Theseus and Ariadne

The myths of Theseus and Perseus follow each other because the former concerns the encounter with the father monster and problems of the father complex, while the latter deals with the mother monster, the mother complex. It is helpful to compare the two myths:



Like other heroes, Theseus had a double parentage. He was fathered by King Aegeus, who was on a visit in Troezen, but according to some stories, his mother, Aethra, was visited by the god Poseidon. So his father on one hand was a god and on the other, a mortal. In either case, when Aegeus left for Athens he told Aethra he had deposited his sword and sandals under a great rock and that when his son was sixteen years old she was to take him to the rock. If he was able to lift it and retrieve the sword and sandals, he would prove that his parent was Aegeus, and he should then come and visit his father

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This echoes a characteristic theme in which the son, when he comes of age, is required to undergo some ordeal in order to receive his heritage from his father. Such a rite is involved in all of the basic choices of a young man, outstandingly in the determination of his vocation, the most crucial step he must take. He will be handicapped in deciding it unless he is in relation to his own inner masculine heritage. Does this mythological image apply to women to women and their choice of vocation? It is Erich Neumann's viewpoint [ The Origins and History of Consciousness, p. 42 ], as it is mine, that the hero myth also pertains to women, that these myths deal with the process of developing consciousness as such, and that process is symbolically masculine whether one is male or female

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After lifting the rock with ease, and recovering the sword and the sandals, Theseus set out on his journey to Athens to meet his father. Rather than taking the safe route directly by water, Theseus chose to go along the semicircular coast, which was known to be populated by criminals. He dreamed of performing heroic feats by engaging these public enemies

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On his way, Theseus had a series of ordeals in which he encountered various aspects of negative, unconscious masculinity. The first was a desperado named Periphetes, who waylaid travelers and clubbed them to death. Theseus grabbed his club and beat Periphetes to death. A feature of all his encounters was that the ruffians had done to them what they did to others, illustrating a basic psychological law: the way one behaves, so one is treated. That is true on the unconscious as well as on the conscious level. Periphetes was clubbed himself, and then Theseus made the club his own, so a bit of masculine power was won and was made available to the ego

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The next thug he met was a man named Sinis, the “pine bender.” He would bend a pine tree to the ground, and then ask a passing traveler to hold it with him. As soon as the traveler would seize the tree, Sinis would release his grip and the traveler would be flung to his death. Theseus disposed of Sinis by that same method: he arranged it so that Sinis was thrown by his own tree. This is a strange image. Psychologically, it has something to do with distorting a natural growth tendency and then making use of the backlash of it. The bending of the natural tendency can only be held a short time and then it springs back to its original position. We might think of this as an image of excessive self-discipline that cannot last forever because it requires too much energy; sooner or later the natural forces exert their backlash and throw the ego off again. These images are the product of centuries of folk polishing, so to speak, and they have a lot to say about the human psyche

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Theseus then had to face Sciron, who was seated on a high rock where he forced passersby to wash his feet. While they complied he kicked them off the cliff into the sea where a great turtle devoured them. That would refer to the danger of succumbing to false humility, to a servile attitude, as the washing of the feet suggests. In other words, this chap took advantage of the individual's tendency to be obeisant or subservient, and then destroyed him for it. Theseus repaid him in kind

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At a superficial level, the image recalls Jesus' washing the disciples' feet. But the Biblical image belongs to a higher level of ego development and thus has a different meaning. The archaic Greek image applies to an earlier stage of ego development. The whole system of Christian virtues and the negation of the will is not really suitable for the young. One has to have something to sacrifice before giving up one's egocentricity means anything. It can often happen that the task of developing a sturdy, aggressive ego is bypassed by taking on those so-called self-sacrificial virtues prematurely, and then the life process is actually short-circuited rather than fulfilled

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Sciron was followed by Cercyon, a vicious fighter who would challenge each traveler and then crush him to death in his embrace. Theseus got the better of him by making use of the strategic principles of wrestling, which he invented. He overcame Cercyon not by brute force but by the application of conscious skill and inventiveness, suggesting that consciousness must use its own principles in dealing with the unconscious forces and not try to meet the unconscious on its own ground

