Ariadne – Origin Story, Family & Festivals

In Greek mythology, Ariadne is generally seen as the consort of Dionysus, the god of wine and religious ecstasy

In Greek mythology, Ariadne is a significant figure known for her crucial role in assisting Theseus, the heroic prince of Athens, to defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth. The Minotaur was a fearsome creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, and it resided in the labyrinth beneath the palace of Knossos in Crete.

World History Edu explores the myths surrounding Ariadne’s birth story, meaning, worship, festival, significance, and symbols.

Who are Ariadne’s parents in Greek mythology?

Ariadne’s parents are King Minos of Crete and Pasiphae, his queen. King Minos was a powerful and influential ruler, and Pasiphae was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the oceanid Perse, making her a granddaughter of the Titan Oceanus.

Read More: The Children of the Titans Tethys and Oceanus

The Minotaur: Ariadne’s half-brother

Her mother, Pasiphae, is known for her tragic involvement with the Cretan Bull, leading to the birth of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature that Ariadne would later help Theseus defeat.

A monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, the Minotaur resided in a labyrinth built by the architect Daedalus. Image: Pasiphae and the Minotaur

The story begins when King Minos offends the sea god Poseidon by refusing to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to him. In anger, Poseidon punishes Minos by causing his wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the same bull. Pasiphae’s unnatural desire for the bull leads her to seek the help of the master craftsman Daedalus.

To fulfill Pasiphae’s unusual desire, Daedalus constructs a realistic wooden cow in which she can hide and approach the bull discreetly. This peculiar union between Pasiphae and the bull results in the birth of the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man but the head of a bull.

Minotaur in Greek Mythology

The Minotaur thus becomes Ariadne’s half-brother, as they share the same mother, Pasiphae. Ariadne, despite being part of the powerful royal family of Crete, is indirectly connected to the creation of this terrifying creature.

The Minotaur and the Labyrinth

The Minotaur, being the product of Pasiphae’s unnatural relationship, has an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

As a result, King Minos, appalled by the creature’s monstrous nature, consigns the Minotaur to a dark and intricate Labyrinth constructed by Daedalus. Located deep beneath Minos’ palace, the Labyrinth is designed in such a way that the Minotaur can never escape its confines.

King Minos of Crete demanded that Athens send seven boys and seven girls as a tribute every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Ariadne and Theseus

Determined to put an end to this grisly tradition and save his fellow Athenians, the hero Theseus decided to take matters into his own hands. He bravely volunteered himself as one of the tributes, offering to be sacrificed to the Minotaur in place of another young Athenian.

Upon arriving in Crete, Theseus met Ariadne, who fell head over heels for the Athenian hero.

Ariadne decided to help him by providing a ball of thread, known as the “Thread of Ariadne,” which he could use to find his way out of the labyrinth after defeating the Minotaur.

Determined to save the lives of the 13 other youth, Theseus is said to have volunteered to be the first youth to make his way into the giant maze.

How did Ariadne help Theseus defeat the Minotaur?

Ariadne’s love for Theseus compelled her to aid him in his quest. With the Thread of Ariadne, Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and navigated his way out of the labyrinth, saving the other Athenian youths.

Labyrinth in Greek Mythology

A Roman mosaic picturing of the Athenian Theseus slaying and the Minotaur in a Labyrinth

Betrayal and Abandonment

After their escape from Crete, Theseus, Ariadne and the Athenians sailed away. However, some accounts suggest that Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. The Athenian hero had promised to marry the Cretan princess. The reasons for his actions vary in different versions of the myth.

In one version, the god Dionysus, who was in love with Ariadne, appeared and convinced Theseus to leave her on Naxos. Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, and theater, and he wanted Ariadne to become his divine bride. Therefore, he may have influenced Theseus’s decision to abandon her.

