The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the finest examples of esoteric mythology from the annals of ancient Greece. The entire tale is immersed in layer after layer of symbolism, each requiring a key and each unveiling a unique mystical meaning. As an introduction to the story we will attempt to sketch its major aspects with a view towards possible theosophical symbols one may find therein.
We first come across Theseus as a young boy, being raised by his mother without yet having any relations with his father, who is the King of Athens. Theseus eventually goes to Athens, meets his father, and is accepted as the heir to the throne of the kingdom.
Father-son symbolism is found throughout ancient myths and mystery-stories. They play a prominent role in the Upanishads and many other hindu works, we see it in vivid colors in the story of Gautama Buddha (see Light of Asia), and we see the same prominent role in the Greek mythology. We may put forward one common symbolism of the father-son relationship that may help in unveiling meaning in the current myth.
The Father is said to represent the accumulated karma of the individual, the result of past lives lived, the stored energies of desire and identification which are the driving force in bringing the Son into the world. The son here represents the new birth, the current incarnation of the Reincarnating Ego. The son, as with all youth, is not at first aware of his father—the karma of the life-to-be has not yet fully manifested in a child, the personality is yet to fully-form, but awaits the maturity of the boy into manhood. As maturity arrives, when the karma of the life has woven the personality around the individuality, as a costume is worn over the body, we might say that the Son has met the Father and stands as the heir to the throne of the kingdom (of the self).
The young Theseus is not only raised by his mother, but is told that he cannot go to Athens to be with his father until he becomes strong enough to lift a certain stone. When he finds the strength to do so he not only passes the test and is able to go to his father, but finds that he has been bequeathed two gifts by his father, a sword and his father’s sandals, which had been hidden beneath the stone. His mother tells him: “you are to put on his sandals, in order to follow in your father’s footsteps, and to gird on his sword, so that you may fight giants and dragons, as King Aegeus did in his youth.” The youth, coming to maturity and strength is given the sword of his father (the noble tendencies built up over lifetimes, the strengths of character, the abilities and powers attained through all past incarnations now come to light in the new life, to be used once again as his weapon in the great battle of higher over lower), and the sandals “that he may follow in his father’s footsteps” (the karma of the past must be treaded through, all must come to fruition; the son must walk where his father walked, reaping that which his father sowed, until all karma is exhausted and the growth it brings attained).
On another level, the father story line may contain symbolic meaning attached to astrology and the passage of cycles. The past cycle (the Father) gives birth to the new cycle (the Son), but there is always overlap between the cycles. As the new is being “raised”, setting down its tracks for the future, the old is still on the throne, still maintaining dominion. A point is reached when the son arrives in the kingdom, and thereafter there is always an event, some struggle or trial, after which the new cycle gains dominion, while the old passes away. In our current myth, the son, Theseus, ascends to the throne after defeating the Minotaur, as his father dies upon his return to Athens. The new cycle follows the course of the old, each cycle passing over the same ground as past cycles, but always with a newness, a progression; the seasons follow one another in their eternal cycle, but always march forwards; the cycles move like the spiral threads of a screw—father always giving birth to son, life after life, in the eternal journey of the pilgrim.
There are astrological keys embedded in the myth that may point also to certain very specific cycles, as in the marking off of the passage of the Bull (Taurus). If we follow the precession of the equinoxes we see the “age of the bull” preceding the age of Aries, which precedes the age of Pisces, etc..
Theseus makes his way to Athens, but not without adventures along the way, and not without facing opponents, fighting battles, and maturing into a steadfast warrior.
The son must face a host of challenges in moving from boyhood to manhood (or girlhood to womanhood), each beast or robber or criminal faced in the myth is some tendency, some karmic habit that must be overcome, if the son is to become the true heir of the throne of the kingdom.
“When a son takes a father into his warm heart it renews the old man’s youth”
The habits and tendencies coming over from past lives are “born anew” in the new life, become once more their youthful selves, become once more active and vital.
Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus faces a grave challenge, being plotted against and facing the wrath of his cousins and his father’s wicked enchantress Medea, who sought to drive the King to kill him.
One is reminded of King Dhritarashtra, from the Bhagavad Gita, and Arjuna, who faces the wrath of the King’s children. The karma of our past, when it begins to manifest, may well overcome us, for it comes with a thousand evil tendencies and countless servants of our own darker natures. For the son, the new incarnation of the Ego, to be successful and ascend to the throne, he must overcome these habits and tendencies. If the son is to become ready to face the real battle, to enter the labyrinth self-consciously, upright and strong, and arise as victor, he must first vanquish all sin from within himself.
