© Neel Burton

In Greek myth, King Minos, to consolidate his position on the Cretan throne, asked the god Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of divine favour. But instead of sacrificing the superb bull as he ought to have done, he decided to keep it for his stud farm. Poseidon punished Minos by making his wife Pasiphaë lust for the white bull.

Pasiphaë pleaded with the master craftsman Daedalus to build her a hollow cow in which to hide out with the bull. Daedalus’ cow seemed so true to life that the bull mounted it, and some time later Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. 

Pasiphaë nursed the Minotaur as a calf, but, as he grew, he became increasingly violent and even began eating people. Fearing that his subjects would rise against him, Minos sought to contain his stepson in a series of ever stronger cages; but after he broke out of the strongest cage, he asked Daedalus to build a maze of tunnels beneath his palace. The Labyrinth, as it came to be called, was so intricate that even Daedalus, having built it, struggled to escape from it. The Labyrinth served Minos well, enabling him to intimidate and dispose of his enemies while also hiding and feeding the Minotaur—who now would eat nothing but human flesh.

Minos, Minotaur aside, was a great king. Under his rule, Crete prospered and grew into a naval power. When his eldest son Androgeus came of age, he travelled to Athens to partake in the Panathenaic Games. Somehow Androgeus died, or was killed, and Minos held Athens responsible for his loss. In reparation, and as the price for peace, he required that King Aegeus send him a tribute, every nine years, of seven of the most noble youths and seven of the most virtuous maidens of Athens. These unfortunates, drawn by lots, would be sent to Crete in a ship with black sails, paraded before the people, and cast into the Labyrinth.

When the time came for the third nine-yearly tribute to Crete, Theseus, the son and heir of King of Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to take the place of one of the fourteen unfortunates and confront the Minotaur. He sailed away in the ship with black sails, promising his ailing father that, if successful, he would return on white sails. As he was paraded through the streets of the Cretan capital, Minos’ daughter Ariadne saw him and immediately fell in love with him. He and the other Athenians were locked up in a dungeon to await morning, when they would be fed to the Minotaur.

That evening, Ariadne begged Daedalus, until he relented, to tell her the secret of the Labyrinth. Under the cover of darkness, she ran past the guards to Theseus and slipped him a sword and a clew of crimson thread. She instructed him to tie the thread at the mouth of the Labyrinth and unfurl the clew as he went along, ‘always straight, always down, and never left or right.’ Before leaving, she made him promise that, if he came out alive, he would take her with him and marry her.

As Theseus descended into the dark Labyrinth, the air became putrid and he began tripping over what must have been human remains. He could hear the thumping of the Minotaur, but could not locate him until he could also hear his breathing. He may never have seen him had it not been for the blood-tinged ivory of his eyes and horns. With his head down, the Minotaur made to gore him, but he leapt in Cretan style over his horns, rolled over, drew out his sword, and drove it up to where he imagined he had his heart. He then picked up what remained of the clew and wound it back up to find his way out of the Labyrinth… and into the waiting arms of Ariadne.

In the early twentieth century, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans working on Crete uncovered the existence of a complex civilization whose people he called the Minoans after the mythical King Minos. Minoan Crete flourished from around 3000 to 1500 BCE and came to revolve around a series of palace complexes, the largest of which was at Knossos in the north of the island. The palace at Knossos covered an area of around six acres (or three football pitches) and contained some 1,300 rooms connected by various corridors and stairways, leading Evans to speculate that the mythical Labyrinth was none other than the palace itself. Pottery and frescoes unearthed by Evans and his team featured bulls and bull-leaping, and the most common symbol on palace walls was the labrys, or double axe—and it has been suggested, including by Evans himself, that “Labyrinth” might mean something like “Sanctuary of the Double Axe”.

Although the Labyrinth was clearly a branching, multicursal maze, it has long been represented, for example on Cretan coins, as a single-path, unicursal maze in which it is impossible to get lost. As a result, the word “labyrinth”, although essentially synonymous with “maze”, has come to connote unicursality, whereas the word “maze” has come to connote multicursality. 

