The Mythology of Design

Myths, like symbols, have the magical ability to transcend culture and era

Matt Yow


Illustrations by author.

In ancient Crete, just south of Greece, King Minos ruled with his wife, Pasiphaë. Poseidon, god of the Sea, sent King Minos a sacrificial bull as a gift. When Minos disregarded the gift, Poseidon cursed the bull and Pasiphaë. After spending a night with the cursed bull, Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur: a half-bull, half-human monster.

King Minos was enraged. He exiled the Minotaur to a labyrinth created by the renowned craftsman Daedalus. The Minotaur, trapped forever in the maze, killed and ate all trespassers.

This is an abbreviated summary of the Greek myth of the Minotaur. The story transcends authorship. It was passed down verbally for generations, like all Greek myths, shaping culture and civilization along the way.

At heart, myths are stories. They evolve, change, and grow with time, language, and culture. Philosopher Alan Watts wrote that myths “demonstrate the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.” They reflect the unspoken truths in society and culture. Plato famously spoke in myths: the Ship of State, the Myth of Er, the Allegory of the Cave (technically an analogy).

Philosopher Daniel Chandler, on narratives and meaning, says “myths help people make sense of the world in which they live.” This idea of making sense of the world means myths are filtered through individuals’ senses, their sensibilities. Myths are interpretive. The Minotaur and King Minos is, on one hand, a story of an evil king and his monster son. Interpreted another way, it shows the consequences of evil begetting evil. Myths are semiotic vehicles. There are multiple signifieds (interpretations) behind the initial signifier (myth). The value in an interpretation is not always equal to the value of the original story.

We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of gods and heroes, and popular usage of the term ‘myth’ suggests that it refers to beliefs which are demonstrably false, but the semiotic use of the term does not necessarily suggest this. Like…