Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ariadne and Theseus

According to Greek legend, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, gave a magic ball of twine to Theseus so he could find his way into and out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Theseus was an Athenian and was selected as one of the seven youths and seven maidens that were sacrificed each year as their tribute to Crete. Athenians were growing tired of this as you might suspect. He successfully slew the Minotaur and returned to Crete and made Ariadne his wife, as he had promised. Then he snuck away back to Athens while she was asleep.

Prior to 14oo B.C. Crete was the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean and bull worship was common in its religion, so this legend probably symbolized that. The capital of Crete had a great palace called Knossos with so many rooms the less sophisticated Athenians may have thought of it as a labyrinth. Why Theseus snuck away from his bride has no known connection to history.

Traditionally, Athens is thought of as early Greece, but no early culture considered itself Greek. For most of modern history, it was thought that this was the legend of how the Greeks overthrew the Minoans. Fairly recently archaeological evidence included a written language found in Crete that was similar to Greek, known as Linear B. This seemed to confirm it. That archaeologists even wrote to the then King of Greece saying, “I have seen the face of your ancestors”, neglecting to remember that the King was of Danish descent. When Linear B was better understood, and additional digging was done, it was determined that the people of Crete had conquered the Athenians.

This is the trouble you get into when you go on a fact finding mission with a pre-determined notion that you are going to prove a legend. There are surely truths to be found in that legend. There will also be falsehoods and parts that make no sense at all. The trouble begins when you look at a legend as a coherent story written by a single author. This has been a common practice for thousands of years.

On the other hand, once you have determined that a legend has been altered by multiple authors, or it was handed down verbally and altered before it was written down, or there are language translation errors or discovered other ways to discredit the accuracy of the legend, that does not necessarily need to lead to completely dismissing it. For one, it is all we have of voices from our own history. For another, the reasons for why it was altered, or what cultures combined to make it what we have today can be rich and illuminating stories in themselves.

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