The Spider and the Labyrinth

An Exercise in the Archeology of Myth

   

By

Steve Bartholomew

 


 

This story could begin in a number of places, since it has as many twists and turns as a spider’s web.  As good a place as any is the Winchester Mystery House.  For the reader who may not have heard of this wondrous place, a summary in brief:

Winchester House was built by Mrs Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester, who was son of the inventor of the Winchester rifle.  Finding herself extremely wealthy after her husband’s death at age 43, Sarah moved to San Jose, California.  This was a rural community at the time.  She moved into a moderately sized farmhouse – and then began adding on to it.  She kept adding to the house for 38 years, until her death in 1922. 

To this day, no one is certain how may rooms Winchester House contains.  The figure is usually given as 160, but every time they’re counted the number is slightly different. 

This isn’t a travelogue, but Winchester House is definitely worth at least one visit if you’re ever in the San Jose, California area.  Tourists are taken through in small groups, and always warned not to wander off.  It’s possible to get lost in the house and not be found for days.  The house can only be described as – labyrinthine. 

For more about Winchester House, please see: Winchester House

Having done some limited research on Winchester House, I realized that most of what is known about Mrs Winchester amounts to rumor, speculation, or legend.  For example, the usual explanation given for her continuing work on her house for so many years was that she was advised to do this by a Spiritualist medium, back in Boston.  According to this story, Sarah felt oppressed by a sense of guilt about all the Indians killed by her husband’s rifle.  Or if not guilt, she was afraid the Indian spirits were out for revenge. 

This medium, according to the story, told Sarah that if she continued construction on her house, she would never die as long as building went on.  In fact, she did have workmen employed 24/7 for many years, sometimes tearing out rooms already finished and redesigning them.  Sarah had a “spirit room” where reportedly she had nightly sťances.  The room had only one entrance and three exit doors, which could be opened only from the inside. 

The problem with the medium story is, there’s no proof.  Personally, I think this lady did have some form of involvement with Spiritualism and the occult.  However, I don’t think this was the real reason for her obsession.  When she died, under the terms of her will, Sarah’s possessions were all auctioned off, including furniture and books.  So we don’t know what she was reading.  There are no letters, as far as I know.  We don’t know what she was thinking, or whom she spoke to. 

She was certainly not insane, since she took an active part in operating a working orchard and produce business while she lived.  She could certainly be called “eccentric.”  But while Sarah Winchester may have had some type of mental disorder, I don’t believe she was ever incompetent or out of contact with reality.  She knew exactly what she was doing.

When I went on that house tour, the guide pointed out many curious features of the house, some of them weird, some just interesting.  The house had a number of advanced designs for the period – its own gas generating plant, radiant heating, elevator, a shower.  It also has many strange items such as stairs that lead nowhere, doors that open on nothing, peculiar decorations.  The number thirteen is a recurring element, as for example a washbasin with 13 drains, or rooms with 13 windows, and windows with 13 panes.  What caught my attention in particular was a stained glass window with a Tiffany spider web. 

Webs

The tour guide mentioned that Sarah loved stained glass spider webs, “but no one has any idea why.”

When I heard this fact mentioned, I said at once, Well, of course.  (I said this to myself, not out loud.)  To me, the meaning of the spider web was at once obvious.  But then, I already knew about this mythic theme.

Winchester House was a labyrinth.  And Sarah was its spider.

To elaborate, let’s start with the Greek version of the story, mainly because it’s the first one I learned myself, and probably the most familiar to readers.  This would be the story of Theseus.  (This may seem a long way from Sarah Winchester, but it’s right around the corner.  I hope you will bear with me.)

Theseus was the son of Poseidon, god of the seas and oceans.  (This is important to remember.)

There are several different versions of the Theseus legend, but this is the basic outline:  Although sired by one of the gods, Theseus himself is human, and lives in Athens.  Now, some time previously, Daedalus and Icarus had resided in the kingdom of Minos, known today as Crete.  Those two characters are usually remembered for their early-day experiment in aviation.  What is less well known is that Daedalus was an architect who designed the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur.  The story of Minotaur is another legend in itself, somewhat salacious in nature.  There’s no need to digress, but understand the picture – Minotaur is a violent and dangerous monster, half-human and half bull.  He has a taste for human flesh.  Due to his violent disposition, he has been imprisoned in an inescapable labyrinth beneath the palace of Minos.  In order to appease the monster, the King demands that other nations, including Athens, provide human sacrifices for the creature to devour. 

