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THE THESEUS ECSTASY :
UNRAVELLING ARIADNE’S THREAD TO FIND
THE FUTURE IN THE PAST
THESEUS : PATRON HERO OF ARCHAEOLOGY
If there is a Greek hero of old who is the patron of story tellers, it is Odysseus, who unfurls his great sea tale to the Phaeacian court; explorers will look to Jason who with his Argonauts went on the great quest for the Golden Fleece; sculptors have Pygmalion, musicians Orpheus and Athletes Hercules.
For archaeologists too there is a clear choice. One of the key tropes of the Theseus story is the moment where he uses his precocious strength to raise the rock and find under it the treasures that have been waiting there for him. Hyginus in his Poetic Astronomy says that sources such as Anakreon and Hegesianax held that the Kneeling Man constellation, now called Hercules, showed Theseus raising the stone. This is the Platonic Form of the archaeologist finding treasures in the earth, an idea they might choose to bring to mind as they sift through seemly endless layers of soil.
Poussin, Theseus Finding his Father’s Arms
In conventional thinking, there is a ceiling upon how valuable a treasure from the past could be. It’s not that there might not be hoards of gold still waiting to be found. Rather, it is the notion that what is done is done. There are those that view archaeology as geeky, won’t look into it, feeling that it is all a done deal, a closed book, and a dusty old one at that. “The point of power is in the present.” In other words, runs this line of thinking, no matter how amazing a thing in the past might be, in terms of one’s spiritual journey through life, the adventure of growth and learning and creativity, it could never be a substitute for doing something now that is good, amazing, new. In conventional thinking, the past leads on into the present, then the present moves on and leaves the past behind; the river of time flows only in one direction, so the treasures found under the rock could only be something that was meant to be found in an imaginative, romantic sense. In other words, within a system of linear time, if the Universe wishes to communicate something of significance to you, it could only do it by introducing something new – things in the past could never be hot off the press of the Universal Mind. You can create a new future, but, says convention, not a new past, so there is a ceiling on how interesting the past can be, according to that way of thinking.
But theoretical physicists are not so sure about that business of linear time, and any metaphysician worth their salt will have embraced a more non-linear concept of time. If they are correct, perhaps archaeology could go up a step and take its place beside things that are unlimited in their potential interestingness. There are subatomic particles that do not behave in line with our conventional conceptions, and whilst it’s a little too soon say that thought is made of such particles, it is fair to say that there are ways in which thought can behave like them. So, for example, when photons act as particles when observed, passing through one gate or another, and as waves when only observed indirectly, passing through more than one gate at once, we see a close parallel with creative thought, genius states, and lateral thinking. It is when the bright light of conscious focus is otherwise occupied (thought indirectly observed) that the mind is capable of bissociation, linking items from previously unlinked horizons of reference, as described by Koestler in The Act of Creation.
But can these particles actually travel back in time? Well, theoretical physics tells us that if light could escape from a black hole, it could come out in the past. How is this possible? According to Einstein’s equations, time slows down, relatively speaking, as gravitational field increases. There is an exponential nature to the curve, and black holes are so heavy that if something could go into one it would have transcended space-time, and if it could come out again, it could do so at an earlier point in time than where it went in. It would then change the course of time in some way, of course.
THE THESEUS STORY
The lifting of the stone is not the only trope in the Theseus story. After he had found the tokens hidden under the rock – the sword and sandals that had been placed there by his father, king of Athens, his mother told him to take them to Athens and go and see the father, for this is what his father had told his mother to tell him to do once he’d become strong enough to lift the rock. His father recognized him by the design on the rediscovered sword, and this recognition was said to have been the happiest moment that there had ever been in Athens.