In his Natural History, the naturalist Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) describes four ancient labyrinths—in Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and Italy—all of which seem to have been enclosed multicursal complexes, confirming that this is the ancient, original meaning of the word “labyrinth”. 

In the Histories, the historian Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) claims that the Egyptian labyrinth surpassed even the pyramids in scale and ambition:

I myself have seen [the Egyptian labyrinth], and no words can tell its wonders: the sum of all that the Greeks have built and wrought would be a matter of less labour and cost than was this single labyrinth…

Far from a mere folly, the labyrinth is, like the serpent, the flood, and the trinity, something of a Jungian archetype, found in prehistoric rock drawings at, for example, Pontevedra in Galicia (Spain), Val Camonica in Lombardy (Italy), and Rocky Valley in Cornwall (England).

In medieval Europe, cathedrals sometimes contained a labyrinth traced out in the nave from contrasting paving stones. Those that have survived, such as the striking one in Chartres Cathedral, can still be walked today. Cathedral labyrinths were not simply ludic or ornamental but represented the spiritual path to God and provided a substitute for going on pilgrimage. Cathedral labyrinths were therefore unicursal, as were the first hedge mazes, which evolved from Renaissance knot gardens.

As I argue in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, mazes and labyrinths are in fact spiritual tools. Multicursal mazes such as the Cretan Labyrinth may have been built not only to guard against gold diggers but also to deter or trap evil spirits, including the Minotaur. Unicursal labyrinths on the other hand may have been traced to guide rituals or dances. The circular unicursal labyrinth symbolizes the cosmos, completeness, and unity, and, by extension, the spiritual path or journey of life. More than a simple garden, it is a removed, secluded, and liminal space that serves to calm and concentrate the mind—which is why labyrinths, often simply mown into a summer field, are increasingly to be found in therapeutic settings such as hospitals and hospices. Labyrinths, especially single-path, unicursal ones, serve not only as a thing of beauty but also and above all as an aid to meditation and mindfulness.

To walk the labyrinth is to re-enter the womb and travel inward, and to come back out is a kind of rebirth. Ariadne’s crimson thread is thus an umbilical cord that ties Theseus to the world while he undertakes the hero’s journey into the underworld and slays the monster. To escape the Labyrinth, Theseus simply followed the clew, or clue. This revised spelling of “clew”, “a ball of thread or yarn”, underwent a sense shift from around 1600 in reference to Theseus and the Minotaur, giving us the modern word “clue” and, more recently, “clueless”.

In myth, snakes, or serpents, are often connected to seers and oracles.

Teiresias is the most notorious seer in Greek myth. As a young man, he came upon a pair of coupling serpents on Mount Cithaeron, and, in disgust, struck them with his staff. This offended the goddess Hera, who turned him into a woman. Teiresias spent the next seven years as a priestess of Hera, and even married and had children in that time. After seven years as a woman, Teiresias once again chanced upon a pair of coupling serpents, but, this time, gave them a wide berth. As a result, Hera released him from his sentence.

Later, Zeus and Hera dragged Teiresias into an argument about who has the more pleasure in sex: woman, as Zeus claimed; or man, as Hera claimed. Teiresias averred that, “Of ten parts, a man enjoys only one.” For this, Hera struck him blind, but Zeus compensated him with the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven generations.

The ancients took divination very seriously. Leaders would consult an oracle or seer before any major undertaking. Aristotle, that great logical and scientific mind, also wrote a lesser known treatise entitled On Divination in Sleep. Oracles were considered superior to seers because the literal word of a god. They were, however, difficult to consult, each with their own seasons and conditions, such that most of the demand for divination was met by seers like Teiresias.

The oracular tradition may have originated with the oracle of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet at Per-Wadjet (modern-day Desouk, near Alexandria). Wadjet was depicted as a snake, usually an Egyptian cobra. Or she was depicted as a snake with the head of a woman, or a woman with the head of a snake, or two snake heads. She nursed the infant Horus, and protected Ra by coiling herself upon his head. The snake goddess figurines excavated in the Minoan palace at Knossos may have been connected to Wadjet, as is the uraeus, the stylized upright cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty and divine authority, and mounted, among others, onto the crowns and masks of the pharaohs—including, famously, Tutankhamun.

