In a couple of recent episodes of Showtime’s Dexter, title character, Dexter Morgan and Miami Metro Homicide are after a strange serial killer. The serial killer lures women into a labyrinth he has created where he chases them around with a mask and bull horns on his head. The scenes are terrifying, but, even better, are a clear reference to the ancient account of Theseus and the Minotaur. The use of the labyrinth at this point in the Dexter series in an interesting choice as the writers may be alluding to a parallel between this killer’s physical labyrinth and the mental labyrinth that Dexter is currently navigating due to problems in his personal life (I will avoid getting into these as I don’t want to be a spoiler). Since my goal in this blog is to point out references and educate readers on ancient sources, I will not go further into the Dexter side of the story.
The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has been portrayed a lot in modern times. Theseus was the main character in the movie Immortals and the Minotaur has come up very recently in Katy Perry’s Wide Awake music video (an analysis of this video can be read at Music To My Eyez). In the time between these present references and the ancient origins of the story, it was also a great influence in the renaissance, as was everything classical; specifically it was the topic of an interesting sculpture by Antonio Canova. The ancient origins of this story are too hard to detect. It was most likely passed down through oral tradition and then adapted when it was written down. Plutarch and Ovid both give accounts of the myth.
The myth is that King Minos of Crete, after the Athenians surrendered to him, forced Athens to send seven men and seven women to Crete every seven (or nine depending on the source) years as tribute. These tributes would be fed to the Minotaur which was stored in the labyrinth under the palace created by Daedalus (you may recognize this name from the fable Daedalus and Icarus, yes it is the same Daedalus). One year Theseus decided to go as tribute in order to kill the Minotaur. With a ball of thread to find his way out, Theseus entered the labyrinth defeated the Minotaur and returned safely to his home. Unfortunately he forgot to change his sails as he had promised his father and upon seeing the black sails still flying his father, King Aegeus, threw himself into the sea thus lending his name to the Aegean Sea.
While the labyrinths in Dexter are not as elaborate nor do they have an actual Minotaur, it was still very cool to see one of my favorite shows make such a blatant classical reference. Score more points for this amazing show. Dexter Morgan calls his urge to kill his “Dark Passenger” and I like to think that the labyrinth killer calls his urge “King Minos.”
Note: For a really nasty and interesting story, look into the creation of the Minotaur either through internet resources like Wikipedia or if you are interested in ancient sources, as you should be, my favorite account is given by Ovid in his Heroides, Phaedra to Hippolytus lines 55-68.