it’s a complex story:

Pasiphae and the Minotaur

Explore the myth of Pasiphae and the Minotaur through the lens of complex psychology, examining the griefs of parents, as well as their flaws, as passed down to their children.

It’s a Complex Story
Complex in Fairy Tale and Myth
Part 4 of a 4-part series
  1. Introduction
  2. The Monster at the End of this Book
  3. Erisichthon
  4. Pasiphae and the Minotaur

The myth of the minotaur[2] describes the disturbing tale of Pasiphae who, perhaps after a curse from a god, discovers that she an irresistible sexual longing for her husband’s prize bull. Her friend Dedalus does her the questionable favor of building her a cow ‘shell’ capable of bearing the bull’s attentions. Into the shell she climbs, the bull happens across her, and Pasiphae’s romantic dreams come true. She becomes pregnant from the union, and gives birth to a boy with a bull’s head — the minotaur. Eventually, the full-grown minotaur will be tossed permanently into an inescapable labyrinth where he devours the youth of Athens, who are offered to him in sacrifice.

Like a lot of myths, the story of the minotaur can be understood as reflecting some aspect of our inner world. In this case, we see a conjoined pair of complexes: Pasiphae, the mother — engaging in bestiality without thought to the consequences to any offspring — and the child complex — the minotaur/monster who spends his life in a maze of darkness.

The minotaur has much to teach us about woundedness. First, it offers a powerful example of children sensing the shadow, the unlived life of their mothers.[3] The unintegrated complexes, the pathologies of parents, get projected onward,[4] passing into the unconscious lives of their kids. Bestial mother yields the beast of a son.

At the same time, the archetype at the heart at the mother complex may connect to a normal human longing for the instinctual, animal life. Contaminated by trauma (the god’s curse), this core becomes literalized as a wish for a sex act with an instinctual being. The shell of the complex is the cow ‘shell,’ creating the semblance of the animal/instinctual — but Pasiphae is not actually able to surrender her human/willful essence to fully embody her instinct. In this way, we see the contamination that occurs when we conflate imaginal symbols with thwarted instincts, or when we attempt to solve a subtle problem in a too-concrete, literal way.

Pasiphae’s failed attempt to honor her instinctual, symbolic needs is then projected onto her little boy, so completely overcome by instinct that he has lost his humanity. At his core rests a magical child archetype, so magical and so desperate for his mother’s love that he becomes what she wants most: pure animal instinct. His traumatized core, another literalized wish (this time for love), manifests as a complex in a monstrous shell, doomed to wander a maze, searching for tenderness he won’t ever receive, consuming his own vulnerability and innocence in the form of the sacrificed children of Athens.

What might this complex look like in contemporary life? As with every complex, there are dozens of possible permutations. We might see a mother who is a blocked artist, grooming her child into the arts, and the adult-child artist, in turn, becomes a petulant monster. On the other hand, such a complex-pair might appear within a single person, as a woman who squelches her own inner wildness, turning her into an angry monster in the workplace.

Despite the negative feel of the outcome of he story, complexes are perhaps best healed when we work our way into the beauty of them — embracing, for instance, the child’s precious desire for love and to please the mother. As with all complexes, we can enter into this appreciation for our own preciousness by inviting our own ‘monsters’ into imaginal dialogue or invoking them in visionary artwork.

⌅   references for this article