DiscoverHistorical Fiction

The Memoir of the Minotaur

By

Must read 🏆

Tom Shachtman is a word-master; if you are a fan of Neil Gaiman or Salman Rushdie, you don't want to miss this book.

Synopsis

The Memoir of the Minotaur is the posthumous confessions of the half-man, half-bull of Crete as offered to an audience of recently-deceased, 21st century fellow souls in Hades’ domain. It shares ts form with other popular retellings of the monster narrative such as John Gardner’s Grendel, and the narrative voice has likenesses to the exuberance, bawdiness and blasphemy of Salman Rushdie and John Barth. It deals with themes of power, violence, sexuality and the role of storytelling, yet its most endearing quality is in presenting the hilarity and absurdity of our classical values interacting with our animalistic cores. The Memoir of the Minotaur is for readers unafraid of a rollicking good tale involving anatomically-complex beings, unforgivable puns, the champion serial killer of all times, scantily-clad Greek maidens and youths, articulate tyrants, and feminist proto-history leavened with theological impertinence.

Seldom have I written a review in which I can quiet the voice of the critic while losing myself in the story. As I read The Memoir of the Minotaur, that critical voice was very quiet; I am not exaggerating when I say the prose is so nearly flawless that we may as well call it perfect.


The book is exactly as described in the title; Asterion, otherwise known as The Minotaur, is the monster that lived in the center of the Labyrinth of Greek mythology. The Minotaur speaks to us directly, in first person. His language shifts from classical to modern, with humor and 21st-century slang thrown in to surprise the reader and to remind us that Asterion has been living (well - not living, exactly) in Hades for fifty centuries, and is now meeting us in our own time.


In contrast to the labyrinth, which is, by nature, hard to navigate, this memoir is a straight line from birth to death and beyond. This is an interesting choice and it is appreciated, as this reviewer is not an expert in ancient myth. A meandering story line would likely have confused me. The Minotaur lives a life in which his only diversions are eating (a lot of people) and sex (with a lot of people). Mr. Shachtman has depicted both pastimes unapologetically and with a matter-of-fact tone that's perfect in the context of this story.


As I read the book I wondered what my experience would have been had I already been well-versed in Greek Mythology. I did finally give in to my curiosity by googling the Minotaur and his fate when I was nearly done with the book. I wish I hadn't, and I don't recommend researching the characters or events of the Labyrinth until you've finished the book.


This author's creative medium is clearly the written word, and there is not one phrase that has not been carefully selected and evaluated. The question/answer section after the end of the story feels staged as a way to allow some bragging, but Shachtman has a right to brag. This is a work of art and earns an unequivocal five stars.


If you enjoyed Madeline Miller's Circe or anything by Neil Gaiman you will not want to miss this book.


Reviewed by

I am a reader with ten years of bookselling experience who is passionate about sharing my love of books with others. My goal is to be direct and relatable, with hopefully a little humor thrown in.

Synopsis

The Memoir of the Minotaur is the posthumous confessions of the half-man, half-bull of Crete as offered to an audience of recently-deceased, 21st century fellow souls in Hades’ domain. It shares ts form with other popular retellings of the monster narrative such as John Gardner’s Grendel, and the narrative voice has likenesses to the exuberance, bawdiness and blasphemy of Salman Rushdie and John Barth. It deals with themes of power, violence, sexuality and the role of storytelling, yet its most endearing quality is in presenting the hilarity and absurdity of our classical values interacting with our animalistic cores. The Memoir of the Minotaur is for readers unafraid of a rollicking good tale involving anatomically-complex beings, unforgivable puns, the champion serial killer of all times, scantily-clad Greek maidens and youths, articulate tyrants, and feminist proto-history leavened with theological impertinence.

One


No one saw the white bull arrive. He was just -- there! -- on a white sand beach at Crete’s northern shore, a silver circlet on his brow, an enormous, snorting, pawing, wholly exceptional creature, high at the shoulder as the tallest man, broad as two oxen, and of fine and classic lines despite being huge. With crescent-moon horns sharp as a double-edged labrys and his majestic sex swaying from side to side, he trotted the island, filling the roads made wide for carts bearing ollas, trampling the borders of phlomis, thyme, and crimson poppies. No hurry, no preference, no fear did he exhibit as he made his way toward the palace of Knossos, where lived the ruler of Crete, Queen Pasiphaë, and her consort, Minos.  

