The Crown of Ariadne

The Crown of Ariadne
by Sannion

In one of the Bacchic Orphic gold tablets from Thurii we read:

A: I come from among the pure, Pure Queen of Those Below,
Eukles, Eubouleus and the other immortal daimones.
I, too, boast that I belong to your blessed race,
though Fate conquered me, and he who strikes from the stars with his thunder.
I flew forth from the painful circle of deep sorrow,
I launched myself with agile feet after the longed-for crown,
and I plunged beneath the lap of my Lady, the subterranean Queen.
B: Happy and blessed one! You shall be a god instead of a mortal.
A: I have fallen as a kid into milk.

There is a lot of scholarly speculation about what the “deeply-grievous circle” and the crown are supposed to represent but within the Starry Bull tradition we interpret these as the Labyrinth and the brightly shining Crown of Ariadne, respectively.

Although most people are familiar with the tradition that Theseus used Ariadne’s Clue to thread his way in and out of Daidalos’ famously beguiling underground maze, Hyginus records the following variant account:

Those who wrote the Argolica give this origin for the constellation Corona: when Liber received permission from his father to bring back his mother Semele from the Lower World, and in seeking a place of descent had come to the land of the Argives, a certain Hyplipnus met him, a man worthy of that generation, who was to show the entrance to Liber in answer to his request. However, when Hypolipnus saw him, a mere boy in years, excelling all others in remarkable beauty of form, he asked from him the reward that could be given without loss. Liber, however, eager for his mother, swore that if he brought her back, he would do as he wished, on terms, though, that a God could swear to a shameless man. At this, Hypolipnus showed the entrance. So then, when Liber came to that place and was about to descend, he left the crown, which he had received as a gift from Venus, at that place which in consequence is called Stephanos, for he was unwilling to take it with him for fear the immortal gift of the Gods would be contaminated by contact with the dead. When he brought his mother back unharmed, he is said to have placed the crown in the stars as an everlasting memorial. But the author of the Cretica says that at the time when Liber came to Minos with the hope of lying with Ariadne, he gave her this crown as a present. Delighted with it, she did not refuse the terms. It is said, too, to have been made of gold and Indian gems, and by its aid Theseus is thought to have come from the gloom of the Labyrinth to the day, for the gold and gems made a glow of light in the darkness. (Astronomica 2. 5)

While reflecting on those enigmatic golden words from Thurii one day it struck me that I’d been reading the text wrong all along. Or at least, I’d only been getting the most superficial level of it.

Pretty much everyone regards it as either a Totenpass (instruction for the afterlife journey), a memento of initiation, some kind of protective amulet or all three – and I think it probably was, but I also came to see that it contained encoded references to a set of ecstatic practices which were the core of Bacchic Orphic worship. Specifically practices intended to produce an alteration of consciousness which would facilitate encounters with spiritual beings and travel to other realms, in particular the underworld. I began thinking of this set of practices as the Crown of Ariadne and in keeping with the convention of representing this as a constellation of seven stars or the Corona borealis, I developed seven practices, each of which could be performed independent of the others or combined for an especially potent ritual experience.

Approach it like play, and dive in with as few expectations as possible. Some of this is going to seem silly and maybe even uncomfortable at first. That’s okay; push through. Give it a couple tries before moving on to the next practice and keep in mind that not all of these are going to work equally well for everybody, because we’re all wired differently. We’re here to figure out what works best for you.

I have stripped these practices down to their barest essentials, so once you feel that you’ve mastered them go ahead and build them back up in whatever way makes them most useful for you. I have found that these practices work best when incorporated as part of a larger ceremony.

Keep copious notes and feel free to share your experiences with the class or with me privately.