“The ladder by which the candidate ascends is formed of rungs of suffering and pain; these can be silenced only by the voice of virtue. Woe, then, to thee, Disciple, if there is one single vice thou hast not left behind. For then the ladder will give way and overthrow thee . . . Beware lest thou should’st set a foot still soiled upon the ladder’s lowest rung. Woe unto him who dares pollute one rung with miry feet. The foul and viscous mud will dry, become tenacious, then glue his feet unto the spot, and like a bird caught in the wily fowler’s lime, he will be stayed from further progress. His vices will take shape and drag him down. His sins will raise their voices like as the jackal’s laugh and sob after the sun goes down; his thoughts become an army, and bear him off a captive slave.
Kill thy desires, Lanoo, make thy vices impotent, ere the first step is taken on the solemn journey.
Strangle thy sins, and make them dumb for ever, before thou dost lift one foot to mount the ladder.” (Voice of the Silence, Fragment 1)
There is an event during Theseus’s arrival to the kingdom that seems full of symbolic meaning, and that is the role and actions of Medea, the enchantress. Medea is constantly whispering in the ears of the King, constantly turning him against his son (whom he does not yet recognize), and attempts to convince the King to poison the newcomer. As her plans are foiled, due to the King’s wavering in the presence of his son and his final recognition of Theseus for who he is,
“Medea, almost bursting with rage, uttered precisely such a hiss as one of her own snakes, only ten times more venomous and spiteful; and glaring fiercely out of the blaze of the chariot, she shook her hands over the multitude below, as if she were scattering a million of curses among them. In so doing, however, she unintentionally let fall about five hundred diamonds of the first water, together with a thousand great pearls, and two thousand emeralds, rubies, sapphires, opals, and topazes, to which she had helped herself out of the king’s strong box. All these came pelting down, like a shower of many-colored hailstones, upon the heads of grown people and children, who forthwith gathered them up, and carried them back to the palace.”
In Medea we may see a symbol of that force which brings past karma to fruition, that which drives old habits and tendencies to once more become present in the new life, and which may serve to keep us ignorant, maintaining the spell of Maya. We may, perhaps, see in her the power of desire known in the east as tanha, the “thirst for life”; we may also see the power of delusion known as avidya, “ignorance”, and there may be a direct relation to Nemesis—the distributor of fortune, whether good or bad. Medea works on two fronts: first to keep the King ignorant of the true identity of his son (keeping the Self bound to a small, petty and egoistic identification with the karma of the past, that which provides personal characteristics and identity); and second, she uses spells and poison to attempt to kill the new life, the Ego that has incarnated and is now taking on the vesture woven of his past karmic lives.
We may also see that tendency with which we all have experience: the resistance to change, the clinging to the status-quo, which itself is a product of the thirst for life—we wish to remain in our comfortable self-identifications, our well-worn paths of thought and character. Medea does all she can to keep the King (the past karmic accumulation, the lower personal character) in power, seeking to vanquish the newcomer, the Higher Ego which is coming into life, to deny him his rightful place as heir to the Kingdom.
Medea may be seen as bringing forth the karmic tendencies of the past in an attempt to keep the Self identified therein, but in her attempt, by “scattering a million of curses among them”, she cannot help but also bring out “five hundred diamonds of the first water, together with a thousand great pearls, and two thousand emeralds, rubies, sapphires, opals, and topazes, to which she had helped herself out of the king’s strong box”—the good karmic influences, the noble tendencies, the strength and knowledge and wisdom gained through the toils of past lives, the treasure of the Self (see Matthew 6:19-21, 12:35, 13:44, 13:52). Desire, we see, is always twofold: it may be directed downwards in a restrictive way, focusing on self alone, wanting only for me, me, me; or desire may be directed upwards and thus becomes aspiration, a more universal, spiritual, compassionate force, desiring the good, the beautiful, the true. So Medea cannot help but bring forth curses and jewels, just as karma is never solely one or the other.
Having arrived in Athens, arisen above the conspiracy of his kin, and taken his position as the heir to the throne, Theseus learns that the Athenians are required by King Minos of Crete to sacrifice seven maidens and seven young men every year (some versions say every 9 years) by giving them over to the Minotaur. This process had gone on for three years (or occurred three times). Theseus, standing tall and taking up the position of the hero, volunteers to become one of the seven young men in order to slay the beast.
