Tuesday, July 13, 2010

sympathy for the minotaur

NSFW WARNING: Today's Gameblog installment includes a tastefully-rendered classical depiction of a minotaur's weiner.

For a long time now I've been meaning to read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After all Star Wars was deeply influenced by it [citation needed] and Uncle Gary makes a big deal about it in either Role-Playing Mastery or Master of the Game, I forget which.  Campbell is one of the philosophers featured in the excellent non-fiction comic Action Philosophers Giant-Sized Thing Volume 1, which I recently re-read.  The section on Hero is so awesome that I photocopied part of it and glued into my copy of Encounter Critical for easy reference.  And then last week I stumbled across 'A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces', which started life as a internal memo at Disney that directly influenced the making of the animated feature film The Lion King.  The Practical Guide contains the line "Christ, Hitler, Mohammed, and Buddha all understood the principles in the book and applied them to influence millions."  Clearly I need to read this book.

So I just started on Hero but I want to talk briefly about one of the first illos in the book.  Dig it:

Heroic victory? Cold-blooded execution?  Mercy killing?

This depiction of Theseus slaying the minotaur dates to about 470 B.C.  When I first saw this picture I was deeply moved by the expression on the minotaur's face, which seems to combine both bovine innocence and all-too-human fear of mortality.  This creature isn't a bullock-headed smashing machine; it's a wretch, a hideous abomination born of another's sin and confined to a hell of human design.  Why does it consume the flesh of it's victims?  Perhaps only because that's the sole food with which it is provided.  It barely looks any bigger than the bare-faced youth who easily overcomes it with a little gumption and a largish knife.  Based on this illo, D&D has the minotaur all wrong.  It doesn't stomp around using brute strength to destroy foes with sadistic glee, this minotaur stealthily stalks it's victims in the labyrinth, murdering them out of sheer survival desperation.

Anyway, that's what I take away from this ancient scene. 

As a side note, what is that thing in the upper right corner?

The only thing I can come up with is that the minotaur was wearing a jaunty little bonnet, which has just flown off his head in the tussle of battle.


  1. That thing in the corner is a flumph, of course.

  2. The minotaur is clearly an elf poseur.

  3. I agree, it's a jaunty little bonnet. I view it as indicative of the minotaur's recognition of his monsterhood in that he is trying to hide his horns.

  4. Bravo for the minotaur! I always felt sympathy for him, too. The thing that disturbs me is that he is a monster that humans created... and then some hero 'kills' this unique creature and it is gone.
    I remember finding this minotaur illustration a while back: http://www.englishare.net/literature/Theseus-Minotaur-burne-jones-1862-LDS.jpg
    The way the minotaur is peeking around the corner in "Killroy was here" fashion never fails to amuse me.

  5. See also Borges' story The House of Asterion, which offers a minotaur's eye view.

  6. yes, a primitive early flumph

  7. "a tasefully-rendered classical depiction of a minotaur's weiner"

    It's lines like that that make you my favorite blogger.

  8. Interesting note by way of Wikipedia: In the Renaissance the minotaur was often depicted as a taurine centaur:


    If I had to take a guess at the mystery object, I would guess it was Ariadne's skein.

  9. Looks to me like he's saying "No! Theseus! I'm going to die!"

    I also sort of looks like Theseus sidled up to it from behind, kicked one knee out and is dispassionately executing it in one smooth motion.

  10. I have the impression that it's a shield that has been deformed by the horns of the Minataur in it's attack, and is now making its horns useless.

  11. 1--What Richard said X2

    and here it its:


    2--Joseph Campbell scares me because I live in Hollywood and here in Hollywood they use eveyrthing he said as an excuse to make movies with the same plot over and over and over. They will explicitly tell you that: "Make the plot more Campbellian".

    I'd much rather read about a biker lich killing mutant freaks to make a laser-proof coat than another goddamn hero going on another goddamn journey into himself to find enightenment.

    3--Minotaur = beast of burden given upright posture and opposable thumbs = freed slave. Totally.

  12. Perhaps that thing is the poor beast's loincloth.

  13. Anonymous2:20 PM

    I don't know what that is, but it's clearly stuck onto the ends of the minotaur's horns to keep him from goring Theseus.

