The Minotaur Dances the Masculine Back into the Milky Way
The story goes that King Minos of Crete disobeyed the gods by refusing to sacrifice a sacred bull. In retribution, the god Poseidon caused Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, to become enamored of the bull, and she then copulated with it, producing a monstrous horned child. Little is said of the Minotaur’s misdoings, but he is nevertheless deemed dangerous, or at least hideous enough, that he must be sequestered away in a labyrinth that can be neither easily navigated nor exited.
Young Theseus of Athens comes to the rescue, wooing the Minotaur’s sister, Ariadne, so that she reveals the secrets of the labyrinth. The patriarchal hero slays the Minotaur, wins the heart of the Cretan princess, and sets sail for more adventures, discarding Ariadne on another island almost as quickly as he had claimed her.
Theseus sets the template for heroic action: the knight or warrior who slays the dragon, the monster, the Gorgon. The hero contextualizes his valor, his purpose, by pushing against and defeating the adversary. But who is the adversary? Is it really a monster? What if I told you there was a secret inside every dragon-slaying, beast-destroying myth you’ve ever heard? And what if that secret was both tender and tragic? What if behind every famous monster there was a mother? When I say mother, I do not literally mean a singular human mother or even a female. Mother indicates a matriarchal, nature-based cosmology. An earth-reverent, land-based way of being that is murdered and subsumed into a “solarized” sun god pantheon.
Let us start with the basics. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” begins Genesis, a text scholars agree was probably compiled during the Babylonian exile and influenced by the surrounding Sumerian mythologies. In the Hebrew Bible, deep— from “the face of the deep”—is Tehom. As scholar A. E. Whatham points out, for Babylonian captives, Tehom would have had a very different resonance than just “deep.” They would have known that Tehom of Genesis is directly tied to Tiamat, the mother sea goddess of Babylonian creation myths.1
In her earliest incarnations, Tiamat was revered as a symbol of the primordial sea that gave rise to all of creation. However, though Babylonian religion is on a rhizomatic continuity with Sumerian religion, the acts of translation between the cosmologies were not peaceful. Tiamat came to be seen as a giant, menacing snake or dragon. She serves as one of the most painful and clearest examples of a mother transformed into a monster, narratively justifying her murder.
The transformation of Bronze Age mother-goddess cultures, or partnership societies, as Riane Eisler calls them in The Chalice and the Blade, began with the violent influx of Indo-Germanic tribes into the Mediterranean, decimating existing populations. Joseph Campbell, among others, characterized the resulting cultural shift as a subjugation of lunar goddess devotion by solarized hero worship.2 In other words, nature reverence turned into nature domination.
The most well-known myth about Tiamat, the Enuma Elish, characterizes the mother sea goddess as hideous. She has a tail. Udders. She is huge. She is dangerously powerful. Her grandson, Marduk, called the “solar calf,” is envious of her power, fears her ability to give birth to inhuman deities and monsters, and destroys her in the most obscene way possible, exploding her body, ripping her apart. The Babylonian images of this battle that survive show the direct line between Marduk slaying Tiamat and the later legends of Saint George and the dragon. In similar fashion, the earlier mother religions of the underworld goddess Inanna, the sea goddess Nammu, and the other Neolithic madonnas of vegetal regeneration and birth sink into the water below the glaring solar eye of the new sky gods and their pantheon of heroes.
The mythology of the sacred bull and the labyrinth far predate Greek myths. According to the research of acclaimed mythologist Carl Kerényi and writings of scholar Anne Baring, these stories go back to the Neolithic pre-palatial period of Crete (7000 to 1900 BCE), before the Greek invasion and fall of Minoan culture in 1775 BCE.3
I’ll offer that the mythology of sacred bulls is even older than that. Images of bulls can be seen in the twenty-thousand-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France. From 4000 to 3500 BCE, as Joseph Campbell charts in his book Occidental Mythology, cattle cults swept across Mesopotamia, creating what he asserts is a dominant preHomeric, pre-Olympic pantheon of lunar bull gods and underworld goddesses. Ceremonial horns and bull heads have been unearthed in many Neolithic and early Bronze Age settlements, including the protocities Çatalhöyük and Harappa. More recently, the Egyptians worshipped a bull version of the god Osiris, called Apis, and also revered sacred horns and bull heads.
When we look at Greek myths—chock-full of monsters, rape, pillage, and heroic valor—we have to remember that many of these myths are translations of older stories, or at least fusions of two competing mythologies: one focused on nature reverence and mother goddesses, and the other characterized by violent heroes and a “solarization” of gods and sacred symbols. The lunar realm of the labyrinth lies, palimpsest-like, under the sunlit girth of Mount Olympus, flickering in and out of the Greek pantheon. It didn’t disappear when the Indo-Germanic tribes subjugated the earlier Mediterranean populations. But, deracinated and replanted into a new, violent mythological ecosystem, earlier gods became murderous monsters, and goddesses withered into helpless princesses.
Let us look again at the Minotaur myth. And let us look closely at what archaeologists and historians have managed to reconstruct about life on Crete, a culture that Riane Eisler asserts was the healthy precursor to patriarchy. “One of the most striking things about Neolithic art is what it does not depict,” she observes. “For what a people do not depict in their art can tell us as much about them as what they do.”4 Prior to the fall of Minoan culture, Crete had no fortified walls. Most importantly, there are no known depictions of violence or war in its extensive offering of art.
