Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ariadne by Waterhouse

It is a beautiful summer evening on the Greek island of Naxos. We see an adolescent girl sleeping as a boat pulls away from the jetty. The girl’s hair is loose, her tunic in disarray, her cheeks flushed with heat, and she occupies only half the couch. The poppies by her head hint at drugged sleep. It is obvious that she and her boyfriend have been making love. But where is her lover? His garland is there, at the foot of the couch, but he is gone. He is in the ship that is moving out to sea, already catching the wind to sail into the sunset. Having used and abused the girl, he is now abandoning her. When she wakes she will go mad with grief, despair and rejection.

She is Ariadne, the beautiful Cretan princess who risked her life to help Theseus. Having permanently cut her family ties through devotion to the Athenian prince, she then gave herself to him: body, heart and soul. But he used her and deflowered her, and now he is abandoning her.

Poor Ariadne. Who will console her? We know that the beautiful and dangerous god of wine will soon come to her. In fact, he must already be here, just beyond the edge of the picture. We see his pet leopard prowling the foot of her bed. But the leopard is not looking at the girl. The big cat is intent on something beneath the couch. His gaze draws ours and we notice, for the first time, a sleeping female leopard, curled up at Ariadne’s feet. The male leopard eyes her with intense desire. I imagine his master, the god of wine, is just out of our picture on the left, eyeing the sleeping girl with the same intensity. When Ariadne wakes and realises her young Athenian lover has abandoned her, she will tear her hair and beat her tender breasts. What will the leopard’s divine master do? Will he immediately take the distraught girl in his arms and let her vent her rage? Or will he wait until her grief and rage are spent? Will he hold himself back until her self-inflicted scratches and bruises heal and her hair is combed again, and only then console her with love and wine?

We know from a poem of Ovid (Heroides X) that Ariadne will wake that night and see the ship in the distance by the light of the full moon. She will beat her breast and tear her hair and run back and forth over the island in a frenzy of grief. Ovid imagines the letter she might write. She begins by telling Theseus that mitius inveni quam te genus omne ferarum: ‘Every wild beast is gentler than you’. But later she confesses she is she is terrified that there are wild beasts or wild men on the island who will hurt her. She does not know what we know, that a god will find her and console her, and that they will be happy together... far as any abandoned woman can be happy who finds her consolation in Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

P.S. The Roman Mystery which comes closest in tone to this painting is The Sirens of Surrentum, a book about passion and poison in Sorrento, midsummer of AD 80. See also my blog on the Villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento.

P.P.S. If you liked reading about Waterhouse's Ariadne, you might enjoy my blogs about some of his other treatments of figures or scenes from Greek Mythology: Circe, Orpheus, Adonis, Narcissus, Hylas and the Nymphs.

P.P.P.S. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.


  1. We here in the states are hoping that we can still teach this heartbreaking myth, even though Cat. 64 is no longer on our advanced Latin syllabus; I'll be looking to weave it into poetry in III or IV, along with, as you mention, Heroides X.

  2. That was beautifully written.

    Thank you Caroline.

  3. Thanks so much, Gary! Watch this space for Hylas and the Nymphs, tomorrow!

  4. That was a amazing story. I love your books by the way.

  5. Gratias ago, Esther! Thank you!

  6. Molly Ann6:50 PM

    I read your comments above and was wondering...Will there be another myth tommorow, and many one following that? I just found that really interesting!

  7. Yes, Molly Ann! There will be one every day this week!

  8. He may well have been the God of Wine and Ecstacy, but of all the gods and goddesses the only one who is never accused of unfaithfulness. Often portrayed as a young old boy. The ecstasy of Dionysius especially in the mystery religions as far as anyone can repiece them is not associated with drunkenness, but communion. There is an old tradition perhaps Plato picks it up of using the story of Eros and Psyche to describe the journey of the soul. But Ariadne is a better tale of human progression. Catullus bases his long poem around her. There was a very interesting book of a PhD comparing his shorter poems with the long one. He does seem to identify with Ariadne. And there is that posh voiced art critic in Blightey when asked to say who was the fairest, that the painting of Ariadne and Dionysius in the National Gallery is the painting of the most beautiful woman in the world. I remember a fragment of Nietzsche just the line of sadness from Dionysius as he tugs gently at her earlobes, you are beautiful my beloved but would that these were a little longer. But Nietzsche is not to everyone's taste. And of course he'd wait, he is a patient lover though probably before she recombed and tied back her hair, but that's a guy thing.