Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels

In Typhon in America,1 McLuhan brings together three mythological cycles, those of Typhon, of the Minotaur and of Dionysus,2 without, however, specifying the structural parallels between them. He must have sensed their mutual implication in his emphatic use of all three of them in his titles. But just what is that mutual implication?

Francis Bacon’s retaling of the Typhon saga in Wisdom of the Ancients (1609) is used by McLuhan for the title of his book, for the title of its Book IV (SIXTY MILLION MAMA BOYS or TYPHON) and for its epigraph. Here is the epigraph:

Juno, being vexed, say the poets, that Jupiter had begotten Pallas by himself without her, earnestly pressed all the other gods and goddesses, that she might also bring forth of herself alone without him; and having by violence and importunity obtained a grant thereof, she smote the earth, and forthwith sprang up Typhon, a huge and horrid monster. This strange birth she commits to a serpent, as a foster-father, to nourish it; who no sooner came to ripeness of years but he provokes Jupiter to battle. In the conflict, the giant getting the upper hand, takes Jupiter upon his shoulders, carries him into a remote and obscure country, and, cutting out the sinews of his hands and feet, brought them away, and so left him miserably mangled and maimed; but Mercury recovering these nerves from Typhon by stealth, restored them again to Jupiter. Jupiter being again by this means corroborated, assaults the monster afresh, and at the first strikes him with a thunderbolt, from whose blood serpents were engendered. This monster at length fainting and flying, Jupiter casts on him the mount Aetna, and with the weight thereof crushes him.3

The first part of the second cycle, that of the Minotaur — excluding, that is, the threading of the labyrinth by Ariadne and Theseus — is used by McLuhan in the titles of the first two of the four books constituting Typhon in America:



Bacon’s retaling of the Minotaur cycle in Wisdom of the Ancients clearly struck McLuhan with its emphasis on “mechanic”. But unlike the Typhon saga, that of the Minotaur is not quoted by him.

DAEDALUS, OR MECHANIC. Mechanical wisdom and industry, and in it unlawful science perverted to wrong ends, is shadowed by the ancients under the person of Daedalus, a man ingenious, but execrable. This Daedalus, (…) being banished, was kindly entertained, during his exile, in many cities and princes courts: for indeed he was the raiser and builder of many goodly structures, as well in honour of the gods, as the beauty and magnificence of cities, and other public places, but for his works of mischief he is most notorious. It is he that framed the engine which Pasiphae used to satisfy herself in companying with a bull, so that by his wretched industry and pernicious device, that monster Minotaur, the destruction of so many hopeful youths, took his accursed and infamous beginning; and studying to cover and increase one mischief with another, for the security and preservation of this Monster he invented and built a Labyrinth, a work for intent and use most nefarious and wicked, for skill and workmanship famous and excellent. Afterwards, that he might not be noted only for works of mischief, but be sought after as well for remedies, as for instruments of destruction, he was the author of that ingenious device concerning the clue of thread, by which the Labyrinth was made passable without any let. (Wisdom of the Ancients)

The backstory to the Minotaur cycle begins with the gift by Poseidon of a white bull to Minos, the king of Crete, to be used for a divine sacrifice.4 But Minos, caught up by the bull’s beauty, substituted another bull for the sacrifice and thereby granted life to the white bull. Angered, Poseidon caused Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, to lust after the bull.5 Daedalus then crafted a kind of Trojan cow for her, via which Pasiphae was able to mate with the object of her frenzy. The child of this mechanical and unnatural union was the Minotaur.6

Both these myth cycles concern monsters conceived without a human male. And in both there is a previous birth (in the case of Pallas) or gifting of life (in the case of the white bull) without a female. In both cycles, the above (Zeus Asterion, Jupiter [Zu-pater]) and below (earth, snake, depth of the labyrinth), or the light and the dark, come into violent conflict in which the dark below is momentarily victorious. Again in both, sinews/labyrinth/thread are the cause both of loss and recovery.