There was also the labyrinth. Inside the labyrinth was a flesh-eating monster – the Minotaur – which engulfed everything that went into the labyrinth. It was said that no-one who had gone in had ever escaped. Theseus travelled to Crete and was there given by a daughter of the king a ball of thread, which he unravelled as he ventured through the Labyrinth. He triumphed over the Minotaur and then broke the laws of conventional thinking by managing to escape from the labyrinth by following the unravelled string. He then sailed back from Crete towards his home in Athens, taking a daughter of the king with him. Some say this daughter was called Ariadne; Plutarch records another version where the daughter of Minos was Aegle, that is “Light”. He had agreed that if he was successful he would fly a white sail, but otherwise the sail he would fly would be black. According to the story it was a black sail that was seen by those viewing his approaching ship, even though the quest had in fact been successful.
The youth approached, oft turning his veiled eye
Down sidelong aisles and into niches old.
And when, more near against the marble cold
He had touched his forehead, he began to thread
All courts and passages where silence dead,
Roused by his whispering footsteps murmured faint:
And long he traversed to and fro, to acquaint
Himself with every mystery.
It turns out that these other tropes of the story have crucial significance with regard to the kind of higher archaeology we are contemplating, and through them Theseus continues to express his role as the heroic patron of Archaeology.
GALACTIC ASPECTS OF THE LABYRINTH DANCE
In Ancient Greek tradition the Labyrinth is closely connected with a dance. In Plutarch's Theseus we are told of how the hero and his crew first danced the Crane Dance on their way back from Crete and its Labyrinth, to celebrate their dashing escape. There is the reference to Cretan dance with connection to Ariadne in Homer, written down in the early Classical Period, but sourced from older oral material, and referring to the same time period as the Trojan War:-
…He designed a dancing ground, like that which Daedalus once made in Knossus for Ariadne of the lovely locks.
Now Knossos was the location in myth of the Labyrinth, and Daedalus was the designer of the Labyrinth. Since Homer has this Daedalus design a dancing ground for Ariadne in Knoossos some scholars, such as Karl Kerenyi, have asked: are the dancing ground and the Labyrinth one and the same? In the Palace of Knossos part of a fresco was found shown a maze pattern made out of the “meander” or “key” pattern, kaleidascoped into a four-fold pattern. This is not the pattern that has come to be known as the “Cretan Maze”, but on the other hand in Classical Greek art it was this meander pattern that was so often used as an abbreviation for the Labyrinth. And it is a pattern that does connect with Greek dance, as I shall now explain. Reading more of the quote from Homer, it is clear that the dance performed on this ground at Knossos was a circle dance:-
Here danced youths and maidens with their hands on one another's wrists....sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as if it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another.
The Iliad, Homer
It is significant that they danced sometimes in a ring and sometimes in a line. I didn’t understand the link to the meander pattern until I started attending a local circle dancing group. A bit of fieldwork. Here it all became clear. Picture a circle of dancers, upwards of thirty in number, each linked with their neighbours with arms on shoulders of the other, except there is a break in the line, so that a horse-shoe is formed, rather than a full circle. Since the dance progresses, whether clockwise or anticlockwise, this makes the dancer at one end of the line the leader. Now imagine that as this horse-shoe circles, the leader moves further in towards the centre of the circle, so that the line instead of continuing in a circle actually begins to spiral in on itself, so that the dance is now like that of our own spiral galaxy, mirrored by Andromeda. Since the front of the line is now forming a tighter circle than the back, the circumference of that inner circle is smaller, and so the front end is overtaking the back, and as a result of this it becomes apparent to the dancers that if this goes on the whole formation is headed for a dead end, that the leader will become trapped and the formation will collapse in on itself.
But what the leader of our circle dance group then did was to suddenly double back and lead the line in the contrary direction, just as in the meander patterns that are seen over and over again in Greek art from the Bronze Age and Archaic periods, through the Classical, Hellenistic and onwards. This is why, as Carl Kerenyi wrote, the meander pattern was used as an abbreviation for the labyrinth, and patterns of the type have been found in Knossos and other Minoan sites. So the line dances its way free from the prison at the centre of the spiralling Galaxy. I recalled having read of a version of the dance from the South of France, home to what was once the Greek city of Marseilles, in which the line of dancers attempted to catch a dancer. Now this made sense. The thrill of the dance, spiralling on fast-moving feet, and the skilful escape, all of which was given more excitement by connecting it to the story of the escape from the clutches of the flesh-eating Minotaur.
