Memory – Theseus and Ariadne

The Roman author Catullus wrote a poem about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which myth has always spoken to me about the slender thread of reason and memory that allows us to navigate the labyrinth of this world and find a way back to ourselves. The poem shows how easily this is disrupted when we are heedless and selfish.

Briefly, Theseus, the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens, volunteers to be among the Greek young men and women who must be sent annually to Crete as a sacrifice to the Minotaur of King Minos of Crete, in expiation of the murder of the son of Minos by Aegeus. Aegeus acquiesces, only requesting that Theseus replace the ship’s black sails with white one as he comes within sight of Athen’s harbor on his return, so that Aegeus may know that he was successful. He arrives at Knossos, where Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, falls in love with Theseus on seeing him in her father’s court and assists him in his battle with the Minotaur in the labyrinth by providing him with a spool of thread to unwind that he may find his way back out. He slays the Minotaur, promises to marry her, and she departs with him back to Athens, but then he abandons her on a deserted shore along the way. Ariadne curses Theseus, the gods listen, and his memory is clouded.

Excerpts from Poem 64. Of the Argonauts and an Epithalamium for Peleus and Thetis

Then he [Theseus] turned back, unharmed, to great glory, guided by the wandering track of fine thread, so that his exit from the fickle labyrinth of the palace would not be prevented by some unnoticed error. (112-115)

Now, no woman should believe a man’s pledges, or believe there’s any truth in a man’s words: when their minds are intent on their desire, they have no fear of oaths, don’t spare their promises: but as soon as the lust of their eager mind is slaked they fear no words, they care nothing for perjury. (143-148)

Now Theseus’s mind was filled with a dark mist and all the instructions he had held fixed in memory before this, were erased from his thoughts, failing to raise the sweet signal to his mourning father, when the harbour of Athens safely came in sight. (207-211)

But when his father, searching the view from the citadel’s height, endless tears flooding his anxious eyes, first saw the sails of dark fabric, he threw himself head first from the height of the cliff, believing Theseus lost to inexorable fate. (241- 245)

So fierce Theseus entered the palace in mourning for his father’s death, and knew the same grief of mind that he had caused neglected Ariadne, she who was gazing then where his ship had vanished pondering the many cares in her wounded heart. (246 -250)

About Tom Laage

Tom Laage, MD, MPH, is a Harvard-trained physician with substantial experience in clinical medicine, practice management, and medical writing including for clinical trials.

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