The Minotaur

Reflecting on ancient Greek myths, Andreas Markides ponders on how the stories of Icarus, Daedulus and the Minotaur continue to exert a hold on us and whether they are metaphors for our current day systems and the constraints in which they impose on our lives.

Image: Pasiphaë (1943) by Jackson Pollock, from Flying Too Close to the Sun : Myths in Art from Classical to Contemporary

For me, one of the most fascinating of myths has been that of the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull creature that lived in the labyrinth. Over the years I would on occasion stop to consider questions about this myth. How could a human mind conceive such a monster? What gave rise to the beast and what is its significance? What is the myth trying to tell us?

The word Minotaur is derived from two Greek words – Minos, the king of Crete at the time and taurus which means bull. Hence Minotaur literally means the bull of King Minos.

King Minos kept the Minotaur imprisoned in a labyrinth, a huge maze that nobody could escape from. One savage detail about the Minotaur is that he used to be fed with human captives who were regularly thrown into the labyrinth. The Minotaur was eventually killed by the young Athenian prince, Theseus, who had the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne; it was she who had advised Theseus to enter the labyrinth by unrolling a ball of wool so that he would then be able to find his way out.

The story of the Minotaur has gone on to inspire many different artists. Picasso used it in many of his works (Guernica being one of them) – to him the Minotaur symbolized violence, guilt, and despair – all of which allude to the savagery that lies beneath the surface of civilized life. Jackson Pollock, William Blake, and hundreds more similarly drew inspiration from this myth. Why this fascination with such a monstrous creature?

Image: Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937 via Wikipedia.

There is an even bigger story behind this myth and that is of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus was the Thomas Heatherwick of ancient times and the architect of the labyrinth. King Minos was so pleased with the labyrinth he decided to imprison Daedalus and Icarus so that they would not be able to reproduce anything approaching the brilliance of the labyrinth for anybody else! Daedalus could not stand imprisonment and collected feathers from the different birds that used to nest in the roof of his prison and constructed wings for both himself and his son to fly to freedom!

What I find intriguing about this story is the relationship between the artist/designer and his client (King Minos). Is this relationship still relevant today and is this why this myth remains so vibrant more than 3,000 years later?

Image: The Flight of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy (1635–1637) via Wikipedia

I will answer this question from my own experience which I suspect is not dissimilar to many others. As a consultant I found that irrespective of my own views and beliefs, I always had to start from and respond to ‘’the Brief’’. You have to either work within those constraints or alternatively you walk away from it. There is no other option and even though this is not quite to the same scale as Daedalus’ imprisonment within the labyrinth, it is still restrictive.

It is not just consultants whose ‘’freedom’’ is constrained by the client’s Brief. I have worked with many public authority officers who can feel frustrated that they play second fiddle to their local politicians. These officers often know what the right thing to do is but, because of local politics, they have to lower their heads and keep quiet. Their voice is silenced with the result that their professionalism is, like Daedalus, chained.

To some this might not appear such a hardship; it is simply the code that most professionals must live by. There is, however, an even bigger loss of freedom in the case of many people who do not enjoy their jobs; they simply do it because they must pay their bills. These people subject themselves to the drudgery of every day for no other reason than that they need the money. Their misery is of course worsened by the different layers of bureaucracy they deal with (like the endless corridors of the labyrinth). China has taken working practices to extreme so that the working norm is now known as “996” – 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Personally, I could not conceive of such existence but there are millions of people who put up with (rather than enjoy) their job daily. Isn’t this imprisonment and how could one break free?

Would a possible course of action be for the Minotaur to pound the earth with his strong hooves and, with smoke coming out of his ugly nostrils, to charge and break the confines of the labyrinth? What I am talking about is complete re-structuring of our daily routines so that people’s professional lives cease to be burdensome. Creativity and the joy of working needs to be an essential part of everyone’s professional life. However, would such a move break the Capitalism system that we all function within?

Illustration by @felixsaw

Perhaps the Minotaur is not the victim but actually the perpetrator of the crime? It is the big machine so many millions of people are enslaved by in their everyday, unfulfilling professional existence – the monster that feeds on the hapless humans who are thrown into and are wandering helplessly in the labyrinth. The savagery and violence of the Minotaur that had gripped Picasso is actually a way of life that constrains people’s freedom – and then gobbles them up. It’s of a system which, in many respects, makes us prisoners and if we ever dared lift our heads and question its validity, punishes us ruthlessly.

Is there any way at all to break free from the labyrinth? Perhaps Daedalus’ method might fare better. Should we use our creativity and natural flair to find a way out of an unsatisfying professional life and fly joyously away to the skies? One would hope so but how do people fly if they are constrained by social (and other) factors?

Illustration by Mika Kirk

Andreas Markides is experienced in the planning, design and management of major development projects, infrastructure, urban extensions and town centre regeneration schemes. He is a founding member of the Academy of Urbanism and was President of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) 2017-2018. In 2014 he acted as Planning Commissioner for the island of Cyprus. Andreas is currently chairman of Markides Associates which employs 35 transport planners and engineers in London.

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