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The final criminal the hero ran into is the best known: Procrustes. This man captured travelers and laid them out on his bed. Those who were too long for his bed he chopped off so they would fit, and those who were too short he stretched out. This is such a striking image to describe a well-known human tendency that it has become popular in general usage. A procrustean bed is a rigid, preconceived attitude that pays no attention to the living reality one is confronting, but brutally forces it to conform to one's preconception. It describes the danger of the ego's tendency to judge itself by alien standards, thus suffering an amputation or distortion of its own natural reality, the brutal effects of living by an unconscious “ought.” Procrustes' bed is an ought

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Finally arriving in Athens, Theseus was almost poisoned by Medea, who was Aegeus' wife at that time. She told Aegeus that the young man was a spy and Aegeus was about to become an accomplice to his murder when at the critical moment he caught sight of the sword he had left for his son years before, and dashed the poison cup from Theseus' hands. What does that mean? One interpretation would be that just as the ego is completing one stage of relation to the father principle, it almost succumbs to a poisonous regressive maternal yearning within itself. In addition, we can say that there is a reluctance on the part of the powers that be to let the new power come into its own. The status quo wants to continue, and any newly emerging force has to fight it out if it is not to be overcome

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Theseus, however, was recognized in time by his father and was welcomed with open arms. So he reestablished his relation to the father, the inner masculine principle to which he owed his being. But no sooner had that happened than another trial presented itself to him. In Crete, King Minos had once prayed for a demonstration of his special relation to the god Poseidon and he was given that recognition by the emergence of a beautiful white bull from the sea, with the understanding that the bull would immediately be sacrificed to Poseidon. But Minos thought the bull too beautiful to give back, so he sacrificed an inferior one. Poseidon, in retaliation, arranged that Minos' wife Pasiphaë should develop a passion for the white bull, and indeed she coupled with it and gave birth to the monster called the Minotaur, which had a bull's head and a human body, such a dreadful creature that it had to be hidden away in a labyrinth. The story tells us that when one takes for oneself what belongs to the divine powers, one breeds monsters. It does not go unnoticed when the ego, as Minos did, uses the transpersonal or instinctive energies for itself alone

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Then, because of offenses to the Cretan king (at this time, Athens was subject to Crete), it was decreed that every nine years Athens must supply seven youths and seven maidens to be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus arrived on the scene just when a new batch of youths and maidens was prepared to set sail to meet the monster, and he quickly offered himself as one of the tribute youths, with the intention of destroying the Minotaur

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Here is a picture of human contents being turned over to monster purposes, a state of affairs that had come about because the original bull from the sea was not voluntarily sacrificed to the god. The primitive instinctual energies that are signified by the bull were not sacrificed to a higher purpose, and the price of that failure was that human qualities represented by the tribute youths then had to be sacrificed to the bull. In place of a progressive developmental movement that would amount to an enlargement of consciousness, the more conscious humans were sacrificed to the less conscious Minotaur: a regressive movement

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This again brings up the symbolism of the bull. We know from archeological work in Crete that a remarkable sport existed there, a kind of bull dance in which acrobats would grab the horns of a bull and somersault onto and off its back, a prototype, clearly, of what has lasted into our own day as the bullfight. A human being's meeting and mastering the power of the bull seems to have a deep-seated psychological meaning. The bull stands for something that must be challenged and shown to be inferior to human power. Without this level of meaning, the elaborate rituals of confrontation with the bull cannot be understood psychologically

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Another important symbol system that made a great deal of the bull image was Mithraism, which became the major religion of the Roman legions in the first few centuries of this era, and according to some authorities, if Christianity had not supervened, would have become a worldwide religion. It had as its central image Mithras sacrificing the bull

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In psychological terms, the bull is the primordial unregenerate energy of the masculine archetype that is destructive to consciousness and to the ego when it identifies with it. Therefore, it must be sacrificed, and the sacrifice brings about a transformation, so that the energy symbolized by the bull serves another level of meaning. Seen this way it is not too much to say that the sacrifice or overcoming of the bull, symbolizes the whole task of human civilization




