Inception Movie Analysis – Mythology (Ariadne, Theseus, Sirens)Posted: September 18, 2011
“[Criticism] is the only civilized form of autobiography”
Introduction – I’ve avoided discussing many of the plot details because that’s been done, and redone ad nauseum. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on an aspect that’s been little talked about—the mythological influence in the film. I’ve read short comparisons between the original and the cinematic Ariadne, but most of what follows is new.
Ariadne – In Greek mythology, the Athenian hero Theseus set out to kill the bull-headed Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth to prevent him from eating more Athenian girls and boys. Luckily for him, the Minotaur’s half-sister Ariadne (“the resplendent one”) fell in love with him and decided to help him in his task. She gave him a ball of string that he could unravel as he navigated the maze so that he wouldn’t lose his way. Similarly, in Inception, Ariadne helps Cobb through the dream world, playing the role of Architect and shrink.
Later, Ariadne marries Theseus, but he soon tires of her and leaves her on the isle of Naxos, far from her home. Roberto Calasso in TheMarriage of Cadmus and Harmony describes the island as, “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 constantly flaunting of death. This is a place of the soul.” You could also say that this the limbo of Inception, where they both end up toward the end of the film.
Most interestingly, Ariadne goes on to marry Dionysus after he finds her alone on the island. He even gives her a new name, Libera, a derivative of his own epithet Liber, meaning “the free one.” Ariadne and Dionysus as liberators is quite a fascinating concept. Bacchic (Dionysian) rituals were meant to be a “suspension of all the ordinary barriers of existence…[carrying] with it a lethargical element in which everything that has been experienced by the individual is drowned. This chasm of oblivion separates the quotidian reality from the Dionysian. But as soon as that quotidian reality enters consciousness once more it is viewed with loathing and the consequence is an ascetic, abulic state of mind” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy).
Thus, knowledge, madness, and freedom are all intertwined in Dionysus and his cult. Knowledge because you’re mind is opened to another way of thinking about life that you are closed to in your normal state of consciousness; madness because while in this state of mind the initiates seem crazy as they reject the norms of human society; and freedom because this was thought to be the natural state of man, without all of the human fictions. You hear people who’ve taken hallucinogens say much the same thing—what you see on LSD or psilocybin is the truth and our daily lives are the hallucinations.
Hence, in the film Ariadne decides that reality is “not enough anymore.” Metaphorically, she’s married to the dream world. However, it does not seem that she has the problem of losing her grip on reality, making her the ideal link between the two worlds. She is able to guide Theseus/Cobb through the maze, and marries Dionysus without going insane, unlike other women who he comes in contact with.
Cobb – Meanwhile, our unilateral-bachelor Theseus was indebted to his friend Pirithous who had helped him kidnap Helen of Sparta (long before the Trojan War debacle). To return the favor he set out to help his friend marry Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. They successfully make their way down south, but Hades punishes them for not only insolently breaching the barriers to the realm of the dead, but plotting to marry his wife. Theseus remains his prisoner for (stories vary) months or years, eventually being rescued by Heracles. Similarly, in Inception Cobb has breached the human boundaries and remained in limbo for decades. In a sense then, he has descended to the underworld and returned, as few humans ever have been able to.
Further, similar to the Bacchic rituals above, the cult of Persephone and Demeter had their own ritual of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Dudley Wright wrote that Theseus “forced his way into the [these mysteries], for which crime he was imprisoned on earth and afterwards damned in the infernal regions.” This is paradoxical because the end goal of the mysteries was to pass into eternal paradise.
On the other hand, Cobb has been initiated into the mysteries of limbo. He has descended into the seemingly-endless plain of the subconscious, with its mysteries of time-warping, physics-defiance, and hallucinations. But both of their victories would be short-lived. Theseus ended up dying a bloody death, and, thereafter, was punished eternally. Meanwhile, Cobb lost his children and a large degree of his sanity in this quest. And then there’s his wife.
Mal – Mal is also a part of Cobb’s punishment, as she is representative of his struggle between sanity and insanity. In Greek mythology her counterpart is a Siren. Sirens were bird-women who would lure sailors to their deaths (possibly by devouring the bodies) by singing sweet songs, just as Mal brings back pleasant memories that mask her insidious nature.
Interestingly, the Sirens were picking Narcissus flowers (associated with the afterlife), with Persephone in her final moments before being kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld to be his wife. In other words, they are the forerunners of madness and death, two forces that haunt Cobb as he contemplates suicide and struggles to retain his grasp on reality, perhaps losing the battle in the end. If you’ll note, when people arrive to the state of limbo, they wash up on shore, just as a sailor lured by a Siren would have.
Conclusions – For these reasons, I believe the point of the movie is not whether he is awake or dreaming, it’s that the boundaries between awake and sleeping, death and life, sanity and insanity, have been breached, blurred, and swirled. The division between reality and fantasy is no longer meaningful. The ending of the movie is his surrender to this state of events.