θεωρία (theōria)
Meditation, fantasy, inner journeys, stepping out.
I come from among the pure
To be cleansed of the body is the beginning of life for divine and thus blessed souls. For the gods, whose attendants they are, they then know, not by worshipping statues and conjectures, but by gaining visible association with them. And free from the body and its diseases, souls observe the affairs of mortals, both when souls are filled with prophetic skill and when the oracular power sends Bacchic frenzy upon them. (Philostratos’ On Heroes)
Pick one of the locations mentioned in the sources on Starry Bull sacred topography and try to see them as clearly in your mind as you can. Not everyone is a visual thinker, so if you have trouble with this let me know and I’ll recommend some other things you can do.

ἐμφυσάω (emphysáō)
Inhalation and exhalation.
I flew forth from the painful circle of deep sorrow
This problem affects the doctrine in the so-called Orphic poems as well; for he says that the soul, being carried by the winds, enters from the universe into living creatures when they inhale. (Aristotle, De Anima 410b)
Feel the breath circulate through your body, like a Labyrinth, before releasing it back out into the world. Feel wave after wave of stress and miasma taken from you with each breath until you are ready to begin. Draw two deep breaths in then let out three brief bursts of air. Repeat nine times and then take several regular breaths. Go through the cycle again as often as necessary until you start feeling your consciousness alter.

ῥυθμός (rhythmos)
Rhythm, percussion, steady beats, rapid fluctuation.
who strikes from the stars with his thunder
And those who are initiated sing:
‘I have eaten from the drum,
and drunk from the cymbal;
I snuck into the mystic chamber,
and came in the bed.’ (Psellos, On Daimones)
Play around with a rattle or drum. Find the right rhythmic beat that opens you up.

σαλευω (saleuō)
Movement, gesture, dance.
I launched myself with agile feet after the longed-for crown
On his voyage from Crete Theseus put in at Delos, and having sacrificed to the god and dedicated in his temple the image of Aphrodite which he had received from Ariadne, he danced with his youths a dance which they say is still performed by the Delians, being an imitation of the circling passages in the Labyrinth, and consisting of certain rhythmic involutions and evolutions. This kind of dance, as Dikaiarchos tells us, is called by the Delians the Crane, and Theseus danced it round the altar called Keraton, which is constructed of horns taken entirely from the left side of the head. (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 21.1-2)
Dance the Crane. No one today really knows what this dance was like so there’s no way for you to get it wrong!

λυπή (lupé)
Pain, ordeal, denial.
though Fate conquered me
In Alea at Arkadia there is a temple of Dionysos with an image. In honor of Dionysos they celebrate every other year a festival called Skiereia, and at this festival, in obedience to a response from Delphoi, women are flogged. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.23.1)
Test the limits of what you are capable of physically; ride the sensation and let it bring you closer to Dionysos.

ἡδονή (hēdoné)
Pleasure, indulgence, sensuality.
and I plunged beneath the lap of my Lady
They celebrate orgies, well worth seeing, in honor of Dionysos, but there is no entrance to the shrine, nor have they any image that can be seen. The people of Amphikleia say that this god is their prophet and their helper in disease. The diseases of the Amphikleans themselves and of their neighbors are cured by means of dreams. The oracles of the god are given by the priest, who utters them when under the divine inspiration. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.33.11)
Test the limits of what you are capable of physically; ride the sensation and let it bring you closer to Dionysos.

μίμησις (mīmēsis)
Masquerade, de- and re- constructing identity, possession.
You shall be a God instead of a mortal
They say that comedy was invented by Susarion. Some writers say that it derived its name from the villages [κώμαι]; because they used to go round the villages, singing and presenting shows, when people were living in villages, before cities came into existence. Other writers deny this; they say that the Athenians used to call their villages demes, not κώμαι, and comedy was so named because they held a festival [ἐκώμαζον] in the streets. Another name for it was τρυγωδία, either because the victors at the Lenaea were given new wine, which they called τρύξ, or because before masks were invented the actors used to smear their faces with the lees from new wine. (Prolegomena de Comoedia 3)
Stare at your reflection in a mirror until you stop recognizing yourself. Then put on a mask and go out into the world.