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To The Female God of the Labyrinth

Labyrinth. Misch Kohn, 1955. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase.

“And my understanding of the mythological mode is that deities and even people are to be understood in this sense, as metaphors. It’s a poetic understanding.” Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, p 101

It’s the middle of winter. Bedtime. I hear a thump in the bedroom. I go in to find out what happened. My husband is lying in bed on his back, limbs rigid and shaking, jaw working, his unblinking gaze staring straight up. In the direct light from the ceiling, his wide-open eyes are fathomless emeralds that I’ve never seen before. A rush of adrenaline turns my vision crisp and clear as I dial 911—fire trucks and an ambulance fill the street—pulsing red lights in the dark—EMTs come inside and administer seizure medication—they carry him out on a canvas stretcher.


Thousands of years ago, in the labyrinthine caves of southern France, artists drew galleries of stylized horned bulls, majestic and fearsome. The Chauvet Cave has one figure with a man’s body and a bull’s head, arranged so that this early Minotaur overlaps and wraps another image, this one of a woman’s pubic triangle and upper legs. The artist had to have worked by firelight—smoke, flickering honey-colored light, hands brushing the rough stone, as images sprang into being where before there had been only blank rock.

It’s the day after my husband’s seizure. The doctors perform emergency surgery. They cross the threshold of his skull, venture into the cave of his brain, and try to release the pressure caused by a mass that appears on the MRI as a blurry zone without clear edges. 


Around 1400 BCE, on the island of Crete, in a civilization whose bull art dazzles us to this day, a clerk recorded an offering of honey to someone whose name is often translated as The Lady of the Labyrinth. Literally translated, however, her name would be “The Female God of the Labyrinth Who Has Great Power.” (T. Palaima 441, 448) Centuries later, mainland Greeks told a story of their hero Theseus, who sailed to Crete to kill a Minotaur who lived at the center of a labyrinth to end the human sacrifice the monster demands. But Theseus could only succeed with the help of Ariadne, whose name means Most Holy. Ariadne gave Theseus a sacred sword with which to kill the Minotaur, and a divine ball of thread to lead the way back out of the labyrinth.


Three weeks after surgery. We sit in the surgeon’s office with more MRI scans. The mass is cancer, the doctor says. A brain tumor. My husband needs more surgery, this time at a specialist center in San Francisco. This time doctors will go in ready to confront the entity inside.


The Cretan Minotaur was named Asterios, which means Starry One (C. Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, 110-11), from the root astro, or star. So Asterios is a brilliant but dangerous being, an animate, cannibalistic star who inhabits the furthest reaches of the circuitous labyrinth. 


The Minotaur in the center of my husband’s brain has a name, too: Astrocytoma. It is a cancer of the astrocytes, which are star-shaped brain cells that play a supporting role for neurons. Astrocytoma demands the sacrifice of healthy cells to feed its hunger. 


It’s the day of the second surgery. Along with anesthesia, the specialists administer medication that makes tumor cells glow when bathed in a blue light. Then they open my husband’s head again and reach inside with the aid of a surgical microscope fitted with a blue light. Now they can see the horned cells, the way ancient artists saw beings emerge on the cave walls, the way Theseus saw the brilliant Minotaur. By seeing the cells clearly, by bringing them into the realm of conscious inspection, the neurosurgeon can understand them and deal with them. 


The center is a pivot point, a discovery, a realization. It’s not the end of the adventure—you still have to make your way back out—but nothing will be the same again after you encounter the star within.


With the help of that technological blue thread, the medical team does such incredible work that they send my husband home with no further treatment needed. Miracle-drenched, we enter the new labyrinth of recovery, knowing nothing of what comes next.

The labyrinth removes us from linearity. It’s a bubble that pauses the flow of time and reminds us of the limits of logic and planning. Labyrinths derange our routines and teleport us into the present moment to face our inner starry animals, so shockingly similar to ourselves, potentially so dangerous. But Ariadne presides. She stands ready to help. Her thread turns the labyrinth into the simplest possible map. Just follow the path. The labyrinth itself will lead you.


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