Notes on Reading The Barrow: The Myth of Pasiphaë

Notes on Reading The Barrow: The Myth of Pasiphaë

  • date
  • June 19, 2014

I suppose there is a version of the old question—if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?—that goes something like: If an author makes a reference and no one gets it, is it really a reference? A great many obscure references and homages are buried in The Barrow—I mentioned a few of the gaming ones in my first essay on reading the book—and I certainly tried to write the novel in a way that it was still “readable” even if you aren’t picking up on the references and homages (your mileage may vary, of course). But still, there were some references that I thought would be almost impossible for readers to miss.

Minotaur_vaseFollowing up on the last essay on Sex & Horror, for example, I have to admit to being a bit surprised at some of the objections being raised by some readers and reviewers to the description of a lewd and forbidden rite involving a bit of bestiality, both because the act is very clearly a fantasy in the head of a particularly villainous character (spoiler: it doesn’t actually happen), and also because I thought it was a very clear reference to two of the most famous episodes in Greek mythology: the “abduction” (read: rape) of Europa (the heroine-ancestress who gives her name to Europe) by the god Zeus in the form of a bull, and even more directly bearing on the myth and rite in question, the conception of the Minotaur.

The cult of Islik the Divine King in The Barrow and Artesia is a combination of the medieval conceptualization that Heaven was structured in the same way as the Earth (with Christ as the King that sat at the top of the hierarchy) and the feel of the Mystery Cult of Mithras, an aspect of the Sun-God Helios who is usually depicted as slaying a bull in most of the surviving iconography of the Roman cult. I created Islik as the son of Illiki the Sun-Bull (himself a bull-headed god) and a mortal woman, Herrata the Blessed, with Illiki and the myths surrounding his son’s ascension to the Sun Throne meant to allude to the Minotaur, Mithras, Cretan/Minoan sun cults, and the Egyptian habit of animal-headed gods, which Joseph Campbell credits to a particular period in the history of religion when we were still coming to grasp with the separation of ourselves from animals and nature (and which eventually gives way to either human-appearing or abstract concepts of divinity). When I was thinking of ways that the union of Illiki and Herrata and the conception and birth of Islik would be represented in ritual and iconography, the writings of Robert Graves (and to some extent Campbell) came to mind, and the idea of ritual sacred marriage (i.e., sex) between priestesses and priests wearing masks, which Graves writes about a lot generally (he was, I suppose, a bit of a perv), and with it the specific example of the myth of Pasiphaë. And hence the hidden, occult ritual that peers out from the forbidden past of the Sun Court of the Divine King, as uncomfortable for us today as the myth of Pasiphaë was to the ancient Greeks—and as recognizable.

Or so I thought. Once upon a time, I suppose, a reference to one of the most famous of Greek myths would have been an easy one to make, a canonical tip of the hat. That was, I suppose once again, at some point in the not-so-distant past, when school children were still expected to read, say, Bulfinch’s Mythology, or perhaps Mythology by Edith Hamilton, and at least get a quick intro to King Minos of Crete, the Minotaur, and the myth of Theseus. It may simply be that in the modern post-canon era of education in the United States that such an expectation is patently unrealistic. I was reminded of the arguments over the so-called canon, coincidentally, by an essay I stumbled upon by Steve Donoghue, who reviewed The Barrow for Open Letters Monthly. Responding to a New York Times article, Mr Donoghue chose to write some comments on the 20-year anniversary of Harold Bloom and his book, The Closing of the American Mind, and you can find his essay here. My own reference to Bloom and the canon is not meant as a lament for that bygone age when the only literature deemed worth reading was by Dead White Males crowned by ivory tower academia; I was an ideological opponent of Bloom’s at the time, and I remain so, but I do find resonance with Mr Donoghue’s lament that the “average college-level undergraduate English major has not only never read John Milton but actively mocks the idea of doing so.” Indeed, while my own opposition to the canon was based on a rejection of veneration, I still believed in the notion that you had to read the canon, otherwise how do you know what you’re rebelling against? Counter-culture without culture is just sound and fury, signifying nothing. And what is ultimately lost is the shared set of cultural references that allow language and literature to be meaningful across generations.