Another interpretation is that Theseus left Ariadne behind for political reasons. Marrying Ariadne, a Cretan princess, might have complicated his plans to secure his claim to the throne of Athens. In some versions of the myth, Theseus was already betrothed to another woman, Phaedra, and had to return to Athens to fulfill his political obligations.

Ariadne asleep at Hypnos’s side. Detail of ancient fresco in Pompeii.

A heartbroken Ariadne

Ariadne, feeling betrayed and abandoned, expresses her anger and heartbreak in a letter to Theseus in the Latin poet Ovid’s “Heroides,” a collection of letters from heroines of mythology addressed to their respective lovers.

In her letter, Ariadne accuses Theseus of using her for his own gain, taking advantage of her assistance in defeating the Minotaur, and then callously leaving her behind without acknowledgment or gratitude.

Her lament in “Heroides” captures the pain of a woman who gave her heart and support to a hero, only to be discarded and forgotten.

This portrayal of Ariadne highlights the vulnerability and emotional complexity of characters in Greek mythology and reflects the broader theme of human relationships, with all their triumphs and tragedies.

Marriage to Dionysus

Despite her heartbreak, Ariadne’s story took a divine turn. The god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, discovered her on Naxos and fell in love with her. They eventually married, and Ariadne became the bride of Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry, and theater.

Dionysus and Ariadne

Bacchus and Ariadne, Italian painter Guido Reni, c.1620

Ariadne’s children

Ariadne and Dionysus brought forth a number of prominent sons, including Oenopion, Staphylus, Peparethus, Thoas, Phanus, Eurymedon, and Phliasus. For example, Eurymedon went on to become one of the Argonauts.

The constellation Corona Borealis

In the myth, Dionysus gifts his new bride a number of jewelries, including a magnificent crown. The myth goes on to say that Dionysus turned the crown into the constellation Corona Borealis.

Ariadne’s death and ascension to Olympus

In Homer’s epic poem, the “Odyssey,” Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, undergoes a perilous journey back to his homeland of Ithaca. During his travels, he visits the Underworld and encounters various shades or spirits of the deceased. Among these shades, Odysseus sees the ghost of Ariadne.

In the Underworld, Odysseus learns that Ariadne has met a tragic fate. The specific reason for her death is not explicitly mentioned in the “Odyssey.” However, it is said that Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon, was involved in her death, though the exact circumstances remain unclear.

According to some accounts, Dionysus retrieves Ariadne from the Underworld, just as he had done with his mortal mother, Semele. He then ascends with her to the divine realm of Olympus, where the gods reside, making her immortal and granting her a place among the deities.

In another version, Dionysus’s transformation of Ariadne’s crown into the constellation Corona Borealis (or the Northern Crown) in the night sky immortalizes her presence in the heavens.

How is she depicted?

One common depiction of Ariadne is her sleeping on the island of Naxos. This scene captures the moment when Theseus has abandoned her, and she wakes up to discover that he is gone.

Another common depiction features Ariadne with Dionysus. The images of Ariadne and Dionysus together represent their divine union and immortalize her as a goddess or divine figure, joining the ranks of the Olympian gods.

Ariadne’s association with Dionysus is further emphasized in Greek pottery, particularly vase paintings. These paintings often depict scenes of Bacchic rites, which are rituals and celebrations in honor of Dionysus. In these scenes, Ariadne is portrayed alongside Dionysus, surrounded by his maenads (female followers) and satyrs (male followers), engaged in joyful and ecstatic revelry.

Also, Ariadne is closely associated with mazes and labyrinths due to her prominent role in the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Ariadne as the consort of Dionysus: bronze appliqué from Chalki, Rhodes, late fourth century BC, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.


In Greek art and mythology, Ariadne is associated with several important symbols that reflect her role and significance in the stories surrounding her. Two notable symbols associated with Ariadne are the red thread and the dancing floor.

The red thread is one of the most iconic symbols linked to Ariadne. It represents the “Thread of Ariadne,” which she gave to Theseus to help him navigate the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur.

