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Illustrations to Dante's "Divine Comedy" - "Minos" by William Blake.

In Search of the Mythical King Minos, Did the Legendary Ruler Really Exist?

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When we think of Minos, two images immediately come to mind: (1) the legendary and cruel tyrant of Crete who demanded the tribute of Athenian youths to feed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth and (2) a judge of the Underworld as depicted in both Virgil’s Aeneid and also in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy story, the Inferno. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the former rather than the latter.

Who was King Minos?

According to both Greek myth and legend, Minos was an ancient king of the Greek island of Crete, situated in the Mediterranean Sea just South of the Greek mainland.

‘There Minos stands’ – Canto V, line 4. (Public Domain) Gustave Doré's illustration of King Minos for Dante Alighieri's ‘Inferno.’

‘There Minos stands’ – Canto V, line 4. (Public Domain) Gustave Doré's illustration of King Minos for Dante Alighieri's ‘Inferno.’

The earliest literary reference to the monarch dates back to at least the 9th Century BC in both Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. And it is just that, a reference with very little context:

For Zeus at the first begat Minos to be a watcher over Crete, and Minos again got him a son, even the peerless Deucalion, and Deucalion begat me, a lord over many men in wide Crete; and now have the ships brought me hither a bane to thee and thy father and the other Trojans.

Iliad (Book 13.450)

“And Phaedra and Procris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of baneful mind, whom once Theseus was fain to bear from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens…”

Odyssey (Book 11.321)

Minos ruled from his throne at Knossos, located to the central Northern coast of the island. He commanded a large and powerful navy which oversaw all trade throughout the Aegean and even held influence further East in both Canaan and Egypt. Named by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans after the legendary king, the Minoans would continue to occupy the Aegean throughout the Bronze Age and until approximately 1400 BC, that is, when the mainland Mycenaean Greeks overtook the island and in turn, their entire sea-based dominion.

Artist’s representation of the Palace at Knossos.

Artist’s representation of the Palace at Knossos. ( Mmoyaq/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

King Minos Requests Plague and Hunger

After a series of events in the story surrounding Minos, the Cretan monarch subjected the city of Athens on the mainland to his rule and asked the gods to bring plague and hunger to its citizens. An oracle would later reveal that the only way to lift this punishment from the people of Athens was to give into Minos’ demands: “ send seven boys and seven girls to Crete every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.” The Minotaur, a half-bull and half-human hybrid, lived on the island of Crete in a labyrinth built by the mythical architect, Daedalus. The creature would one day meet its end at the hands of Theseus.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth (1861) by Edward Burne-Jones.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth (1861) by Edward Burne-Jones. ( Public Domain )

We know the story and we know of its mythical foundations but was there ever a historical Minos? Prior to Mycenaean takeover, the Minoans ruled the region, a direct parallel to Minos’ conquering of Athens. But is there more?

What’s in a Name?

The Minoans wrote in a script referred to as Linear A and while we have been able to decipher the syllabic renderings of each glyph, the language as a whole continues to elude experts. inscriptions unearthed on the island written in Linear A may attest to Minos, but without proper knowledge of the Minoan tongue, it is unclear if these inscriptions reference anyone named Minos, let alone a ruler.

Minoan Linear A tablet from the palace of Zakros, Archeological Museum of Sitia.

Minoan Linear A tablet from the palace of Zakros, Archeological Museum of Sitia. ( CC BY 3.0 )

It has been theorized that the name Minos was used as a title, similar to that of Pharaoh or Caesar. There may have been an original monarch bearing the name, but later kings would assume the title, to emulate the first. But whatever its use-case, it no doubt was a well-known epithet utilized by both the Greeks and even Egyptians in later literature. Obviously, as highlighted above, the Greeks would create an archetype or model of a single individual who would occasionally make a cameo appearance in their mythological stories. The Egyptians on the other hand, may prove this theory correct.

Egyptian texts during the New Kingdom Period (1550 - 1070 BC) often referred to the island of Crete as Kaftu or Keftiu (Akkadian kaptaru and Biblical Caphtor). But in some cases, it is paired with the name Menus, a possible rendering of Minos. During the reign of Ramesses III (1186 -1155 BC), there are times when Menus is written without the other. Was this the Egyptian way of identifying the island and its people under the name Minos? Does this also imply the existence of a historical Minos or a title inherited by the later Cretan kings?

Judge Minos in ’The Last Judgement’ by Michelangelo.

