There is a cycle within the Greek myths that I feel particularly close to, and that I find myself returning to with some degree of regularity. It’s the one from which I’ve taken the name I blog under (Icarus), one of my past girlfriends had a Lavtian derivative of the main female character (Ariadne), and I regularly used one of the stories from it when I was teaching (Theseus and the Minotaur).
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the story of King Minos of Crete: imprisoner of Icarus and his father, Daedalus; himself father to Ariadne; and in a strange combination, both step-father and imprisoner of the Minotaur.
Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa, and when he wanted to be the king of Crete, he asked his uncle and ruler of the sea, Poseidon, to help him out. The deal was that Poseidon would send Minos a divine sign, in the form of a white bull, and then once Minos was on the throne, he would sacrifice the bull back to Poseidon in thanks. It was all going well – divine white bull turned up, Minos became king of Crete – but the bull was so impressive that Minos wanted to hang onto it. So he sacrificed a different bovine, thinking that Poseidon wouldn’t know his bulls from his balls.
Bad choice Minos; Poseidon was no fool. And his vengeance, like the sea he ruled, was patient. Minos ruled Crete well and wisely for many years, turning his capital, Knossos, into the centre of commercial power in the ‘civilised’ world. His ships travelled to Ireland, Cornwall, Senegal, Egypt and Babylon, buying, selling and sometimes stealing (everyone was quite civilised, remember?)
But then, just when it was all going so well, Poseidon caused Minos’s wife to fall in love with that divine white bull. After seducing it (with the help of the great artist-craftsman Daedalus) she fell pregnant and gave birth to the Minotaur – half man, half bull. When it became dangerous, Minos ordered hard-working Daedalus to build the labyrinth in which the Minotaur was imprisoned, and in which it was eventually killed by Theseus.
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, talks about how Minos’s flaw was to “convert a public event to personal gain”. Once he had become king, he should have entered into the role of public office, and submitted himself the the functions of it. The sacrifice of the bull to Poseidon would have symbolised this. But instead he chose personal pleasure, in this way becoming a dangerous tyrant – out for himself.
This story is not unique. You can see elements of it in Beowulf (in the film at least, I haven’t managed to wade through the poem yet) and at a basic level could be said to be about appreciating and acknowledging the people, organisations or circumstances who have contributed to your successes.
But I’ve been thinking about it in terms of Zimbabwean ‘President’ Robert Mugabe, who in 1980 was the hero of his people as he delivered them from white oppressive rule. But now, twenty-eight years later, refusing to relinquish power and with the majority of his people living in horrid conditions, he is every bit the tyrant.
In the face of a run-off election on June 27 (which shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place), he has recently blocked international food-aid organisations trying to feed starving Zimbabweans, and it is likely that the authorities will (as usual) ignore the high court and continue to hinder the opposition’s efforts to campaign for the election. And that’s just in the last fortnight.
Where is Theseus, come to slay the Minotaur?