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The Minotaur in Greek Mythology

Updated on June 29, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Story of Theseus and the Minotaur

Thousands of years have now passed since the stories of Greek mythology were part of Ancient Greece’s religious activities; but despite this passage of time, the tales of heroes and gods still managed to captivate modern day readers.

The stories of Ancient Greece though were not just about the gods and heroes, but also told of countless other creatures that were thought to inhabit the ancient world. Some creatures are still famous today, and the likes of the centaur are still recognisable, arguably, even more famous than the centaurs though, is the tale of the Minotaur.

The Minotaur Myth

Selficide-Stock CC-BY-3.0
Selficide-Stock CC-BY-3.0 | Source

The Minotaur is Conceived and Born

The Minotaur is of course the half-man, half-bull figure that appears in the adventures of the Greek hero Theseus.

The story of the Minotaur begins, and indeed ends, on Crete, in the time of King Minos.

Minos became king of Crete when the god Poseidon backed his claim to the throne; Poseidon did this by sending forth a magnificent bull from the sea. The bull, which later would become known as the Cretan Bull, was snow-white in colour, and the most striking creature ever to exist.

King Minos was supposed to sacrifice this bull to Poseidon to show his own fealty, but the new king was so taken with the bull that he sacrificed another bull in its place; Minos believing that Poseidon either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care about the substitution.

Minos was mistaken on both counts, as Poseidon did indeed notice the substitution, and also cared about it.

In an act of retribution, Poseidon transposed the love Minos held for the Cretan Bull onto the king’s wife, Queen Pasiphae. Pasiphae was thus cursed to fall physically in love with the bull.

Cursed by a powerful god, Pasiphae would have no choice would to give into these unnatural desires, and the queen of Crete would enlist the help of the famous inventor Daedalus.

Daedalus would design and built a hollow wooden cow, and into this construction Pasiphae would climb. The wooden cow was then wheeled out into the field where the Cretan Bull stood, and suffice to say, copulation would occur.

After the given period of time, Pasiphae would then become mother of the Minotaur.

The Young Minotaur

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) PD-art-100
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) PD-art-100 | Source

The Young Minotaur

The Minotaur was not named Minotaur, but was rather given the name Asterion, meaning “ruler of the stars”; Asterion was the also name of the preceding King of Crete, and husband of Europa.

The newborn Asterion though was no ordinary boy, for the appearance of the Minotaur meant that he was born with a male body, but the head and tail of a bull.

As a child, Asterion was treated as if he was a normal boy, nursed by his mother, and given free range of Minos’ palace. As the boy grew older though, so he became more ferocious, and would terrorise the people of Crete. It was at this time that Asterion was given the additional name of Minotaur; Minotaur meaning “Bull of Minos”.

The Minotaur Maze

King Minos would seek out the advice of the Oracle of Delphi about to deal with the boy turned beast. The Pythia would instruct the king of Crete to make use of Daedalus, and have a gigantic labyrinth built to house the Minotaur.

The Labyrinth of Knossos was the most complex maze ever built; and was said to have had an infinite number of passages criss-crossing over one another. There also appeared to be no start or end to the labyrinth. Daedalus himself was said to have difficult exiting his creation after he had built it.

Once built, the Minotaur was imprisoned within the labyrinth, and his delinquent years were spent within the giant maze beneath Minos’ palace.

The Minotaur

photo 2011 Pop Culture Geek taken by Doug Kline CC-BY-2.0
photo 2011 Pop Culture Geek taken by Doug Kline CC-BY-2.0 | Source

Sacrifices to the Minotaur

At his time King Minos was also in dispute with the city state of Athens. Another son of Minos, Androgeus, was killed in Athens whilst a guest of the city; and subsequently Minos went to war with Athens. The army of Crete though would prove far superior to that of Athens, and Athens would become subservient to Crete.

The Orcale of Delphi would proclaim that Athens would subsequently have to pay a tribute to Athens, a tribute which was to take the form of human sacrifices. Every nine years, or every year according to some sources, seven young men and seven young women were to be sent to Crete from Athens; these youths would then be locked in the labyrinth, where the Minotaur would devour them.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

Theseus and the Minotaur

A number of years passed, and the latest batch of 14 young Athenians were due to sail to Crete; Theseus, the newly identified prince of Athens, would willingly take the place of one of the young men, believing that he could end the period of subservience to Crete. Theseus and the other Athenian youths would sail away in a ship with a black sail, but Theseus promised his father that if successful he would return in a ship showing a white sail.