The Theseus myth is the story of encounters with both the good father and the father monster. Aegeus, the good father, helped his son to find him and then welcomed him. But when Theseus arrived in Crete he immediately encountered the negative father, King Minos. No sooner had the ship from Athens arrived than Minos espied one of the Greek maidens who appealed to him and was about to rape her on the spot. Theseus intervened, and in the altercation that followed Theseus proved his own relation to Poseidon by retrieving a ring that Minos threw into the sea. In this initial exhibition of his monstrous nature a certain correspondence between Minos and Minotaur is indicated and the very names suggest the similarity, making it clear that Theseus was confronting the masculine monster, the negative aspect of the father image, something that sons not uncommonly have to overcome in dealing with certain kinds of fathers

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It is interesting that although Aegeus was the good father, his consort, Medea, was destructive, a negative manifestation of the feminine associated with the positive father. In Crete there was just the opposite: Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, turned out to be helpful to Theseusthe bad father was accompanied by the good anima. This pattern has psychological implications. At a certain stage of development the positive relation that the son enjoys with the father hides a negative, dangerous aspect in the unconscious, signified by Medea. But as soon as it is realized that the relation to the father is not so purely positive as was thought, that actually the father can also be a negative and somewhat dubious figure, and as soon as that realization leads to appropriate behavior, then the positive anima (signified here by Ariadne) can emerge

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To meet the Minotaur, Theseus made his way into the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne, who was the Minotaur's half sister. It is as if she knew about him because she shared some of his qualities, and this reflects the characteristic theme of the anima linked with the monster in some way. Usually, the anima is held in bondage by a feminine monster, as in the myth of Perseus, but here we see a masculine monster that was not holding Ariadne in bondage but was associated with her; she was able to leave only upon his death. The Minotaur was successfully mastered with the help of the feminine, Ariadne providing a ball of thread, which was the essential guidance

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We can consider Ariadne's thread as the thread of feeling; it is safe to confront one's unregenerate wrath and lust and instinctuality providing one can hold onto the thread of feeling relatedness that gives orientation and prevents one from getting lost in the labyrinth of the unconscious. We all have a minotaur in the labyrinth of the soul and until it is faced decisively it demands repeated sacrifices of human meanings and values. Thus, the principle of Eros or relatedness enabled Theseus to meet the Minotaur, and there is a parallel to this image in the medieval idea of the unicorn, that wild, irascible, and completely unmanageable creature that is tame only when in the lap of a virgin

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It is an evocative image, the labyrinth with the Minotaur prowling it. The implication of this particular myth is that at the stage in which Theseus negotiates the labyrinth there is a destructive aspect to the unconscious that requires a continuous tribute of human sacrificean intolerable state of affairs that cannot stop until the monster is overcome by a conscious encounter. Another way of looking at the myth is to see the Minotaur as a kind of guardian of the center. Surely the labyrinth is a representation of the unconscious, since it is that place where there is danger of getting lost. One of the aspects of the labyrinth, according to mythology, is the presence at the center of something very precious. That precious thing is not specified in the Theseus story, but it is implied in the person of Ariadne. Ariadne was the fruit that Theseus plucked from his experience with the labyrinth

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Theseus found the Minotaur by throwing down Ariadne's ball of thread, which rolled along unwinding itself, leading him to his destinationan image almost identical to one in an Irish fairy tale called “Conn-Eda,” in which the hero cast an iron ball in front of him and followed it as it rolled on its way, leading him to a city where his various adventures took place. These are images of following the round object, the symbol of wholeness. The sphere is a prefiguration of the goal, the goal of totality. The ideas of wholeness and center are related to each other; they are part of the same symbolic nexus, so one might say that the round ball will automatically roll to the center. The fact that the sphere has an autonomous power to roll to the center suggests that it is also the path to individuation rolled up into a ball

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Theseus did as he was instructed by Ariadne and was able to overcome the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth by means of the thread, the principle of relatedness. To understand what this motif could mean, one might imagine oneself in an agitated, enraged state, the Minotaur bellowing within. To confront one's fury will be safer, given the threada sense of human rapport and relatednessso that one will not get lost in the rage and fall into identification with it

