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On astronomy behind Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”, the myth’s meaning and origins

The National Gallery in London hosts one of Titian’s greatest works. It is an oil painting “Bacchus and Ariadne” made around the year 1522 for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Most art historians would describe this theme as mythological. It depicts the moment when Bacchus finds Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Theseus abandoned her here, and his ship disappears in the distance. Captured by her beauty, Bacchus leaps from his chariot. Ariadne faces the constellation Corona Borealis, in the top left corner. Apparently, this is the only astronomical reference in this painting.

However, like many Renaissance works of art, “Bacchus and Ariadne” is loaded with hidden astronomical symbolism. It clearly depicts the constellations of the western night sky.

The constellations of “Bacchus and Ariadne” painting

According to Greek myth, Corona Borealis represents the wedding crown that Bacchus gave to Ariadne. After his death, she threw it towards the sky and it became a constellation. But in Titian’s painting, there are a few more clear references to constellations. For example, the first of the Satyrs from the entourage of Bacchus has a snake wrapped around himself. Obviously, he represents Ophiuchus – the serpent bearer. On the ground, there is a golden cup. Titian signed his name on it. This is a reference to the constellation Crater – the Holy Grail of various stellar myths.

Behind Ophiuchus, we see the constellation Bootes – a man holding a spear. Behind the satyr with a snake, there is another one, holding a long staff. One of his arms is in the air, holding a giant leg. Bootes stands next to Ursa Major. The ancient Egyptians saw it as a giant leg.

The archer cupid, a young boy in the painting, represents the constellation Sagittarius. Between Ophiuchus and Sagittarius is the Milky Way, on the painting represented by tall trees in the background. And the horse head in front of the boy is the constellation Equuleus – horse head. The two bachata girls probably represent constellations Aquila and Cygnus (eagle and swan). In other Greek myths, they represent sirens – the bird-woman hybrids.

As for the Bacchus – his posture is similar to that of the constellation Hercules. In front of Hercules are two dogs – Canes Venatici. They probably represent the two cheetahs, pulling his chariot. A painting shows a black dog next to them.

However, the idea of cheetahs pulling the chariot is more appropriate for the Virgo constellation. Cybele, her Phrygian counterpart, has a chariot pulled by the lions – Leo constellation. Ariadne also sometimes sits on a lion in ancient art. At other times, she exits from the sea, like Aphrodite. In any case, Virgo is the only female constellation in this part of the sky. And Virgo usually represents an extremely beautiful young maiden.

On Virgo as Ariadne

The name Ariadne is actually only an epithet meaning “very holy” or “very pure”. The root is the Aegean word “hagno/hadno” meaning “holy, pure”. The word “Aegean” means the same. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete. Romans identified her as Libera/Proserpina – wife of Bacchus. In Roman mythology, Greek Dyonisus had two names – Bacchus and Liber. The name Liber related to autumn when the equinox was in the Libra constellation, next to Virgo.

But “Ariadne” is a name that comes from a local, Aegean cult of Crete and Cyprus. Plutarch cited the works of an older Hellenic author, who mentioned the ancient cult of Ariadne/Aphrodite in Cyprus. She had a sacred grove there, and on a certain holiday, men would fall on the ground, imitating the throes of labor. According to their beliefs, Ariadne died during childbirth.

All of these facts are clear indications that Ariadne of Greek mythology was just a local cult of Virgo – as a mother goddess. This fact was not missed by Titian, who based his artwork on the stories of Catullus and Ovid.

On the symbolism of the western sky

Sun’s position in the western sky marks the season of autumn. But in this season the constellations are invisible as they fall behind the realm of day. The western constellations dominate the night sky when the Sun is on the opposite, eastern side of the zodiac wheel – during spring.

The springtime brings the symbolism of the beautiful young maiden (earth in spring), and the Holy Grail (eternal life – resurrection). But there is more. The constellation Argo Navis – a large boat, is visible only during the springtime. It lies under the constellation of Crater, very low on the horizon. Numerous cultures saw this constellation as a boat, as far as ancient India. This is also the boat of Jason and the boat of Odysseus in other Greek myths. In the Ariadne myth, it is a boat of Theseus, leaving the island of Naxos.

Here is a depiction from “Atlas Coelestis” by Johannes Hevelius (1690).

