preserved in other works of historical writing produced by other ancient authors. These fragments were collated by the scholar Felix Jacoby in the twentieth century and provide valuable insight into what it meant to be a citizen of Naxos. The prominent themes in these fragments include the agricultural richness of the island, narrative history especially concerned with the Persian wars, the events of the mythical past and the appearance of gods and heroes on the island. Naxos is one of the largest and most central of the Cycladic islands of the Aegean Sea. The Cycladic islands and Naxos can be seen below.

Map of Greece and the western coast of Turkey. The Cycladic islands are shown in red, and Naxos is marked with an X.
Map of Greece and the western coast of Turkey. The Cycladic islands are shown in red, and Naxos is marked with an X.

“Theseus, seeing in a dream Dionysus threatening him if he would not forsake Ariadne in favour of the god, left her behind him there in his fear and sailed away.” (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 5.51.4)

In the Naxian authors’ discussion of this myth, two key divergences from the traditional narrative arise. One fragment details that instead of leaving Ariadne behind with malicious intent, Theseus was threatened by Dionysus in a dream which caused him to flee the island in fear. After which Dionysus took Ariadne into the mountains and married her. Throughout the Naxian fragments, Dionysus is often spoken about and his importance on the island is clear; we are even told that the god was born and raised on the island. The increased agency Dionysus held in the myth’s Naxian account reflects the importance of the god on the island. It showcases a Naxian sense of ownership over the myth and the god.

Another fragment, which survives through Plutarch, a Greek author writing during the first century CE, speaks of two Ariadnes, both journeying to Naxos but experiencing a different fate. One was abandoned by Theseus and died on Naxos; the Naxians subsequently honoured her with a cult and religious ceremonies which were mournful and focused on the sorrow of her tale. The other Ariadne had a much happier fate. After being carried into the mountains by Dionysus, she married the god, and they went on to have children together. This Ariadne also received a cult and religious worship, but hers was full of merriment and celebrated fertility. In this example, we can see the myth being used to rationalise the religious practices of the island, their adaptation of the myth expressing their distinctive cultic rituals. However, we must be mindful that this account was preserved by Plutarch writing centuries after the Naxian authors. Different accounts of Ariadne’s fate within the Naxian community also demonstrate how changeable Greek myth could be and how it was constantly adapting to reflect the needs of the peoples and communities interacting with it.

‘Ariadne’ (1898), John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas, 35x50", private collection. The pair of leopards seen sleeping alongside Ariadne represent the wildness of Dionysus.
‘Ariadne’ (1898), John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas, 35x50", private collection. The pair of leopards seen sleeping alongside Ariadne represent the wildness of Dionysus.

When we consider the Naxian author’s account of the myth, it is important to remember that the fragments were preserved by other authors, who chose which aspects of the Naxian original works to include in their own. In this way, the Naxian account of the myth is preserved to the modern day. So it is possible, and most likely, that pieces of information or sections of writing have been lost to the ages or were omitted. As a result, interpreting what the Naxian authors intended to communicate can be difficult.

It is worth clarifying that in the ancient period, the country of ‘Greece’ and its unified national identity, as we understand them in the modern world, did not exist. Instead, citizens of the city-states and islands in the area we now know as Greece would identify first and foremost as being from their city, region, or island. Affiliation to a broader collective identity was still present to some extent but of lesser importance. That being said, Greece’s ancient people and communities were unified by shared language and religion, so some sense of ‘Greekness’ existed. We can see the Naxian treatment of Theseus and Ariadne reflecting this ancient conceptualisation of identity.

Something considered as an event that galvanised ‘Greek’ identity in the ancient world was the Persian invasion of Greece in the fifth century BCE and the subsequent threat posed by the Persian Empire, which lay to the east of mainland Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea. In c.480 BCE, the Persians burned the city of Athens, and this was seen as an attack on the fundamental elements of Greek religion and culture. This meant that any communities and peoples who identified with this religion and culture were united against this foreign and threatening force, Naxos included.

The Delian League was formed after the combined Greek forces had defeated the Persians and as a response to this threat. This league was comprised of hundreds of city-states and communities, under the leadership of Athens. It was given its modern name as it was on the island of Delos, a neighbour of Naxos, where the league had their official meeting place and treasury. Eventually, the Athenians moved these to Athens and began acting more like the head of an empire rather than a member of the league. This prompted Naxos to rebel against the league in c.476 BCE. As punishment, Athens then removed all of Naxos’ navy to weaken the islands’ military independence.

