Review of “Ariadne: A Novel” by Jennifer Saint

Ariadne is another retelling of Greek myths, this one from the perspective of the women involved in the stories. It seeks to redress the ways in which these stories have traditionally been told from the male point of view, and focuses on “the price [women] paid for the resentment, the lust and the greed of arrogant men.” This book turns the tale of Ariadne into a “herstory.”

In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a princess of Crete, daughter of King Minos and brother of the Minotaur.

Poseidon, the powerful god of the sea, had sent a magnificent bull to King Minos to sacrifice to Poseidon, acts of sacrifice and praise being very important to the gods, even if they have to provide assists. Minos wanted to keep that very fine bull for himself, so he sacrificed a different, and inferior, creature. Poseidon retaliated by afflicting Minos’s wife Pasiphae with a bizarre passion for the bull Poseidon had sent, such that she even mated with it. Out of this unholy union between Pasiphae (Ariadne’s mother) and the bull, the Minotaur was born. The Minotaur, a ferocious creature that was half man and half bull, preferred a diet of human beings.

As Ariadne learned, “What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear. . . . Our fear. That was how the gods grew great.”

Moreover, as Ariadne observed, when gods want to punish a man’s actions, they come for the women. Besides the story of what happened to her mother, she was particularly affected by the tale of Medusa. At first Ariadne knew of Medusa only as a monster with a head full of snakes who turned anyone who looked at her to stone. Then her handmaiden Eirene told her the real story of Medusa, originally a virgin priestess in Athena’s temple. Medusa, whose beauty drew people to the temple (much to Athena’s chagrin) was raped by Poseidon (a recurring villain in this story) right in Athena’s temple, thus defiling the temple as well as Medusa. Who gets punished for all that? Why the woman of course:

“Athena struck Medusa’s hair and crowned her instead with living snakes. She took her beauty and made Medusa’s face so terrible that it would turn onlookers to stone. And so Medusa rampaged . . . .”

Eventually Perseus, a son of Zeus known as the slayer of monsters, chopped off Medusa’s head and used it as a weapon against his enemies. Medusa thus continued to pay the price for men’s actions.

Medusa, by Pieter Paul Rubens

Minos coveted the same kind of “greatness” the gods had. He wanted power and he wanted to display his dominance to the world by demanding sacrifices. He was proud of the fear and hatred he elicited among his people, because it made him god-like. He conquered Athens and required its people to send a tribute each year – seven Athenian youths and seven Athenian maidens. These young people were used to feed the Minotaur, who was kept, for everyone’s safety, far below the ground in the center of a labyrinth built by Daedalus, the skillful architect and craftsman of Greek mythology.

In the third year of tributes from Athens, one of the youth that came to Crete for sacrifice was the prince of Athens himself, Theseus. Both Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra were immediately smitten. They snuck out at night to see him, concocting a plan with the assistance of Daedalus to help Theseus kill the Minotaur and escape. Theseus agreed that afterwards, he would take the girls with him back to Athens.

Thanks to the sisters, Theseus killed the Minotaur, but tricked the girls. He misled Phaedra about the meeting point, and abandoned Ariadne to die on the island of Naxos. He furthermore arranged it so they wouldn’t know he had done it all on purpose.

Just as Ariadne ran out of food and water, the half-god Dionysus arrived on Naxos, restored food and water and wine to the island, and courted Ariadne.

Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, 1826, by Jean-Etienne Ramey, marble, Tuileries Gardens, Paris

Back in Crete, a new king was needed: Minos had run off to find Daedalus, who left in disguise for fear of his life. Ariadne’s mild-mannered older brother Deucalion took over the throne. Deucalion arranged for Phaedra to go to Athens to become the wife of Theseus. Phaedra accepted, thinking Ariadne dead, and not yet aware of Theseus’s treacherous and self-serving nature. As she got to know who and what Theseus really was, she only felt happy when he left on his travels. Theseus, as Ariadne later assessed, was like Minos:

“[He] emulated the worst of the immortals: their greed, their ruthlessness, and the endless selfish desires that would overturn the world, as though it were a trinket box, and plunder its contents for a passing whim because they believed it belonged to them anyway.”

Ariadne was able to find contentment on Naxos, however, in spite of the trick Theseus played on her. She and Dionysus married and began to have children. Neither she nor her sister Phaedra knew what had happened to the other. When they found out and reunited, each negatively impacted the other. In particular, Phaedra sowed seeds of doubt in Ariadne about Dionysus and what he did when he was away from Ariadne.

Ariadne and Dionysus had a bigger problem of course, about which they often spoke: he was immortal, but she and her children were not; would he still love her when she was old? Would he be able to bear the pain of losing all of them when they died? Dionysus always wondered why “mortals bloomed like flowers and crumbled to nothing.” How, he asked, could everything they once were be extinguished so completely and “yet the world did not collapse under the weight of so much pain and grief?” But he also concluded this was the source of the appeal of mortals – “human life shines more brightly because it is but a shimmering candle against an eternity of darkness, and it can be extinguished with the faintest breeze.”

As for the gods, Dionysus explained to Ariadne, “their passions do not burn brightly as a mortal’s passions do, because they can have whatever they desire for the rest of eternity. . . . Nothing to them is more than a passing amusement, and when they have done with it, there will be another and another and another, until the end of time itself.” All of the brightness of mortals appealed to Dionysus, at first.

Dionysus, god of wine and revelry

Ultimately though, the evanescent nature of humans got to Dionysus:

“Being a god and loving mortals means nothing more than watching them die. I know that all too well. . . . Can you blame me for thinking it better to garner the love of a thousand mortals instead, to hold the adoration of a city instead of one consort’s frail, mortal flesh?”

Ariadne mused:

“ . . . if I had learned anything I had learned enough to know that a god in pain is dangerous. . . . What was I to do now that my god-husband was ravenous for the company of all the women of the world, now that the love we had built together seemed to cause him only pain?”

She soon finds out, and the story ends – like many Greek stories – tragically for the women involved.

Evaluation: Saint’s writing is excellent and evocative of the style of Greek mythology. She gives the usual obeisance to Homer in his use of the expression “wine-dark sea” in the Iliad and the Odyssey. She adds a similar construction of her own when Ariadne says of her baby: “he slept, milk-drunk and dazed, against my skin.”

The inequalities for women that Saint draws attention to are, unfortunately, timeless – still today women are blamed for their own rapes (“she must have been asking for it”) and men are feted as heroes when often their deeds were dependent on the contributions of women. While many of the injustices recounted in the book are perpetrated by men, Saint doesn’t address the fact that some are by female gods. Even though they are angry over misdeeds of men, they too blame other women instead of the men. And yes, still today, when men are unfaithful, wronged women often direct their hatred at ‘the other woman” rather than at the men who betrayed them.

Saint also depicts more general and timeless matters that affect everyone: relationships among families and between partners, the importance of trust, the conflicting joys and pains of children and the guilt it inspires in mothers (but not so much in fathers) and the challenges of aging. These are all issues that remain of importance and interest, making this book an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Flatiron Books, 2021

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