The dancing floor, crafted for Ariadne by the renowned inventor Daedalus, holds significance in Greek art and mythology. It is described in Homer’s Iliad, specifically as part of the elaborate scene created on the shield of Achilles by the god Hephaestus. The dancing floor symbolizes beauty, creativity, and cultural expression.

Her festivals

Ariadneia (ἀριάδνεια) festivals were ancient Greek religious celebrations dedicated to honoring the mythological figure Ariadne. These festivals were observed in two prominent locations associated with Ariadne: the island of Naxos and the island of Cyprus.

In Naxos, the festival commemorated Ariadne as the daughter of King Minos, who was abandoned on the island by Theseus after helping him escape the Labyrinth and the Minotaur.

According to ancient Greek historian and biographer Plutarch, there was a belief among some Naxians that there were two Ariadnes: one who died on the island of Naxos after being abandoned by Theseus, and another who was later married to the god Dionysus and became immortal. This dual belief may have been influenced by local variations of the myth and differing interpretations among the island’s inhabitants.

Significance of her myth

Ariadne’s tale encapsulates the complexities of human emotions and the capriciousness of divine interventions in Greek mythology. Her love for Theseus, her assistance in his quest, and the subsequent betrayal and abandonment demonstrate the often turbulent nature of relationships between mortals and gods.

The story also highlights the transformative power of divine intervention, as Ariadne found new love and became a significant figure in the divine realm as the wife of Dionysus.

Other myths about Ariadne

The Vatican Sleeping Ariadne

Ariadne’s aunt, Circe, is another notable figure in Greek mythology. She is a powerful witch known for her ability to transform men into swine, as seen in Homer’s Odyssey when she encounters Odysseus and his crew. Circe’s magical prowess and her interaction with the heroic figure of Odysseus make her a memorable character in Greek literature.

Ariadne’s cousin, Medea, is yet another significant figure with a tale that shares some similarities with Ariadne’s story. Like Ariadne, Medea assists a hero in achieving legendary feats. She provides Jason and the Argonauts with a magical salve and instructions, enabling them to steal the Golden Fleece from her father, King Aeëtes of Colchis. However, Medea’s story takes a tragic turn when she is later deserted by Jason.

The idea that Ariadne may have been a weaving goddess, akin to Arachne, has been proposed by some scholars based on her associations with thread-spinning and winding in Greek mythology. This theory is supported by the mytheme (a recurring narrative motif) of the Hanged Nymph, which appears in certain artistic and mythological contexts.

The Roman author Hyginus, in his work “Fabulae,” identifies Ariadne as the Roman goddess Libera. In Roman mythology, Libera is the equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone, the daughter of Ceres (the Roman equivalent of Demeter) and the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone, like Libera, is associated with vegetation, growth, and the changing seasons.

Ariadne and Phaedra

Also in the myths, Phaedra – Ariadne’s sister – grows up and later marries Theseus. However, she faces a complex and tragic dilemma. Despite being married to Theseus, Phaedra falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Hippolytus is Theseus’s son from a previous relationship.

Phaedra’s unrequited love for Hippolytus sets off a chain of tragic events. In some versions of the myth, Phaedra struggles with her forbidden feelings and wrestles with shame and guilt over her emotions. Unable to bear the burden of her secret love any longer, she confesses her feelings to a confidante or servant.

The revelation of Phaedra’s forbidden love becomes a catalyst for tragedy. Depending on the version of the myth, her confession reaches Theseus or Hippolytus, leading to a series of misunderstandings and confrontations between the characters.

In Euripides’ Greek tragedy “Hippolytus,” the situation culminates in a terrible fate for Hippolytus. In this version of the myth, after hearing of Phaedra’s feelings for Hippolytus, Theseus becomes enraged and falsely accuses his son of committing an act of betrayal or impropriety. Theseus then invokes a curse or divine punishment on Hippolytus, leading to his tragic death.

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