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54 pages 1 hour read

Jennifer Saint

Ariadne

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Ariadne is a 2021 fantasy novel by Jennifer Saint that retells one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology: Theseus’s defeat of the Minotaur. Saint studied classics at King’s College in London, and her novels provide a reimagining of these famous tales through the lens of the women who are traditionally overlooked or overshadowed by male heroes. In doing so, she investigates gender roles and expectations in ancient Greek society, challenges notions of heroism, and gives voice to the unsung heroines of these classic stories. Ariadne was Saint’s debut novel and has received great critical acclaim since its release.

This guide refers to the 2022 paperback edition published by Flatiron Books.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions or mentions of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, violence against children, child death, and suicide.

Plot Summary

Ariadne takes place in ancient Greece, on the island of Crete. Crete is ruled by the ruthless and tyrannical King Minos, and the novel opens with the story of his conquest of the kingdom of Megara. He kills its king, Nisus, when Nisus’s daughter, Scylla, falls in love with Minos and divulges the secret to her father’s defeat. In the wake of Minos’s victory, however, Minos ties Scylla to the back of his boat and drowns her as punishment for betraying her father. He goes on to wage war on the city of Athens, and the god Zeus aids him in his conquest by sending a devastating plague across the city. Athens has no choice but to accept King Minos’s demands; they must send seven young men and seven young women every year as sacrifices to a creature living in a labyrinth beneath the palace of Knossos in Crete.

Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos and half sister to this creature—the legendary Minotaur. She recounts the story of how the Minotaur came to be: Poseidon, god of the sea, sends King Minos a sacred bull to sacrifice in his honor. Minos’s decision to keep the bull rather than sacrifice it insults Poseidon, who afflicts Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, with lust for the sacred bull. She enlists the palace’s inventor, Daedalus, to construct a realistic wooden cow for her to hide within to trick the bull into mounting her, and she becomes pregnant with its child. This humbles King Minos and brings shame and scandal upon the whole family. 

Pasiphae shrinks away in shame during her pregnancy and gives birth when Ariadne is 10 years old. The child is part human, part bull, and Pasiphae names him Asterion. Ariadne does not view the creature with revulsion but rather sees him as her brother and hopes he could be “civilized” one day. She and Pasiphae care for him, but as he grows and becomes harder to contain, Daedalus constructs a labyrinth beneath the palace to house him. The creature lives isolated beneath the palace, feeding on the 14 youths from Athens once a year. 

When Ariadne is 18, hostages from Athens arrive. She and her sister, Phaedra, immediately take notice of Theseus, the prince of Athens who has volunteered as a sacrifice to the Minotaur. The sisters are infatuated with him, and Ariadne seeks Daedalus’s help to guide him safely through the Labyrinth, though she betrays her family in doing so. Daedalus gives her a ball of red twine. Ariadne gives Theseus the twine and instructs him on how to navigate the Labyrinth; in exchange, Theseus promises that he will help Ariadne and Phaedra escape from Crete and that he and Ariadne will marry. Theseus successfully defeats the Minotaur and guides all the hostages out of the Labyrinth unharmed. Ariadne escapes with him, leaving Phaedra behind on Crete. They sail to the deserted island of Naxos, but the morning after their arrival, Ariadne wakes to find Theseus has abandoned her on the island.

In the wake of the Minotaur’s defeat, Phaedra witnesses Daedalus escape the palace using wings he constructed. The news of both Theseus’s and Daedalus’s escapes reaches King Minos, and he immediately sets off to find his inventor. His son, Deucalion, arrives to rule in his stead and brings Phaedra news of Ariadne, provided to him by Theseus: He tells her the goddess Artemis killed her in her sleep. To improve relations with Athens, Deucalion has arranged for Phaedra to marry its king—Theseus, who now rules in the wake of his father’s death. Phaedra does not trust Theseus’s account. Still, she takes on an active role as queen of Athens and marries Theseus when she comes of age, becoming pregnant with his child. 

Meanwhile, Ariadne is saved when Dionysus, god of wine, arrives on Naxos. He treats Ariadne kindly and names her guardian of his island whenever he is traveling. He returns from one of his travels to bring news of Phaedra: She is safe and betrothed to a great prince. Ariadne and Dionysus develop a relationship, and Ariadne is comforted by the knowledge that Dionysus has a gentler nature than other gods or great heroes. Young women, called “maenads,” flock to the island to worship Dionysus and seek freedom from the oppressive men in their lives. Ariadne and Dionysus marry, and she bears him five sons.

Eventually, Phaedra discovers the truth about her sister’s fate and her marriage to Dionysus, but the birth of her son prevents her from traveling to Naxos. She despises motherhood and resents that her child resembles Theseus. When she gives birth to her second son, she experiences the same lack of maternal feeling.

Ariadne has a much easier time adjusting to motherhood, and life is peaceful until she realizes that her husband’s rituals with the maenads have taken a macabre turn; she catches the young women washing blood out of their robes. Before she can ask about this, she notices a ship arriving from Athens: Phaedra has come. The sisters reunite, and Phaedra tells Ariadne everything that has happened outside of Naxos. She talks about Hippolytus, Theseus’s son by an Amazonian princess, who came to live with them in Athens. Phaedra has fallen in love with him, but Ariadne warns her that she risks scandal if she reveals her feelings. Phaedra gets defensive and promptly leaves Naxos.

Dionysus returns from his travels, perturbed by his mortal half brother Perseus’s refusal to allow his worship in the city of Argos. Ariadne soon finds that his rituals involve sacrificing animals so Dionysus can bring them back to life, and this horrifies her. She sails to Athens to see Phaedra again and deter her from acting on her feelings for Hippolytus. 

Phaedra greets Ariadne but still plans to confess her feelings to Hippolytus. She speaks to him while Theseus is away, but he rebuffs her advances. Humiliated and fearing he will tell Theseus, Phaedra hangs herself. Theseus returns, and he and Ariadne run into each other. The two of them find Phaedra’s body and a note with Hippolytus’s name on it, and Theseus assumes Phaedra died by suicide because Hippolytus raped her. He calls upon Poseidon to avenge her, and Hippolytus is killed.

Ariadne returns to Naxos and to Dionysus. They set sail for Argos so Dionysus can confront Perseus. Dionysus, desperate to gain the city’s worship, brings a frenzy upon all the women of Argos. To demonstrate his power over life and death, he has them kill their own babies. The city immediately prepares to fight. Ariadne charges straight for Perseus to ask him to leave Naxos alone, but upon his shield is the head of Medusa, whose gaze turns onlookers to stone, and Ariadne locks eyes with it and is petrified. A grieving Dionysus turns her into a star in the night sky, makes peace with Perseus, and leaves the island of Naxos to women and children only. Ariadne listens to the prayers of women, and her sons go on to lead quiet, peaceful lives.

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