But why a snake, or snakes? As I argue in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, snake venom is both a deadly poison and an antidote, and also has many other medicinal properties—having been used, for example, to control pain or stem haemorrhage. According to the Book of Numbers, Moses erected a bronze serpent onto a pole to protect the Israelites from the bites of the “fiery serpents” sent by God in punishment. The same archetype recurs in the two symbols of the medical profession: the more traditional Rod of Asclepius, god of healing, with one snake; and the more commercial Rod of Hermes, or Caduceus, with two snakes. The rod or staff represents control over the dual nature of the snake, or the Moses-like harnessing of the powers of the snake.

In addition, snakes are close to the ground and shed their skins, making them symbols of the nourishing earth, the underworld, rebirth, immortality and creativity—and, by extension, of culture and wisdom. The ouroboros [Greek, “tail eater”], an icon of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, originated in Egypt and later transferred into the Greek mystery cults, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. The ouroboros symbolizes the circle of life, and maybe also sexual intercourse, with the tail representing the male organ and the mouth the female one.

The most notorious of snakes is perhaps the one in Eden, at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to the Book of Genesis, the serpent is the most subtle of all the beasts in God’s creation, and, like Adam and Eve, has the ability to speak and reason. The only other animal that speaks in the Pentateuch is Balaam’s ass, and then only because God opened its mouth. Seduced by the snake, Eve, and then Adam, ate of the tree, and “the eyes of them both were opened.”

The Education of Achilles, by Bénigne Gagneraux (1785).

In the Iliad, Homer calls Chiron the ‘wisest and justest of all the centaurs’.

Fated to be overthrown by one of his children, Cronus, the godhead of the Titans, devoured them all upon their birth. In desperation, his wife Rhea hid their sixth child, Zeus, on the island of Crete. As Cronus searched earth and sky for Zeus, he came upon the Oceanid Philyra, after whom he lusted. To hide from Rhea, he took the form of a stallion and mounted Philyra. In due course, Philyra gave birth, with great pain, to a child named Chiron, with the upper body of a man and lower body of a horse. Seized with shame and disgust at the sight of this monster, she abandoned him on Mount Pelion in Thessaly.

Fortunately, Chiron was found and reared by Apollo, who taught him the healing arts, music, and prophecy, while Apollo’s twin sister Artemis taught him archery and hunting. Chiron excelled in every field. It is sometimes said that he invented pharmacy, medicine, and surgery. Indeed, the name ‘Chiron’ means ‘hand’ [Greek, kheir] or ‘skilled with the hands’, and is related to our ‘surgeon’ [kheir + ergon, ‘handworker’].

For his learning and temperament, Chiron was highly sought after as a tutor. His pupils included many of the greatest heroes, including Perseus, Theseus, Jason, the Telamonian Ajax (Ajax the Great), Patroclus, and, of course, Achilles. Chiron had a special bond with Achilles, having advised Peleus, his father, how to win over his mother Thetis.

Wounded in the thigh by one of Paris’ arrows, Eurypylus, leader of the Thessalians in the Trojan War, cried out to Patroclus:

I want you to cut out this arrow from my thigh, wash off the blood with warm water and spread soothing ointment on the wound. They say you have some excellent prescriptions that you learnt from Achilles, who was taught by Chiron…

While pregnant by Apollo, the Thessalian princess Coronis let herself be seduced by the mortal Ischys. For this, Artemis killed Coronis and her family with her arrows. But, by performing the first caesarean section, Apollo rescued their unborn child from the funeral pyre and gave it to Chiron to be raised. That child was Asclepius, god of medicine.

Whereas the centaurs were notorious for being violent and lustful, Chiron, the foster child of Apollo, was all culture and civilization. Unlike the other centaurs, he was often depicted clothed rather than naked, and with human rather than equine legs. As half-brother to Zeus, he came from a completely different line from the other centaurs, who were born of Ixion and Nephele.