Had the bull emerged from the sea? Was he a natural rare occurrence, a mere albino? Or was he more, much more -- one of those new, male gods in animal guise?  

My fellow denizens of Hades’ Domain, you recently-dead 21st century souls, let us agree that no matter whence cameth the bull to the big island in the Aegean Sea, five thousand or so years ago, nor how he was transporteth to the Middle Realm, he was something else. 

The most thunderstruck of Cretans, by his first sight of the bull, was Minos.  Yes, that Minos. He’s a big shot down here in Netherworld, and you newly-arrived shades are properly petrified of him – but I say again that back then, in what you moderns call the late Bronze Age, he wasn’t a big shot, he was just the queen’s guy.  

Minos was always smart, though, and he reasoned that this remarkable bull was so perfect that he must be beyond the power of humankind, even with selective breeding. Only a god could have created such a bull. And that, to him, was proof -- and Minos needed such proof -- that Zeus and Poseidon, those male gods that he worshipped in secret, were as potent as Queen Pasiphaë’s old Goddess of No Name.  This bull from out of nowhere was evidence to Minos of his own godly descent from Zeus, since he had asked the gods for a sign of that lineage and then the bull had appeared. He’d always claimed that heritage but had had no evidence to back it up. Now he did!   

He ordered tall, sturdy fences built to surround the bull in a field of garigue, burnet, and thorny broom. It was done, and the bull became a tourist attraction. Many ordinary Cretans wanted to view his perfection. And when they saw him, being dutifully religious they immediately understood that as a perfect animal the white bull must be sacrificed. Not Minos, though -- oh, no, not the Big M.!  Rather than lose the white one to sacrifice, Minos lofted the smoke of an hundred other sets of bovine offal to Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and a few lesser male gods whose benevolence he deemed relevant.

As for Queen Pasiphaë, that most beauteous, most regal of women, the high priestess of the labyrinth, when first the white bull’s hooves touched the beach she awoke as from a dream of oblivion. Many times before, while in the grip of the Goddess of No Name, she had felt ecstasy, but nothing like this yearning for the beast that she sensed constantly approaching. For years she had not lain with any man, not since the days of the curse of her half-sister Circe the sorceress (of which we will have occasion to speak). But now she was deliciously unsettled. She lapsed from her daily prayer routine. Receiving reports from the corral, she did not blanch but enlarged her expectations. 

On one of those blistering Aegean afternoons, Queen Pasiphaë went to the white bull’s verdant setting to view him. His bright hide shimmering in sunlight, his testicles and penis casually swinging, he was more magnetically attractive than she had imagined. Desire, suppressed for years, awoke in her a lust unredeemed by love, an aching, throbbing emptiness, a yearning to be filled. Embers of it consumed Pasiphaë’s sleep and troubled her waking hours until her mind knew nothing but her urgent need and the imperative to slake it. That the fire was unnatural, the object of her desire bestial, the union prohibited by Goddess and reason -- only fanned the flames.  


                                               *   *   *


The bull was my father and Pasiphaë was my mother. I am the Minotaur. 


                                               *   *   *


What? I don’t resemble Picasso’s portrait of a minotaur? Well, any likeness that simply grafts a bull’s head atop a man’s torso is a simplistic reduction of my physiognomy, don’t you agree? Pablo was just mirroring himself in his most animal mood. As you know, he liked to feel wicked. And I never met Picasso. How could I have? My time in the Middle Realm was, what, five hundred generations before his? 

I’ll bet that you former mortals from the 21st century are surprised to find that the House of Hades, that ancient dumping ground, that ultimate limbo of the dead from well before the Bronze Age, has persisted into the Internet era. But I’ll also bet that you’re not surprised to meet here in Netherworld such a monster as the legendary, mythological, supposedly-imaginary, wholly unrealistic, half-man, half-bull known as The Minotaur, hmm? I’ll have you know that I am actually the GOAT – Greatest of All Time – of serial killers! That’s the sort of personification of evil that you always thought the Hell of the ancients was for, hmm? 

