Minotauros the Minotaur: Overview and Background
Minotauros is really a misunderstood character in Greek mythology. Because of his gruesome myth, he has received a bad reputation. This segment of writing about Minotauros will only cover the very basic aspects of Minotauros. More about Minotauros is covered in subsequent articles.
Minotauros comes from a line of divinity. Zeus managed to find his way into the family tree of Agenor, the king of Phoenice (Andrews 60). Agenor and his wife Telephassa are the parents of two well-known children, Europa and Cadmos (60). Because she is so irresistible, Zeus comes to Europa in the form of a bull and takes her off to Crete where no one will be able to find her (60). The result of their union is Minos who eventually rules Crete, “but [is] rebuffed” by his followers (“Greek Mythology” 1; Lexicon 570). Helping to continue the line of partial divinity, Minos marries Pasiphae, the daughter of the Sun—also known as Helios (Andrews 60). Minos and Pasiphae’s union results in two daughters, Phaidra and Ariadne (60). In order to fully cover how the myth of Minotauros comes to be, a closer look at his father and mother is needed.
Like many other mythological beings, Minotauros’ birth is the result of divine influences. As required by all Greeks, King Minos needed to perform a sacrifice to please Poseidon. Minos’ followers lacked faith in their leader, so Minos had to increase his status to prove his worthiness. In order to confirm his special abilities, Minos tells his people that he is blessed by the gods, and to validate it he claims that whatever he asks for he will receive ("Greek Mythology" 1). Minos prays to Poseidon to send him a bull that he can sacrifice (1). Poseidon answers Minos’ prayer and sends down an extraordinary bull that Minos can use as the perfect sacrifice. According to Burkert, the author of Greek Religion, the animal to be sacrificed should be perfect, and the most respectable sacrifice is the ox or bull (55-56). However, Minos passes up the perfect sacrifice for Poseidon because the bull is too beautiful. So, Minos tries to pull wool over Poseidon’s eyes, much like Prometheus did with the gods (Burkert 57), by sacrificing an ordinary bull from his flock. Minos’ attempt to keep the beautiful bull is of course noticed by Poseidon. Therefore, Poseidon seeks revenge. First, Poseidon turns the bull he sent free to roam the countryside; second, he devises a plan to punish King Minos (“Greek Mythology” 1). Poseidon makes Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall madly in love with the bull he set free (Lexicon 570). Pasiphae becomes intent on having intercourse with the bull and seeks the professional craftsman, Daidalos—also spelled Daedalus—, to help her. Daidalos constructs a hollow wooden cow that has a real cowhide on the outside for Pasiphae to fit into (“Greek Mythology” 1). Surprisingly, or not so much so, the bull impregnates Pasiphae who gives birth to Minotauros (Lexicon 570). The actual life of the infamous Minotauros, also known as Asterios, is just as intriguing as his conception.
His Appearance: What Led to the Myth
Since Minotauros does not look like a regular human, Minos needs to do something with his wife’s illegitimate son. With the head of a bull and the body of a human, Minotauros would be a constant reminder of Minos’ selfishness and disapproval from his followers. Therefore, Minos, with the guidance of an oracle, asks Daidalos to build a separate home for Minotauros (“Greek Mythology” 1). Daidalos builds a labyrinth under the Knossos palace of Minos that Minotauros is confined to for life (Harris and Platzner 46). This labyrinth is no ordinary residence. There are so many disorienting twists and turns and no means of escape in this maze (well almost) that Minotauros will never live to see the outside world again. The word labyrinth originates from labrys which means “double-headed axe” (Harris and Platzner 325). Therefore, the literal translation of “labrys” can be used to argue that the labyrinth not only confines Minotauros but foreshadows Minotauros’ life and death.
However, Minos still needs to feed his growing baby boy bull. Luckily, Minos recently conquered Athens and could use his power to make the Athenians sacrifice their children to feed Minotauros (Andrews 60). The Athenians were demanded to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete every nine years (Harris and Platzner 324), “unarmed, to be served as food for the Minotauros” (qtd. in “Greek Mythology” 1). Then one year the young Athenian Theseus volunteers to be one of the multitude to be sacrificed. Ariadne, upon seeing Theseus, cannot allow her sweetheart to be killed by Minotauros and begs Daidalos to tell her how to exit the labyrinth (“Greek Mythology” 1). Even more amazing is that Minos allows his daughter to go on a one-way trip to her death. Nevertheless, Theseus needs the guidance of a female and Minos can do without a monstrous son whatever the cost. Daedalus instructs Theseus on how to slay Minotauros and escape from the labyrinth by using an unraveled ball of string to find his way back to the exit (Harris and Platzner 325). However, within the same text, there is confusion as to who actually gives Theseus the information for killing Minotauros and escaping (Harris and Platzner 343). Minotauros, after a long battle with Theseus, is “killed…with jabs of [Theseus’] fists” (“Greek Mythology” 1). Jabs can hardly account for slaying a human-eating monster and is only one interpretation of the battle that took place. Other interpretations will be covered in the section that includes illustrations of Theseus and Minotauros.
The end of this myth is like others, shrouded in uncertainty and tragedy. Unfortunately, after all her help, Ariadne is only to be with Theseus a short while. Hesiod, in the Theogony, claims that once Ariadne helps Theseus kill Minotauros, he leaves Crete with her only to abandon her on the island of Dia (Harris and Platzner 267). To make the myth even more like a soap-opera, Harris and Platzner agree with other interpretations of the myth that say after Theseus abandons Ariadne he marries her younger sister, Phaedra (343). To bring a typical ending to those involved in the myth of Minotauros, some versions of the myth claim Ariadne commits suicide upon learning what Theseus has done. So, like most myths, Minotauros’ story does not end with him. The focus on and existence of Minotauros is fleeting. Minotauros’ myth is just one point in the life and timeline of a greater entity—Theseus.
More Information About Minotauros
Andrews, P.B.S. “The Myth of Europa and Minos.” Greece & Rome. Spring 1969: 60-66. JSTOR, Web. Mar. 5 2004.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1985. Print.
Harris, Stephen L. and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights. 4th ed. McGraw-Hill: Boston, 2004. Print.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. 8 vols. Switzerland: Artemis Verlag Zurichund Munchen, 1992. Print.
Note: Some sources listed in the main text are no longer available online, so they are not listed in the bibliography.
About the Author
Stephanie Bradberry is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, Business and Education and high school English teacher. She is the founder and owner of Naturally Fit & Well, LLC and former owner of Crosby Educational Consulting, LLC. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.