Interior scene of a fifth-century BCE Athenian kylix (drinking cup). Greek hoplite fights a Persian warrior, who can be identified by his distinctive patterned clothing. National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Interior scene of a fifth-century BCE Athenian kylix (drinking cup). Greek hoplite fights a Persian warrior, who can be identified by his distinctive patterned clothing. National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The Naxian authors recording their version of the myth were writing roughly 200 years after these events, so they would have still been present in the communal memory of the island. An oral version of the Naxian account may well have existed before the written records appear in the third and fourth centuries BCE. With this historical context in mind, the Naxian account of Dionysus terrifying and chasing off the Athenian Theseus takes on new significance. The myth may have been shaped by this communal history and helped to form the idea of Naxian identity that we see in their works. Through their account of the myth in which Dionysus forcibly drove Theseus from the island and took Ariadne away for himself, the negative attitude of the island towards the power Athens had held over it is made clear.

The production and export of wine can also be seen to have had an impact on Naxian identity. In the ancient world, wine was drunk in a social context, mostly among men, and its consumption was often dictated by religious ceremonies and rituals overseen by Dionysus. He was the god of wine and viniculture, as well as merriment, and he had special significance on Naxos as the island’s extremely fertile land meant that high-quality grapes could be grown and fabulous wine could be produced. This wine was one of the island’s main exports and was known throughout the Greek world for its high quality. So the prominence given to Dionysus in the Naxian version of the myth is a reflection of the real-life experience of Naxian citizens.

There is even one fragment which details that wine gushed out of the earth on Naxos, which infers Dionysus was part of the very fabric of the island and this close link was further manifested through the island’s production of wine. Evidence for domesticated grape pips from the early Bronze Age, circa 2,500 BCE, exists on Naxos. Similar evidence also exists on Crete, suggesting both islands had been producing and trading wine for many generations before the Naxian authors recorded this tale. This link between the islands is present in the myth, with Ariadne being a Cretan princess and the pair making their journey over the sea from Crete. In the Naxian treatment of the Theseus and Ariadne myth, Dionysus takes on a more prominent role, and the links with fertility are emphasised, a reflection on the history of wine production on the island; the pride in the quality of this export contributing to Naxian civic pride. This civic pride is translated over into mythic pride in the Naxian version of the myth.

This sense of Naxian individualism is apparent in the fragments. Still, the sense that they considered themselves a part of the wider Greek world, united against the Persians, is also present. It was not only Naxos that claimed to be a stopping point for Theseus and Ariadne; many of their neighbouring islands also had similar claims. Ownership over the myth, created by the presence of the Naxian experience, which reflects their connection with Dionysus and dual worship of Ariadne, not only asserted their individualism but also tied the island into competition with its neighbours. Additionally, claiming such an important role in a myth told all over Greece and emphasising the actions of Dionysus, who was a well-known god throughout the Greek world, meant that through their treatment of this myth the Naxians bound themselves to the wider cultural and religious traditions of the Greek world at the time. Therefore, the local Naxian mythos connected them to the wider Greek world whilst simultaneously maintaining their individual identity.

Elsewhere in the Naxian fragments, another theme shows the Naxians firmly asserting their identity as Greek. Naxian authors state that the Naxians had repelled Persian attacks on the island on two occasions and that their forces had been present at both the battles of Salamis and Plataea, key events in the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece. This defeat of the Persians was a critical event in unifying the Greek city-states. The use of myth in local identity can be seen as part of a wider, collective cultural response to the shared trauma of the Persian invasion. This is displayed in the Naxian account of the Theseus and Ariadne myth as its unique details indicate that the Persian invasion and the subsequent formation of the Delian league helped to shape it.

Overall, the Naxian account of Theseus and Ariadne’s journey shows us how the Naxians interacted with their history as well as Dionysus and the mythical past. By analysing their narrative of the myth, we can try to understand how they used and manipulated these stories and events to communicate how they perceived themselves and their communal identity; rare insight is provided into what it may have meant to be a Naxian nearly 2,500 years ago.


Further Reading:

  • Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  • Irad Malkin, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • Madeline Miller, Circe (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

  • Stephen Fry, Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece (London: Michael Joseph, 2018).

In my four years at Newcastle University, I have undertaken a BA in Ancient History followed by an MA in Classics and Ancient history. My research interests primarily focus on Hellenistic history and numismatics, as well as ancient Greek culture and society in the Archaic and Classical periods.

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