I started reading The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I'm not sure if I'll continue, though.
- from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso; p. 7: . . . how did it all
begin? If it is history we want, then it is a history of conflict. And the conflict begins with the
abduction of a girl, or with the sacrifice of a girl. And the one is continually becoming the other.
It was the “merchant wolves,” arriving by ship from Phoenicia, who carried off the
tauroparthenos from Argos. Tauroparthenos means “the virgin dedicated to the
bull.” Her name was Io. Like a beacon signaling from mountain to mountain, this rape lit the
bonfire of hatred between the two continents. From that moment on, Europe and Asia never
stopped fighting each other, blow answering blow. Thus the Cretans, “the boars of Ida,” carried
off Europa from Asia. They sailed back to their home country in a ship shaped like a bull,
offering Europa as a bride to their king, Asterius. One of Europa’s grandchildren was to have the
same celestial name. He was a young man with a bull’s head, and he lived in the middle of a
labyrinth, awaiting his victims. What they usually called him, though, was the Minotaur.
- pp. 11-14: . . . as generation followed generation, metamorphosis became more difficult, and
the fatal nature of reality, its irreversibility, all the more evident. Only a generation after Europa,
Pasiphae would have to crouch inside a wooden cow, a big toy on wheels, and have herself
pushed as far as the meadows of Gortyn, where the bull she desired was grazing. And from their
union was born a creature who would never be able to go back to being either beast or man. He
would be a hybrid, forever. And just as the craftsman Daedalus had had to invent an inanimate
object to allow the mother to love the bull, so now he had to invent another object, the labyrinth,
to conceal the son. The Minotaur would be slain, Pasiphae was to die in captivity and shame.
Humans could no longer gain access to other forms and return from them. The veil of epiphany
was rent and tattered now. If the power of metamorphosis was to be maintained, there was no
alternative but to invent objects and generate monsters.
“Since it is the custom in Crete for the women to take part in the games, Ariadne was there with
the others, and she was amazed when she saw Theseus, and admired his skill as, one after
another, he overcame all adversaries.” While Ariadne gazes at the Stranger, Crete crumbles.
Before being betrayed herself, Ariadne chose to betray her island.
Dionysus courts her, then accuses her, then kills her, then rediscovers her, then
transforms her into the crown of the northern sky, Corona Borealis. But this is a different
Dionysus from the one Ariadne knew in her childhood. He wasn’t even called Dionysus then. He
was the Bull: the total Bull, who descends from the heavens like Zeus, rises from the sea like
Poseidon, grazes under the plane trees of Gortyn. He encompassed all things: he was in the
honey and blood offered to the gods, he was in the slender horns at each side of the altars, in the
ox skulls painted along the walls of the palace. Youths with armbands, loincloths, and wavy hair
gripped him by the horns at a run. The Bull had always followed Ariadne about, right from the
start, always accompanied her, always kept his eye on her.
Now the Bull steps aside and the Athenian hero moves in. They would appear to be
enemies, but they swap places very smoothly. The scene is already set. No more monster
business now, but sordid affairs. That is Ariadne’s destiny. No more the childish, the regal
palace, but the porticoes and public squares where tough, clever men take the first opportunity to
stab each other in the back, where the word, which in Crete had served to take inventories of
goods in warehouses, would become sovereign, vibrant, revered. Ariadne would not live to see
all this: she stopped halfway, caught on another island, rocky and inhospitable. She closed her
eyes, so as never to have to see again either the god or the man who of their natures could do
nothing more than appear and disappear.
Theseus transformed the divine habit of carrying off young maidens into a human pastime. Every
adventure he sets out on he carries off a woman, whether it be the Cretan Ariadne when he goes
south or the Amazon Antiope when he heads north. There was always something playful and
even reckless about these adventures. And some of them hardly finished in noble fashion, for no
sooner had Theseus conquered a trophy than he was in a hurry to be rid of it, so as to go after
another. At fifty he was still at it, carrying off a certain Helen who danced in the shrine of
Artemis Orthia. On that occasion he was assisted by the only being to whom he would be faithful
to the end: his friend Peirithous.
They first met as enemies and were supposed to fight to the death. But, when they saw
each other, just as they were about to fight their duel, each found he was admiring his adversary.
Each was attracted to the beauty and strength of the other. From that moment they became
companions in adventure. And Theseus was never so happy as when he was with Peirithous,
inventing irreverent adventures, going through with them, talking about them afterward. They
knew the world, these two, they had seen it all, had killed mythical beasts, carried off princesses.
Nothing could separate them, least of all a woman.
One day Peirithous felt lonely; his wife, Hippodamia, had recently died. He thought he’d go and
see his friend Theseus in Athens. And the widower found another widower: Phaedra had hung
herself. As so often before, they talked and talked, and pretty soon they fell to talking about new
adventures. There was a girl in Sparta, Peirithous said, ten years old and more beautiful than any
woman. Her name was Helen. Why not carry her off? When they had captured her, they shook a
die to see who would have her. Theseus won.
And one day, together as always, during one of those coded conversations that were their
greatest pleasure in life (neither the women nor the adventures in themselves could offer so much
in the end)—one day it occurred to them that, having roamed more or less the whole world, the
only thing left for them to do was to violate the underworld. They had carried off earthly
princesses, so why not carry off divine queens? They’d managed to trick living kings, so why
couldn’t they do the same in the kingdom of the dead? Thus Peirithous and Theseus went down
to Hades to carry off its queen.
Theseus is he who gets up and goes. Not even Helen can hold him, happy prisoner as she is.
And, while fears of reprisals are mounting and the abductor’s friends are closing ranks to protect
her, Peirithous comes up with his idea: head off even farther down the Peloponnese, as far as
Cape Taenarum, where you can climb down into Hades, and carry off the most powerful of
queens. And off Theseus goes.
- pp. 16-17: There is something blasphemous about Theseus, an indomitable insolence that looks
forward to Alcibiades. When he and his friend Peirithous embark on their trip to the underworld
to snatch back Persephone, an adventure that smacks of parody, one thinks of Alcibiades, whose
critics accused him of celebrating religious mysteries with prostitutes and vagabonds. And just as
Alcibiades would one day with great solemnity lead a procession along the Sacred Way toward
Eleusis, so Theseus presided over the city’s most secret rites. He played with those secrets
because he knew them so well, because they had belonged to him from birth.
Theseus has no particular reason for deserting Ariadne. There wasn’t another woman. It was just
that she slipped his mind for a moment, a moment that might be any moment. And when Theseus
gets distracted, someone is lost. Ariadne had helped the Stranger kill her half brother with the
bull’s head, she had left the family palace, she was ready to wash Theseus’s feet in Athens, like a
slave. But Theseus has forgotten, he is already thinking of something else. And the place where
Ariadne gets left behind becomes, once and for all, the landscape of abandoned love. Theseus
isn’t cruel because he leaves Ariadne. If that were the case, his cruelty would be no different
from that of so many others. No, Theseus is cruel because he leaves Ariadne on the island of
Naxos. Not the home where she was born, and certainly not the home she hoped to be welcomed
in, nor even some country in between. Just a beach lashed by thundering waves, an abstract place
where only the seaweed moves. It is the island where no one lives, the place where obsession
turns round and round on itself, with no way out. A constant flaunting of death. This is a place of