Explaining the Unexplainable

Theseus slaying the Minotaur of CreteThere are many things in this existence that are unexplainable. We (as humans) must rely on what we can see, feel, hear or touch to define and explain what we can. We've come a long way in a short time in terms of technology and understanding of our different cultures. However, there will always be certain things that can't be explained. We have no definite clue as to where it is that we came from or where it is that we are headed as humans and we probably never will. All we can do is attempt to give an “understanding” to ourselves and others through the interpretations of our own experiences. But how do we explain things like hope or conflicts and struggles of the human psyche? What does hope look like? What color is fear? We use symbols to answer these questions and add a tangible aspect to the unexplained. Humans have been using symbols within myths for a very long time. They are used to add more meaningful lessons and messages to entertaining stories. The quest of facing our own inner demons or fears is the basis of many popular hero myths. In those stories, our own fears take on the shape of something bigger than us, something that we would find extremely difficult to face and conquer as mere mortals. Normally, that 'something' takes on the form of a fierce, fire-breathing dragon such as Fafner the dragon in the tales of Siegfried, the Walsung hero. In the stories of Theseus, however, that fear or obstacle takes the shape of the Minotaur.

Theseus is a mythological hero, Athenian king, and one of my own personal favorite characters of Greek mythology. The stories of Theseus send him on many different adventures. One story in particular finds Theseus in the half man, half bull Minotaur's labyrinth of Crete. For many years, Athenians were sacrificed to the Minotaur. Every nine years, the Cretans demanded fourteen Athenians to sacrifice to the Minotaur. The Minotaur undoubtedly became synonymous with pain, suffering and death for the people of Athens since no one who was sent to Crete to face the Minotaur ever returned. It wasn't until Theseus came to Athens that the pain and suffering of his people at the hands of the Cretans and the Minotaur was brought to an end. Theseus disguised himself as one of the unfortunate fourteen Athenians who were to be sent to Crete to face the Minotaur. Once there, Theseus used a ball of string to mark his path of choices through the labyrinth so he could easily find his way back out. Theseus found the Minotaur in the maze, killed him and made his way back out by following his marked path. The pain and suffering that the Minotaur had come to symbolize finally ended.

The labyrinth seems perfectly suitable as a symbol of life. There are many choices in the labyrinth as there are in life. Not every choice is a good one, but they are all choices one must make throughout life. The introduction of the Minotaur into the maze adds much more to its meaning and yet another choice. If we sit still in the maze, we don't take a chance of inadvertently running straight into the Minotaur. However, he may come around the corner at anytime and seal our fates. If we move forward through the maze, we may very well be heading straight for the Minotaur and an early demise. From an optimistic perspective however, by moving forward through the maze, we may be putting more and more distance between ourselves and the Minotaur. Moving forward through the labyrinth also gives us the benefit of experience. With that experience, we may be able to help someone else understand a better path through the maze of life. We may also better understand who we are from the knowledge of where we have been. I feel as though the ball of thread is a symbol of our own observations and consciousness of our past decisions. Without knowing or remembering where it is that a past choice led us, we would undoubtedly make some of the wrong decisions again. My own interpretation of the ball of thread used by Theseus may be considered a 'reach' to some but I think that our own individual interpretations of these tales and symbols are all that matter. Only we know what drives us inside and only we know what holds us back mentally. We can choose to face our fears head on, throwing ourselves toward our own fates and destinies or we can wait for those fears to close in on us. Rest assured, those fears will be faced eventually.