A Syrian mosaic from the 3rd-4th century AD has the meeting of Dionysus/Bacchus and Ariadne as the central theme. But it also has four smaller scenes. The one on top depicts a man in the boat. This would be the same Argo Navis, symbolizing spring, while the rest of the scene happens in the central part. Dionysus has a Christ-like nimbus around his head and holds a grail (Crater constellation).

On the right side, we see a shepherd with a bull. (Orion and Taurus) and on the left a shepherd with goats (Capricornus). The lower image depicts the animal sacrifice, altar, fire, and a temple. These are the constellations of the southern sky, but the season they mark is the winter. The four figures in the corners are probably personifications of seasons/winds, while the swastika relief just emphasizes the division of a year into four seasons.

Dionysus and Ariadne – dating of the myth

I chose Titian’s painting simply because it is so abundant in astronomical symbolism. But the theme of Bacchus and Ariadne was a common light-motif of numerous ancient works of art, Renaissance, and later times. Very often, there will be only two of them together. Sometimes we also see Corona Borealis, as the symbol of their wedding. A good example is Jean-Pierre Granger’s 18th-century painting. This is just a neoclassical take on a very common depiction of Bacchus and Ariadne.

The reason that Dionysus very often has one arm in the air, is that in essence he represents the constellation Orion. However, in ancient times, Orion was invisible in spring, as the Sun was in the Taurus constellation. (4,500-2000 BC). For this reason, the ancients saw Hercules as a “substitute” for the main protagonist. This was a common template of ancient myths.

But most importantly, this fact can help us date the myth. Indeed, the myth of Ariadne must come from the Age of Taurus, as she is the one who helped Theseus escape from the labyrinth of Mino-taurus. This duality between Taurus and Virgo, marking spring and autumn, made sense only between 4,500-2,000 BC.

And as final proof, the constellation Argo Navis is nowadays barely visible above the horizon, even during spring. But in Neolithic period, all of its prominent stars were clearly visible.

Since then, the constellations have shifted, and around the second millennia BC we entered the Age of Aries. The Minoan civilization disappeared. Obviously, the myth was still popular in the Greek world, but already then, it was an ancient relic.

Locating the source of the myth

Roman Bacchus is a copy of Greek Dionysus. But the usual term “Greek” is in fact quite inaccurate. The fact is that just like Romans, the Greeks borrowed this god from Thracians – non-Greek people of the Balkans. Without the Greek suffix, his original name was probably Dion. The forms Dion and Dian are still very popular personal names in Bulgaria, ancient Thrace. They come from the common Indo-European root meaning “God” (or “little god”).

Dionysus was one of the favorite images in the art of the wine-making Thracians. But they also loved to portray goddess Diana. She typically has one arm raised, just like Dionysus. And sometimes they are depicted together, just like Bacchus and Ariadne. Historians see Diana as the Roman version of Greek Artemis. However, it is quite likely that she too was originally from Thrace. Dion/Diana would, therefore, be ancient representations of spring and autumn – two most important seasons of the year.

Phrygians, whose origins were in the Balkans, worshiped Cybele and Attis. These are just different names of the same characters. And as we saw, in the rest of the Mediterranean it was Dionysus and Ariadne. But Ariadne is not the real name, but an epithet of the goddess. In fact, these Greek islands were in the epicenter of ancient Thracian trade channels. Another island, Samothrace, for example, was Thracian in antiquity, as was most of the modern Greek territory around it.

Therefore, it could be plausible that this symbolism comes from ancient Thrace after all. A beautiful painting from Pompei depicts a sacrifice to Diana. The image is similar to the one from the Dionysian mosaic from Syria. Only there we see Ariadne instead of Diana.

Around the second millennium BC, the equinoxes shifted. Spring moved to Aries and the Autumn to Libra. Dionysus got the epithet Liber, and Diana becomes associated with Artemis – Sagittarius constellation.

Ancient Thrace, however, had a different destiny. It was overrun by Scythian and Samaritan horsemen from the eastern steppes. This invasion, combined with the new astronomical phenomena, dramatically affected the local pantheon. The symbols of the equinoxes became two Thracian horsemen – “Heros” in ancient inscriptions. With Christianity, they became St. George and St. Demetrius. They are the most revered saints in the Balkans, to this date.

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