Friday, January 27, 2012

A letter from Tracy Barrett, author of Dark of the Moon

When I was a teen, I went to the island of Crete on a school trip. Not surprisingly, I went to visit Knossos, the palace built for ancient Cretan royalty. It is also the place that is said to house the labyrinth where the Minotaur lived. During my visit, I saw and heard references to the labyrinth and the Minotaur many times, and I must confess that I felt sorry for the monster, who was condemned to a miserable life because his mother angered Zeus.

Tracy Barrett has written a book about the myth of the Minotaur, giving her rendering of the tale a distinct flavor that is all her own. She has kindly agreed to tell us about her book in a letter.

Dear TTLG:

Some people have called Dark of the Moon a feminist retelling of the myth of the Minotaur. It didn’t start out that way. Like all of my books, Dark of the Moon started out with a question—in this case, a lot of questions!
            I love Greek mythology, but the myth of the Minotaur has always bothered me. If you need a refresher, the story goes like this: King Minos of Crete neglected to sacrifice a bull to Zeus, and as punishment, Zeus caused Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë, to conceive a passion for the bull. She also conceived a bull-headed son, the Minotaur. This monster was confined in a maze where he ate children, until the Athenian Prince Theseus arrived. The Minotaur’s human sister, Ariadne, gave Theseus a sword and a ball of yarn so that the prince could kill her brother and use the yarn to find his way out. Then Theseus and Ariadne sailed away. Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and then forgot to take down the black sail that would signal to his father that he had died on Crete. His father jumped off a cliff when he saw it.
            Wait a second—Theseus forgot that he was flying a black sail? How could you not notice that, especially since you knew it would tell your father you were dead?
            And that Minotaur—all the other half-human critters in Greek mythology are human down to the waist, and then turn animal. Except for this one. Why?
            The Minotaur might not be too bright, but couldn’t he accidentally stumble out of the labyrinth? Wouldn’t you want something a bit more secure than a maze to hold a man-eating monster?
            Why did Theseus dump Ariadne on Naxos? If he didn’t want to take her home with him, why not just leave her on Crete?
            It occurred to me that maybe the Greeks had gotten something wrong when they re-told this Cretan myth. Maybe a lot of things. After all, the Cretan culture was very foreign to the Greeks, and religious customs of other cultures are often hard to understand.
            So I dug around and found some interesting facts.
·        Pasiphaë means “she shines for all” and Ariadne means “most pure.” Moon goddess and priestess?
·        The Cretans worshipped the sun in the form of a bull.
·        The island of Naxos is the site of an ancient center of moon-goddess worship.
·        It’s possible that the Cretans practiced human sacrifice.
·        Some ancient cultures, especially in the Mediterranean, practiced a fertility ceremony that hints that once they had performed a ritual sacrifice of a king or priest.
Is it possible that Athenian travelers saw a religious ceremony where the priestess of the moon was united in ritual marriage with a priest wearing a bull’s-head mask—perhaps with a human sacrifice, perhaps with a ritual that recalled that sacrifice—and either misinterpreted what was going on, or willfully changed it to make their Cretan rivals look like savages, or garbled the telling in such a way that the myth of the Minotaur that we know was created?
            We’ll never know. But these questions inspired my re-telling of the Minotaur myth in Dark of the Moon as a speculation about what might possibly have been a set of beliefs that was so strange to outsiders that in order to make sense of it, the Greeks came up with the story of the Minotaur. I’m not claiming historical accuracy, just speculating on what might have been while—I hope—spinning a good yarn. The fact that Ariadne, my main character, comes across as a strong female protagonist, is very gratifying. Much as I love ancient Greek culture, there’s no question that few women were held in high esteem in that society. Maybe—just maybe—that wasn’t true in Crete.

Thank you so much for this letter Tracy. You can find out more about Tracy and her books on her website.

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