‘Around the Minotaur’: Harrison Birthwhistle’s opera The Minotaur, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Programme, April 2008

On Minoan Crete, David Harsent and Harrison Birtwhistle

(Published in Covent Garden’s programme, Aprli 2008, to accompany Harrison Birthwhistle’s opera The Minotaur)

At first sight, the Minotaur story seems simple. Children understand it at once. But like all the best myths it has many layers and becomes complex, like the labyrinth itself, the moment we step in.

In the Bronze Age (1900-1400 BC), Crete developed a glittering civilization which the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans labelled “Minoan” when he discovered it at Knossos. For centuries, Minoan Crete was the chief trading power of the east Mediterranean, but in an earthquake or tsunami its palaces were ruined (c.1400 BC) and Crete’s power waned while that of mainland Greece rose.

Archaeology aside, we know about Minoan Crete not from Crete but from Greek writers, especially fifth-century BC Athenian tragedy, which flourished a thousand years later in a democracy, and enjoyed representing foreign monarchies, especially royal women, as exotic and dangerous. Our sense of Cretan stories is filtered through Crete’s relation to Athens, rather as if the world knew about mediaeval Europe only from American writers using their own relations with it to think about themselves.

It is through this Athenian lens that we see Minos, king of Crete and his family.

Zeus, king of the gods, disguised himself as a bull, kidnapped the Greek princess Europa, ferried her to Crete and made love to her there. From their union Minos was born. And from that point on, bulls are a hallmark of Cretan myth.

Archaeology reflects the bull’s importance to Minoan civilization. The palace at Knossos, which Evans named the “Palace of Minos”, has bulls’ horns on its roof and frescoes of acrobats doing handstands on a bull’s horns – which, in her novel The Bull from the Sea. Mary Renault imagined as a dangeous bull-dance.

Minos, however, had two brothers and asked the sea god Poseidon to send a sign that would prove his right to rule. (All myths sround the Minotaur stress how fragile is any leader’s right, in Crete or Athens, to a throne.) Poseidon agreed, as long as Minos sacrificed to him the best bull in his herd. The sign he sent was a bull. It came from the sea like the bull which brought Europa. David Harsent’s beautifully-judged libretto adds a new twist: the god Poseidon is this bull, just as Zeus was the bull who raped Europa.

Foolishly, Minos kept the bull and did not sacrifice it. In punishment, Poseidon made Minos’s wife Pasiphae desire it sexually. Pasiphae asked the Athenian sculptor Daedalus, exiled to Crete, construct a cow-frame in which she enticed the bull to mount her. Pasiphae bore the bull a son: Asterios, the Minotaur, the half-man-half-bull who has summed up the dividedness of human nature in Western imagination ever since.

“Man” is part divine: Asterios means “starry”, and in this opera the Minotaur is also Poseidon’s son. But man is also part human and part beast. In other words, being part-animal-part-divine is the condition of being human.

Minos commissioned Daedalus to construct a labyrinth to hide the royal family’s dark secret. George Steiner has interpreted this Minotaur-beneath-the-palace as an emblem of the monstrousness at the heart of all civilization. Humanity’s rottenness lurks under the most beautiful cultural artefacts. The Nazis ordered Schubert’s music to be played while trains arrived at Auschwitz.

The labyrinth has more possibilities of interpretation, too. Constructing it, says Ovid, Daedalus confused the passages and deceived the eye. For the French writer Robbe-Grillet, the labyrinth represented our doomed search for objectivity. The soldier-hero of his Labyrinth (1950) tries to deliver a parcel for a dead comrade in a foreign city and cannot find its addressee: the labyrinth is the impossibility of objective meaning.

Some ancient commentators said the labyrinth was an image for the intricate palace at Knossos. Oddly enough, Evans was unearthing that palace at the same time that Sigmund Freud was unearthing, or inventing, the idea of the unconscious.

Evans presented his discoveries in language eerily similar to that of Freud. The unconscious first appears in Freud’s writings as a kind of place, a psychological topography, between 1895 and 1900. By 1915 Freud was talking of the unconscious as a succession of inscriptions. The psyche had strata, psychoanalysis was its archaeology and dreams were the “royal road” into the repressed: like the Royal Road which Evans discovered running into the Knossos palace, that ancient image for the labyrinth of the repressed, the dark lust and violence which pad beneath our gilded veneers. Ever since Freud, one thing the labyrinth clearly stands for is our own unconscious. Like Birtwistle’s opera, Luis Jorge Borges connected the labyrinth with mirrors, It only takes two facing mirrors, says Borges, to construct a labyrinth. The violent secret at the heart if the labyrinth is a mirror for the human psyche.

Once the Minotaur was born, Minos began exacting tribute from Athens, on mainland Greece, because his son Androgeos had died there. This “tribute” was seven Athenian maids and seven unarmed young men to be fed to the Minotaur. In the third year of this tribute, the great Athenian hero, Theseus, stopped it.

