Episode 33: The Hero’s Quest

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As stated in the episode on Shakespeare, many of our most enduring stories can be seen as allegories for the loss and attempted recovery of our relationship with The One.  In many of Shakespeare’s king plays, the rightful king is deposed, assassinated or unwisely abdicates, leaving the kingdom open to the workings of the ego: duality, conflict, ambition, desire and murder, to name a few.  Of course this story-form did not originate with Shakespeare; these themes exist from the earliest known stories and myths of nearly all cultures.  When seen in this light, the question of whether the events “actually happened” becomes moot; they are always happening.  In this episode we will look at a representative story from the Greek tradition, that of Minos, Theseus, and the Minotaur.

The use of myth is another way people have invented to speak about the indescribable.  That we are separated from the Good–our exile from Eden, our drinking of the waters of Lethe–which is our true immortal nature, is the fundamental fact of our existence as humans, and our attempt to reunite with it is the fundamental work we do.  Descriptions of how we do this work constitute the bulk of our myths. Some, like the Iliad, have to do with our attempts to reclaim something of beauty (Helen), which has been stolen from us (by our “resident thief”), or in another allegory, our attempts to return to our home and rightful union, like Odysseus single-mindedly seeking Ithaca and Penelope, despite the temptations and distractions along the way.

One of the most prevalent genres of myth is the “test and quest,” decoded most thoroughly by the poet of mythology Joseph Campbell. In his classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces,¹ he calls this the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous  forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Although much of Campbell’s work draws on non-Western myths, the principles and quest elements he describes still apply.  They can all be seen as allegories for the process whereby the individual overcomes his own multiplicity to realize The One.  They are not always as clear-cut as we might like, but if they weren’t, we would probably never look beyond their entertaining outer surface.

As with Shakespeare, the myths often center on the king.  The king is our spiritual self; the individual soul that is a perfect model of the Over-Soul, and it is the loss of this knowledge of the Universal that starts the wheels turning.

So it is with King Minos in the myth of the Minotaur.  In Richard Buxton’s succinct summation of the precipitating events:

Pasiphae and Daidalos, in consultation

Mosaic from Pompeii. Pasiphae and Daidalos, in consultation.

Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa.  In keeping with his illustrious ancestry, he seemed destined to assume sovereignty over Crete from his base at Knossos.  However, one day his claim to power was contested; so he prayed to Poseidon to send confirmation of his right to rule, in the form of a bull from the sea², which he would reciprocate by sacrificing.  Poseidon sent the bull, but Minos broke his side of the bargain, keeping the special bull and sacrificing an ordinary one instead.  Poseidon’s reaction was to instill into Minos’ wife Pasiphae an unnatural lust for the bull.  To fulfill her desires she climbed into an artificial cow prefabricated by Daidalos, Minos’ resident technological genius.  The two mated, and the strange fruit of their union was the Minotaur: bull-faced, human-bodied and carnivorous.  Minos shut it away in another of Daidalos’ inventions: the maze known as the Labyrinth.³

So although Pasiphae’s lust gave birth to the Minotaur, the original sin was that of Minos

Pasiphae and the baby Minotaur

Pasiphae and the baby Minotaur. Greek Kylix.

by keeping the god-sent bull for himself, his own lust to possess.  As Campbell says:

He had converted a public event into personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person.  The return of the bull should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role.  The retaining of it represented, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement.  …By the sacrilege of the refusal of the rite, however, the individual cut himself as a unit off from the larger unit of the whole community: and so the One was broken into the many, and these then battled each other–each out for himself–and could be governed only by force.

The Minotaur, Greek Kylix

The Minotaur, Greek Kylix

The Minotaur–the half-man, the monster, the dragon–takes up residence.  So our own “king,” when it becomes an ego, or abdicates to an ego, depending on how you look at it, causes the same kind of dis-integration.  What is by nature a coherent whole becomes split into separate senses, a mind, a heart, a will, a body, all at war with each other, but with the memory of a “golden age” when they were One.  There comes a labyrinth where there had been a straight line.

Once the disintegration is set in motion, it becomes self-perpetuating.  In order to feed the Minotaur, Minos requires the people of Athens to send each year fourteen young people to serve as food for the carnivorous beast; the best is consumed by the worst.  In this arrangement, the king of Athens, Aigeus, is also culpable for agreeing to it, even though it was brought on through coercion.

Enter the hero of the story, Theseus, the son of Aigeus, the rightful heir whose existence was unknown to him.4 To return to Buxton’s description of what happens next:

Theseus and the Minotaur, Greek Kylix

Theseus and the Minotaur, Greek Kylix

Minos had not reckoned with Theseus’ valour, nor with the capacity of the females of the Cretan royal line (including Europa, Pasiphae, and Phaidra) to yearn for the attractions of a stranger–or of the strange.  When Theseus valiantly volunteered to join the next party of youths destined to be the Minotaur’s tributary meal, what saved him was the love of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.  On Daidalos’ advice she told Theseus to unwind a thread attached to the entrance of the maze, so as to be able to retrace his steps once he had killed the Minotaur.

Theseus is successful, runs off with Ariadne, but whom, in an apparent state of forgetfulness, he leaves behind on the island of Naxos.5  Another bout of forgetfulness by Theseus causes Aigeus to commit suicide, and so when he lands, Theseus is made the new king of Athens.

Without being overly simplistic, we can see here that when the old king becomes compromised, a new one must arise in the form of an inner hero who is willing to take on the risks of descending into the labyrinth (or the cave, or the underworld) that is home to the ego-monster, and killing it.  (If you’re a pacifist, that may sound harsh, but you can’t negotiate or compromise with the ego.)  One escapes from the labyrinth through a combination of love (Ariadne) and knowledge (Daidalos).6  For us, the quest is not nearly so dangerous, although just as rewarding.

Theseus in the Labyrinth, 15th century

Theseus in the Labyrinth, 15th century. Note the thread tied to the entrance.

Campbell again:

The flax for the linen of his thread he has gathered from the fields of the human imagination.  Centuries of husbandry, decades of diligent culling, the work of numerous hearts and hands, have gone into the hackling, sorting, and spinning of this tightly twisted yarn.  Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.  And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves, where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with the whole world.

But in myth, the monster never really dies, so the new king is always subject to his own fall.  Le roi est mort.  Vive le roi.  And the story goes on.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library, 2008

²Minos was the son of Zeus, the supreme god, but was conceived when Zeus took the form of a bull and mated with Europa; the bull was therefore emblematic of Minos.

³Richard Buxton, The Complete World of Greek Mythology, Thames and Hudson, 2004

4I won’t get into the whole back story here, but it is worth saying that Theseus could possibly also claim the god Poseidon as his father, helpful in being a hero.  You could look it up.

5Unfortunate, perhaps, but she does eventually marry a god, Dionysos, and get her own opera.

6After this defining episode, Theseus goes on to have a rich mythical afterlife, including, improbably, a marriage to another of Minos’ daughters, Phaidra.