There are several levels of symbolism here.
We are reminded of the “three and seven” strides of Vishnu:
“The “three and seven” strides refer to the Seven spheres inhabited by man, of the esoteric Doctrine, as well as to the Seven regions of the Earth. . . . the Seven Worlds or spheres of our planetary chain are distinctly referred to in the exoteric Hindu scriptures. But how strangely all these numbers are connected with like numbers in other Cosmogonies and with their symbols, can be seen from comparisons and parallelisms made by students of old religions.” (Secret Doctrine 1:112)
On one level we may see a hint towards the seven and seven (14) Manus, or the dual pair of seven (“male” and “female”) corresponding to the polarity (spirit-matter) of each of the seven planes. Or again, the 14 lokas and talas.
On another level we may see a hint towards the seven senses and perhaps the seven powers of action. There may be symbolic correspondences between our myth and the stories of the Anugita, with its seven sacrificial priests (see SD 1:96, etc., and Anugita). We may also see a correspondence to the seven saktis (feminine) and the seven senses (masculine), across the three planes, or through the three upadhis (vehicles, bodies) of manifested Man.
The senses and powers are “sacrificed” to the “half-man, half-bull”—the “animal-like ego”, the “beast” within us. They are first imprisoned by King Minos, and then “devoured” by the “beast”—our powers and senses become focused solely on the personal life, self-absorbed, and lose their natural universal applications. And this occurs not just once, but three times—once in each Round. We may also get a glimpse here of the process of manifestation or re-birth, wherein the seven-by-seven powers/senses are first brought into the causal body and expressed therein, then down and into the astral body, then finally down and into the physical body, resulting in three upadhis, on three planes, through which the powers and senses operate. And only after this does Theseus, the hero, self-consciously enter the labyrinth (the “wilderness” of the gospels, or the physical world of sensuous life, the same as Kurukshetra (see Bhagavad Gita, chapter 1) in order to slay the beast (the higher Self overcoming the lower ego).
On another level, there may be correspondence to the seven Rishis and the seven Pleiades:
“… the Seven Rishis … mark the time and the duration of events in our septenary life cycle. They are as mysterious as their supposed wives, the Pleiades” (SD 2:549)
“The Pleiades, as all know, are the seven stars beyond the Bull, which appear at the beginning of spring. They have a very occult meaning in the Hindu esoteric philosophy, and are connected with sound and other mystic principles in Nature.” (SD 1:648fn)
Note the symbolism of the Bull, in relation to the Zodiac and we have a further hint as to the astrological nature of our myth.
In addition to the symbolism of the Minotaur itself, we may also note possible symbolic meaning to King Minos. We may suggest that Minos may represent the sense of “I”, of “me”, or egotism, the sense of “mine”. Minos is the possessor of the Minotaur, and we may see that our lower nature, our “beast”, our half-animal self is founded upon the sense of self-identification, of ego. Our sense of self, which ought to be rooted in an impersonal presence, the “be-ness” or One Life, is instead imprisoned in a Labyrinth of self-identifications, trapped by a winding maze of “I” and “mine”. The powers and senses are first imprisoned by this limiting sense of “I”, the identification with a single body through which all is experienced, and then are devoured by the resulting ego (minotaur), the beastly self.
We may also say something of the way in which Theseus comes to know of the plight of the Athenians. It is related that:
“One morning, when Prince Theseus awoke, he fancied that he must have had a very sorrowful dream, and that it was still running in his mind, even now that his eyes were opened. For it appeared as if the air was full of a melancholy wail; and when he listened more attentively, he could hear sobs, and groans, and screams of woe, mingled with deep, quiet sighs, which came from the king’s palace, and from the streets, and from the temples, and from every habitation in the city. And all these mournful noises, issuing out of thousands of separate hearts, united themselves into one great sound of affliction, which had startled Theseus from slumber. He put on his clothes as quickly as he could (not forgetting his sandals and gold-hilted sword), and, hastening to the king, inquired what it all meant.”
We find Theseus, having accepted his place as heir to the throne, now finding in himself the stirring of that heart-quality that makes for the true hero. The King explains to him the plight of the Athenians, but Theseus has already heard and felt that plight in his heart.
“Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun.
Let not the fierce Sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer’s eye.
But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed.
