Ed Falco’s The Cretans, though suffused with tragedy, is not a tragic drama in the mode of Aristotle. Aristotelian tragedy shows its protagonists brought to ruin through the inexorable working of time, by the very qualities that made them great. In The Cretans, bad things do happen to good people, but less so to the protagonists, King Minos and Queen Pasiphae, whose cruel and fateful actions go unpunished, and so, paradoxically, enhance rather than diminish their worldly authority.
Before the play’s opening lines, the major action has already taken place. The sea god Poseidon, whose dominion encircles and defines the isle of Crete, has gifted the King a white bull for sacrifice. The ritual, it is clear, will protect Crete’s ships. Minos, however, is transfixed by the animal’s beauty, and refuses to sacrifice it, keeping it for his own pleasure. Angered, Poseidon enchants Queen Pasiphae with uncontrollable lust for the bull. As the play opens she is a new mother to an interspecies child, half-man and half-bull, the Minotaur.
Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, is portrayed historically as leader of a bull cult. By sacrificing prized genetic specimens throughout the ceremonial cycle, in public as well as in carefully guarded private rites, the state affirmed its power by the conspicuous consumption of surplus masculine potency. Not coincidentally, feminist historians have noted that advances in animal husbandry tend to correlate to increasing patriarchal control, a process which replaces sustenance farming and gathering with larger-scaled systems, organized advances in agricultural production.
An epochal transformation, then, is mirrored within the royal chambers. Minos’ Queen, Pasiphae, belongs to a goddess cult, whose sacred woods-rites cultivate the ancient, matrifocal traditions of Minoan civilization. If Minos represents increased patriarchal control in Crete, Pasiphae and her sisters represent the resistance. Were this a more conventional tragic drama, Pasiphae would be doomed; here though, with her life at stake, she adjusts, sacrificing essential elements of herself to pacify her husband. She must learn, in the language of psychohistory, to repress her most natural instincts, a renunciation that no proper tragic hero could manage. Around tragic heroes, worlds collapse; around less heroic figures, repression produces social stability and “civilization.”
Does the repressive hypothesis explain Minos’ relationship to the sacred bull? Before Pasiphae, after all, Minos was the one in thrall to its beauty, and his inaction -- his failure to fulfill Poseidon’s wishes – set the events of the play in motion. Traumatized by the Minotaur’s birth, Minos ponders his wife’s submission as though the bull were a human rival. Envious of both of his cuckolders, Minos accuses Potnia, his wife’s tutor and most trusted confidant, of luring her into unnatural physical relations; the gratuitous thrust of his vitriol hints at an ongoing struggle with his own repressed urges.
It is fitting, then, that Crete’s most celebrated architectural feature, the physical center of the state, is the labyrinth, a structure specifically designed to repress the royals’ transgressions, their violations of elemental taboos. Its literal function is to conceal the Minotaur, but the labyrinth really advertises as much as it conceals. For growing within is the myth of the Minotaur, a gruesome spectre fed on the blood-tribute of Crete’s subjugated neighbors, whose ruthless devouring heralds the rise of a proto-modern patriarchy -- war-like, exploitative, and calculating – that anticipates certain aspects of our own age. The labyrinth, finally, is a metaphor for the primal repressions that distort all of our worlds, ancient and modern.