More likely the focus of your wondering is why you’re here, in this ancient limbo. You think that this place cannot really be for minor sinners, and you are certain that nothing you did in the Middle Realm was bad enough to warrant your permanent residence here. Well, you may be right about that last part: Most of you, after your period of testing, and if you qualify – and you will qualify if you try hard enough! -- will be returning to the Middle Realm or, as you now call it, to this earth, this planet, this third rock from the sun, this Gaia. Do not doubt that your shroud is a chrysalis! You can be born again, albeit as someone else.

Really, now: Aren’t you relieved not to find yourselves in some Sunday School Hell, awaiting a red-gartered Satan, demons with pitchforks, and fingernail-pulling torture? Or are you appalled that you have not entered a cloud-cushioned heaven as reward for your many good deeds? I’m sure your pluses outweighed your peccadilloes. But here we all are! And take it from me: You don’t want to linger on this darkling plain. So speed your transformations! Slurp from Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness – that’s the one over there, by the cypress. I prefer sips of Mnemosyne, the spring near the poplar tree yonder, although in imbibing her bittersweet waters I continually amplify my memory. Lethe is better for the likes of you. But don’t overdose on her waters of forgetfulness, please, because when you depart here I want you to remember my truth. My story is a good one, and I shall tell you every scandalous bit of it. Judge Minos will not interfere -- yes, that same Minos who was once ruler of Crete and is now one of our trio of judges. That’s him with the serpentine tail; Dante correctly identified that characteristic. For the former King Minos, my presence here is an unresolved quandary, because while it is within his authority as a jurist to condemn me to the Punishment Ground, which is supervised here by Tartarus, to judge me is to judge himself, and that the old bastard cannot bring himself to do.

I, Asterion, known as the Minotaur, the terror of the Aegean Seas, the undisputed master of the Cretan labyrinth, I recognize that most of you still think of me as a monster. Very un-politically-correct of you. And ‘monster’ is an unfortunate label that virtually guarantees you’ll continue to judge me by improper criteria. 

Of course none of you are monsters, or should I say none of you were monsters. No, of course not. But let me give some hard-won advice to those among you who stubbornly cling to the belief that the gods made a mistake in sending you here: Rid yourselves of the twin delusions of innocence and righteousness. Sooner or later, you’ll have to! Here, willingness to acknowledge one’s former appetite for evil is a reality check. To gain your release, you’ll also need to admit that during your previous existence in the Middle Realm, you were spoiled. Topside, none of your sins seemed irredeemable. If in the Middle Realm you went astray, if you made a mistake, if you stumbled and strayed from the proper path, then you offered a sacrifice, or you accepted a psycho-social analysis, or you ingested a prescription drug, or you did a stint in rehab, or you uttered a felicitously worded prayer, and – presto, change-o! -- horror and shame instantly vanished.

The archangel Freud was not the first to recognize the power of owning up to one’s nastier desires; he was a Sigmund-come-lately to that idea. 

Speaking of Freud, I must confess to you that my emergence into the Middle Realm caused the death of my mother. 

I killed Mom!

There, I’ve said it! Now I’m free, right?

As if! 

Actually, I don’t remember killing Pasiphaë, since it happened at my birth, but I was told about it so many times that I came to accept my guilt for her death. I’ve even said so to her. My Mom’s down here too: Pasiphaë, junior daughter of Helios, that old charioteer of the sun; Pasiphaë, the high priestess of the labyrinth of Knossos and Queen of all Crete; Pasiphaë, the most gorgeous woman who ever lived. In her high priestess days, bare-breasted and wreathed in snakes, she easily incited men to perform and ladies to abandon themselves in dance. She has been here in Hades’ Domain long enough to have quaffed many draughts from the River of Forgetfulness, but even Lethe’s liquor has not obliterated her pain. She wanders Netherworld because, it is rumored – and Hades’ Hideaway outdoes Twitter and OMG in volume of gossip – that the Olympians will not yet permit her among them, although her lineage is better than most of theirs.

