:: Article

Retelling the Minotaur myth for the age of isolation

By Alex Tadel.

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion.
Apollodorus Bibliotheca III.I

In ‘The House of Asterion’ (1947), the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges offers no backdrop beyond this laconic epigraph. The very short story takes the form of a monologue by Asterion, who gives every impression of being the habitual Borgesian narrator. Some sort of erudite and enigmatic recluse, Asterion never leaves his house. He describes the days he spends in solitude, the bizarre games he invents to pass the time, his ontological and cosmological theories in which he is the demiurge. He also makes bewildering references to corpses littering his home. Only the final punchline reveals that Asterion is in fact the Minotaur, and his house the Cretan labyrinth. Aside from the rare classical scholar who knows that the Minotaur’s other name was Asterion, the surprising twist at the end discloses to the reader that they have been reading a reworking of the labyrinth myth from the Minotaur’s perspective.

Borges’ focus on the Minotaur is hardly an unprecedented way of destabilising the well-known myth. Admittedly, when classical authors wish to subvert the heroic tale of Theseus’ expedition to Crete, they predominantly accentuate the abandonment of Ariadne (e. g. Catullus 64 or Ovid’s Heroides). But a plethora of post-classical treatments, especially in the twentieth century, display a deep fascination with the Minotaur. The motif was the subject of interpretations with vastly differing emphases. The surrealists, for example, reimagined the labyrinth as the impenetrable mind, and the Minotaur inside as the lurking subconscious. The most famous surrealist publication was titled Minotaure (1933–1939), with the covers featuring interpretations of the bull-man by the likes of Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. To Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Muriel Rukeyser and others, the inescapable labyrinth became reminiscent of omnipresent totalitarian regimes.

Dürrenmatt’s Degraded Minotaur (1962) presents the half man, half bull’s confinement to the labyrinth as a metaphor for stigma and oppression.

Within this rich multitude, ‘The House of Asterion’ seems to be unique in the way it zooms in on the Minotaur’s isolation. It is an investigation of the very experience of being alone, an exploration of mind and body denied any contact with others. Taking the Minotaur’s seclusion rather than his monstrosity as the focal point of his interpretation, Borges rewrites the shunned, antisocial monster as a paradigm of loneliness and isolation. While the Minotaur’s half-human nature is central to most treatments, Borges addresses it only obliquely and subtly. Asterion is very capable dialectically, harbouring philosophical speculations in his bull’s head. However, he cannot read—I have never retained the difference between one letter and another—and is unwilling to interact with others—I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men. The imperative of connection for a fully human life is in this way only hinted at by Borges on an intimate, though characteristically intellectualised, level.

The backgrounding of taurine motifs is just one aspect of the total lack of context in which Borges presents the Minotaur. Asterion and his house are almost abstract, hypothetical inventions existing in a non-defined time and space. This is in stark contrast with the ancient obsession with Pasiphaë’s passion for the bull pervading every account of the Cretan myth, or with the modern perception of the bull-man as a symbol of otherness and its stigmatisation. Rukeyser’s poem ‘The Minotaur’ (1944), starting with a string of passive participles—Trapped, blinded, led—portrays its subject’s life in the labyrinth as imprisonment, a solitude enforced by others. Asterion on the other hand insists that he is neither imprisoned nor inhospitable. This refusal to search for causes of Asterion’s seclusion, to contextualise, reduces him to an inexplicable, nonsensical solitude. But this reduction, this narrative isolation of the Minotaur, allows for the focus on isolation as such, on the subject who is alone.

‘The House of Asterion’ is an unsettling account of a mind in total isolation. The outside world reaches Asterion only in the form of fractured pieces of information and rumours, which he immediately distances himself from as slander and falsehoods. In his absolute solitude, which cannot be alleviated by literary encounters, he invents disturbing, maddened ‘games’ to make the time pass somehow—I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor; There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. For all his claims of voluntary isolation, it seems that he actually yearns for company, or just any kind of interaction—one of his pastimes is hiding and pretending he is being pursued and followed. His favourite game is ‘the one about the other Asterion’, where he pretends that he has been visited by his double and performs a dialogue with himself as ‘the other’, desperate to ease his loneliness.

In figurative art, G. F. Watts’ The Minotaur (1885) perhaps most closely resembles Borges’ portrayal of the Minotaur as a symbol of isolation.

Perhaps surprisingly given Borges’ preoccupation with labyrinths, his only engagement with the archetypal maze is much more intimate than one might expect from the reputedly theoretical, distant author. The labyrinth becomes the house of Asterion, his home. Yet it does not acquire any of the overwhelmingly positive qualities associated with the idea of home. Replication is intrinsic to the Borgesian maze—It only takes two mirrors to build a labyrinth. Hence labyrinth as house, and house as labyrinth, become the never-ending, ever-replicating tedium of being with oneself. In Asterion’s theories about the house, the impossibility of a life in isolation is ever more apparent. He speculates delusionally that the house is the world and incorporates outside reality into his cosmology as just an extension of the infinite repetitions surrounding him. Yet he wants to be taken to a place ‘with fewer galleries and fewer doors’, and dreams of his ‘redeemer’. He cannot escape a preoccupation with the outside world and a yearning for contact. The condition of isolation seems to be the wish to end it. It is not so much the being with oneself as the absence of the other.

“Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus. “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

The ‘redeemer’ Asterion impatiently anticipates turns out, of course, to be Theseus on his mission to kill the Cretan monster. The Minotaur dies without experiencing the outside world, delivered of his solitude within the labyrinth in a violent and pathetically ironic manner. But readers of ‘The House of Asterion’ finally escape the maze with Theseus. Exiting Asterion’s isolation chamber, they enter the world of classical myth and encounter Ariadne. Left on Naxos at the mercy of wild beasts by the treacherous Theseus, she, rather than her half-human brother, was the figure through whom Graeco-Roman authors would usually explore themes of desolation and loneliness. Perhaps one of the reasons why is that Ariadne’s story is more hopeful, in the end offering its heroine a way out of isolation. Discovered in her abandonment by Dionysus, she spends her life with him, and in death, shines as a constellation in the company of the stars.

A krater depicting Ariadne and Dionysus, surrounded by maenads and satyrs.


Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from a Master’s in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 7th, 2020.