Myth of the Minotaur: The Making of a Monster
One of the most intriguing myths of ancient Greece is that of the Minotaur on the island of Crete, the bull-headed human-animal hybrid of Greek mythology. The story of the bestial Minotaur trapped in a labyrinth created for him by his horrified stepfather, King Minos of Crete, dining on human flesh in his underground prison, has enthralled for generations. Motifs of bulls and mazes have been discovered on the Mediterranean island, the last vestiges of the ancient Minoan culture, while the legend has evolved over the centuries in both Greek and Roman cultural manifestations.
How Human Greed and Godly Wrath Created the Minotaur
In Greek mythology, King Minos was one of the three sons born to Zeus and Europa. When their step-father, King Asterion, died, Minos declared himself king and appointed his brother Sarpedon as lawmaker of all the islands. Sarpedon questioned his brother’s authority, but Minos said that it was the will of the gods for him to become king.
As proof, he sacrificed a bull to the god Poseidon and then asked the god to send a new bull for the same purpose. Poseidon listened to his request and sent a beautiful white bull from the sea. King Minos—as well as the citizens of Crete—was impressed, and because the bull was so beautiful, Minos set it free and sacrificed a lesser bull.
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Minos was married to the goddess Pasiphae and together they had many children, including Ariadne, Phaedra, Galucus, and Androgeus. When Poseidon realized that Minos had sacrificed a lesser bull, he decided to punish the king for his selfishness and disrespect, causing Pasiphae to fall in love with the animal.
Thanks to the curse of Poseidon, Pasiphae fell in love with the bull, and consummated their relationship by hiding in a wooden cow. Their affair produced the monstrous Minotaur. (Bill Lewis / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pasiphae—desperate from her love for the bull—asked for help from the sculptor and engineer Daedalus. Always obliging, Daedalus built Pasiphae an empty wooden cow in which she could disguise herself. It was so beautiful that the white bull was tricked and they consummated their love. The result of this union was the Minotaur, a powerful beast with a human body and the head of a bull.
Daedalus created an empty wooden cow to help Pasiphae consummate her love with the god-given bull, as illustrated in this Pompeii fresco. (Public domain)
When Minos saw the beast, he was furious and decided to have Daedalus build a labyrinth with unlimited corridors and cells where the Minotaur could be held captive forever. This was the origin of the famed great labyrinth from which the Minotaur could not escape. Over time, archaeologists have attempted to discover the whereabouts of this labyrinth on the island of Crete, believing it to be the inspiration for the Minotaur myth.
Based on the reading of an ancient Greek text by Pausanias, the English archaeologist Arthur Evans controversially believed that the mythical labyrinth had its origins at Knossos, on the northern coast of Crete. The largest Bronze Age archaeological site on the island, Knossos was once the center of Minoan civilization, as well as being home to King Minos. There are also other labyrinthine cave structures located near Gortyn, which has fueled the fire in the quest to discover the original inspiration for the mythical tale.
Modern-day depiction of Theseus hunting the Minotaur in the labyrinth, aided by Ariadne’s ball of thread. (Public domain)
Sacrificing Athenians to the Minotaur
Later on, when Minos’s son Androgeus was killed by the Athenians, Minos declared war against Athens and won. As a punishment, he obliged Athens to send seven young men and seven young women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur every nine years. It is worth mentioning that King Minos was in direct contact with Zeus, which means that all of this had the indirect approval of the god. One of the young Athenian men sent as a sacrifice was a young prince called Theseus, son of Aegeus, the king of Athens.
Having volunteered himself as a sacrificial victim, Theseus vowed to slay the Minotaur beast. Some versions of the legend claim that the daughter of Minos, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus, and gave him a ball of thread to help him find his way out of the labyrinthine prison. Theseus is known for having killed the beastly Minotaur, the product of human greed and godly wrath.
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Within this mythical tale, it is intriguing to once again see the involvement of the gods in human affairs, as well as the punishments they would inflict when men were not obedient to them. The birth of hybrids — half human and half animal beings — is also a common pattern in myths all over the world. Is it possible that hybrids existed in reality? Conventional archaeology suggests that these so-called “primitive” peoples simply had a vivid imagination.
Does the Minotaur Myth Have Roots in Reality?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Evans began his excavations on Crete and discovered remains of a royal palace at the Knossos site. Amongst the artifacts unearthed during these excavations, many relics featured bulls. They even discovered frescos depicting figures jumping over bulls, a sport which Evans decided to call taurokathapsia. Bulls are seen as a symbol of fertility in a variety of cultures, and were often sacrificed to the gods.
Fresco found in Knossos palace in Crete dating to some time between 1600 to 1450 BC shows the ritual practice of taurokathapsia, or bull-jumping. (Heraklion Archaeological Museum / CC0)
Evans decided to call this ancient Cretan culture “Minoan,” in memory of King Minos, whose selfishness incurred the wrath of the gods and ultimately the birth of the Minotaur. But although there was a plethora of bull iconography, he never found conclusive evidence of a Minotaur creature or a labyrinth actually existing at Knossos.
The story of the Minotaur has its roots in the sophisticated 5,000-year old Bronze Age Minoan civilization of the island of Crete. While some have sought its roots in reality, others have argued that it was a way to rationalize seismic activity, due to the fact that Crete is located geographically in an especially volatile location. In academic circles, it has even been understood as a symbolic method to represent the glory of Athens subduing its monstrous enemy, represented by the Minotaur.
The mythological Minotaur, and the story of Minos, Theseus, and Ariadne has been a source of fascination for Mediterranean cultures over thousands of years. In its many shapes and sizes, it has inspired countless artworks including mosaics, frescos, pottery, and painting, as well as Greek literature from the 8th century BC onwards. In the cultural memory of mankind, Crete has been remembered as the island that gave birth to the Minotaur, the enraged beast wandering the corridors of an underground labyrinth, spawn of the thoughtless selfishness and insubordination of humanity.
Top image: The mythological Minotaur was the spawn of thoughtless human insubordination against the gods. Source: Daniel / Adobe Stock
By John Black
Updated on March 11, 2021.
Evslin, B. 1989. The Minotaur (Monsters of Mythology S.) Chelsea House Publishers