Everyone has that one thing that they find fascinating, while no one else seems to. For me, that thing is Greek Mythology. I love reading legends about the Gods, Goddesses and heroes of ancient times. Of course, I also like to read contemporary stories and poems about such things. One of my favourites is a poem called Theseus Within the Labyrinth by Stephen Dobyns.
For those of you who don’t know the legend of Theseus, here it is in a nutshell: Theseus went to Crete to slay the Minotaur (half-bull and half-man), which dwelled within the Labyrinth. Ariadne, daughter of the King of Crete, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a skein of thread to guide him out of the maze. Together, they fled for Athens, but on the way, they stopped at an island where Ariadne was abandoned (either through an accident, or, as is more popularly believed, through Theseus’s own betrayal). He returned home, but his ship was still displaying the usual black sails; he had promised his father that he would raise white sails if he had succeeded in his mission. His father saw the black sails from a distance and, believing them to be the sign of his son’s death, threw himself off a cliff.
Here, Dobyns present a very interesting interpretation of the legend… Enjoy!
Theseus Within the Labyrinth
The lives of Greeks in the old days were deep,
mysterious and often lead to questions like
just what was wrong with Ariadne anyway, that’s
what I’d like to know? She would have done
anything for that rascally Theseus, and what
did he do but sneak out in the night and row
back to his ship with black sails. Let’s get
the heck out of here, he muttered to his crew
and they leaned on their oars as he went whack-
whack on the whacking board—a human metronome
of adventure and ill-fortune. She was King Minos’s
daughter and had helped Theseus kill the king’s
pet monster, her half-brother, so possibly
he didn’t like feeling beholden—people might
think he wasn’t tough. But certainly he’d spent
his life knocking chips off shoulders and flattening
any fellow reckless enough to step across a line
drawn in the dust. If you wanted a punch thrown,
Theseus was just the cowboy to throw it. I’m only
happy when hitting and scratching, he’d told Ariadne
that first night. So he’d been the logical choice
to sail down from Athens to Crete to stop this
nonsense of a tribute of virgins for some
monster to eat. Those Cretans called it eating but
Theseus thought himself no fool and liked a virgin
as well as the next man. Not that he could have got
into the Labyrinth without Ariadne’s help or out
either for that matter. As for the Minotaur, lounging
on his couch, nibbling grapes and sipping wine, while
a troop of ex-virgins fluttered to his beck and call,
Theseus must have scared the horns right off him,
slamming back the door and standing there in his lion
skin suit and waving that ugly club. The poor beast
might have had a stroke had there been time before
Theseus pummelled him into the earth. Then, with
Ariadne’s help, Theseus escaped, and soon after he
ditched her on an island and sailed off in his ship
with black sails, which returns us to the question:
Just what was wrong with Ariadne anyway?
But nobody like Theseus likes a smart girl, always
telling him to dress warmly and eat plenty of fiber.
She was one of those people who are never in doubt.
Had he sharpened his sword, tied his sandals?
Without her, of course, he would have never escaped
the labyrinth. Why hadn’t he thought of that trick
with the ball of yarn? But as he looked down
at her sleeping form, this woman who was already
carrying his child, maybe he thought of their
future together, how she would correctly foretell
the mystery or banality behind each locked door.
So probably he shook his head and said, Give me
a dumb girl any day, and crept back to his ship
and sailed away. Of course Ariadne was revenged.
She would have told him to change the sails,
to take down the black ones, put up the white.
She would have reminded him that his father,
the king of Athens, was waiting on a high cliff
scanning the Aegean for Theseus’s returning ship,
white for victory, black for defeat. She would
have said how his father would see the black sails,
how the grief for the supposed death of his one son
would destroy him. But Theseus and his men had
brought out the wine and were cruising a calm sea
in a small boat filled to the brim with ex-virgins.
Who could have blamed him? Until he heard the distant
scream and his head shot up to see the black sails
and he knew. The girls disappeared, the ship grew
quiet except for the lap-lap of the water. Staring
toward the spot where his father had tumbled
headfirst into the Aegean, Theseus understood
he would always be a stupid man with a thick stick,
scratching his forehead long after the big event.
But think, does he change his mind, turn back
the ship, hunt up Ariadne and beg her pardon?
Far better to be stupid by himself than smart
because she’d been tugging on his arm; better
to live in the eternal present with a boatload
of ex-virgins than in that dark land of consequences
promised by Ariadne, better to live like any one of us,
thinking to outwit the darkness, but knowing
it will catch us, that we will be surprised like
the Minotaur on his couch when the door slams back
and the hired gun of our personal destruction bursts
upon us, upsetting the good times and scaring the girls.
Better to be ignorant, to go into the future as into
a long tunnel, without ball of yarn or clear direction,
to tiptoe forward like any fool or saint or hero,
jumpy, full of second thoughts, and bravely unprepared.
Dobyns, S. ‘Theseus within the Labyrinth’ in Velocities: New and Selected Poems,
Great Britain, Bloodaxe Books, 1996, pp.204-206.
- Love The Bad Guy