Minotauros the Minotaur: Iconography
This essay is a continuation of the discussion about various aspects of Minotauros the Minotaur. The focus here will be on the many depictions of Minotauros over time. To get caught up on the history and myth of Minotauros, please read the background and overview.
Iconography and the Battle
The ancient iconography is varied for Minotauros. When looking at iconography, Alan Shapiro says that vases are full of meaningful gestures that need to be interpreted in order to understand the scene (1). The most common and correct description of Minotauros is that he has the head of a bull and the body of a man. Greek vases usually depict Minotauros in this manner to varying degrees. Sometimes Minotauros has a greater percentage of his body that resembles a bull. However, Minotauros is not always shown with the top half of his body being a bull and the bottom half human. As Shapiro states, artists around the 7th century B.C. were free to depict Minotauros’ body however they wanted because there was only the myth that Minotauros was half bull and half human (1). Therefore, Minotauros is sometimes painted as a horned, human-headed quadruped (Lexicon 576). In figure 2, it is obvious that Minotauros has a face with human attributes. Besides the horns on his head, the only unusual aspect of his appearance is the amount of facial hair he has.
There are several different depictions of how the battle between Theseus and Minotauros was fought and concluded. A vase painting shows that Minotauros is fighting Theseus back by hurling a boulder at him. Minotauros is not always presented as holding a large boulder (Lexicon 576). However, some images of Minotauros show him holding two boulders, one in each hand (Lexicon 575). Another aspect to consider is that Theseus is sometimes depicted as battling Minotauros with a sword. The representation of using a sword instead of jabs is more acceptable considering Minotauros slain by Theseus. However, Theseus is also said to carry a club and attacks Minotauros with it (Lexicon 575). There are not a lot of depictions that actually show Theseus using a club on Minotauros. But, do note the fact that Theseus is clothed and Minotauros is not. The portrayal and emphasis on the refined versus the wild heightens Minotauros’ bestiality.
Iconography: The End of the Battle
So how does the battle between Theseus and Minotauros end? Of course there is the jab theory and then there is the idea that Minotauros was actually dragged out of the cave once slain. There is also the argument that Minotauros is not dragged out of his cave but is rather slain in the doorway (Lexicon 576). Minotauros does not look as threatening and Theseus looks more youthful than he is portrayed in other paintings. The absence of facial hair proves that Theseus is an adolescent (Lexicon 575). Appropriately, Athena is seen to the left of Theseus. Athena’s presence indicates that Theseus has to use strategy in order to defeat Minotauros. In addition, the appearance of Athena shows how Minotauros cannot rely on the gods or goddess for help. Minotauros is simply a by-product of other’s wrong doing. In a truly subdued manner, Minotauros is dragged out of his lair to be made into a spectacle for the people of Crete. Minotauros is not the main subject of the painting (above). He is just a small figure in the bottom right hand corner of this rendition. Minotauros’ near absence could be hinting at his small role in the myth compared to Theseus, the hero.
Iconography: Other Depictions
Minotauros is depicted in some vase paintings with a tail. The appearance of a tail is asure sign that the figure is Minotauros in any vase painting or relief (Lexicon 575). In the painting below (right), the black background makes it easier for Minotauros’ tail to be observed. Again, Theseus is fully clad and Minotauros is not. The nakedness of Minotauros allows viewers to see that his bull characteristics go beyond his head. There is the faintest glimpse of Minotauros’ tail protruding from his backside. This makes Minotauros more of an animal than a man that has to be abolished. The depiction above focuses more on Theseus dominating Minotauros—almost in a position to tie Minotauros up like cattle. Theseus overpowering Minotauros by grabbing his head or horns is a classic pose for paintings and vases (Lexicon 575). Below are more paintings that show the classic wrestling pose.
Sometimes Minotauros is presented as being hairy, reinforcing his bestiality. There are a couple of ways that artists try to represent Minotauros’ hairiness (see pictures right). The image on the right uses tick marks or dashes to show the presence of hair. These marks are actually incisions made in the piece to give the appearance of hair—this method is mainly used for vases (Lexicon 575). Again, Minotauros’ tail is visible from the side view as a testament that the character is definitely Minotauros. The addition of hair plus the tail make Minotauros out to be more of a beast than a human. The large number of incisions on Minotauros makes him look like a spotted leopard—continuing the bestiality theme (Lexicon 576). Another way hairiness is represented is by small bunches of circles or dots. In one figure to the right, Minotauros almost resembles a cheetah. The presence of hair brings Minotauros into the animal realm to dehumanize him a little more.