 Down here one might have hoped that beauty counted for less. It is such an encumbrance, don’t you agree? Yes, yes, I know: That’s sacrilegious to say in the 21st century, the golden age of plastic surgery; but certainly the youths and maidens chosen long ago to be sacrificed through me discovered that their beauty was a problem for them – it was what got them sent to my lair to die. But – sigh, sigh -- where would we be without ideals, of which beauty is the foremost?  

In my youth I was taught to regard my mother with reverence and to blame myself for her death. It was only later that I blamed her for my birth.   

Motherhood is incontestable: The offspring issues from a specific womb, usually under the gaze of witnesses, and apart from the very occasional baby switch there is no mistaking the link between Mom and her progeny. However, when we come to identifying Dad, uncertainty commences. Did the mother entertain more than one suitor? Whose seed took hold? Was she so drunk as to not know who gained access to her loins? Did a god have his way with her? Since back in the Bronze Age we lacked DNA evidence to ascertain paternity, we must dig deeper to find the answer to the mystery of my conception. 

Behold Minos and Pasiphaë in the early strophe of their marriage: The contented couple, home and hearth aglow, clasping hands in public.

“Ain’t they sweet? / The lucky love pair of Crete!”

Actually, Minos, that backwoods nobody, was fortunate to have become the consort of such a powerful female. When they met he had only recently come to a bit of prominence, having tricked his brother Sarpedon to head east and his brother Rhadamanthys to go west, which left him in sole control of what had been the bailiwick of Asterios, the nice old man who had brought up the three Zeus-begotten human sons of Europa, and who had lately -- and conveniently -- gone to his reward. Here’s the back-story: Zeus took a liking to the Phoenician princess Europa and, assuming the form of a bull, swam with her on his back to Crete, whereupon he put his head in her lap and -- wham, bam, thank you ma’am! -- sired three boys. And then left her, as rapists are wont to do.

Asterios stepped in to help Europa raise those three fatherless boys, and when they were grown he brought Minos to the attention of the court. Pasiphaë fell deeply in love with the dashing young pirate, and then -- despite what the older priestesses were warning her of the dangers of emotive attachments -- she helped him. Talk about marrying down! To boost Minos’s standing in the eyes of her subjects, Pasiphaë decreed that henceforth every Cretan must honor Minos by calling him by the appellation “husband.”

There had never before been a husband. Bet you didn’t know that, hmm? Prior to that moment, some two million or so days ago, men had only been impregnators, and far from the equal of women. Minos, the world’s first husband -- not the greatest of distinctions, hmm?     

Over the course of twice nine years, Pasiphaë permitted said husband to beget upon her a passel of children, a half-dozen of whom survived infancy. Their names: Androgeos, Glaukos, Acakallis, Deione, Ariadne and Phaedra. Of several of my half-brothers and sisters I have not much to relate, for I didn’t know them in the Middle Realm and by the time I arrived in Netherworld they had long since been recycled. All I learned about Number Two son, Glaukos, was that at a tender age he’d toddled away from his room, fell into a pithoi of honey, and sweetly drowned. 

In the era before Minos first met Pasiphaë, when Crete’s high priestesses took lovers mainly for the purpose of begetting heirs, the female offspring always became priestesses of the Goddess of No Name, and the male offspring were castrated for her service. For a thousand years that had been the drill. But Pasiphaë and Minos put a stop to it because they didn’t want to neuter Androgeos, their remaining son. No more royal castration! As for their elder daughters, they continued the old tradition, betrothing Acakallis and Deione to what were touted to the girls as minor gods who lived on far-flung islands, whence they never returned, not even to show off any grandchildren. Acakallis was even linked romantically to Hermes and to Apollo. The rumor also said those male gods denied the affair, not wanting to be hit up for child support. I never met those elder sisters, neither in the Middle Realm nor in Netherworld. The younger sisters, though, Ariadne and Phaedra, were being brought up on Crete to become priestesses of the Goddess of No Name, and I came to know them well -- achingly well. 

