The Tale of the Minotaur

October 6, 2019

Prisoner of the Labyrinth, the half man, half bull was a favorite legend for centuries, revealing the intertwined cultures of the Mediterranean world.

Deep inside the Labyrinth on the island of Crete lived a Minotaur, a monster half man, half bull. Imprisoned there by his stepfather, King Minos of Crete, he dined on human flesh supplied by the city of Athens. Every nine years, Minos commanded Athens to send 14 youths in tribute. The horrible rite continued until the Athenian hero Theseus came to Crete, entered the Labyrinth, and slew the beast.

The story of the Minotaur has thrilled people for thousands of years and inspired myriad works of art: pottery, poetry, plays, the art of Picasso, operas, movies, and video games. Although the myth can be enjoyed as a satisfying tale, archaeologists now know that its fabulous qualities have roots deep in real events in the Bronze Age.

The bull-headed man in Minos’s maze embodies several traits found in the culture of Crete and ancient Minoan civilization. Bulls and maze motifs are found throughout Minoan culture, which dominated the Mediterranean from about 3000 B.C. to about 1100 B.C. In confronting and overcoming the bull—a symbol of Crete—Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, reflects the flowering of Aegean civilizations beginning in the middle of the second millennium B.C., as mainland Greece replaced Crete as the dominant power.

A labyrinthine myth

Classical authors have told and retold the tale of the Minotaur. The tellings vary, but there are common traits throughout each one. Bulls, in various forms, play crucial roles in the story. In the most common version, Zeus, king of the gods, falls in love with Europa, a Phoenician princess. He turns himself into a gentle, white bull, charms her, and carries her off to the island of Crete. She later gives birth to his son Minos, who grows up to become king of Crete.

To seal his reign’s legitimacy, Minos asks the sea god Poseidon to send him a bull that he will sacrifice in the god’s honor. Poseidon duly sends a magnificent white bull from the surf. But at the moment of sacrifice, Minos, fascinated by the beauty of the animal, spares his life.

Furious at this disrespect, the sea god makes Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, go mad with desire for the bull. Pasiphae asks the Athenian inventor Daedalus to design a disguise for her so she can get close to the beast. He creates a life-size hollow cow, and Pasiphae climbs inside it to entertain the bull. The result of their union is a bull-human hybrid child she names Asterion. Better known as the Minotaur, he is imprisoned by King Minos in an intricate Labyrinth designed by Daedalus.

Meanwhile, in Athens, a young prince, Theseus is coming of age. Some years before, the Athenians killed one of King Minos’s sons, for which the Cretan king exacted a terrible price: Every nine years, Athens should send to Crete 14 young Athenians (seven maidens and seven youths) for the Minotaur to devour. Theseus volunteers as one of the sacrificial victims and vows to slay the Minotaur.

When the Athenians arrive at the island of Crete, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, falls in love with Theseus. Before he enters the Labyrinth, she gives him a ball of thread (the idea of Daedalus the architect) so that he will be able to find his way back out. Ariadne stays outside, holding one end of the thread, while Theseus walks through the maze, the thread unraveling as he walks.

When he finds the Minotaur, he fights and kills him, freeing the other young Athenians. Everyone follows the thread he left behind to safety. Finally free, Theseus sets sail for Athens, taking Princess Ariadne with him. But Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos before continuing on to Athens with her sister, Phaedra, whom he marries.

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