Classics 430: Greek and Roman Mythology

Reading on Theseus and Ariadne

Catullus 64 (trans. T. Banks)

These lines come from a description of the wedding tapestry at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (again with the weaving!)

                This cloth, adorned with humanity's pristine images,
           shows with stunning art the greatness of heroes.
           Yes, looking out from the surf-booming shore of island Dia--
           at Theseus departing with his swift fleet--is gazing
           Ariadne, carrying uncontrollable rage in her heart.
           Not yet does she believe she sees what she sees--
           since she, just then first aroused from treacherous sleep,
           discovers herself abandoned, pitiful, on lonely sand.
           Yet, unmindful, the youth pushes the waves with his oars;
           escaping; leaving his worthless word to the laughing gale.
           The Minoan girl, at seaweed's edge, stares far, far out at him
           with suffering eyes. Like a Bacchante's stone statue she stares out--
           how sad!--and she swirls in great billows of hurt:
           blond hair not in place under delicate scarf,
           bosom not covered by thin outer dress,
           milk-white breasts not bound under smooth inner dress.
           All cloth, from her whole body fallen,
           the salt tide sports with at her feet.
           But not then for the fate of her scarf, not then for her swirling dress
           does she care, Theseus: with all her heart, with all her spirit,
           with all her mind the forlorn girl needs you.
           Ah, poor girl, with what ceaseless griefs rough Venus
           threw you down. She sowed in your heart the nettles of hurt
           on that day--from that day--when fierce Theseus
           left the curved shores of Piraeus, Athenian harbor,
           and reached the Cretan palace of unjust King Minos.
                Once, they say, King Cecrops' Athens was forced by cruel
           plague to pay the price for Androgeos' murder: was accustomed
           to give chosen youths and the loveliness of unwed maids
           together as feast for the Minotaur.
           Since his narrow city walls were shaken by these evils,
           Theseus himself, for the sake of his dear Athenians, yearned
           to put forth his own body, rather than let such living dead
           of Cecrops' land be borne to Crete.
           Thus, then, firm in the light ship, in gentle breezes,
           he came to proud Minos and his haughty palace.
           No sooner did Princess Ariadne gaze at him with glowing eye--
           she whom her chaste little bed that sighed sweet scents
           had raised in her mother's soft embrace
           (scents like the myrtles the streams of River Eurotas engender
           or like the spectrum of colors the spring breeze brings forth)--
           no sooner did she lower from him her incandescent eyes
           than she conceived throughout her body a flame,
           and totally, to the center of her bones, she burned.
           Alas, while you stirred her pitiful ragings with a pitiless heart,
           O divine Cupid, boy who mixes humans' joys with hurts,
           and you, Venus, who reign over the Golgi and leafy Idalium,
           on what billows you tossed the girl, her mind aflame,
           sighing over and over for her blond guest!
           How great the fears she bore in her barely beating heart,
           how much paler than the gleam of gold she turned
           when he, desiring to battle the fierce Minotaur,
           sought either death or the rewards of honor.
                She, not displeasingly to the gods, but still in vain,
           put forth her little offerings, lit her votives, silent-lipped.
           Just as on the peak of Mount Taurus the untameable tornado,
           twisting with its blast the strength of the limb-tossing oak,
           or of the cone-bearing, pitch-oozing pine,
           wrenches it out, and strewn far and from the root
           it falls headlong, shattering anything in its way,
           even thus did Theseus fell the beast, its body tamed,
           goring its horns through empty winds to no avail.
           Safe, then, and in high honor, he reversed himself.
           He guided his wandering steps with Ariadne's thin thread
           so that, as he left labyrinthine bends,
           invisible deception would not delude him.
                Why, though, would I depart from my poem's first theme
           to describe still more... to describe how the daughter left behind
           her sire's gaze, her sister's embrace, and at last her mother's
           (the mother rejoicing so futilely in her poor child)--
           how over all these Ariadne chose the sweet love of Theseus?
           Or how she came by ship to Island Dia's surf and shore?
           Or how her husband, going away with a heedless heart, left her
           while her bright eyes were conquered by sleep?
           Many times she, insane, they say, from her burning passion
           poured out words that howled from her deepest heart;
           that she in her sadness would then climb the steep mountains
           to extend her gaze across the huge seethings of the ocean;
           that then she ran out to the incoming waves of the shimmering
           salt sea, lifting soft skirts above her bare calves,
           pitiful, and make her last accusations
           her face wet, fighting shivering sobs.
                "So you've left me--you traitor! Me, taken from my family
           altars--you traitor! On a deserted beach! Theseus!
           So you go away, the power of the gods ignored,
           heedless--ah, accursed the false promises you are bringing home.
           Could no fact bend your cruel mind's plan?
           Was there no mercy in you at all
           --vicious!--so your heart might pity me?
           But this isn't what you once promised me
           with your seductive voice. You didn't urge me to hope for this!
           You said a happy marriage! You said our longed-for wedding!
           All of those mockeries the wind and air are shredding.
           From now on let no woman believe a man's sworn promises.
           From now on let no woman hope a man's talk is true.
           So long as their desiring minds are eager to get something,
           they swear to anything. No promise do they spare .
           But as soon as the lust in their desirous intent is gratified,
           they remember nothing they said, they care nothing for their lies.
                "Naturally I saved you, when you were involved in the center
           of death's tornado. I decided to lose my own brother
           before I'd let you down in your ultimate crisis--you liar.
           In return for that, I'm given to the beasts and birds to be torn apart:
           carrion, without burial, without even the ritual handful of earth.
           What lioness was it that birthed you beneath a desert cliff?
           What sea spat your fetus forth from its foaming waves?
           What quicksand Syrtis? What snatching Scylla? What monstrous
           Charybdis?--you giving gifts like these in return for sweet life!
           If our wedding was not to your heart's liking
           because you shied from a stern father's principles,
           well, you still could have brought me into your palace
           to be a household slave for you in welcome labor,
           to soothe your white soles with clear spring waters,
           to spread your bed with crimson cover.
                "But why do I, prostrated by evil, complain vainly to unknowing
           winds which, not gifted with senses,
           cannot hear or answer the words I send?
           But that man by now involves himself in the middle of the sea.
           There's no human in sight on this empty beach.
           Savage luck, all too triumphant in my last hour,
           begrudges ears for my wailings.
           All-powerful Jupiter, how I wish from the start
           the Athenian ships had never touched the Cretan shores!
           That the traitorous sailor, bringing deadly payment to Minos'
           untamed bull, had never tied his mooring on Crete!
           That this bad man hiding cruel plans under his sweet appearance
           had never rested in our palace--a guest!
           But where am I to go? Doomed, what sort of hope do I hold to?
           Am I to try for the Idaean mountains of Crete? No, severing me
           by wide abyss, the nasty swell of the sea comes between.
           Am I to hope for father's help, when I myself left him
           and followed a young man spattered with my brother's gore?
           Am I to console myself with my husband's faithful love--
           the one who is running away, arching lithe oars in the abyss?
           So then: a lone island, planted with no shelter.
           No passage away from sea lies open, since the waves surround.
           There's no idea of escape, no hope. All is mute.
           All is empty. All points to extinction.
           Yet my eyes will not cloud in death,
           feeling will not leave my exhausted body,
           before I--betrayed!--demand just vengeance by the gods
           and entreat the good faith of those above in my last hour.
           Therefore, you that punish with avenging price men's crimes,
           Furies, Eumenides, whose brows, bound with serpents for tresses,
           announce the rages of your panting chests,
           Be here! Be here! Respond to my complaints
           which I--pitiful I--am forced to bring out from my very bones,
           helpless, burning, blind with mindless rage.
           Since those are true-born from my deepest heart,
           do not allow my suffering to gutter out.
           Goddesses, may the same intent that left me behind, alone,
           defile Theseus himself and his own with death."

