Theseus Gets a Clew
His ship notwithstanding
It’s been a hell of a year. Those of us who have survived (so far) have watched as jobs were lost, lives destroyed, too many people failed to even appear to care, and too many others found themselves lost and powerless. It has left us damaged, broken, lost. Who are we now, a year later, having come through a global plague with much of the year tattered, blurred, a dizzying labyrinth, the Minotaur hot on our heels still un-slain?
Theseus is among the most fascinating Greek Heroes. The historian Plutarch treats his life as historical, but we know him through his myths. Son of the King of Athens, (Aegeus, for whom the Sea is named) he goes through trials that mimic those of Hercules who was the son of a god. I am, frankly, uninterested in whether and to what extent Theseus is real. What do his trials give us? Like the story of Jesus, the reality is less important than the lessons we can take from the myth. So what can Theseus give to me, to us?
Let’s start with that ship, because for some reason we find it in popular culture right now. Maybe because it offers us something more than merely metaphysical speculation about the nature of matter. Rather, through the puzzle, we might learn more of what matters. The ship of Theseus was what delivered Theseus from his imprisonment on Crete by King Minos. A little backstory here, because it ties in with some of my previous posts, as though there is some theme or meaning to what I’ve been trying to say through myths the past few months. So, quickly:
Theseus is taken from Athens as part of dues owed to Minos (tyrannical King of Crete) because of the death of Minos’s son Androgeus in Athens. Theseus is sent to the Labyrinth (built by our friend Daedalus) to be fed to the Minotaur, but escapes, having killed the Minotaur, and sets sail for Crete. A couple things happen tragically, of course, such that Theseus’s dad, the King of Athens, accidentally thinks Theseus has died, and then kills himself. So the ship becomes a symbol, and then a philosophical puzzle. Never mind the utter tragedy of all the human suffering, the Atheneans basically use the ship as a memorial. But let’s get to the philosophical stuff.
The Ship of Theseus was recently mentioned in two TV superhero franchises: Wandavision, and Black Lightning. In each we are treated to its role not as a metaphysical puzzle about the state of matter, but rather as a metaphor about us. We are the ship, and who we are is the puzzle we must work out, the labyrinth from which we must escape. The Minotaur to be slain and our escape to be plotted is the essential task we all face. On the other side of the pandemic, stripped of our pieces one by one, who remains as we patch ourselves back together is the question we face. We face this question pandemic or not, but crises clearly offer us excuses for new introspection, fresh consideration, traumatic cues for comparisons, and rapid emergency repairs and rebuilding.
Besides the task of surviving the pandemic, schooling kids at home while trying to be productive, my partner and I are trying now, with the worst of it seemingly behind us, to piece back together the vision of a life going forward, as many of you are too. It was a hell of a year, as I said. As it began, so did a personally wonderful opportunity to create and contribute, and also, and this is no small detail, get paid. But as it began, it began to unravel, as so many things did because of Coronavirus, and poor planning for its aftermath. Within a few months, it had come undone, and we were left again to figure a way forward, a way out of this labyrinth. This past week, a call came almost out of the blue, a job that seemingly had my name written on it, something that for 20 years I had sought. And after a couple interviews, it was gone again. Depression, loss, hope, fear, all the planks that had been added or stripped. The insight from the Ship of Theseus, that Wandavision got so right, is that we are that ship, constantly undergoing rebuilding, and what remains and what we make of that is who we are.
The ship just carried Theseus home, it didn’t make him who he was, and the story of its role is what matters. Were there not a single plank left, and had it rotted away entirely, it would not matter. Theseus is the story of Theseus, his ship is the story of its role in bringing him back to Athens. We are what’s left when we strip the rotten parts, replace them with better, suffer the wind and the rocks as we sail at the mercy of the winds, tacking and beating against the waves until we find our way home. We are more than the sum of our parts, we are the sum of our stories, and how those stories evolve us, guide us, create the current myth of us and who we are.
This year has rotted more than the usual planks, and our sails, rudders, keels and all are in dire need of repair and replacement. Will we become whole again? If so, upon what does that depend? Will we be the same when we reach Athens? No. We are different, but we can build ourselves back. Let’s just steer this ship home first, take the scars of the seas, the trauma of our adventures, and use them. Make them work for us to just get the hell home. We must be at least that strong.
My grandmother knew this. She navigated the horrors of the holocaust, knocked out her own damned teeth to pretend to be someone else in order to escape the ghetto, save her child — my mother. She was not the same ship after, but she had grown through suffering and loss, made it home and saved her daughter. Heroes suffer, they lose, and they find some way to take the heroic journey and build themselves in the process, find ways to incorporate their losses into lessons, improve the lives of others through their myths. Provide stories to comfort, guide, and soothe as new generations suffer to find their ways out of new labyrinths. These myths are clues.
And here we are, coming out of the Labyrinth. While we may yet slay the Minotaur, that isn’t the essential moment of that story. It’s how Theseus emerges from Daedalus’s puzzle that matters. It was Ariadne. The thread she gave him, at Daedelus’s suggestion, is how the anticlimax of killing the Minotaur turns into a heroic rebirth, an emergence from the birth canal of the Labyrinth. The love and cooperation of Ariadne and Daedalus (whose own escape and tragedy at the loss of his son Icarus we have spoken of here before) is what saves Theseus. A thread. A clew of thread. That thread, that leads us to others, offered by our loved ones, holds us together, allows us to sail on, pulls our hearts to one another more reliably than any ship.
Follow the threads your loved ones give you, these are the lines that can lead us back home. Without them, we’d be clewless.