Judge Minos in ’The Last Judgement’ by Michelangelo. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Illustrations to Dante's "Divine Comedy" - "Minos" by William Blake. Source: Public Domain

By Petros Koutoupis



Minos may have been a position in society as lawgiver (perhaps war chief), but it may be a fixed term in office. There a quite a few references that suggest a 8.5 year term. There is an artefact in the British Museum that shows the period, when Minoans split things with a common icon they are normally referring to a fraction, e.g. 1/2 + 8 full years between leaders. Also note that the last to leave the bull leaping arena was minos, that could imply this is part of the selection process.
In this context, the Athenian sent seven boys and girls to the labyrinth may just mean to the palace or the arena (like later games) and for training. The one that graduates Minos. If this is correct there is high mobility in the society, and they select their ruler to defend their trade monopoly by ability. Once indoctrinated recruits may not have wanted to return, the palace life was so advanced compared to their home or may have to become a merchant at port. Some of the Greek references refer to ten years others seven, it is as if, they don't know which it is and may not have been able to place this in a long year which flop flops between opposite seasons with 8 years between,
There is a seal which shows how their society is organised, on a tree all the way back to ancestors and the caves wence from humble origin to the ruler -Minos (top left branch) - the four deities (top right branch): anticlockwise: mother earth (north -midnight), twins Potnia Theron (west - sunset-moonlight), Kuros (Apollo) - Sun at midday, his escort (venus, sunrise). The priestesses - probably civil servants (bottom right branch), each probably have a corresponding duties to the deities and Gryphon on a alter, two normally shown being guardians of the celestial axis on which the earth wobbles backward due to precession, and the population/society (bottom left branch), which seems well organised. The functional aspect of life on the left of the tree of life, the spiritual to the right. Noting these people were good scientists, what they believed in is actually how the celestial bodies interact (it encapsulates time of day, seasons and cardinal direction in an elegant unified way to teach the kids). They were very interested in seasons, to plant grain, set sail on trade expeditions, harvest and store in the palace Magazines for winter, etc.
Now, consider that this society was very stable for two millennia until Thera erupted, they need to explore the world to get the things they needed and they sit at the apex of the universe literally (earth mother holding snakes, referring to Thuban the snake and pole star, to the snake bearer constellation, which is directly overhead in winter, Serpens head also looks like an axe and next to Ariadne’s crown, that looks distinctly like bulls horns!), they were studying the stars by night, the shipping lanes by day and they had the most advance tech of the time, zodiac constellations circle of animals almost certainly have Minoan origin and latitude, especially so when you look into the etymology (noting the twins: virgin mistress looks after the wild animals and her brother the domesticated ones). They are at the centre of the world, Europe to the North, Iberia to the far west with virtually exclusive supply of tin for bronze driving the economy, Asia to the east with lapis lazuli and other exotics coming over the silk road, some unique commodities from Africa (papyrus that they would
have written on, ivory, etc). They controlled this entire network, pulling in raw Materials and converting them into even higher value trade goods for export!
Now consider, that all the main Greek Parthenon seems to stem
from Crete! The Minoans did not believe in them as Gods. The Minoans just knew them as lawgivers, but the Greeks treated them as gods. This was the balance of power, they had the most advanced tech by a good margin, they were approaching the cusp of a preindustrial revolution, they had steam (rooms and doors – there are accounts of automatic open doors from fire in the palace of Baal that Minoan architects built, the greeks are accredited with this a millennia later (along with a lot of other 'inventions' and advanced mathematics and trigonometry, that Minoan already had), the first hypocaust, aqueducts, roads, Everything! It would not be that difficult to build a basic glider with Minoan tech either!
For all intense purposes to everyone around them, they appeared like gods and they traded and got very rich indeed.
I do not believe they let any ship pass without at least paying
duty. The acquateri flotilla fresco shows how, all the Minos fleet had white composite hulls (linen and pine resin matrix with a little limestone thrown on to make white), everyone else is using plain wooden pitch hulls: board and secure the cargo of any ship of the wrong colour, control the
network. There is even a copper coloured hull, the significance is that if they were using copper filings rather than limestone, then this is not seen until three millennia later, the Royal Navy did the same to keep the barnacles off the hull, very low drag, you can outrun/row an vessel. This fresco also shows the festival to Apollo at Delos set sail in Leo (clue), where all the islands paid the Marines (Carins) in cattle (thousands of head of herd) for providing detachments to the merchant's vessels, actually shown but the scene has been detached because it doesn’t fit, it is part of the flotilla fresco. They were top of their game. It’s a monopoly all the resources of the world are following through it. All the other nations are fighting upon themselves, they have a body of water and a navy in-between and the other advanced powerful society in Egypt hasn’t got a clue where your island home actually is! To the North, you have the Greeks mostly fighting amongst themselves, if one gets to acquire too much power, trade with their adversary and give them some weapons. This was Minos job, keep thetrade flowingand the metal rolling in….

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Petros Koutoupis

Petros Koutoupis is an author and an independent historical researcher, focusing predominantly on the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age periods of the Eastern Mediterranean and general Near East. Fluent in modern Greek, Petros has additional knowledge in languages that... Read More

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