Theseus’s mother was a Peloponnesian princess: Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. When Aegeus, the childless king of Athens, came to visit, Pittheus plied him with wine and sent him his daughter. But that night the god Poseidon also visited Aethra. Theseus, therefore, had two possible fathers. Poseidon and Aegeus, god and man.

Believing Theseus was his son, but afraid to raise him in politically jealous Athens, Aeheus hid a sword under a rock and asked Aethra to show Theseus the rock when he was strong enough to lift it. Theseus lifted the rock and came to Athens, dispatching brigands as he went and clearing Athens of the sorceress, Medea, when he arrived. Aegeus had his heir – but Theseus wanted to get rid of the Cretan tribute too. He joined the maidens and youths on the black-sailed tribute ship. Appalled, Aegeus asked Theseus to hoist white sails if he returned, to show he was alive.

So Theseus arrived in Crete and Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, fell in love with him. That moment of myth was to forge a deep bond between Greek tragedy and the Italian opera which recreated it.

Ariadne’s story is simply a girl falling in love with the stranger who lands on her island, who helps him fulfil his task. Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur just as Medea, another foreign princess, helped another Greek hero, Jason, kill a dragon and steal the Golden Fleece. The hero takes the girl who helped him away, on his boat, but then abandons her. Jason marries a Greek princess, not Medea; Theseus leaves Ariadne on the island of Naxos. But in Roman poetry, Renaissance painting and above all in Western opera, it was Ariadne who became the supreme image of abandonment. Ariadne abandons her home and abandons herself to Theseus. When abandoned byhim, she abandons herself to song. The Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos calls her the symbol of all human solitude. Monteverdi’s first opera was Arianna, 1608 (practically the first opera ever written), and he called her lament at Theseus’ departure the opera’s “most fundamental part”.

By chance, the word for the musical form, the “aria” which in Monteverdi’s hands became opera’s DNA, is the first half of Ariadne’s name.

In Athenian eyes, though, Ariadne was a Cretan princess tainted by bestial eroticism summed up by that Cretan bull. How close is Beauty to the Beast? Ariadne’s grandmother Europa was tricked, as Ovid says, by the false image of a bull. Her mother, Pasiphae, tricked a bull with the false image of a cow. Her younger sister Phaedra will marry Theseus and fall in love incestuously, with her stepson. Ariadne herself is half-sister to the Minotaur.

Birtwistle and Harsent stress this side of Ariadne. She is vulnerable, yes, but also possessed by the lust and violence whose emblem is the Cretan bull. She asks Theseus to take her with him to Athens and gives him a sword to kill the Minotaur.

She also gives him a ball of twine, her “clue” to getting him in and out of the labyrinth. In Greek tradition, this is given to her by Daedalus. Harsent and Birtwistle have opted for a priestess at this point, They shift the Delphic oracle on the Greek mainland (the omphalos or navel of the world) to the Cretan cave at Psychro, where Zeus was supposedly born and identify its priestess with a figure found at Knossos: a woman holding snakes aloft, whom Evans christened the snake-priestess.

In Birtwistle’s opera, when Theseus kills the Minotaur he is killing his own half-brother because both are sons of Poseidon. This is an elegant way of making the point, in the global violence of the twenty-first century, that the hero is half-brother to the monstrous. Even violence we might admire has its shadow side. The Minotaur sees a shadow in the mirror which turns out to be the hero. But is not every hero the mirror-image of a monster?

The opera’s most violent aspect is a feature which Harsent and Birtwistle take from Homer: the Greek personification of battle-death. Greek imagination represented not only multiple demonic persecutors, like Gorgons and Harpies, but also unpleasant personifications like the Erinyes (the Furies, who personified curses and guilt) as black, repellent, ruthless and female. The Keres, “Fates”, are death-demons. Throughout Greek history they have torn and devoured the fallen. They incarnate the suffering, waste and horror of all violence, ancient and modern.

Greek tragedy presented its audience with knowledge about humanity which is sad to have to know. When this opera’s libretto leaves English it uses the dialect of Athenian tragedy. “I have perished” sing the Innocents. “Fates tear her flesh and bones.” “Death, take the child to Hades’ halls”.

After killing the Minotaur, Theseus will take Ariadne away but abandon her. She will wake to see his sail on the horizon while he returns to Athens, forgetting to change his sail. Aegeus will see the black sail too, and throw himself into the sea. Theseus will return to Athens as its king.

The hero, the Minotaur-killer, is the sail on the horizon which will violently change the lives of those who see it, the man who triumphs at the other’s expense. He is the mirror-image of the violence that lurks, unhappily, within us all.


Ruth Padel is Resident Writer at Somerset House. Her book on Greek myth and modern masculinity, I’m A Man, is published by Faber and Faber.