But ‘tis that old Goddess of whom I must now speak, that ageless, hirsute female, she of the pendulous breasts and swollen abdomen, the Goddess of the changeable seasons and of the fertile earth, she who was so self-evident that she never required -- nor tolerated! -- a name. She had ruled forever and a day until I came on the scene. Back then, the male triumvirate of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were neophytes and had nothing on her, so great was her power. She moved seas, she raised islands, she brought abundance, and just as readily she swept it away.

Minos hated her. At least he did when he was a small fry, mediating in local property disputes. And here I need to clear up some old fake news: Minos as a young mediator was never the arbiter of right and wrong, for moral matters remained the province of the priestesses. Only later, after he’d hooked up with the queen, would he become the greatest potentate this side of Egypt and, after his death, a judge deemed worthy of the Supreme Bench of Netherworld. To be fair, though: In his prime in the Middle Realm, Minos was a handsome pirate admiral with a genius for shopping. Pasiphaë adored the gifts he brought to her, exotic-skinned slaves, gowns of tightly woven silk, Egyptian scarab jewels, edible delicacies from the land of ice, pet monkeys and hoopoes.

‘Twas not until after the birth of Phaedra -- sort of a bonus baby -- that the queen learned of her husband’s infidelities. Need I say that she was the last to know? But then all the stories came out: Her man had betrayed her in every port to which he sailed, and not only with women but with nymphs and naiads, and he had done so since the beginning of their union, continuously, and without a pang of hesitation. Upon learning these facts, Pasiphaë, although deeply hurt, neither quarreled with Minos nor demanded an apology. Too queenly for that, she consulted her snakes and plotted her revenge. For it, she took to the sea accompanied by a crew of priestesses who hardly knew a mizzenmast from a poop deck. Her destination was the island Aeaea, where she importuned her half-sister, Circe the sorceress, to help her get back at the persistent philanderer.  

Bad choice, Ma! Aunt Circe was no sob sister to be easily co-opted by a tale of male betrayal. It was a real no-no to claim so forcefully to Circe that they shared a father, Helios, charioteer of the sun.  You should have known better, Mom, for we god-begotten are on the whole a thin-skinned lot.

Circe took this plea as coming from a queen whose humanity was all too evident and whose descent from Helios only gave her the power of never being cold, and treated it as a matter for play, not duty. The sorceress gave to Pasiphaë a malefic curse, to be intoned as the target ate a wicked wine-custard, whose recipe Circe also provided. Shortly, home in Crete, Pasiphaë prepared the custard, Minos ate it, she uttered the curse, and he became afflicted. Thereafter, when his passion spurted, instead of a stream of semen he ejected a noxious fluid of scorpions and millipedes, a secretion that caused the very painful death of any who dared receive it. Thus bewitched, Minos could find no paramours, and tired of purchased slave girls who writhed and died at the sure sign of his pleasure. 

What a lovely revenge! Or so it initially seemed to Pasiphaë. Then she figured out the kicker in Circe’s curse, that she, the queen, could not embrace Minos either, since the imprecation admitted no exceptions. And would-be lovers no longer approached Pasiphaë, unwilling to risk running afoul of Minos’s growing power for a go-around with a middle-aged matron. 

Impenetrable, stone, joyless, Minos and Pasiphaë waged open domestic warfare in the palace. “The olive jars leak.” “The snakes are shedding.” “The water-closet stinks.” “There’s not enough treasure in the treasury.” “My lineage is more godly than yours.” Ah, that last contention was a fine field for battle!

“If you’re so divine, Minos, how could a mere sorceress like Circe have vexed you? Where is the proof of your descent from Zeus? Europa was just an ordinary woman with three bastard sons, who were rescued from pauperism by that nice old man, Asterios.”

Pasiphaë whispered her doubts about Minos’s descent to every courtier at the palace and to every supplicant who approached the temple, until Minos realized that even if he killed the queen the secret scorn of the islanders would not fade. It was only then that Minos reasoned he could silence them all, and wrest true power from Pasiphaë, by definitively proving his descent from Zeus. And so he prayed to the triumvirate of male gods to give him a sign of his true lineage.