Instead, nature in all its wild fecundity is depicted in frescoes, mosaics, drinking vessels, statues, and seals. Spirals, snake-evocative chevrons, vegetation, and animals dominate the imagery. Women conduct rituals bare-breasted. Goddesses are flanked by lions. The few times that men appear, they are shown most often in positions suggesting awe and reverence, lifting their arms to a goddess or animal. Death is not depicted; neither is suffering. Physical pleasure, bulls, lunar reverence, communion with nature, and feminine divinity are prevalent. But I sense that the dominant theme here is not an object but the fluid connectivity between these symbols. Minoan culture—the origin of the Minotaur—is characterized by movement, by dance itself.
Cretan scholar Nikolaos Platon, in his Guide to the Archeological Museum of Heraclion, muses about Minoan culture: “Motion is its ruling characteristic; the figures move with lovely grace, the decorative designs whirl and turn, and even the architectural composition is allied to incessant movement become multiform and complex.” Nowhere is this better displayed than in the many images of the “bull dance,” in which young Cretan women and men appear to leap and play with bulls. Some have speculated that this is part of a ritual sacrifice, ending with the slaying of the bull as a surrogate for a lunar king. Others postulate that the dancers themselves were the sacrifice, gored by the bull’s lethal horns. But nowhere in the imagery is there blood or death. What we have is dance. Cretan culture is essentially kinetic. Divinity is reached not through heroic individualism but through connective, dynamic play. God does not dwell in the leaping youth or the charging bull but is constituted interstitially between the moving figures. The dance itself is the divine.
The Minotaur, then, is a dancer. His horns, like those of the sacred bull, echoed the shape of the crescent moon and the lunar rhythms that welcome both light and dark. The Minotaur was the god of mutability and movement. He represented the fluid, pleasureful interface between human beings and the animate world of everything else.
When Theseus slays the Minotaur, he is not slaying a monster. He is slaying an entire culture—a Cretan culture dominated by the image of a feminine divinity, flanked by lions and bulls, celebrating epiphanic communion with the natural world.
In the same way, Apollo, god of order and sterility and reason, god of the left brain, kills Python, the serpent who presided over the Oracle at Delphi, son of the mother earth goddess Gaia. Snakes are traditionally symbols of the goddess.5 They are literally close to the earth, pressing their whole kinetic, shivering life force against her. In mythology, we can see the slaying or denigration of a snake as a nod to the destruction of partnership societies, nature worship, and goddess devotion.
Perseus likewise kills the snake goddess Medusa. Both Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell thought it was quite likely that the Perseus legend references the thirteenth-century BCE invasion of the Hellenes (Aryans/Greeks), who overran the goddess’s chief shrines in the Mediterranean basin.6
The myth of Saint George slaying the dragon is a direct overlay of Christianity’s thousands-of-years-long attempt to erase animist pagan European traditions. Who is the dragon? It could be Ireland’s Cailleach or Morrigan. It could be the millions of women, femmes, and queer people who were murdered during the Inquisition for their pagan spiritual practices.
Who is the monster of today’s legends? Today, we see a surfeit of media coverage devoted to weather and climate events. Has the biosphere become the monster? Every attempt to create weather- or climate-regulating technology, rather than adjusting and halting our own abysmal behaviors, posits Earth as a monster and humankind as the “heroes” who must control her and tame her and save her. Technonarcissists are the new Marduk. The new Theseus. They want the myth of progress to subsume the older (although newly investigated in the realms of quantum physics and glacial ice coring) chaos of emergent systems and biospheric intelligence. Earth doesn’t know best, our cultures insist. We know best. And we must progress ever onward toward greater control.
Before his Greek bastardization into an anonymous monster, the Minotaur had a name: Asterion, or “starry one.” His name may have referred to the constellation Taurus or to the rising of Sirius, an event that is correlated to Cretan festivals and sacred mead making.7 So when we think of the Minotaur in the labyrinth, perhaps we are really seeing a solar system. The Minotaur is the guiding star. The labyrinth’s winding courses are the paths of planets, objects, beings, galactic dust, caught in the divine pull of a horned nucleus.
And every star must have its Ariadne, whom we can resurrect from her defeated position in Theseus’s mythology. The Linear B tablets found at the Cretan palace of Knossos read, “. . . and for the lady of the labyrinth, a jar of honey.”8 This offering shows us that the lady associated with the labyrinth is sacred, honored by a gift of wild sweetness. In The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford point out the preponderance of bulls in the myth: Passiphae’s bull, the Minotaur, the bull-associated god Poseidon, and finally the savior of Ariadne, the horned bull god Dionysus, who rescues her from exile on the island of Naxos. Reading the images, we can consolidate all the bulls into one nucleus at the center of the labyrinth. The Minotaur is no longer the betrayed brother of Ariadne. He is Asterion, her partner in sacred movement: that of the swarming bees in the hive, dancing while they make Ariadne’s ritual honey, and that of the dance of the bull with his human partners, leaping and rolling and charging.
Despite the preponderance of labyrinth myths and images, no remains of a labyrinth have ever been located in Crete. I want to offer another interpretation: The labyrinth was never a static object or a place. It was never a stone corridor. Instead, it was an event. It was a ritual dance to honor the bull and the annual rising of certain constellations. Each “passageway” was a chain of human hands, a serpentine gyration of gestures. The labyrinth was only ever the sacred relationship between people dancing—ecstatically, kinetically—inscribing the patterns of the sky into the soft dirt of the ground.
If the Minotaur offers the masculine anything, it is the healing power of playful, expressive movement. The kind of movement that understands it is always in dialogue with other animals, the weather, the texture and slope of the landscape between our toes. Let the masculine learn how to dance again. And like the starry Asterion, the more we dance, the more people will be attracted into our orbit of participatory, exultant celebration.
Finally, let the Minotaur stand as a reminder: There are no monsters. Only bad rewrites of forgotten stories.