The arrival of the Athenian youths was watched Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, and the Cretan princess was immediately taken by the appearance of the handsome Theseus. Indeed, Ariadne was so taken by Theseus that she decided to help him. Ariadne would give Theseus a sword to take into the labyrinth, but she would also give the Athenian prince the thread and advice of Daedalus.

Theseus would enter the Minotaur’s maze, and tying the thread to the entrance, would slowly unwind it as he navigated the maze.

Eventually, Theseus would come upon the sleeping Minotaur, and then, making use of the sword supplied by Ariadne, Theseus would kill the Minotaur. Killing a sleeping beast, rather than undertaking an epic battle, might not seem that heroic, but of course Theseus had managed to save the lives of the other Athenian youths, and future sacrifices.

Theseus would retrace his steps, with the aid of the thread, and so quickly exited the labyrinth. Theseus, and the other Athenian youths, with Ariadne in tow, would quickly depart from Crete on the very vessel that had brought them.

With the Minotaur dead, King Minos would seek to take his anger out on someone, but the only guilty party left on Crete was Daedalus, and so, for assisting Ariadne, Daedalus and his son were locked away in a tower. Ultimately, the tower is no prison to Daedalus, for he invents wings and flies to safety; and Minos would eventually die in his efforts to recapture the famous inventor.

The Minotaur

llewllaw CC-BY-3.0
llewllaw CC-BY-3.0 | Source

Rationalising the Minotaur Myth

The story of the Minotaur does appear today to be totally made up; after all the story of a half-man, half-null cannot be true. Some rationalising of the Theseus and the Minotaur myth can be undertaken though.

At one point in history Crete was the dominant force in the Mediterranean region, and was in the position where it could demand tributes from other city states within Greece and other surrounding countries.

It is also not impossible that these tributes might take the form of people, as human sacrifice was not unknown. The bull was a sacred creature on Crete, so it could be possible that any sacrifices made could be undertaken by a priest, possibly a son of the king, adorned with the mask of a bull.

The slaying of the Minotaur could also be the representation of the end of the period of subservience; Athens now strong enough to stop paying tribute to Crete.

This is, of course, mostly guesswork, for there is no archaeological evidence; and indeed, the palace of Knossos, has been extensively excavated, with no sign of a labyrinth beneath, although this has led some archaeologists to describe the palace at Knossos as a labyrinth.

Today, for most people, it doesn’t matter whether there is any truth in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, for most will prefer to be entertained by this Greek myth and the many others that survive today.

Comments

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  • The Chrysalis profile image

    Kyriakos Chalkopoulos 

    2 weeks ago from Thessaloniki, Greece

    A good synopsis of the origin of the story... Indeed, the only time a Minotaur appears in Greek myth is in the Attic circle of myths, and the tales about Theseus. That said, a race (not just one bull-man) of half bull and half-human creatures can be found in the classic satirical tale "Alethes Historia" (A true story), by the 2nd century AD Greek-writing author Lucian of Samosata.

    The Minotaur has at times been presented - for example by Dante, in his Divine Comedy - as having the body of a bull and the head of a man... Borges uses the Minotaur (and the Labyrinth) extensively in his personal universe of symbols.

  • Colin Quartermain profile imageAUTHOR

    Colin Quartermain 

    3 years ago

    Many thanks Mike for the compliment

  • Mike Welsh profile image

    Mike 

    3 years ago from Wales, United Kingdom

    I love greek mythology and your writing style really brings it to life. voted up. Great hub

  • FatBoyThin profile image

    Colin Garrow 

    3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

    Yeah, I suppose the ancient world must have been pretty confusing to folks who didn't understand what life's about, how we got here and so on, so it makes a lot of sense to have an all-powerful set of Gods to explain the whole thing.

  • Colin Quartermain profile imageAUTHOR

    Colin Quartermain 

    3 years ago

    Many thanks for the commenting, it does make you think when in history people were most religious. Colin.

  • FatBoyThin profile image

    Colin Garrow 

    3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

    Those Greeks sure knew how to tell stories - it makes you wonder how much of it was believed by the ordinary mortals. Even in those ancient days, it must have been a lot to take on board, but maybe it's just like our modern religions where some people simply believe what's useful for them to believe. Anyway, great Hub.

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