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Minotaur, “Ariadne’s thread” and Labyrinth – what can we learn today from ancient myths?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Pompeian fresco depicting Theseus after killing the Minotaur
Pompeian fresco depicting Theseus after killing the Minotaur

Pompeian fresco depicting Theseus after killing the Minotaur. The fresco is not large. In the past, it was the central panel of a larger painting. It was like a painting hung in the middle of the wall and the attention of the person entering the room was supposed to focus on it.

Theseus is the main character here. Conventional “heroic nudity” allows us to look at the modeling of his body. Pay attention – Theseus does not look like our modern gym “packers”. He is slim, but his muscles are not excessively developed. Following the example of the Greeks, the Romans in their art valued proportionality of structure rather than sheer strength. The wonderful play of light and shadow perfectly captures the details of the muscles. The skin appears oiled and shines in the sun.

Almost all the children visible in the painting are focused on expressing their gratitude to the hero, while the adults on the right are mainly concerned with fear and disbelief (the old man frowns and stretches out his hand as if he wanted to touch the Minotaur and make sure that it is actually dead, and the frightened woman hugs man – she also probably doesn’t believe that he no longer poses a threat).

Theseus himself doesn’t look like he’s happy about his victory. Maybe his absent look expresses sadness due to his father’s death (recall: when returning from the mission to kill the Minotaur, Theseus was supposed to change the sails if he won, to tell his parents the good news. Unfortunately, Theseus forgot to change the sails, and his father, convinced of his son’s death, committed suicide).

However, I am wondering about another detail – notice the boy on the right, who puts his finger to his mouth in a gesture symbolizing reflection. She is the only one of the children who does not cling to Theseus but stares at the dead Minotaur. What is he thinking? Maybe he’s surprised that the defeated monster doesn’t look so scary at all? When we look at the lower left corner of the image, we will see the Minotaur lying without a ghost. Apart from the bull head, his body looks very ordinary. His arms are no stronger than those of Theseus (who is far from the image of a bruiser), and the hand resting on his torso looks downright… delicate! These are not monster hands…

Greek mythology, which is illustrated by the discussed fresco, is full of dramatic fates of women and men. It is an expression of fatalism and suffering that people have no control over. Greek tragedy shows man as an object of gods’ games. It is no different in the case of the Minotaur: it is the fruit of sexual intercourse between Queen Pasiphae and the sacred bull sent by Poseidon. Pasiphae had sex with the bull not because of her own perversions, but because of the madness and curse sent to her by the god of the seas. When we look at the Pompeii fresco, we see the fatalism typical of ancient mythology. The Minotaur was created by the will of the gods, he was a monster by the will of the gods, because of them he had to live locked in the dark Labyrinth and he was going to die because they decided so. And the boy visible on the right is the only one who sees that someone who hides from human eyes because of his appearance does not have to be dangerous at all.

What a universal message…

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu(translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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