In the mythological cycle concerning Pasiphae, she is said to have married Dionysus, who is named in the title of Book III by McLuhan:


Across the various tellings of this cycle, it is not clear if this was an alternative tale to her marriage with Minos or as a prolongation of that tale, coming after it. And it is unclear if Dionysus’ wife was Pasiphae or her daughter, Ariadne. In any case, McLuhan’s association of Pasiphae with Dionysus was not fortuitous. The Greeks saw close implication between her fate and Dionysus and so did Bacon and McLuhan. Here is Bacon’s chapter on him in Wisdom of the Ancients:

OF DESIRE, ACCORDING TO THE FABLE OF DIONYSUS. They say that Semele, the mistress of Jupiter, having bound him by an inviolable oath to grant her a request whatever it might be, desired of him to come to her arms in the same form as he would to Juno; and so she was scorched to death in his embrace. The child which she bore in her womb was taken by his father and sewn up in his thigh, till the time of gestation was accomplished. And because the child, when in the thigh of Jupiter, pinched and galled him so as to make him limp, he received the name of Dionysus.7 After he was brought forth he was nursed for some years by Proserpine;8 and when he grew up his face was so like a woman’s that it seemed doubtful of which sex he was. He was likewise once dead and buried for a time, but came to life again not long after. In his early youth he was the first to invent and explain the culture of the vine, and the making of wine, and its use; whereby becoming renowned and illustrious, he subdued the whole world and advanced to the furthest parts of India. (…) He took to wife Ariadne [daughter of Pasiphae who can appear in the cycle in her stead], whom Theseus had deserted and abandoned. His sacred tree was the ivy. He was regarded likewise as the inventor and institutor of sacred rites and orgies ; but such as were fanatical and full of corruption and moreover cruel. He had also the power of exciting phrensy. At least it was by women excited to phrensy in his orgies that two renowned men, Pentheus and Orpheus, are said to have been torn to pieces ; the one having climbed into a tree out of curiosity to see what they were doing ; the other while playing sweetly and skilfully on the lyre. Moreover the actions of this god are often confounded with those of Jupiter.

The parallels of this cycle with those of Typhon and the Minotaur are clear. Outrageous feminine desire in all three sagas leads to an irregular birth without a human male. Furthermore, the birth occurs either without a male at all (Juno and Typhon) or with too much male (Pasiphae and the white bull, Semele and Zeus). The child coming from the unnatural union is as outrageous as the ‘phrensied’ desire that led to its generation. The resulting children in all three cases ‘confound’ themselves with Jupiter and cause him great pain.9 In all three, there is central emphasis on sinews/labyrinth/thread — Dionysus is the god of vines, ivy and labyrinthine ceremonies. All include reference to music via sinews, pipes and rites. All three lead to the death of god (Jupiter via Typhon or Dionysus via his own “phrensy”) or to the death of the divine rites (in the cases of both Minos and the Minotaur). The central matter of all the cycles concerns extreme disorder and the question of its relation to the order of the cosmos.10

McLuhan concludes Typhon — just as he will conclude the Gutenberg Galaxy11 more than a decade later — with the same extended quotation from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.12

The Gutenberg Galaxy then immediately concludes:

This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.

Just as Typhon in America immediately concludes: 

In this darkness we must learn to see.


