When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero. Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings, a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts. Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community. However, more often than not, they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves. Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead. Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts. But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.
André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking. Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences. In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father, says to his son, “Your childhood is over. Be a man. Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become. There are great things to be done. Claim yourself.” After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.
In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it. This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:
I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out. I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite. The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth. Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction. To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served. But that was not enough; I found a better way. I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors. These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them. Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day. The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance. The effect of these gases is not the same for all of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.
An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”
Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth. But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman. When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside. Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity. In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.
Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope. Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes. I took her on in single combat. In my arms she struggled like a leopard. Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me. I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”
Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view. But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?
This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide. This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore. Maybe in another post…