Commentary on Hymn X: To Antinous-Dionysus, Navigator

As you guided Theseus into the labyrinth and out
by the hand of Ariadne, guide me, Antinous Dionysus.
As you guided Ariadne to Naxos by the will
of Theseus, guide me also, Antinous Dionysus.
As you guided Ariadne into Olympus
and placed her crown in the north as proof,
so guide me, Antinous Dionysus.
As you went safely into Persephone’s realm
and guided out your mother, Semele,
so guide me, Antinous Dionysus.
Guide me out of the labyrinths in which I lose myself.
Guide me out of the underworlds in which I forget myself.
Guide me into the heavens I can barely imagine for myself.
May I also be your mother and your bride, a goddess
whose crown shines beyond the north wind, O Antinous Dionysus.

Dionysus finds Ariadne on Naxos

Looking at the imagery of this poem, what I see is that Antinous Dionysus is a walker between worlds. Here I have taken three major myths pertaining to Dionysus and handed them over to Antinous. First, that after Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos, Dionysus found her there and decided to make her his bride. Second, the lesser-known myth that he descended to Hades and successfully negotiated for the release of his mother Semele from the realm of shades, so that she could be enthroned on Olympos as a goddess. And third, the underlying subtext of the Minotaur myth, that the bull-horned god of wine was the same as the bull-headed man within the labyrinth, the proper mate of Ariadne all along.

Antinous Dionysus is a god who guides his devotees from mortality to immortality. He is able to be a guide in the process of apotheosis, of ascension from humanity to godhood, because he has undergone the same process. And he does not allow us to forget that, as I emphasise in a later hymn, the one precondition of becoming a deity is to cease being a mortal–that is, to die. Dionysus’ mother Semele was consumed in a moment when Zeus revealed to her the fullness of his divinity, but her divine son was able to bring her out of the underworld and set her in the heavens. Ariadne emerges from the labyrinth for the last time empty-handed, betraying her former life entirely in order to go with Theseus, who then trades her in for her sister Phaedra and leaves her while she is sleeping. Some versions of the myth say that Dionysus appeared to Theseus and ordered him to sail away without Ariadne, since the god had already chosen her for himself. Other versions say that Ariadne was killed by Artemis, perhaps at Dionysus’ request.

Following the thread through the labyrinth, we see that the Romans equated Dionysus or Bacchus with their own god Liber and Ariadne with his sister Libera together with Proserpina, the Roman form of Persephone. Dionysus and Ariadne thus become brother and sister, king and queen of the underworld, and deities of the heavens as well, as the Corona Borealis or “northern crown” is the crown of Ariadne, worn at her wedding to the god. Following the thread through the labyrinth, we find the god waiting for us at the center, ready to descend with us into the mystery of death and lead us through it to the mystery of divine life.

POEM: Ariadne’s Blues

Let’s go ashore, said Theseus, let’s go ashore, he said.

So I went ashore with Theseus, and gave him my maidenhead.


Let’s sleep on the beach, my darling, let’s sleep on the beach tonight.

So I slept on the beach beside him, while the moon rose late but bright.


I woke on the beach next morning, I woke on the beach alone.

The ship was off on the horizon, too far off to hear me moan.


I let Theseus into my palace, I let him into my heart.

I let him love me a little, and then he broke my heart.


I cried on the beach at Naxos, I wept a day and a night.

I slept on the beach at Naxos, woke up to something bright.


A boy who looked like a woman, a god who looked like a man,

a man who looked like a leopard, looked like no mortal can.


You look like a girl who’s lonely, you look like a girl who’s lost,

you look like your man has left you, you look like your stars are crossed.


You look like an ancient goddess, you look like a priestess-queen,

it seems to me I remember, who you are and who you’ve been.


Won’t you come with me to Olympus, won’t you sleep with me tonight,

won’t be my wife and priestess, with a crown of stars so bright?


Oh I’ll go with you to Olympus, yes, I’ll sleep in your arms divine,

I’ll be great as your wife and priestess, just see how my crown will shine.

Bacchus & Ariadne by Titian, at the National Gallery in London