I’m trying to get a handle on the way I want to deal with the myth re-tellings in the coming year. I’ve told most of the major stand-alone myths at this point (there are still a few, of course, and there are lesser stand-alones, too) and I want to start diving into the remaining cycles:
- The Voyage of the Argo
- The Life of Heracles
- The Life of Theseus
Technically, the Trojan War should be counted as one of the remaining cycles, but I want to leave that for last. (Since I talk about it so frequently anyway, and I’ve already written a (terrible) book about it.) Anyhow, on the subject of planning, one of those three cycles is not technically on the table just yet. On Cyber Monday, I used a 30% off coupon code to order the Loeb Classical Library version of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, in the new(ish) translation, and I want to read that before I write my own version of the story. (I know it’s not supposed to be all that great, plus it’s fairly late, but the voyage of the Argo is one of those stories where I’ve never read a whole ancient text dedicated to it; I’ve read ancient texts that allude to it, and I’ve read modern summaries, but never a complete text. In part because Apollonius’ is the oldest remaining complete narrative on the topic, as far as I know.) I’m not planning on basing my version on Apollonius, but I’d still rather wait ’til I’ve read it. (It’s third on my to-read list, after the two library books. I just need to spend more time reading, and less time working on my doll projects. And getting dragged over to my parents’ place or my brother’s place to watch stuff…)
So that leaves me with Heracles and Theseus, both of whom have already made some appearances, of course. (And, naturally, the life of Heracles will have a big hole in it until the voyage of the Argo is told, but…)
I’ve talked about the problems with Heracles’ life before, most of them stemming from “how can he be from Thebes and yet have missed the whole Theban cycle?” I still don’t have any answer for that, unfortunately. (Well, no, the answer is that surely at some point in the distant past, he was from somewhere else, probably Argos. But all the surviving versions of the tale have him born in Thebes, because at some point the city co-opted him.) So the question becomes whether to defy all existing texts and make him born elsewhere (probably not a good plan) or to find some way to order his story such that he couldn’t possibly have shown up to take part in any of the events of the Theban cycle. Hmm, you know, I think my book of Greek Epic Fragments has stuff from epic accounts of the life of Heracles, as well as the lost Thebaid. I should check that out before I structure the story. (There are also lesser concerns about the order in which various things took place, and if there are any tales that should be omitted due to lack of material.)
As to the life of Theseus, the problem is more one of Minos than of Theseus, really. Because Minos — as you may be aware — was one of the three judges in the afterlife, along with his brother Rhadamanthys and his half-brother Aiakos (grandfather of Achilles). All three men were awarded the position due to their just natures in life. That doesn’t really jive with the whole “annually sacrificing a dozen or so Athenian youths to his wife’s monstrous offspring” thing. But as far as I know (and I admit that I haven’t consulted Gantz about this yet) we don’t have any ancient versions that feature another explanation. Maybe there was no other version; maybe the story of the Minotaur was an exclusively Athenian myth. (If so, it seems unlikely that it would have been inspired by the Minoan “bull cult” and the confusing layout at Knossos!)
So my main concern in trying to deal with Theseus is trying to find a good balance there. Minos — in all the myths not dealing with the Athenians Theseus and Daedalos — is supposed to be wise and just (by ancient Greek standards), but in the tales of the Minotaur, he’s rather of a tyrant. (Which again smacks of an exclusively Athenian tale, since their aversion to kings was stronger than that of many of the other city-states.) Theseus, in his youthful exploits, is brave, noble and heroic, but by the end he’s a lecherous old man; is the change gradual as he ages, or is it more sudden, or perhaps is it at the influence of his friend Pirithoos? (I think I like the latter explanation, actually…)
Really, Minos is the main worry; given the time involved, it’s easy to see Theseus descending from hero to lecher. But Minos! The problem is that I can see an easy way to cover the tale while making him minimally responsible, but I don’t like it.
The Minotaur is a result of Pasiphae’s divinely inspired yet unholy desire for a bull, which was in its turn vengeance by Poseidon for Minos breaking his word about sacrificing the bull in question. Well, Minos’ role in that part is easily dealt with (even the most noble person can forget, or be tempted into minor acts of greed), but it also suggests a manner in which the myth may have been dealt with in antiquity, one which I don’t want to emulate: they may have originally made Pasiphae the one responsible for many of the most terrible acts, either directly or by forcing her husband into them. Because Pasiphae is the full sister of Circe and Aeetes, one a liminal figure who could be quite terrible or quite helpful (at least to men she actually wants to sleep with), and the other practically a full-on villain. There’s a tale of Pasiphae getting jealous of her husband’s adultery, and using her sorcery to…hmm, I’ve forgotten the specific details. It definitely involved magically-created spiders and genitals. I’m just not sure if the spiders were coming out of Minos or his mistress. Either way, eew. I’m pretty sure there are other tales of Pasiphae being rather terrible as well; in fact, probably some of the myths now about Medea may originally have been about her aunt Pasiphae. (Particularly the one in which she’s cursing the Cretans to be always taken for liars because one of their kings (it may have been Idomeneus, in fact) had judged her less attractive than Thetis. What would bring Medea to Crete? I don’t know of any other tale involving her being there, unlike Pasiphae, who freakin’ lives there. (And as she’s just as immortal as her siblings and niece, there’s no reason Pasiphae wouldn’t still be around by the time of the Trojan War. Which is actually only a generation removed from Theseus anyway.))
But! I don’t want to make Pasiphae into the villainess. I like Medea, and Circe can be a fun character, and — in general — I prefer not to make out mythic females to be evil/cruel/monstrous unless there’s really no alternative. (Like, for example, it’s hard not to make the Gorgons monstrous when you’re telling the original stories.)
So that leaves me with a quandary regarding what to do with Minos and the Minotaur. How far can I go to equalize the stories about him before I’m being too inaccurate?
I have one idea in mind that could work, regarding the sacrifice of the Athenian youths, but I’m not sure if it’s going further than I really ought to. Now, the annual levy of Athenian youths is a penance being paid by Athens due to their having caused the death of one of Minos’ sons, and then having lost the subsequent war on the subject, right? Okay, so far so good; that’s acceptable as ‘normal for the time period,’ so long as the youths aren’t human sacrifices the way they are in the version we’re all familiar with. (I say this because after the Trojan War, Athene’s wrath is not assuaged just by killing Aias of Locris for having desecrated her temple with rape, and so the Locrians have to send maidens every year to serve that temple. And that supposedly went on for hundreds of years.)
So maybe I could have it that as far as Minos knows, the Athenian youths are simply serving in his palace, and then sent back at the end of the year, but someone — perhaps whoever was assigned to look after the Minotaur — had been secretly dumping them into the labyrinth as food(?) for the beast. Again, in ancient versions, that someone would probably have been (acting on the orders of) Pasiphae, the thing’s mother, as mothers (particularly immortal ones) in Greek myths often go to extreme lengths for their children, heedless of all else.
So the question is, would that be going too far? Would it be violating the myth to ascribe ignorance rather than callous cruelty to Minos in this instance?