Calasso_MarriageThat many general audience readers wouldn’t recognize a reference to Greek myth wouldn’t be a surprise to me; however, amongst self-selected fantasy fans I would have thought a familiarity with Greek myth would be more of a requirement. Greek myth involves a number of cases of bestiality, usually involving a god that has taken on an animal form in order to interact with humans, nymphs, or even other gods. Zeus alone was said to have taken on the form of a snake, a bull, a swan, a satyr, and of all things a golden shower for the purposes of seduction, abduction, or rape. Greek myth produced some incredible figures of female power: Artemis, Athena, Helen, Medea, the Amazons, the murderers of Lemnos. But as this list suggests, in Greek myth and legend these figures are also sometimes terrifying, and as Roberto Calasso noted in his Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (a phenomenal and highly recommended book on Greek myth), we also see time and again “the grievance that Greece nursed against womankind…When it comes to women, Greek sensibility brings together both fear and repugnance.” Which, if we do not engage in the study of myth, lies unnoticed and unremarked on in the roots of our modern culture and mythic language.

The myth of Pasiphaë is one of the most unusual (and, one would think, memorable) in all of Greek myth, and directly involves several of its most famous characters (Theseus, Daedalus, Icarus). The now- (once?)-familiar outline of the story begins to emerge in the fifth century (BC), in Bakchylides, Sophokles, and Euripedes, that Pasiphaë was the wife of King Minos of Crete, and she fell in love with the white bull that was the pride of King Minos’s herd. In most versions of the myth her love for the bull results from a curse from Poseidon, who was supposed to receive the bull as a sacrifice from King Minos, but instead the greedy king chose to keep it for himself. Pasiphaë turned to the famed craftsman and artificer Daedalus for help, and he built for his queen a hollow wooden cow, covered with cow hide, which she hid inside. Daedalus is a curious figure from Greek myth; a wandering wonder-worker and inventor, I think of him as a convenient explanation for things people couldn’t really explain elsewise. “Oh, that neat little artifact that no one knows where it came from? That was made by Daedalus, don’t you know.” I combined Daedalus with Hermes Trismegistus and Thoth in my head to create Daedekamani, the god of magic and language in the southern parts of the Known World. As an aside there’s a Daedalus-like figure in, of all things, The Scorpion King, in the character of an enslaved inventor named Philos played by Bernard Hill (who later went on to bigger and better things playing Theoden in Lord of the Rings). So you can sort of picture Daedalus in your head as Bernard Hill.

Pasiphae_Minotauros_Cdm_Paris_DeRidderThe wooden cow built by Daedalus was wheeled out into the fields where the bull grazed, and soon enough the bull mounted it and Pasiphaë within it, and from their union was born the Minotaur, a half-human with the head of a bull. Minos, to hide his shame and his wife’s, built the Labyrinth beneath his great palace at Knossos (in some versions the Labyrinth is built by Daedalus as well) and there imprisoned them both (or all, for sometimes Daedalus is imprisoned in the Labyrinth too)—and of course later Minos seems to go even crazier by sacrificing the children of Athens to feed his monstrous step-son, until Theseus arrives to kill the Minotaur and escape the Labyrinth. It is from the wrath of Minos that Daedalus and his son Icarus flee using artificial wings, and in most versions of the myth it is during their escape from Crete that Icarus flies too close to the sun and then falls into the sea and drowns.

Graves_Greek_MythsMyths are multiple rather than singular. In Euripedes, Minos doesn’t seem to believe Pasiphaë’s claim to have been driven mad by the gods, and he imprisons her for her bestiality. Palaiphatos is the first writer to name the Minotaur, and to describe the wooden cow built by Daedalus in detail, and later writers (Diodorus, Apollodorus, Pausanias, Hyginus) all put the myth’s many pieces together into the semi-coherent version we know today, if offering slightly different origins for the curse that befalls Parsiphaë, with some pointing to Zeus as the culprit or even to Aphrodite. Robert Graves, in his monumental (if dated) The Greek Myths, suggests that the myth of Pasiphaë and the bull is a metaphor for or remembrance of the ritual marriage of a Moon-priestess (for Pasiphaë is an aspect of both the Triple Goddess and the Moon) wearing cow’s horns and the Minos-king wearing a bull-mask. He also notes that in later writers such as Plutarch that the white bull disappears and is replaced by a man named Taurus, a general and warrior in the service of King Minos, perhaps a sign of an increasingly rational (and less mythic) culture’s discomfort over the suggestion of bestiality, however involuntary (in the sense that it is brought about by a curse, despite Pasiphaë’s active involvement of Daedalus).

Pasiphaë was herself not without an aptitude for vengeance, and capable of witchcraft (being sister to Circe, after all); the philandering of her husband King Minos so enraged her that she cursed him so that his loins spat forth a swarm of serpents, scorpions, and millipedes when he orgasmed into his surprised (and now doomed) paramours.

Which also shows that Greek myth is crazier than just about anything you think you can make up.

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