Left: Greek Meander Pattern and Right: Knossos kaleidescoped meander pattern
THE MAGNIFICENT METAPHOR
In human terms, how could it be proved that information had come from a future time? This could be achieved if the information was only intellectually available in that future time, such as information from future science, for example. In other words, were an ancient story to be shown to contain encoded information based on science that did not then exist, we might conclude that it had come from the future, and of course it would not be until that future time that it could be decoded.
In precisely the same way, Theseus's father told his mother that their child could not be recognized until that future time when he was grown to manhood and the rock could be lifted and the tokens of recognition uncovered. So that’s one metaphor for this process in the Theseus myth, but, fascinatingly, the whole myth turns out to be full of such metaphors, meaning that it is itself just such a myth encoded with information from a future time. Let me explain.
Firstly, then, there is the fact that it was said that no-one could escape from the Labyrinth once they had gone in. This is the ideal metaphor for the way that it was said that light could never escape from a black-hole once it had gone in. Black Holes have been described as engulfing monsters swallowing all that is around them, like the Minotaur. We have the centre of the Galaxy as a location of a black hole, and the movement of dancers in a labyrinth dance follows the pattern of a spiral galaxy, such as our own and Andromeda. Theseus went against the conventional wisdom by showing that it was possible to escape from the labyrinth, just as in science Stephen Hawking created surprise when presenting his proofs about how Black Holes are not in fact totally black. A type of radiation – Hawking’s Radiation – is emitted. June 2004 was noteworthy not only because Venus transited the Sun in the constellation of Taurus, passing her thread through that place, (on Rhodes Ariadne was called Ariadne Aphrodite and Aphrodite is Venus, and the Athenians said it was Aphrodite who guided Theseus) but also because Stephen Hawking made known that he was now of the opinion that superstrings inside a black hole might not be destroyed, but only tangled, and there has even been speculation that radiation emitted from black holes might contain some information about these superstrings inside. The Theseus myth provides the perfect mythological metaphor here in the form of Ariadne’s Thread, that superstring by means of the unravelling of which Theseus achieved his escape from the Labyrinth.
But there are more amazing tokens still. The hungry Minotaur, spiralling labyrinth and the superstring of Ariadne are just the start.
Enter Plutarch. Plutarch was a Greek from the time when Hadrian was Roman emperor, and he was a high priest of Delphi, that sacred site of the Ancient World famed more than any other for receiving information from the future, and his essay on the Greek hero in his book Lives (the lives of Great Greeks) is a primary source for us of the Theseus myth. According to Plutarch the name “Theseus” is based on an etymological pun in Greek where it refers to both the 'Tokens Deposited' under the rock and also to his 'Acknowledgement' when he arrived in Athens. But that's not the half of it; this Delphic priest also noted, quoting Hesiod via Hereas, that there was a version of the story in which the princess with whom Theseus had escaped from Minos' realm was named 'Aegle', which means, simply, 'Light'.
Writes Plutarch: “There are yet many other traditions about these things. Some relate that he fell in love with another:-"For Aegle's love was burning in his breast"; a verse which Hereas, the Megarian, says was formerly in the poet Hesiod's works, but put out by Pisistratus.”
So not only do we have the spiral prison, the hungry monster at the centre and the unravelling string, but we even have the escape of light! O my goodness!!
Then there is the black sail. It was a white one which was supposed to be flown on the return journey to signal success, but from the mainland a black one was seen. So it is that black holes look black, but in fact are not.