“There was a sign at Jonestown behind Jim Jones' dead body and it said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
-Jello Biafra

The Minotaur in the labyrinth can be perceived in much the same way that dragons are in mythology. Dragons typically guard treasures that most men seek. They may guard money, magical artifacts (power) and even women. The dragon itself represents an obstacle that must be overcome before the pleasures that its guarded treasures hold can be experienced. The guarded treasures can be a physical or psychological representation of what it is that we are trying to gain. For example, a person cannot fear failure and be successful at the same time. If a person is deathly afraid of failure and the impact that it has on them emotionally, then they avoid the pursuit of success because the risk of failure is always there. In this example, the treasure is not just success; it is also the conquering of a fear (the dragon). The dragon is what stands between the person and their success and becomes their fear. In many of the myths involving dragons, the hero slays the dragon and consumes its blood. This is to gain the knowledge that the dragon holds. In this example the knowledge is experience of overcoming ones own fear of failure. It's safe to say that, in most cases, the dragon is actually guarding itself. In my opinion, it makes for a better lesson when the dragon itself is the treasure being sought after. The power of knowledge is the most valuable treasure our own personal dragons can attempt to keep from us.

Fafnir the Dragon from Siegfried (The Walsung Hero) mythsOne particular story that uses an actual image of a dragon as an obstacle in the way of destiny is the story of Siegfried (the Walsung hero). Siegfried was raised by a Dwarf named Mime. Over time, Siegfried came to realize that he, in fact, was not a Dwarf. His own physical appearance was proof enough of that. He knew there was another life for him somewhere. Through the truth of Wotan, Siegfried learned the details of his own heritage and destiny. He set out to fulfill his destiny and slay Fafner, the dragon that only he could slay. Fafner was a giant, in the guise of a dragon, who guarded a ring that held the power to rule the universe. Fafner was an obstacle that only the prophesized Walsung hero could conquer. Siegfried defeated his dragon with little effort and took the ring of power as a token of his accomplishments. Siegfried was not out to prove himself worthy of ruling the universe. He didn't even understand the full meaning behind the ring. He only took it as a token and left the mass amounts of gold and riches behind. Siegfried was more concerned with discovering himself and finding out who he really was and what he was made of. He knew there was something missing in his life and he planned to find it, regardless of the cost. In order to do that, he had to slay his personal dragons. In the eyes of most, the effort (or lack of) that Siegfried used to kill Fafner made him a hero. We would all love to have the ability to overcome our own fears (dragons) as easily as the Walsung hero. Unlike Siegfried, we aren't all born without fear.

A more modern example of conquering mental anguish and fear can be found in Terry Gilliam's 1991 rendition of “The Fisher King”. This story puts a modern twist on an old story about the “Holy Grail”. Parry, portrayed by actor Robin Williams, is a man who has lost himself completely. He is deeply affected by the tragic death of his wife and becomes a totally different person. He misses her so badly that it physically hurts to think about her and the life they shared together. As an ex-professor of history and mythology, Parry recalls a tale of a king and the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ drank from at the 'Last Supper', and begins to live the life of a medieval knight on a quest for the Grail. The grail was believed to have the power to heal the hurts of man. In the film, Parry discovers what he thinks to be the “Holy Grail” and plots to obtain it. Parry believes that once he gets the grail he will be able to heal himself and move on with his life. However, if we learn anything from hero myths, it is that there are always obstacles in the way of such a powerful item as the “Holy Grail”. Every time Parry starts to recall his former life of happiness, a manifestation of Parry's mental anguish appears in the form of an evil red knight. This knight is the keeper of Parry's grail and must be defeated in order to obtain the healing power that the grail has to offer. With the help of a friend, Parry eventually acquires his grail and is able to move on with his life. This movie, like many mythological tales, is full of symbols. The grail that Parry seeks symbolizes the happiness that he once had and the person that he used to be (not to mention his sanity). In order to gain that peace of mind, Parry must overcome the red knight, the symbol of his own painful memories of a tragic event.

As one can see, symbols are found all throughout mythology. They are used to show us that which cannot be seen; emotions, state of mind, and even struggles within ourselves. They can take the form of many different objects. Whether it is a dragon guarding our personal understanding of who we are, a Minotaur guarding the exit (or entrance) to a life of less suffering and fear, or even a Templar Knight guarding the relief of our own mental anguishes in the form of the Holy Grail, these symbols hold much deeper meanings under the facade of entertainment. You never know what you're going to find. You may even find yourself.

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