Greek Mythology inspires many poets, artists and writers, and is still embodied in numerous narratives, as well as in art to this day. Most writers, like Mark Z. Danielewski, derive inspiration from Greek myths mainly because of their complexity, ability to explain the origins of the worlds, and because they are intriguing aspects of literature that date back to hundreds of years ago. In the House of Leaves, Danielewski makes references to Greek mythology quite a few times because of the relatable characters in the book to certain Greek mythical characters and creatures. The myths of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, Theseus, and Orpheus and Eurydice are all referred to in House of Leaves because of their strong connection to some characters and significant events in the novel.
The first Greek mythological reference made in House of Leaves is that of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. “Hic labor ille domus et inextricabilis error”, “laboriosus exitus domus”, and “laboriosa ad entrandum” are the three quotations that are used to open up chapter IX. They translate into “Here is the toil of that house, and the inextricable wandering”, “the house difficult to exit”, and “difficult to enter” (p.107). All of these refer to the labyrinth that continuously grows in the Navidson household, as well as the labyrinth that Daedalus constructed for King Minos that served as a prison for the Minotaur. Pasiphae, King Minos’ wife, had a son, the Minotaur, as a result of an illegitimate relationship with the Cretan Bull. King Minos was ashamed of the Minotaur’s appearance of a man’s body with the face of a bull, so he had an extremely complicated labyrinth created, so that the Minotaur, or anyone for that matter, could never escape it.
This labyrinth, as mentioned in the Greek myth, can be compared to the labyrinth in House of Leaves. The labyrinth that begins to develop in the Navidson home starts out as a closet sized hallway, and eventually becomes a never-ending maze. Interestingly enough, as the Navidson home increases in size, and becomes more complex and dark, so does the relationship between Karen and Will Navidson. Karen intimated that “their home was supposed to bring them closer together. The appearance of the hallway, however, tests those informal vows. Navidson finds himself constantly itching to leave his family for that place just as Karen discovers old patterns surfacing in herself” (p.82). The labyrinth creates an opportunity for Will, a photojournalist, to explore an unknown place and learn about what it is. Karen, on the other hand, does not share the same interests as Will and wants to move their family out of the house as quickly as possible. This conflict of interest creates emotional stress and darkness in Karen and Will’s relationship, which parallels the darkness of the labyrinth.
The labyrinth is a scary place, not necessarily because anything exceptionally dangerous occurs, but solely because of its impossible existence that does abide by the laws of physics. It seems as if there is an evil manifesting itself inside it due to the darkness, the cold, the constant shifting of the walls, and the creepy sounds that cannot be identified. What makes the labyrinth exceptionally frightening is that once inside, there is no concept of time. “On the twelfth of thirteenth day (it is very difficult to tell which), after sleeping for what Navidson estimates must have been well over 18 hours, he again sets off down the hallway” (p. 432). He even goes on to say that “direction no longer matters” (p. 433). Navidson’s obsession with this labyrinth has completely encompassed all of his time, which is why his relationship with Karen suffers.
When talking to Tom on the radio, Karen emphasizes how fed up she is with this maze that is destroying their family.
“Tom: They heard someone crying. I didn’t get it all ‘cause the reception was so poor. From what I can gather, they’re fine.
Radio (Karen): Well, I’m not. I don’t like being here alone, Tom. In fact I’m fucking fed up with being alone. [She starts crying] I don’t like being scared all the time. Wondering if he’s going to be alright, then wondering if I’m going to be alright if he’s not, knowing I won’t be. I’m so tired of being frightened like this. I’ve had enough Tom. I really have. After this, I’m leaving. I’m taking the kids and I’m going. This wasn’t necessary. It could have been avoided. We didn’t need to go through all this” (p.269).
The darkness in Karen and Will’s relationship could very well have been avoided if he had not been behaving selfishly. Will searches the labyrinth for a discovery of some sort for days at a time and never gives up searching in spite of how his wife, children, and friends are affected. He cares more about the discovery of this labyrinth and what it entails than he does about saving his marriage.
Not only does the labyrinth in the Greek myth compare to the labyrinth in the Navidson household, but a comparison can also be drawn between how King Minos feels guilty after his son is slain to how Will should feel about treating his family. King Minos realizes that the Minotaur, who he had been ashamed of for so long, is a kind-hearted creature. “The King slowly sees past his son’s deformities, eventually discovering an elegiac spirit, an artistic sentiment and most importantly a visionary understanding of the world. Soon a deep paternal love grows in the King’s heart and he begins to conceive of a way to reintroduce the Minotaur back into society” (p.111). The King however is too late, and the Minotaur is killed by Theseus, who becomes a hero to all the people because they believed the Minotaur was a dangerous creature. If Will does not soon realize that his family is more important than the labyrinth, he too will end up like King Minos, regretful and lonely. Just as the King regrets not being a better father to the Minotaur, Will will regret not being a better father to Chad and Daisy, as well as a better husband to Karen. Karen discusses leaving with the kids, and if that happens, it will be too late for Will to decide what he wants his priorities to be.