           After she poured out these words from her aching heart--
           demanding, though scared, punishment for savage crimes--
           the ruler of gods, with his unconquerable godhead,
           nodded assent. With that nod the earth and the rough sea
           shook. The cosmos brandished flaming meteors.

                Then great Theseus, with blinding smoke planted in his mind,
           dropped from his forgetful heart all orders
           which before he had held in constant mind.
           He did not raise for his sad parent the sweet symbols
           to show that he called safe at Erechtheus' port.
                For they say that once, as Aegeus entrusted to the winds
           his child who was leaving goddess Athena's walls by ship,
           he embraced the young man and gave him these orders.
                "My only child and more pleasure to me by far than life,
           child that I'm forced to send into uncertain perils,
           child only now come back at the last of my old age:
           Since my luck, and your hot bravery,
           snatch you from me against my will--my dimming eyes not yet
           filled with my son's dear form--
           not rejoicing with happy heart shall I send you,
           nor shall I let you carry symbols of favorable luck,
           but first I shall wring from my heart many laments,
           befoul my white hair with earth and the pouring of dust.
           Then I shall hang stained sails from the swaying mast,
           as what befits my griefs and torched intent
           is linen sailcloth dark with rust-red Iberian dye.
           But if Athena, templed at holy Itonus, who before has nodded assent
           to defend our lineage and the throne of Erechtheus,
           grants you may splatter your right arm with the blood of the bull,
           then see that these orders stay strong, secured in your mindful heart,
           and let no span of time blot them out.
           Immediately when your eyes look again on our hills,
           let your yard-arms lower the cloth defiled with mourning,
           let the twisted ropes raise sails gleaming white
           so with happy heart I may discern my joy as soon as it can be,
           when a fortunate time will bring you restored from exile."
                These orders left Theseus--though he'd held them before
           in constant mind--as clouds beaten by the blast of the winds
           leave a snow-capped mountain's airy summit.
           His father, seeking a glimpse from the top of the citadel,
           using up his worried eyes in endless weeping,
           no sooner spotted the cloth of the wind-filled sail,
           than he threw himself headlong from the height of the cliff,
           believing Theseus lost to pitiless fate.
                Thus fierce Theseus, entering the halls of his father's house
           now stained with death, received for himself the sort of grief
           he had brought with unmindful heart to the Minoan girl.
           She, then, pitifully looking out at the receding boat,
           wounded, was spinning convoluted cares in her mind.

                Then came swooping from somewhere Bacchus in his prime
           with his cult of Satyrs, with his mountain-born Sileni,
           seeking you, Ariadne, aflame with love for you.
           Then too came raving, quick and everywhere, molten of mind,
           with a "Bacchus!" the Bacchantes, with a "Bacchus!" convulsing
           their heads. Some brandished ivy spears with leafy points.
           Some tossed pieces of a ripped-apart bullock.
           Some wreathed themselves with coiled snakes.
           Some with deep baskets were celebrating mysterious rites,
           rites that the uninitiate desire in vain to hear.
           Others were striking drums, their palms raised high
           or were stirring shrill chimes with polished brass cymbals.
           Horns were blowing hoarse blasts from many mouths
           and primitive flutes squealed a bristling tune.