  14. "D&D Gets Mythical Monster Wrong -- Film At 11".

    I think the minotaur was wearing the bonnet so he could go out and pass for human.

    DM:"No, you can't go into the agora! You're a minotaur!"
    Player:"I'll go in disguise."
    DM:"Disguise? What disguise?"
    Player:"A hat! See!"
    DM:"Uh... sure. Whatever. Just so we can get the game moving."

    (Surprised no one's mentioned Mazes & Minotaurs yet, given the 'old school' nature of this blog.)

  15. This is going to sound very anticlimactic, but I think that the mystery object is part of a bulls's horns and a little scrap of background - that is to say, I think this image probably came from the side of a painted clay pot or vase, and part of the image above Theseus and the minotaur would be some kind of bull image that was originally upside down - not a character in the scene but just a graphic motif without a spatial relation to the figured. Hey, it happens. You have a big jar and the scene takes up half of a side, so you draw a repeating line of somersaulting bulls or something like that that have a thematic relation to your subject, like a border. So most of it flaked away over the intervening, you know, 2,500 years or so, and when it was copied to print, the copyist left in the little remaining patch of decoration - like pointing out a UFO in a photograph when it's in fact a bubble in the plastic sheet you left on your digital camera.

    Or maybe it's a small UFO that's come to teach Theseus how to build a pyramid or something.

  16. Not anti-climactic at all, Cole. That makes sense.

  17. I second what Zak and Cole said!

    Apart from Borges' rendition there is also a very good book by a Polish Nobel prize nominee Zbigniew Herbert. It's entitled "King of the Ants" and it's main scope is analyzing the Greek myths from modern culture perspective.

    The thingy is most likely, as Cole said, a part of a different motif from the vase on which the image was originally painted.

  18. Minotaur = beast of burden given upright posture and opposable thumbs = freed slave. Totally.

    I would buy this, except that in context the bull is also a ritual and sacrificial animal - it's all about exchange. I think, rather, the minotaur is about fear of devolution, of being exchanged, of losing one's independent status as an actor (which is why it's also imprisoned) - it's not a freed slave but the fear of slavery felt by the slave-owner.

    veriword: prialist. And so we return to the wiener.

  19. Personally, I think people are over-thinking the meaning of the minotaur. Why do we assume the Ancient Folk were any different from us? They told stories for the same reasons we do -- to be entertained, and monster stories are just fun.

    "So, like, Theseus goes into this maze, and, like, there's this thing there, and it's all huge like a man but it's got a head like a giant bull with these great big horns that are all totally caked with BLOOD, and so, like, it's all 'I'm gonna kill you' and Theseus is all 'Oh yeah? Bet you'll taste great with KETCHUP, once someone goes to the New World and brings back tomatoes!'"

    Come on, people. Did you walk out of "Alien" saying, "Well, this is clearly an interesting examination of fears of pregnancy and an exploration of the idea of the fetus as an invader, with Ripley making the choice to exterminate the fetus-implanter, which can be taken as a comment on feminism or abortion..." or did you walk out of it saying "Didja see that bit where that thing burst out of the guy's GUTS? That was AWESOME!"

  20. When has the D&D depiction of any mythological creature been even close to it cultural origins?

    I too vote for the object being a shield damaged or deformed by the minotaur's horns. I actually think that a teacher showed me that image in high school and that was her assumption as well.

  21. You'll think for a guy who's half-bull, half-man, he'll have a bigger... horn.

  22. @Lizard: "Why do we assume the Ancient Folk were any different from us?"

    To a certain extent, you're right. However, there are some clear and well-recognized cultural differences between modern Westerners and ancient Greeks, such as the emphasis moderns make on individuality as being more important than the group, the insistence that the physical and imaginal are entirely separate, and so on. Even as recently as the Renaissance era there were significant differences in the worldviews of Europeans from modern Western ideas of reality and meaning.

    On your Alien question, I came away from my first viewing of that film with both reactions. What's your point?

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  25. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who thought "flumph" when they saw the floaty tentacley thing.

  26. Zak skewered Campbell much, much more politely than I can, so I'll simply second his comment and try to leave it be without flying into a rant :)