Instanter, the white bull had appeared on the Cretan shore.    


                                               *   *   * 


Pasiphaë waited until the night of the first full moon after the bull had been penned in its field. Oiling and perfuming herself with sandalwood and lavender, she then, alone, terrified yet compelled, climbed the rails into the fenced field and edged toward the bull. He gazed in her direction, and then trotted away to mount one of his bovine harem. 

Pasiphaë sacrificed her rival. She replaced her own perfume with the dead cow’s odor of dung, milk, grass, and sweat, and so spiced, presented her rump. Again the bull disdained her.

 “Father Helios, aid me!” -- but the ensuing morning was full of clouds and Helios was obscured. She returned to the temple. “Goddess of No Name, forgive me for having momentarily forgotten you, the spiritual center of my life. Grant me the relief I seek!” -- but the positions of the snakes on the tiles revealed nothing. Her ache did not abate; it increased ninefold.  

Pasiphaë sought out Daedalus -- yes, that Daedalus, the smith who would eventually make wings for himself and his son Icarus. But I’m getting ahead of my story. Daedalus was on Crete because Pasiphaë had given him sanctuary, after an unfortunate incident elsewhere (of which we will also have occasion to speak). He had become one of the queen’s many slaves, and she had honored him by not forcing him to become a eunuch. Rather, she had rewarded his usefulness by allotting to him a wife whose name and origin was the island Cyclade. The artificer’s main task was fashioning additional chambers in the labyrinth, and at the queen’s command he also hammered and forged armor for Minos, and toys to delight the royal couple’s children, and gadgets to make life in the palace more comfortable. 

“Daedalus, my jewel! I demand a device, an accommodation, a rack for more than torture, an apparatus to trick the bull into believing I am a cow.” 

“No, my queen.”

Few had ever previously refused the high priestess of Crete and survived, yet change was in the air: men were rising in status, although they had not yet become the equal of women. And Daedalus was wary because successful manufacture of a device to fulfill the queen would surely earn him the displeasure of Minos, which would lead to pain, deprivation, torture, and a lingering death -- Minos-the-pirate’s predilection for what we now call sadism was already the gossip of the Aegean Seas.

“Sorry, my lady.” 

“Helios will maintain your smithy’s fire so that it will never die; you’ll no longer have to haul wood to stoke it. Circe will enhance the features of your toys; they’ll dance as humans do. Beyond that, I’ll be yours for the asking. Yes! It is you, Daedalus, whom I truly desire! Once I have scratched this itch for the bull, I’ll devote my life and riches to your pleasure.”     

“I am honored but nonetheless must decline.”  

“Fool! I’ll have Cyclade flayed alive in front of your eyes. Icarus, your beloved child, will be shackled and sold to the Lycians and subjected to the unspeakable practices of the East!” 

Daedalus was silent. 

“You are intimidated by the task. Your refusal is cowardice, is failure of the imagination, is acknowledgement that your talent is unfit to meet this supreme challenge. I can no longer doubt that your best work has been done by apprentices. You are not the greatest artificer, the rival of the gods! Truth is, you’re mediocre!” 

It is always pride, isn’t it? Arrogant, blind, unreasoning pride: not a one of us so placid that we do not perk up when thusly pricked. I’m certain that some among you recently-arrived souls have been whisked to Netherworld as a consequence of dying as a result of deeds that you committed when your pride was similarly wounded and stimulated. Well, you’re in good company! Without pride, you say, we humans would accomplish nothing. Bah! Is the scorpion proud of his sting? Does a tree have pride? Does one of heaven’s stars?

“Your highness,” Daedalus bowed, a fortnight later, displaying his models to the queen, “I have produced a half-dozen exemplars of bovine seductiveness among which you may choose: The smoldering, the coy, the innocent, the motherly, the punishing, and the inevitable. Which would you like?” 

“Combine them all -- if such a feat is not beyond your competence.”

