Dr Leon Burnett
‘Reading the strands of Ariadne’s story’
Centre for Myth Studies Open Seminar, 17 March 2016
by Dr Ben Pestell
The latest in the Centre for Myth Studies seminar series provided an occasion to consider the unique character of myth from the perspective of the centre’s founding director, Dr Leon Burnett. The seminar series is an extension of the Myth Reading Group, co-ordinated by Dr Pietra Palazzolo. These meetings offer vital opportunities for exploring the international occurrence of, and the interdisciplinary responses to, myth. A brief introduction by the current director of the centre, Professor Roderick Main, emphasized Dr Burnett’s key role in the development of myth studies at Essex. Leon established the undergraduate and postgraduate courses in myth studies, and has worked on two major international conferences, two edited collections (the latest being Translating Myth due shortly from Legenda), and – not least – the long-standing reading group. Leon’s involvement with these various activities at all levels of academic enquiry have contributed to a compelling account of the affective power of myth which he presented to us this evening, using the myth of Ariadne as an exemplar.
The paper’s title is carefully worded, announcing two connected areas of investigation: the strand and the story. Ariadne is associated with two strands, and Leon questioned whether a narrative story is the best medium for her myth. The two strands represent the thread which was Theseus’s salvation and the strip of beach where she was abandoned by him. Although ‘strand’ is a comparatively modern word, the two senses are mythologically related as mutually supporting motifs: the former as the clew which saved Theseus and thereby brought Ariadne to Naxos, the latter as the site where Ariadne found succour in Dionysus.
For Leon, the story of Ariadne begins on Naxos with Theseus’s departure. Up until then, she plays a supporting role to the Athenian’s heroic narrative. Sources largely agree that Ariadne was daughter of King Minos of Crete, and that she assisted Theseus in his quest to kill the minotaur of the labyrinth, and in return Theseus pledged marriage to her, but abandoned her on the island of Naxos. At this point – as Plutarch noted – accounts diverge. The general direction of her myth tends in this direction: Dionysus wedded her, and she (or her crown) was placed among the stars (a ‘catasterism’) as the constellation Corona Borealis. Naxos, Leon argued, is the nexus: the point from which the linear narrative of Theseus gives way to the pictorial myth of Ariadne; the liminal point – a threshold at the edge of the land and sea.
Doorway of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Naxos, Greek Cyclades Islands (photo by Leon Burnett)
The distinction between linear and pictorial media was clarified by Leon’s description of the mythological status of heroes and gods. Theseus has a biography: a clarity of narrative. There may be structural patterning and parallelism, but all as part of a linear story. On the other hand, the stories pertaining to Dionysus, for example, do not fit in to a narrative series of events. This argument is supported by Walter Otto (in Dionysus: Myth and Cult
) for whom ‘genuine myth’ is not found in ‘little stories’ or allegory but in the image or symbol. The mythic, for Leon, is located in this liminal space of gods and paradox, and the liminal cannot be narrated. As he said, ‘the indispensable medium of narration is time’ and the liminal experience is not in time. This is exemplified by Ariadne’s catasterism: the arc of Corona Borealis, or Northern Crown, is the antithesis of the linear thread.
Corona Borealis, Bootes. Image © T. Credner & S. Kohle, AlltheSky.com
Yet this myth is expressed in narrative poetry, and Leon drew on several versions which translate the mythic image into a narrative form. In Catullus and Nonnos, Ariadne awakes on Naxos in despair and anger at her desertion by Theseus. Her emotional discharge gives vent to her voice: she finds a speech which was absent during her supporting role in the tale of Theseus. Nonnos, moreover, has Ariadne finding the coexistence of joy and sorrow in loving Dionysus, in much the same way as Dionysus embodies the paradox of ecstasy and terror (a trait in common with other gods and myths). Leon led us in a wonderfully rich discussion, effortlessly encompassing literary and artistic treatments from Plutarch to Eliot, and from black figure vases to de Chirico. The latter’s multiple representations of the statue of recumbent Ariadne in his lonely, colonnaded townscapes perfectly evoke the ungraspable enigma of her epiphanic myth.
Amidst his evocation of myth’s non-narrative, emotional logic, Leon also invited us to reflect on a moment in Catullus’ poem (64) which beautifully brings the mythic to earth in describing the weaving Fates (trans. A. S. Kline):
The left hand held the distaff, wound with soft wool,
then the right, drawing out the thread lightly, shaped it
with upturned fingers, then, twisting it under the thumb,
turned the level spindle in smooth rotation,
and often a plucking tooth made the strands equal,
and fragments of wool, that once projected
from the light threads, clung to their dry lips:
and, before their feet, bright wool from a soft fleece
was guarded by a basket woven of willow.
The image of the thread clinging to dry lips activates the scene so clearly that limiting barriers between myth and lived experience suddenly evaporate. Leon’s illustration of the mythic power of the image left us with much to consider and discuss.
Dr Ben Pestell was convener of the Myth Reading Group between 2010 and 2014. He is co-editor of Translating Myth (Legenda, 2016), and has published on Aeschylus and contemporary classical reception. His current research focuses on mythical language and modes of thought in modern and contemporary literature. His personal blog includes occasional pieces on myth and tragedy.