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Theseus left Crete with Ariadne, but he broke his promise to marry her. On the way back to Athens they stopped at the island of Naxos, and there are different versions of what happened there (indicating multiple symbolic meanings). One version is that Theseus tired of Ariadne; after all, she wasn't of any use to him anymore; he had achieved his purpose, and so he sailed off and left her. Another story is that the god Dionysus claimed her. The basic meaning, however, remains the samethe connection between the heroic aspect of the ego, Theseus, and the helpful anima could not be maintained. We witnessed a similar fate in the case of Jason and Medea, and we may assume that it signifies something of the same sort in the Greek psyche of that time: a stable, conscious assimilation of the anima could not be sustained. Although Ariadne was separated from the baleful shadow of her monstrous brother, she must remain related to the gods, so to speakDionysus, in her caseand was not yet ready for full participation in the human conscious realm. She had to remain largely an unconscious entity

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There is a further important episode of the story. When Theseus had departed from Athens, it was understood between him and his father that on his return, if he was successful, he would take down the black sails of his ship and hoist white ones. But he forgot about the agreement, and when his father spied the ship returning with its black sails, in his despair over what he took to be his son's failure, he threw himself off the cliff into the sea (which then took his name: the Aegean). We know that forgetting is meaningful, and it is part of the central significance of the myth that the father, Aegeus, should die. Theseus had now become the father, so to speak, overcoming his dependent relation to the father figure and the need for the father to mediate the masculine principle. With the death of the father the individual becomes directly related to the masculine principle himself

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Theseus appears again in a different role in the myth of Hippolytus, already touched on in the discussion of Aphrodite. There, Theseus played the bullish father in his relations with his son Hippolytus. As we saw, the young man had incurred the wrath and vengeance of Aphrodite by his devotion to Artemis and his rejection of love. She contrived that his stepmother, Phaedra, should fall in love with him, and when he rejected her advances, Phaedra told Theseus that he had molested her. That is an ancient theme, which arises when a younger man is living in the household of an older man but remains subordinate too long. His subordinate status is challenged symbolically when the man's wife takes him for a man, not a boy. The erotic complications initiate the necessary conflict between the younger and the older man

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Theseus was furious when he heard Phaedra's story. He believed her lie and prayed to Poseidon for revenge on his son. Poseidon sent a monster (some versions say a bull) which came out of the sea and frightened Hippolytus' horses when he was driving along the shore. He was tossed from his chariot and dragged to death. One way of seeing this is that Hippolytus had failed to meet the challenge of a new level of development, to realize himself as a mature erotic being. What he had consciously rejected came back in a negative form. Hippolytus' problem can be seen as the need to accept a fuller masculinity. At the immature level, the woman belongs to the father and Phaedra was the father's woman, hence Hippolytus dared not have a woman. The monster that came out of the sea and pursued Hippolytus can be seen as his own rejected masculine instincts that had not been faced, the very thing that Theseus faced in the Minotaur

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A patient once provided a vivid example of this theme. He had a bullish type of father who drove him to excel in various ways. This aggressiveness became interiorized and led to an inner pushing, a compulsive need to achieve, that went quite contrary to his own actual nature. His achievements were essentially hollow; he was living out the situation at the beginning of the Theseus story, submitting Athenian youths and maidens, internally, to the inner Minotaur. His real human meanings and human purposes were being fed to this brutal monster. On the night that he first decided to enter analysis he dreamed that he had to go through a maze, and at the end of the maze was the man who became his analyst. Exactly one year later to the day he had this dream:


Escape from Prison


I was in a prison maze. Suddenly I saw an opening, the way through. I dashed down the long hall. I expected gunfire but I caught them by surprise. I crossed over the boundary. I knew I was free and now others would be also. It was as if I had performed a yearly ritual and now others would be free. I turned around and came back. As I walked back different people came toward me, as if they were coming out of their graves. They were old and young, men and women. I stopped each one and gave a deep, guttural sound. I was passing my freedom on to them



Here the imagery is lifted wholesale out of the Theseus-Minotaur story, demonstrating that it is still operative symbolismwe are not just dealing with ancient history