Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why the Minotaur Is So Much More Fucked-Up Than You Thought

Half-man, half-bull, completely disturbing, more or less a warning against weird sex: the minotaur.

“minotaur with dead mare in front of a cave,” by pablo picasso
Last week’s American Horror Story premiere introduced Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, a psychopathic society woman who expresses her creativity by incorporating classical touches into her acts of torture. In particular, she places a severed, hollowed-out bull's head onto to that of a slave as punishment, turning him into her own personal minotaur.

In Madame LaLaurie’s eyes, this punishment would be fitting, as she doesn’t look kindly on her slaves’ mixed ethnicity, and the minotaur is a primo classical example of a mixed thing, a mongrel, a thing-that-should-not-be. But while people know the basics of the minotaur’s story — he lives in a maze, the Athenian youths are sent down into his lair as a sacrifice to him/lunch for him, and Theseus ultimately kills him — there’s a backstory that’s even darker and weirder than all that.

Let’s skip over to the story of Icarus, the boy whose father invents wings that allow him to fly until they don’t. (Kerspslat.) Did you ever wonder what, exactly, Icarus and his father were trying to fly away from? Those faulty wings were no mere weekend project. Icarus and his father, the inventor Daedalus, were actually in prison in a tower on Crete, and they were sent there for two reasons: (1) to prevent Daedalus from blabbing about the Labyrinth, the maze he was forced to invent in order to trap the minotaur; and (2) because Daedalus was being punished for indirectly creating the minotaur. You see, Daedalus’s reputation for inventing was known even back in his day. And according to some versions of the minotaur story, his knack for inventing machinery proved a little too helpful. Queen Pasiphae was married to King Minos, ruler of Crete, who had offended the sea god Poseidon by declining to sacrifice a rather stunning bull. In revenge, Poseidon made Pasiphae fall madly in love with the bull, and when her human form proved incompatible with the bull’s, Pasiphae asked Daedalus for his assistance. The solution? A cow suit, logically enough, which Pasiphae crawled into and which was passable enough — and equipped with a rear flap, apparently — that she soon conceived the minotaur.

pompeiian fresco of daedalus and icarus presenting pasiphae with the bull suit
So yeah — the minotaur looks like he’s half-man, half-beast as a result of the most obvious possible reason: he literally is. A human woman, under a love spell placed by the mythology’s most vindictively manipulative sea god, did the nasty with a male bovine, and she subsequently gave birth to a child-like middle ground between bull and woman. (I wonder what she called the baby. Minnie? Lil Moo?) It’s interesting, really, that King Minos’s reaction to this news wasn’t to slay the boy-calf but to let it grow to burly, bashy, flesh-gnashy adulthood, whereupon he required imprisonment in the Labyrinth. Leniency for the minotaur not withstanding, Daedalus got the same fate: imprisonment, though curiously not in the super-prison that Minos just had Daedalus build but in a facility that’s easier to escape — thus the wings, thus the escape, thus Icarus going kersplat. (I assume Icarus was imprisoned alongside his dad as the result of some kind of father-son internship. So it goes.)

So remember, the next time you’re confronted with a minotaur — on TV, in your dreams, in literature, in some kind of withdrawal-induced nightmare vision — take a moment to remember that the minotaur doesn’t exist as do the centaurs or the mermaids, who are a half-human, half-animal race unto themselves. No, the minotaur is a one-off, thankfully, as well as classical mythology’s cautionary tale against bestiality.

You have to wonder, though: How much more disturbing would the minotaur have been if he had been a human head on a bull body?

Mythology, previously:

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