Humanizing a Monster II

Even in antiquity, there was a tradition of humanizing mythological monsters dating back at least as far as Theocritus’ Cyclops lament. As I noted in a previous essay, Vergil took up the Theocritean mantle more subtly in his depiction of Polyphemus in Book III of The Aeneid. Vergil’s portrayal in particular relied upon an extremely close and sensitive reading of the relevant passages in Homer which revealed Polyphemus’ underlying humanity. It would not do to simply comb through a list of mythological monsters and attempt to reframe their narratives in a more sensitive light – the pathos must already be present in their stories.

This One’s For the Dancer, and This One’s For the Dancer’s BouquetSpencer Krug’s final album under the name Moonface is, in effect, two albums which have been interwoven with each other in a baffling but altogether enchanting way. Half of the album is a series of songs sung from the perspective of the Minotaur, whose presence looms large in ancient myth despite not being accorded the same type of narrative spotlight as Polyphemus in the Odyssey. But the comparative lack of source material gave Krug free range to re-conceptualize the Minotaur’s story as one of lonely and utterly pathetic suffering. Each of the Minotaur’s songs are organized around the theme of forgiveness for the only people and places whom he knows:

Minotaur Forgiving Pasiphae

Minotaur Forgiving Knossos

Minotaur Forgiving Minos

Minotaur Forgiving Theseus

Minotaur Forgiving Daedalus

Minotaur Forgiving Poseidon

Daedalus comes in for tough criticism in Forgiving Minos, where he is referred to simply as “that sadistic inventor.” The Minotaur concedes that he has given up trying to escape from the Labyrinth, but is forced to live in such a way that he remains aware of existence outside:

That sadistic inventor did a fantastic job
I know what birds are
I know what clouds are
I know the colour of blue and the colour of blood

Unlike Polyphemus, who seemed to revel in the murder of Odysseus’ companions, Krug has conjured up a Minotaur wholly uncomfortable with slaughter and even his own monstrosity:

And I hate to hear their screams
And I hate to see myself through their full moon eyes
And I hate that I forgive you
But I do

This is sensitive reception at its best. It forces us to reconsider the Minotaur entirely, and to question why we would assume that the Minotaur was simply a mindless killer, and why we generally cheer for Theseus until he abandons Ariadne. The Athenian children are victims, but so too is the Minotaur. This is far more representative of many real conflicts than the standard good vs. evil narrative – insulated potentates have orchestrated a scenario in which there are no winners, only victims, in the attempt to keep the political machine grinding on.

The Minotaur is conscious of his status as an abomination in the opinion of the extra-Labyrinthine world, and so half of his forgiveness is directed toward those who brought him into the world. In Forgiving Pasiphae, he cannot escape the sense that his conception was an act of malice:

But you were not totally out of your mind
You still had the venom within you
To go find your friend the inventor
And maybe he loved you or he loved your eyes
He still had the venom within him
To help you step into his woodwork

The Minotaur seems to struggle more with his unreasoning and unknowing father than with the malice which he attributes to others:

Why couldn’t you bow down
Your coral coloured head
And turn back to the sea?

Of course, the Minotaur knows that this was impossible, and elsewhere shows signs of a resigned fatalism in the face of the utterly merciless machinery of fate.

So l guess you are my father
And I guess that she’s my mother
So l guess I am a prince
And I guess I am a bastard
So l guess I am an outcast
And I guess I am a monster
And I guess I am a god
Since a god was your maker
And I guess that I forgive you

Krug doubles down on a haunting marimba line with rather restrainted percussion for the final song, Forgiving Poseidon. The song is well placed, given that Poseidon is ultimately responsible for his very conception: “I suppose you are the closest thing I have to a beginning.” Like most of the laments, the pathos is heightened not by the statements which the Minotaur makes, but rather, the questions which the Minotaur asks. In Forgiving Knossos, we learn that the Minotaur taught himself to dance alone in the Labyrinth as he listened to the music and revelry of the townspeople who did not acknowledge him.

I’ll never really understand why
You never sing any songs for me

We may be tempted to hear this as rhetorical more than a confession of actual ignorance, but in Forgiving Poseidon we learn that the Minotaur really does have questions, and wishes to understand his own existence:

Why, Poseidon
I suppose you never chose for me to live this way
So I forgive you
As I would have forgiven you anyway
But I have so many questions!

In Krug’s conception, the Minotaur is supremely introspective, and is struggling to understand why he was born into a world of nothing but loneliness and suffering. By portraying the Minotaur as a pathetic existentialist, Krug has made the Minotaur far more human and sympathetic than even the Polyphemus of Theocritus and Vergil.

Scholarship will be fine – it has always been a lonely and comparatively obscure pursuit. But the kind of popular reception embodied by Krug’s new album is not only lively and powerful – it also has the power to infuse old stories with a compelling vitality and relevance for us today. In humanizing the Minotaur, Krug is humanizing us. These myths have been read and studied for thousands of years, but there is still much lying latent beneath the surface for us to extract by sensitive reading and reflection. Krug produced an album, not a monograph, but this is the Humanities, and this is what we need.

Labyrinthine lyrics on the album artwork.

5 responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I wound up humanizing the Minotaur in my YA retelling (Dark of the Moon)–didn’t know this was going to happen when I started writing it, but sometimes the characters take over!

  2. Pingback: A Mythical Monday: The Minotaur’s Origin « SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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