These tears, O thou of heart most merciful, these are the streams that irrigate the fields of charity immortal.” (Voice of the Silence, Fragment 1)
It is this heart-quality that leads Theseus to inquiry about the suffering he feels and hears from all quarters of the world, and so this quality that leads him to find the answers, to come to understand the true situation. And it is this heart-quality that brings him to the point of true charity and true strength, leads him to take on the task of defeating the Minotaur.
“When to the World’s turmoil thy budding soul lends ear; when to the roaring voice of the great illusion thy Soul responds when frightened at the sight of the hot tears of pain, when deafened by the cries of distress, thy soul withdraws like the shy turtle within the carapace of SELFHOOD, learn, O Disciple, of her Silent “God,” thy Soul is an unworthy shrine.” (Voice of the Silence, Fragment 1)
Theseus proves himself worthy, however. When he comes to understand the true plight of the Athenians, he:
“. . . straightened himself up, so that he seemed taller than ever before; and as for his face it was indignant, despiteful, bold, tender, and compassionate, all in one look.
“Let the people of Athens this year draw lots for only six young men, instead of seven,” said he, “I will myself be the seventh; and let the Minotaur devour me if he can!””
Such is the true strength of one who would face himself, and vanquish all the darkness that resides within him. Such is the soul-force of the true hero.
When Theseus arrives in Crete and is sent to the labyrinth-prison, to await his encounter with the Minotaur, King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, falls in love with him, and decides to help him in his quest. She provides him with two tools that may help bring him success: a sword, and a ball of string.
In considering the symbolism of the individual, we may see Ariadne as buddhi, and Theseus as the Reincarnating Ego. When once the Ego sets out on the path, self-consciously becoming the hero and doing battle with his own lower nature, buddhi naturally “falls in love” with him, naturally begins to enkindle him, to en-lighten him, and thus to provide him with the essential tools to win the battle with the lower nature. The sword and the rope may have many specific symbolical meanings, among them, perhaps: intuition (the guidance of buddhi, the voice of the conscience, providing direction in life’s battle just as the string provides direction for Theseus in the Labyrinth) and the power of true meditation (the sword, cutting through the unrealities of the lower nature).
The thread may also be viewed as the “sutratma”, the “thread-soul”, the string upon which the pearls of lives lived are strung, representing continuity of consciousness through all changes, all cycles—a steady “selfhood” that continues uninterrupted throughout the whole span of lives.
On another level, we may see the process of decent (the “downward arc”) into the labyrinth, with the string laid along the way (the self strung through all planes), then the bottom of the arc (when the minataur is killed, the personal sacrificed to the impersonal, the higher asserting itself over the lower), and then the “upward arc” or arc of ascent, which follows the string back to source, back home, rising again through the same planes, upwards, along the string of continuity, to re-merge (self-consciously) with the real Self.
Upon defeating the Minotaur, Theseus sets himself to return to Athens. There are several versions of the story at this point, but we tend to agree with the following, from Hawthorne’s version:
“Now, some low-minded people, who pretend to tell the story of Theseus and Ariadne, have the face to say that this royal and honorable maiden did really flee away, under cover of the night, with the young stranger whose life she had preserved. They say, too, that Prince Theseus (who would have died sooner than wrong the meanest creature in the world) ungratefully deserted Ariadne, on a solitary island, where the vessel touched on its voyage to Athens. But, had the noble Theseus heard these falsehoods, he would have served their slanderous authors as he served the Minotaur!”
The story moves forward with Theseus returning to Athens, but, before his return a seeming failure to fly the proper flag on his ship causes his father to falsely believe he has been killed. The King, not able to bear the thought of his son’s death, casts himself into the sea and drowns.
We may see here a fitting conclusion to our story. Theseus, upon defeat of the Minotaur returns not as prince, but as King; he returns as the ruler of the Kingdom of Self, the Kingdom of God that is within.
“sent for his dear mother to Athens, and, by taking her advice in matters of state, became a very excellent monarch, and was greatly beloved by his people.”
In the story of Theseus we may see many symbols, many allegorical meanings. But above and beyond all else, we may see ourselves, as we are, standing here in the wilderness, in the labyrinth, the force of our true self marching forward, the light of buddhi guiding our steps, sword in hand, ready to do battle with all that is dark and low and unworthy in ourselves, and thus to free ourselves and the world. As with all myths, a deeper look and a wider vision bring us to the heart of the story and ourselves.