Similarly, Johnny Truant becomes obsessed with compiling Zampano’s notes about the Navidson Record into a complete story, and this begins to drive Truant crazy. He spends endless hours locked in his apartment and isolates himself from the outside world. His obsession with assembling Zampano’s book to make it coherent is very similar to Will’s obsession with navigating the labyrinth and trying to comprehend what it is and where it leads to. Truant is a dark character to begin with due to his life growing up with an abusive father and a mother who is in a mental institution, however as he gets more involved in the Navidson Record, he becomes more obsessive, eats hardly anything, and never leaves the room.
The Greek myth of the Minotaur continues to compare to the labyrinth that Will navigates through. The word “labor” in Latin, means “to slip or slide backwards” (p.114). Due to the complexity of the labyrinth, navigating through the maze is difficult and much effort is required to make any sense of it. “We cannot relax within those walls, we have to struggle past them” (p.114). In order to keep track of their path, Holloway sprays neon paint onto the walls and uses fishing line to keep track of their path, especially when it becomes exceptionally complicated. According to Greek myth, “Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, supplied Theseus with a thread which he used to escape the labyrinth” (p.119). This fishing line that Holloway uses compares directly to the thread that Theseus used to get out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. Without this thread, Theseus would have never managed to get out of the labyrinth, just as Holloway would most likely not find his way back without the fishing line.
Interestingly enough, the thread has “served as a metaphor for an umbilical cord, for life, and for destiny” (p.119). The umbilical cord is what separates a mother from her newborn child. If the fishing line used by Holloway was to break, or the thread used by Theseus was to break, there would most likely be no way to find a way out of the labyrinth, and back to their place of origin, or “mother”.
According to Greek Mythology, Orpheus was known to be an exceptionally good poet and musician, and Eurydice was Orpheus’ wife, who was killed by a nest of snakes. After her death, Orpheus swore never to love women again, and only to take young individuals as lovers. Orpheus is like Johnny Truant in many ways. Orpheus was an exceptional poet, while Johnny compiles hundreds of pages of text into a book which was written by Zampano. He is clearly talented and creative in order to do this. Johnny also does not have meaningful, long- lasting, relationships with women. He forms an obsession over Thumper, the stripper, but he never actually forms a relationship. This could also be due to the way his own parents raised him. Since his father was abusive and his mom ended up in a mental institution, he is probably too frightened to be in a relationship and experience more misfortunes.
In Orphism, which is a religion based on Orpheus, people practice vegetarianism and abstention from sex, which are related to purification. Johnny, clearly is not purified by abstention from sex or vegetarianism, but he does develop habits in both the fields of sex and food consumption, which is most likely not coincidental. He pretty much stops eating when he becomes obsessed with Zampano’s text, and has sex with numerous women throughout the book, which is the opposite of abstaining from sex. However, all of the sexual relations that Truant encounters are not meaningful, just as Orpheus’ are not after his wife Eurydice dies. After a one night stand with an Australian girl that he met at a bar, he thinks to himself, “I didn’t even know where I was, who she was, or how we’d done what she said we’d done. I had to get out” (p.118). Truant has one night stands often, and is not at all phased by any women that he meets.
Eurydice died, leaving Orpheus all alone. Pelafina, Johnny’s mother, did not die, however she did end up in a mental institution. Although she was physically there, her head was not in the same place as everyone else’s, so in a way, a part of her died. In her letters to Johnny, she emphasizes how proud of him he is and how much she loves him. “It’s a rare and stupendous gift and yet you’ve absolutely no idea you have it. You’ve listened to tyrants and lost faith in your qualities” (p.605). Pelafina definitely thinks a lot of her son and is very proud of who he is. Orpheus loved Eurydice that much, if not more, and the feeling on Eurydice’s side was mutual. In this way parallels can be made between that of Johnny’s relationship with his mother and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Throughout the House of Leaves, struck passages in red emerge, which signify different Greek myths that relate to the text. The myths of the Minotaur, Theseus, and Orpheus and Eurydice all play significant parts in the book, and they are all relatable to the characters and events. It was an extremely creative and intelligent way for Danielewski to portray certain events, and made it possible for the reader to enjoy a parallel story at the same time he or she is reading House of Leaves. The Greek mythology portrayed in this novel added an important element to it, and without it, something would have been noticeably missing.