  1. McLuhan sometimes called his manuscript simply Typhon and at other times, Typhon in America. In the latter case, the parallel should be noted with his 1944 lecture (published in 1946): ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’. With both, the intent was to indicate a recurrent synchronic drama below the level of contemporary diachronic events. The same impulse was at work with Freud and Jung and with Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Joyce. It was also the great question of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, one inherited from Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg — and one that McLuhan spent the rest of his life interrogating.
  2. A fourth cycle concerning MERCURY is cited by McLuhan in Book IV of Typhon from Bacon’s PAN or NATURE chapter of Wisdom of the Ancients: “Mercury, that is, the Word of God, which the Holy Scriptures without all controversy affirm, and such of the philosophers as had any smack of divinity assented unto (…) Whereas Pan is said to be, next unto Mercury, the messenger of the gods, there is in that a divine mystery contained; for, next to the word of God, the image of the world proclaims the power and wisdom divine, as sings the sacred poet. Psalm xix: “Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei et opera manuum eius adnuntiat firmamentum.” The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth the works of his hands.” Mercury as “messenger of the gods” plays the role of logos or medium or sinews/labyrinth/thread both between the gods themselves and between the gods and the historical order. That this logos or medium or thread reveals both as word and as the intelligible order of nature, especially of the stars, is the explicit topic of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis.
  3. Spedding edition. In his citation McLuhan does not include Bacon’s chapter heading, ‘TYPHON OR A REBEL’. In the parallel passage from Bacon’s  Minotaur chapter cited here, the heading, ‘DAEDALUS, OR MECHANIC’, is retained given its great importance for McLuhan’s purposes.
  4. Other tellings of the cycle simply say that the best bull of the king’s herd was supposed to be sacrificed each year. But one year Minos could not bring himself to offer a particularly fine bull and substituted another…
  5. Poseidon unmistakably identifies the sacrilegious character of Minos’ affection for the white bull by causing his wife’s affection for it in, so to say, another register. Minos’ affection leads (or seems to lead) to life, Pasiphae’s to repeated death. The message to Minos: ‘You have mistaken life for death.’ (The same message was delivered in the subsequent history of the spared bull itself which, once granted life, went on to bring death to all of Greece uncontrollably.)
  6. There are many variations to this myth. For example, sometimes the bull is not a gift from Poseidon, but from his brother, Zeus. Hence, the Minotaur’s name, ‘Asterion’ or ‘starry one’, which was also a name under which Zeus was worshipped. But ‘Asterion’ was the name of Minos’ ‘father’ as well — or, at least, of his predecessor as king. So in this telling, in which Zeus could equally be considered the ‘father’ of the white bull, ‘Asterion’ was the Minotaur’s ‘grandfather’ on both of its divine and human ancestral lines. The constants across the variations of these myth cycles are not identities of who did what to whom, however, but questions: what is paternity? what is maternity? what is it to give life? And especially, what is it to receive life?
  7. Bacon was referencing Nonnus of Panopolis here, the 5th century AD composer of the Dionysiaca. Nonnus held that the name Dionysus meant ‘Zeus-limp’ and that Hermes named the new born Dionysus in this way, “because Zeus while he carried his burden (of the baby) lifted one foot with a limp from the weight of his thigh, and ‘nysos in Syracusan language means limping”. Modern etymologies, however, believe the name to be pre-Greek, It appears already in Minoan B tablets.
  8. Proserpine was queen of the underworld. The nursing of Dionysus by her at once relates Dionysus to the labyrinth of the Minotaur and reinforces the ‘later’ event of Dionysus’ death and resurrection. ‘He is risen’ of Christian Easter was once also cried every ‘spring’ of Dionysus.
  9. In the case of the Minotaur, the challenge to Zeus’ order is primarily made by his father, the Cretan bull, which, even after being subdued by Herakles, continued to rampage the Greek world. But the Minotaur itself challenged Zeus by implementing an improper sacrifice namely, the annual sacrifice to himself of Athenian children.
  10. The death of God is the supreme disorder that can befall the universe. It is repeatedly at stake in the mythological cycles at stake in Bacon and McLuhan — and, of course, in the Christian cross.
  11. The book — The Gutenberg Galaxy — includes as a kind of epilogue an additional section: ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. The conclusion at stake here is that of the preceding major portion of the book describing the syndrome of the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ itself.
  12. Dunciad (B), IV, 11.627-56.