Ariadne’s Realm

For those who know the Greek myth of the Minotaur, the usual heroes are Daedalus, the master artisan who creates the labyrinth imprisoning the Minotaur, and Theseus, the young Athenian prince who risks his life in entering the labyrinth and killing the Minotaur, the half-human beast. Ariadne, who possesses the magic ball of string that allows Theseus to enter the labyrinth safely, seems to have a secondary position in the story. Yet, she is a remarkable character.

Daughter of King Minos, Ariadne freely gives the ball to Theseus, supposedly her father’s enemy. Her independence of mind and generosity of spirit disguise her connections to magic and to chthonic (underworld) forces. First, she is the daughter of Pasiphae, who has been made to lust after a bull and bears its child, the Minotaur. Ariadne also becomes the indirect instrument of her half-brother’s death through her assistance to Theseus. Later in the story, after she has been betrayed by Theseus, she is rescued by Dionysus. Dionysus, the dark, androgynous god of passion and nature’s unfettered energy, links her by association to Western-style tantrism.

By all accounts, the bacchanalia were tantric rites open only to women. Her abandonment by Theseus speaks of a development from an heroic, masculine-dominated world-view to a tantric, feminine-dominated way. Her transformation is also seen as a form of glory, for upon her death Dionysus hurls her jeweled crown into the heavens, where the gems turn into stars. This act seals her immortality, and suggests she is a bridge between the microcosm (through her connection to earthbound energies) and the macrocosm (as a stellar presence).

As an immortal, Ariadne has her own rites across the Mediterranean world. However, she also has a universal significance, for her story constellates a number of themes, each of them important to art, and an enormous amount of information around herself as master of pattern. What are some of these themes?

* the mystery of the labyrinth. It is her ball of thread that defeats the intricacies of the labyrinth, and this information tells us her knowledge is precise and mathematical.

* interconnectedness. Not as a soft metaphor, but as a precise way of interpreting reality and navigating the patterns that connect widely diverging phenomena.

* weaving and knitting, and by extension, the various crafts that comprised women’s creation of the world. Such activities as carpet-making, knitting, basketry, and quilting went beyond practical considerations, for they helped form community, recorded narratives symbolically, and created beauty.

There is definitely a sense in which some of the mysteries of Ariadne are for women alone. Saskatchewan artist Martha Cole has been making “healing blankets,” quilts that are given to women in need, and afterwards, returned, and then passed on. After years, several women have a shared experience with a particular healing blanket, and, invisibly, their story becomes a part of the work. For such work to be related to Ariadne, immersion in craft is not enough. There must be a journey to the core, that the mechanics of spinning, weaving, basket-making, quilting also put into motion a journey into one’s inner depths, and, upon completion of the piece, a journey into the outer depths of the world through presentation.

Furthermore, the mechanisms of knitting, weaving, and basketry involve the transformation of chaos into order, as individual strands are changed into the unified structure of the piece. When the materials are natural and specially chosen by the maker for their aesthetic as well as functional qualities, then the paradigm extends deeper and broader. Since the activity is basically physical rather than intellectual, the body has to incorporate any understanding before it can be transmitted through the work. No traditional craft is conceptual.

The labyrinth has had a revival of sorts in the late twentieth century with forms and ceremonies enacted throughout the Western world. Part of the attraction is in the recognition that the labyrinth is a potent symbol. Aside from its ancient pedigree as emblem and dance, the labyrinth has a spiral shape whose associations include human anatomy. The brain, for example, has a layered spiral motif that could very well be a labyrinth, the intestines too. Reason and passion therefore have a common imagery with respect to their complexity. The labyrinth-like inner ear shows us that sound and language must travel a defined route that helps shape aural experience.

The labyrinth is a powerful meditation device, both through movement and through stillness. In that way, anyone contemplating the labyrinth with deep attention and a sense of the possibilities of the form can travel to interesting places inwardly.