On the night of the next full moon, Daedalus’s combinant machine was ready, and it was a wonder: a waving tail, slow-moving haunches, a smooth hide, and a mechanism that allowed the torso to yield while providing support for the driving force of the bull. Pasiphaë crawled inside the faux-cow and lay prone, her eyes gazing at the dull green heath, her arms clenching supports, her legs spread, her loins oiled, and her mind primed with potions so she could endure the pain of penetration. 

The acrid scent of heat, the warning snort, the earth trembling under his tread: Each she had imagined so many times that when they came to pass each was a paroxysm of concurrence with her fantasy. More swiftly than she had believed possible, the bull mounted and she and he were one. 

By human standards, the copulation of animals seems unbearably brief. By animal standards, I can reliably inform you, the copulation of humans -- lacks intensity.

For Pasiphaë, lying there coupled to the bull, time became irrelevant, consciousness an encumbrance, and the gods -- at last! -- knowable. 

Days later she awoke, on a solitary straw pallet in the labyrinth’s holiest chamber, able to remember neither the ache of her lust nor any sense of fulfillment.  Battered and exhausted, her loins torn, her voice reduced to a whisper by the strain of screams she did not recall making, she was in a stupor an entire week before asking for food. By then she knew that life had quickened within.

The palace’s eunuch physician, Enteros, came to the labyrinth and was blindfolded and escorted to the queen’s lying-in space. He put his ear to her belly and heard my heart beat. 

“Return to the palace, physician. Pregnancy is a woman’s concern, and will be in the hands of the priestesses. I no longer wish to have males around me, even those without testicles. From this day forth, the temple is closed to men.”  

Pasiphaë also shunted aside Daedalus, to whom she had made promises of adultery and insurrection. Rather wisely, the still-orchidate artificer did not press for payment for services rendered. 

The priestesses agreed with Pasiphaë that her coupling with the bull had been remarkable. Just as astounding was that desire had left her as though blown away by a summer storm; this was proof, they said, that her obsession had been induced by the Goddess. They threw the snakes. All that could be definitively concluded from their positions on the tiles was that Pasiphaë was blessed among women, and would become the mother of some sort of divine or semi-divine being. 

She accepted the diagnosis.

As her burden enlarged, she became more radiant and calm. White doves flew to her hair and made a living crown. On the day of the summer solstice, holding the hands of her daughters Ariadne and Phaedra, she led a distaff-only procession up Mount Jutkas, whose peaks are the sleeping profile of the face of the Goddess of No Name. Alongside the path crowds genuflected before Pasiphaë’s march, and women who had initially just paused in their work to catch a glimpse of her cast aside what they were doing and joined the procession. Dancing, chanting, chewing on the dangerously narcotic leaves of the crocus and nipping at the holy wine, the pregnant queen and followers wound their way up the modest heights to a point overlooking the sea. At the shrine, Pasiphaë poured holy wine, oil, and honey until the libation basins were awash with sweet syrups that sluiced down the mountain and brought lions prowling to their source. Pasiphaë commanded the beasts, and the lions meekly sniffed at her burgeoning belly. In their presence, she anointed Ariadne and Phaedra in the mysteries of the cult and raised consecrated smoke.

In the palace, Minos -- so publicly cuckolded – mulled over his three dilemmas: What to do with Pasiphaë, what to do with Daedalus, and what do to with the bull. He wished to kill all three, but was mature enough to stifle his rage: To harm Pasiphaë would spur revolt and would anger the ancient goddess, and although Minos was furious at Daedalus, he knew he would be better served by not impairing the artificer’s future usefulness.

The white bull from the sea, however, was another matter. The bull had twice proved Minos’s own godly descent, once by his appearance and a second time by mounting Pasiphaë, which reflected the interest of Zeus and his brother, Poseidon.  Such attention from a god was always an honor -- like your wife having an affair with President Jack Kennedy -- but it did not erase the king’s deepening anger at the bull. After the mating, the white stud had been running rampant through the island, stampeding herds through planted fields and ravaging villages.