Now, this tale has many interesting elements, but one of the most important is the fact that Athens is a subject state under the Minoan Empire.  This tells us that the story dates back to some time prior to 1500 B.C.  Before that time, Minos ruled the Mediterranean world.  Then, approximately around 1500 there was a cataclysm or series of disasters.  The volcano at Thera (now known as Santorini) erupted.  A tsunami wiped out the Minoan navy; earthquakes destroyed the palace.  There were human survivors, but the Minoan Empire collapsed, never to rise again. 

So Minotaur must have lived in an earlier period – how much earlier, we don’t know. 

Getting back to Theseus:  He decides to slay the Minotaur.  With a great sense of indignation, he resolves to end human sacrifice, at least of Athenians.  Therefore, he volunteers to join a group being sent to Minos to provide dinner for the monster.  He intends to get inside the labyrinth, slay Minotaur, and somehow get out again if he can find a way. 

To make a long story short, Theseus falls in love with the Princess Ariadne, who vows to help him escape from the dungeon.  She does this by giving him a spool of thread, which he unwinds as he travels through the dungeon.  After killing the Beast, he simply follows the thread back to the entrance and escapes with Ariadne. 

This story is a secret code.  The ancients often concealed important information in entertaining sagas and stories.  They knew that the stories themselves were so good they would never be forgotten.  But only those who know the secret keys can understand what the story is about.

There are several important keys found in the Theseus legend.  First is the hero’s father – Poseidon.  He is the god of oceans, and therefore of storms, floods, tsunamis, and other disasters of the sea.  Ultimately, it is he who is responsible for the fall of Minos, since he fathered Theseus, who slew the Minotaur, which was the source of Minoan power. 

Minotaur himself is another key.  Being a character in a myth, there is something important that he represents.  There may be some literalists who would argue this is a prime example of genetic engineering taking a wrong turn, but I don’t think so.  I believe the Minotaur, among other things, stands for the constellation Taurus.  There was a time in history when bull worship was endemic, at least in the Mediterranean area.  This was during the period when the vernal equinox occurred in the constellation of Taurus.  That was a long time ago – around 4,000 BC.  Because of the precession of equinoxes, the sign of spring changes about every 2100 years.  The vernal equinox has also occurred in the signs of Cancer, Gemini, Leo, and Aries.  Currently it happens in Pisces. 

The Ancients, who paid great attention to the skies, considered this fact of the greatest importance.  As a result, there were various times in history when religious cults held sway which worshiped bulls or cows, lions or other cats, or rams.  Actually, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say these creatures were worshiped.  You will recall that Moses was annoyed at the Jews for worshipping a golden calf.  But this is the Biblical interpretation, which despises “idolatry.”  In my personal opinion, these animals were more like totem figures, or shamanistic familiars, who lent their spirit power to humans, or who assisted in communicating with the actual Gods. 

In any case, we find ancient ruins with altars depicting bulls or cows, other places where rams were honored, others still with figures of felines (such as the Sphinx).  In Egypt there is also found evidence of cults associated with Gemini and Cancer.  Pisces the fish, of course, is the sign of Jesus. 

The point of all this is that the Minotaur represented a powerful totemic force in his time.  But his time ended when the equinox moved on.  He was imprisoned in a deep labyrinth from which he could not escape.  Yet he still lived and was capable of great destructive power.  He himself had to be destroyed. 

There are caves in Spain and France that date from the Paleolithic.  Some of the walls, in their deepest parts, are covered with pictures of bulls.  Deep beneath the Earth, in darkness, power lies. 

But Ariadne is the most important clue to the legend of Theseus.  It turns out that her name is another form of  “Arakne.”  (I learned this fact from reading “Hamlet’s Mill,” by DeSantillana and Von Dechend)  Ariadne/Arakne is Spider Woman.  Arakne had been a human, but was changed to a spider by Aphrodite, out of jealousy for her beauty.   It is only by following the spider’s thread that the hero can find his way in and out of the labyrinth. 

Now we begin to see the significance of spider webs to Sarah Winchester.  Winchester House is her labyrinth.  People get lost in it.  Even now, there are secrets unrevealed.  It is said there exists somewhere in the basement an old wine cellar, still stocked with 19th Century wine, long since walled up and forgotten.  Sarah is Spider Woman, empress of her own web which is always under construction, never complete, ever mysterious.  She is in contact with terrible powers, buried deep within.  Only she knows the way in and out again. 

But Theseus and Ariadne were not the earliest version of the story that I could find.