Hello gentle readers. The equinox has passed and the moon is waning to barely a sliver. Starlings gather whatever fibrous material they can carry to pad their eggs in darkness. Spring’s hatching approaches.
Our conversation this month ties together a few images and ideas from the previous two letters — the mandala, the paradox of wholeness — and introduces some new ones as well. We begin with the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus, a multivalent story if there ever was one. In we go!
When Theseus steps over the threshold of the Minotaur’s house, into the Cretan labyrinth, he doesn’t know the way in. He throws down the ball of thread that Ariadne gave him, her gift, which upon hitting the ground leaps into motion. The ball, unwinding as it goes, rolls under its own power and direction toward the center, leading Theseus in.
But what does he find when he reaches the center? He finds the Minotaur, yes, whom he kills with his sword, but the Minotaur — who has a human body and the head of a bull, and is by some accounts hideous, by others in possession of a melancholy dignity — may have only been there to guard something else. Ariadne’s thread also unties the knot of the labyrinth as it unwinds, and the Minotaur, her half brother, is released from his task of holding it together. Theseus merely follows the thread back out, carrying with him the memory of whatever he found there at the center.
Yes, thanks to Ariadne, Theseus makes it to the center and back out, but he cannot hold onto what he found there. He has no container for it. The memory slips back into the labyrinth and he abandons Ariadne at Naxos.
The word relate comes to us from the Latin re-, a prefix meaning again or backward, and latus, to carry or bear. To relate, then, is to carry back or even to endure again. Theseus carries the memory through the Minotaur’s halls, but cannot hold onto it. He cannot bear it back across the threshold; the memory is in some way unendurable for this hero in thrall to the sword. As Donna Haraway observes:
The last thing the hero wants to know is that his beautiful words and weapons will be worthless without a bag, a container, a net.1
Chapter forty-two of the Tao Te Ching, believed to be written in the early fourth century BCE, begins like this:
The Way bears one.
One bears two.
The two bear three.
The three bear the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things
carry the yin on their shoulders
and hold in their arms the yang,
whose interplay of energy
We can see the bronze sword that Theseus uses to kill the Minotaur as yang-like, which is to say solar, penetrating, dividing; and the memory he tries to carry as yin-like, obscure, watery, lunar. It is an easy move for us today to condemn his sword in favor of Ariadne’s watery knowledge — a reasonable move given the sorry state of swordsmanship — but this of course only manages to spurn the harmony that Lao Tzu invokes.3 If harmony is a dynamic wholeness, a paradox between emergence and recollection, then it necessarily involves both weapon and vessel. To carry back then is to bear this coincidence of opposites.
But we should not forget the Minotaur or the labyrinth. The labyrinth is the Minotaur’s house, his orderly (if disorienting) abode, a microcosmos — a temple. In this way it is also a mandala, and Ariadne’s thread leads Theseus to its center.
What do we find at the center of the mandala? Traditionally we find a deity there, or a lotus blossom, or the dispassionate but reflexive gaze of the God-image. Many of us today find there at the center an emptiness, an opening. We can see this emptiness as a void, sure, but we can also see it as a potentiality. After all, any vessel that might serve to carry a measure of watery knowledge successfully back across the threshold will by necessity begin empty.
Thank you for reading along with this March chapter of Polylith. If you enjoy these writings, consider sharing one with a friend — you will find the entire archive here. And as always, correspondence in any form is more than welcome. Reply to this email, write a letter, or drop by the garden for a chat in the sun. Really!
Until next month.