The indirect connections between art and the labyrinth are suggestive. First, the unchanging shape of the labyrinth makes it a strong symbol of order. The myth tells us that the labyrinth contains at its heart the Minotaur. As an image of chaos and disorder, the Minotaur is a fearful reminder that order, at its extreme, contains chaos and danger, much like repression evokes violence. For the artist there is the fascination of pushing materials and ideas to their limits, and the reminder that all voyages into the heart of order encounter the beast. The beast may be as simple as the accidental destruction of the work, or it may be what the artist encounters within because of a particular phase of work.

Secondly, the metaphor of the ball of thread connects both the power of attention in its ability to lead us safely anywhere and the power of mathematics to comprehend structure. Golden section math, Pythagorean harmonies, Platonic solids, fractal geometry organize information into patterns that are pleasing and insightful. Formal analysis of traditional art, particularly Renaissance art, shows how many paintings are effective because they have been constructed on the principles of the golden section. Today, such principles are generally out of favor, but many artists, including Agnes Denes, Dorothea Rockbourne, and Rhonda Roland Shearer, have used mathematics as significant themes in their work.

Thirdly, the labyrinth works as an antidote to fear. We know that aboriginal societies throughout the world have been motivated in part to create masks as protection against malevolent forces. After his study of African art, Picasso began working for a time with such motifs in mind. (Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, among others, shows the influence of Yoruba and other African art). Similarly, just as masks are a prophylactic against demons, the labyrinth is a form of order that also functions as a trap. It houses the Minotaur beast, and, in fact, was made to keep the monster imprisoned. The labyrinth, as a multi-layered symbol, can function, therefore, as the equivalent of a “dreamcatcher.” Instead of catching dreams, the labyrinth catches monsters. The labyrinth evokes the idea, then, that forms can be created to house or divert specific energies not considered suitable for the community.

Aside from its ability to trap demonic energies, the labyrinth is also a symbol for finding the center in oneself. Its shape reminds us everything is a current. The same current of awareness links inside to outside simultaneously. Cognition in time connects origin to death in all phenomena: the acorn is the oak is the acorn. Such a passage is the labyrinth. Cognition in space connects point to dimension through line. Currents of expansion and contraction create the universe we see.

The labyrinth theme leads us to the theme of interconnectedness. In the world of the Greek myths, everything really is connected. People, events, and inanimate objects are connected across time in ways unusual to the modern mind. Gods take the form of animals to ravish human beings, and generations later, wars begin, monsters are born, heroes die. The cycles of connection and karma go on in such complexity that it is almost impossible to keep all the relationships to even one myth in mind. The world of the Greek myths is a paranoiac’s delight as it is an artist’s fascination.

Arbitrarily, we can point to the story of Leda, who is possessed by Zeus in the form of a swan(in Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” she is raped by the divine). She has no choice before the demands of the transcendent. Generations later, the consequences of this action by Zeus lead to the Trojan War, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to the birth of the Minotaur. A moment of passion leads to great suffering and difficulty for thousands, changes history, and brings new relationships between gods and humans.

What does such a view mean for us? We live in a world where much is compartmentalized, so that the facts of socio-economic reality, the world of dreams, the realm of the divine, the domain of nature–all these are separate and distinct. For a person in the twenty-first century to move easily between the world of consumerism to the world of magic and animism requires certain skills that are difficult for us to conjure.

Interconnectedness means in Ariadne’s world that details of personal history are connected to the particulars of nature, and that the cosmic and the mundane are related. This connection is not vague or arbitrary but precise.

The image of the labyrinth would seem, at first, to be unrelated to the phenomena of cracks. The mathematics is different, and the appearance of a structured order in the labyrinth is different from the appearance of cracks that disappear and then re-appear elsewhere. However, through attention, particularly through dance and music, one can move across the boundaries and understand that mapping can take many forms. Ariadne’s realm is both the domain of experience and the conscious gestures of bringing those ideas from the underworld into safe manifestation.

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