SUNDAY MORNING MYTHOLOGY: Theseus & the Minotaur: Destroying the dark past
Our story this morning comes originally from the pre-historical kingdom of Crete, ruled by King Minos and said to be the birthplace of Zeus, with many, many later Greek additions as it was told and retold.
Now, after having sex in the Mediterranean surf with a bull* Minos’ wife Pasiphae (immortal daughter of the sun-god Helios) gave birth to the Minotaur—a half-man, half-bull creature symbolising, quite naturally, the bestial in man.
And as you probably know, King Minos of Crete imprisoned the Minotaur in a vast Labyrinth (arguably, according to archaeologist Arthur Evans who excavated it, the vast Labyrinth of Knossos which to this day bears marks of the bull motif) a a conflicting maze of various wandering paths and innumerable paths of deception (just like the human psyche), to house the bull-man, the Minotaur, the beast that his wife Pasiphae bore after having intercourse with a bull—in other words, his step son.
Isn’t there some fabulous symbolism right there already?
Now, after his son Androgeus was assassinated in Athens after the Pan-Athenian Games, Minos demanded tribute from the city in the form of their 7 most courageous young men and 7 most beautiful young women to be sent every seventh year to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. (Yes, folks, this is where the leading motif of The Hunger Games comes from.)
Enter, stage left, the hero Theseus, already famous from his Six Labours.
Determined to put a stop to the barbarity, Theseus, an Athenian, contrived to get himself nominated as one of the “volunteers.”And upon arriving in Crete to be thrown into the Labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur, as the flower of Athenian youth had for many decades, naturally Theseus fell in love with Minos’ daughter Ariadne, and he with her. (It has everything, doesn’t it—deep, dark secrets; labyrinthine human psychology; and now star-crossed lovers!)
Confiding in her his plans to slay the beast, gave him directions by which to find the heart of the Labyrinth (“always down and forward, never to left or right”) and a thread to unravel by which he could find his way out again after ridding human history of its dark past. (Yes folks, this is what the legend primarily symbolises.)which he let unwind through the Labyrinth so that he was able to kill the Minotaur and find his way back out again—after which, quite naturally, he left with the girl whereupon they both lived happily ever after,** secure in the knowledge that, symbolically at least, the Hero had put an end to man’s savage past.
* See, already this is better than your average Bible story, right? The story goes that Minos had refused to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon, so the god took revenge by causing his wife to desire the bull—in the words of the poet Ovid, “"Pasiphaë took pleasure in becoming an adulteress with a bull." But that's definitely another story.
** Well, no, not exactly. Theseus’ father jumped to his death on presuming Theseus to be dead—the sails of his returning ship having failed to be changed for the prescribed livery signalling victory. And Theseus himself abandoned Ariadne and her sister Phaedra on the journey home on the island of Naxos, reportedly because the goddess Athena requested it. And you don’t say no to Athena, do you.