More famous depictions of Minotauros show him being held down by Theseus. Minotauros being held in a wrestling hold is usually seen in reliefs (Lexicon 575). But, the wrestling hold pose is also used for vases. Something important to notice in the vase painting is the presence of females, represented as white figures. There are usually two females present in the depictions of the battle between Theseus and the Minotaur (Lexicon 575). The appearance of females confirms that they are the maidens who are part of the group to be sacrificed. Alan Shapiro suggests that the two female figures act as representatives for the crowd of youths to be sacrificed (Shapiro 1). However, Ariadne is hardly ever one of the two females that are symbolic for the group of youths (1).
Even though Minotauros is usually depicted unclothed, Minotauros is known to be clad as well. Many times, Minotauros is wearing a chiton that is decorated with stars (Lexicon 575). When Minotauros is clothed with this particular article of clothing, he is in a kneeling position. The image of clothing may hint at Minotauros’ attempt to be human. Nevertheless, Minotauros’ clothing is almost anachronistic in the presence of his animal head. Representations of Minotauros clothed show the clash between Minotauros human and animal halves. The two cannot coexist. In the figure above note the female on the right hand side of the painting. There is no second female present and she is more elaborately dressed than other females usually shown next to Theseus. This woman could be Ariadne. The circular object falling from her hand might be the ball of thread that will help Theseus back out of the labyrinth. If so, Ariadne could be foreshadowing Theseus’ victory.
For a more complete version of how Minotauros is actually slain, some artists depict Theseus using his sword to stab Minotauros. The most frequent scene of Minotauros’ death is Theseus thrusting his sword down Minotauros’ throat (see right). The portrayal of Minotauros’ death is commonly heightened by the showing of blood. Some scholars believe that Minotauros’ mouth is open in order to cry out or plead for mercy (Lexicon 576). If Minotauros is either pleading or crying out, or both, than it would show he has human emotions. However, Theseus is the hero and Minotauros is an undesirable mixed breed. There is no place in the world for a creature like Minotauros; therefore, he must die.
Minotauros’ look has been updated in other ways. Sometimes modern artist, mainly in sketches, give Minotauros a more clean-cut look. In some ways, Minotauros has become more cartoon- or mascot-like. This bad-boy Minotauros surely looks likes someone or something you would not want to mess with. While Minotauros is still portrayed as half human and half bull, he comes across as more human in demeanor. The sketch above portrays Minotauros’ figure is smooth and carefully rounded. Minotauros is brought up-to-date by posing with his arms crossed. As quoted earlier, Shapiro says gestures mean a lot in reading vases. So this modern pose could suggest that Minotauros had acclimated himself to the modern world and has asserted his dominance.
But, Minotauros has not been as successful at shaking away his animal association. There is a beetle named after the half animal Minotauros. While this beetle resembles a rhinoceros beetle (see right), the pinchers are much larger. Like Minotauros this beetle can pack a punch. The association to Minotauros probably stems from the fact that the beetle has three horn-like features on its head. Unfortunately, further research was hindered by a language barrier. The internet site that features this beetle is in Japanese. Nevertheless, the Minotauros beetle it is just another example of how Minotauros has infiltrated many different realms. There is an example of another beetle, in the same family as the Minotauros beetle, that resembles Minotauros. Dorcus curvidense has only two “horns” on its head unlike the Minotauros beetle that has three. This cousin of the Minotauros beetle is a better candidate for the name of Minotauros: this is just a scholarly opinion. It seems only fitting that Minotauros’ name stakes a claim in the animal, or rather insect, kingdom.
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About the Author
Stephanie Bradberry Crosby is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and Reiki Master. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, and Education and high school English teacher. She is a doctoral candidate in Education: Curriculum and Teaching. She runs her own home-based business, Naturally Fit & Well, LLC, which includes her all-natural, handmade, and customizable product line, Natural Herbal Blends. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.