Jacqueline Doyle

Ariadne on Naxos

"You will go to the haven of Cecrops; but when you have been received back home, and have stood in pride before your thronging followers, gloriously telling the death of the man-and-bull, and of the halls of rock cut out in winding ways, tell, too, of me, abandoned on a solitary shore." Ovid, "Ariadne to Theseus," Heroides

After centuries, after so much else has faded, my memory of Naxos remains vivid. It was beautiful there. And desolate. Rocks jutted on the shores of the island, amid piles of silver driftwood and pockets of white sand. The ocean stretched in all directions, seemingly endless. Some days it sparkled in the sun, calm, a lapis blue striated with turquoise and green. On others the dark, choppy waters foamed with whitecaps, and waves lashed the shore. Wind stirred the sand and blew my hair, leaving me chilled and shivering. The air smelled of salt. Gulls circled in the slate gray sky with raucous cries.

I scanned the horizon for the far off shape of your returning ship, searched my dreams for omens. For months I sat watch there on the beach, though deep down I knew you weren't coming back. I'd sensed no premonitions of your abandonment. You were so tender. Night after night you held me close and cradled me in your arms. "My love," you crooned, "my sweet Ariadne-love. Don't ever leave me. Stay close to me forever. Promise your love is eternal." And I promised gladly, never dreaming you would be the one to leave, never imagining you could betray me. I searched the stars for an explanation, but tears blurred my vision.

1. Ariadne's Thread

"[Ariadne] pleaded with Daidalos to tell her the way out of the labyrinth. Following his instructions, she gave Theseus a ball of thread as he entered. He fastened this to the door and let it trail behind him as he went in. He came across the Minotauros in the furthest section of the labyrinth, killed him with jabs of his fist, and then made his way out again by pulling himself along the thread." Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca

I made you a hero, Theseus. Young, virile, you boasted of your prowess, and it's true you slew the Minotaur with your bare hands. But you would never have emerged from Daedalus's cunning labyrinth alive without the magic thread of my love.

You promised marriage. Do you remember? Yet you took me from Crete and then cast me from you, broke the silken thread that connected us without a backward glance. Did you ever think about Ariadne after you sailed away? How many battles did you fight, how many women did you wed, how many children did they bear?

We overhear stories from earth in the afterlife, listen to the whispered gossip, the historians as they read their chronicles aloud, the scholars who follow with their murmured emendations and additions. I've heard tales of kidnappings and rapes—your abduction of Anaxo, ravishing of the daughters of Sinis and Cercyon, marriages to Periboea, Phereboea, Iope, and my own sister Phaedra. Some say it was your passion for Aegle that led you to desert me on Naxos, and your rape of Helen that brought war to Attica.

An old man reflecting on your life, did you feel my tears fall on your chest, my heart beat as you relived our embraces, or did all the women blur together to become one unending conquest?

2. The Revenge of Artemis

"And Phaedra and Procris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of wizard Minos, whom Theseus on a time was bearing from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens, yet had he no joy of her; for Artemis slew her ere that in sea-girt Dia [Naxos], by reason of the witness of Dionysus." Homer, The Odyssey

Some believe I met my mortal end on Naxos. All the rest may be stories or dreams, dreams inspired by stories. Odysseus, they say, encountered my shade in the Underworld and reported my murder at the hand of Artemis. We had desecrated the cave of Dionysos by making love there, you and I, and she slew me with a rain of arrows as I struggled to bring our child to birth. As I labor to remember my life, so long ago now, I can feel shooting pains, see blood, the crescent moon above her brow, but is it death I recall, or something else? Memory has so many winding corridors, the real story lost in the shuffle of possibilities, always just around the next corner.

3. Ariadne's Marriage to Dionysos

"Theseus had just sailed away, and left without pity the banished maiden asleep on the shore, scattering his promises to the winds. When Dionysos beheld deserted Ariadne sleeping, he mingled love with wonder, and spoke out his admiration . . . Then Bacchos comforted Ariadne, lovelorn and lamenting, with these words in his mindcharming voice: ‘Maiden, why do you sorrow for the deceitful man of Athens? Let pass the memory of Theseus; you have Dionysos for your lover, a husband incorruptible for the husband of a day!'" Nonnus, Dionysiaca

Was there no child of ours after all? Did I live instead to marry Dionysos? My memories are vaguer here, the accounts of historians so confusing and various. Is it only because of what I've heard that I can imagine waking to his cool shadow on my warm body on the beach, see his silhouette surrounded by the dazzling light of the sun?

They say he loved me beyond reason.

They say I forgot my faithless lover, intoxicated by my immortal groom.

They say I bore him four sons. If there were daughters, they are lost to history.

I remember holding infants in my arms, the piercing love I felt. Or did I imagine those children in the long dream of death? And whose children were they? I search the histories, memory's only archive, and find the names of all of Theseus's and Dionysos's lovers. Not one of my children is named.


Jacqueline Doyle's flash has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Sweet, Vestal Review, The Rumpus, Café Irreal, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction has earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online here.

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