Minos wanted him captured. He awarded the task to Androgeos, the finest athlete that our island had ever produced. Minos had previously confided to Andro his plans to seize rulership of the island from the womenfolk, but hadn’t been able to predict when that would happen. For Andro, a young man in his prime, the thought of waiting many years for his turn on the throne was unbearable. He longed for something to conquer now, and Minos gave him the task: “Capture the ravisher -- alive -- my son. If you succeed, you shall command the greatest fleet ever assembled.” 

My brother took many men with long spears. They followed the trail of destruction and soon surrounded the white bull. Androgeos then squared to face alone the formidable creature. He ran at the bull and leapt up between the horns. For anyone else, this would have been suicidal, but he grasped the horns as handholds to facilitate his somersault to the hindquarters. Reaching that precarious post, he then slung his hobble about the beast’s feet and brought him crashing to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Androgeos and his retinue of mighty warriors, carrying on the long poles of their spears the trussed, upside down, bawling bull, entered the labyrinth and went through to the grand, high-vaulted court.

With great and pious pomp, the priestesses splayed the white bull out on an iron grill suspended over the tiled marble floor, and surrounded him with all the trappings of glory: incense, libations, and song. Everyone from the nobility then came into the hall to see him, led by Minos and Pasiphaë. Her obvious pregnancy evoked much comment. My mother knew it would be her last public appearance. She consecrated the bull and Minos stuck in the first knife. An anguished roar escaped the bovine impregnator. Then the priestesses, their courage gallantly to the fore, thrust in their own, jeweled knives. Geysers of blood cascaded over the upper classes as they jostled for position under the sacred shower. Slowly, the grating was lowered toward the tiles, where the unarmed crowd performed the holy rites of sparagmos and omophagia, using their teeth and nails to rip away morsels of the immobilized, dying bull, and eating the morsels until there was nothing left on the iron rack but bones. The skull and horns were presented to Minos, who held them high while he and Pasiphaë recited the ceremony’s closing prayers. A hosanna was on everyone’s lips and a piece of the bull was in everyone’s gullet. 

Thus perished my father. 

After the obliteration of the white bull, Minos tried to atone for his arrogance in having summoned the sign from Poseidon and Zeus; and a repentant Pasiphaë tried to atone for placing Circe’s curse on him. But though the royal couple had gotten beyond their mutual hate, there was neither time nor spiritual energy enough to make real amends. 

Pasiphaë’s body swelled. She understood that her burden would be too large to be born without damaging her. She believed that the Goddess of No Name would not allow her to perish in childbirth, but advised Ariadne and Phaedra -- the latter, too young to comprehend -- that in the event of her death they should seek the protection of Androgeos and the counsel of Daedalus, and to comport themselves as grand-daughters of Helios. The pains tightened into a girdle of iron.

Death and birth approached simultaneously.  

Pasiphaë screamed as my emerging head ripped her asunder, tore the length and breadth of her sex until she, too, drained of blood, whitened, and died. 

Thus perished my mother. 

As all dead humans must, Pasiphaë saw Hermes the messenger god hover in the air and irresistibly summon her onward. So saddened was Hermes that he did not wait for the proper ceremony to have been held but appeared before her at the moment of her death and quickly led her to the black poplar. Thus when they reached the edge of Netherworld and Pasiphaë climbed into the ferry to cross the Styx, she wore not the royal green raiment of queenly burial but the blood-stained gossamer birthing gown, the bright scarlet liquid not yet dry. Charon the ferryman of the Styx, equally as saddened as Hermes, did not insist on his usual coin before allowing her a place in his craft, and Cerberus, the dog with three heads who guards the gates, did not even growl at her approach to our domain’s shores, for such a death as Pasiphaë’s is holy, and commands the respect of all the gods and their creatures.






About the author

Tom Shachtman’s non-fiction includes The Day America Crashed, Rumspringa, and The Founding Fortunes. His novels include the Beachmaster trilogy, available in several languages. His collaborations include Whoever Fights Monsters, with Robert K. Ressler, the definitive study of serial killers. view profile

Published on September 15, 2020

Published by Madville Publishing

60000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by

Enjoyed this review?

Get early access to fresh indie books and help decide on the bestselling stories of tomorrow. Create your free account today.

or

Or sign up with an email address

Create your account

Or sign up with your social account