I think we should all agree that the physics of the Ancient Greeks was nowhere near a stage where they would have known about either black holes or relativity, so we can cast aside the image of some brilliant ancient scientist encoding these metaphors all into the same myth. But the density of coding is so high that it must have been deliberate on some level, and the most elegant conclusion is that the oracles were on occasion able to do exactly what they said they could do. This is information that came from what for the Greeks was way off in the future, or was given from a place off-Earth where it was known where our science would one day take us. (My money's on the Plieades, for reasons tha would take to long to explain here). This myth functions as a proof for the thing it is a metaphor for, and here too there is another metaphor. Theseus had to wait until he was strong enough to lift the rock and find the tokens of recognition. In the same way, the Theseus myth could not possibly have been understood at this level without the prerequisite of scientific knowledge. Only once black holes and relativity had been discovered could the encoded metaphors in the Theseus myth be understood. The intensely happy recognition scene in the myth is the mythic metaphor for the very recognition of encoded metaphores I am describing here - the discovery of information from the future encoded into ancient myth!
The story of Theseus is actually a kind of circle, then, or a spiral. The tokens under the rock were from the future, and it was possible for them to come from the future because of the escape from the labyrinth.
As Christian Meier describes in Athens : A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age, Theseus was “discovered” by the Golden Age democratic Athenians as a mythic precedent of a hero triumphing over a tyrant. The Athenians had toppled their tyrants and institutd a new form of government – Rule by the People – but this put them initially in the shaky position of living in a world which didn’t have its Dreamtime precedent in myth. But they already had a story of Theseus, the hero who had ended the vicious tyranny that tyrant Minos had exerted over Athens. Minos had previously demanded seven youths and seven maidens from Athens to be thrown into the Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur, according to the myth. By prevailing over the Minotaur Theseus put an end to this, liberating the Athenians. As Pausanias relates in his Guide to Greece, it didn’t take too much twiddling with the old myth to reveal Theseus as the prototype for the new Athens, and as Pausanias tells us the Athenians even told stories of how Theseus had been the inventor of democracy. (Cromwell was apparently associated with Hercules, and then Charles II with a Greenman figure, an Oak God, in John Evelyn's words.)
So Theseus was a figure from the past who suddenly became relevant again for the Athenians, as if the old myth had been told because this was going to happen, or put another way, the Golden Age Athenians sent the idea of Theseus back into the past so that he would be waiting in the body of Greek myth ready for the time when he would provide this precedent.
And what I am saying here is that Theseus now has second birth as a patron hero for archaeologists and beyond that for all those who choose to conceive of time as being more than a one-way river. He provides us with expanded ways to think about tradition, myth, and past-cultures in general. Suddenly they come alive again and there is no ceiling upon the extent of their significance for us today.
And in this way, Theseus actually takes us beyond the “Enlightenment” and reignites the Renaissance. In the Renaissance great thinkers and philosophers such as Ficino, head of the Platonic Academy, took the view that myths were full of great wisdom waiting to be recognised. The supposed "progress" that later occurred in the Enlightenment took thinking away from such ideas. Myths were just myths, old stories, while all good things would be found through scientific progress. Well, I’m not anti that either. The pre-Enlightenment world was periodically rocked by huge plagues, while the Enlightenment has lead to a type of science that has proved extremely effective in fields like medicine, and it is also scientific advancements that have allowed this very decoding of the Theseus myth. Rather, we may reignite the Renaissance in the realm of culture and art whilst simultaneously allowing the Enlightenment to continue with all the benefits it provides, through this recognition that the two are in no way at odds.
While science has been doing well, culture - art, sculpture, architecture, poetry - has lost its connection to myth, to classical tradition, to Dreamtime, and our societies have been culturally impoverished as a result. Note the difference between the revolutions in Athens and in Paris - whilst the French systematically rejected anything that smacked of the culture of the Old Regime, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the Athenians never tried to do away with their old traditions and really, there is no need. The precedent for the new can be found in the past. Employing myth in innovative ways is nothing new...it has frequently been the basis of great art.
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