During his fourth labour to capture the Erymanthian boar, Herakles [Hercules] visited the centaur Pholus in his cave. When Pholus opened a bottle of wine given by Dionysus, the fragrant nose attracted the other centaurs and drove them into a frenzy. Herakles defended the cave by raining arrows dipped in the blood of the Lernaean hydra, which he had killed on his second labour. One of the arrows hit Chiron, who, although friends with Herakles, got caught in the mêlée.

For all his knowledge and skill Chiron could not heal his festering wound, which became unbearably painful. But being the immortal son of Cronus, neither could he die. In the end, he or Herakles struck a bargain with Zeus, whereby he would exchange his immortality for the freedom of Prometheus, who had been bound for all eternity to a rock for stealing fire from the gods and delivering it to humankind. Every day, an eagle pecked out Prometheus’ immortal liver, only for it to grow back overnight.

After Chiron’s death, Zeus at long last freed Prometheus, and fixed Chiron in the firmament as the constellation Sagittarius or Centaurus.

Interpretation of the myth

Chiron is twice-wounded, once at birth, and again towards the end of his life.

The first wound is a deep emotional wound that comes from being a child of rape who is rejected by both of his parents. He is quite literally a monster, and now also an orphan and an outcast.

Being half-man, half-animal, Chiron embodies the conflict in all of us between the animal instincts and reason or divinity, between the Dionysian wildness of the other centaurs and the Apollonian light and order of his foster father. Yet, he falls firmly on the Apollonian side, and in many respects outshines even the god of light, mastering and even furthering knowledge and the arts [Greek, episteme and techne] in an attempt to compensate for his early rejection and prove, both to himself and to others, that he is worthy of love and acceptance.

A similar pattern can be discerned in that other rejected god, Hephaestus, cast out of Olympus by his mother Hera on account of his deformity. Despite this, or, rather, because of this, Hephaestus as the blacksmith of the gods spends his life creating objects of great beauty and utility, such as Helios’ chariot, Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals, and Achilles’ armour. Hephaestus even gets the girl, marrying Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Chiron turns in particular to the healing arts as a means of healing himself, and not only himself but others too. He spreads the light, giving to others that which he himself most needs or needed. Rather than allowing the original wound to fester, he finds within it a source of motivation, even of inspiration, that leads him to great insight and achievement. This in turn invites, or rather imposes, a sense of purpose and service or duty that ennobles and enriches his life in ways that the other centaurs could not even begin to imagine.

In the words of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi (d. 1273):

Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor
Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested.
Whoever sees clearly what's diseased in himself
Begins to gallop on the Way
Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.

In The Meaning of Madness, I argue that mental disorders in particular are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simple awareness of this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow, and live, through their experiences.

Chiron’s second wound is caused by the superego, represented by Herakles, battling against the id, represented by the centaurs riled up by the Dionysian wine. Instead of reconciling himself with the dark side, Herakles desperately fights against it, potentially hurting himself and others in the process—as he does his friend Chiron.

Chiron’s stoical decision to die in the face of unbearable and incurable pain, especially in light of his immortality, raises profound, and surprisingly modern, ethical questions about euthanasia and the desirability of immortality, questions that have never been more pertinent than today.

Chiron is a rare if not unique instance of a god who dies, and, more than that, chooses to die (unlike, say, Jesus). But even in dying, he gives himself up to another. Just like he sublimed his life into wisdom, art, and love, so he sublimed his death into an act of service and sacrifice.

And it is fitting that Chiron’s sacrifice is to a god so similar to himself: a great friend of humankind, and wounded for it, wounded, like we all are, for bridging the divide between the mortal and the divine. This is the second wound, the wound in our mortal body, the wound that will not heal.

And so the story of Chiron is the story of how we might be able to cope with the psychological distress and ineluctable physical defeat that is part and parcel of the human condition.

Here is how Rumi ended his poem:

Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.