The Minotaur of Crete Moved Greece, Rome, Art, Literature, Myth

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur, 1843 bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye. Photo: Public domain

Perhaps no other mythical creature so terrified humans as did the Minotaur, the monster half-man, half-bull who was imprisoned in the labyrinth on the island of Crete by his stepfather, King Minos, trapping a creature who ate people supplied by Athens to appease him.

The legend lives on and it seems curious in the digital age and with movies being taken over by superheroes and super-villains and unstoppable forces that no one’s made the Minotaur the centerpiece for a fantasy film.

The National Geographic recalled the power of the Minotaur and his effect on Greek and Roman culture and civilization and how he finally met his end when the Athenian hero Theseus came to Crete, entered the Labyrinth, and slew the beast, to the relief of all mankind of the time.

The story has, over the ages, inspired everything from pottery designs of Picasso, operas, movies, and even video games, as the story by Amaranta Sbardella noted, who wrote that the roots for the myth go deep into real events in the Bronze Age.

The tale of the Minotaur varies but the nucleus doesn’t: 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, as the feature explained.

It goes on: 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.

Then came Theseus. When the Athenians marked for human sacrifice 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 enabling him to find his way out after slaying the Minotaur.

Alas, Theseus set sail for Athens, taking Princess Ariadne with him only to abandon her on the island of Naxos to take up with her sister, Phaedra, whom he married with apparently no one noting the irony of whether he was only half a man for betraying the woman who saved him.

The story keeps being passed down through the thousands of years, so beguiling it is indeed.

References to the Minotaur appeared in Greek literature such as Euripides’ 5th-Century B.C. play The Cretans, and another account of Theseus and the Minotaur comes from the Bibliotheca, a massive compilation of Hellenic myths and stories as well as from Roman sources such as Plutarch’s 2d-century A.D. work Parallel Lives and for Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Theseus was celebrated as a national hero of Athens.

From 1900-03 British archaeologist Arthur Evans excavated on Crete and found a royal palace at the site of Knossos and many artifacts featuring bulls, naming the ancient Cretan culture he unearthed there Minoan in honor King Minos, son of Zeus and stepfather to the Minotaur.

The Minotaur’s prison, the Labyrinth, also has deep roots in Minoan material culture, but scholars have different theories as to its origin and no archaeological remains of a maze have ever been found on Crete, although some describe the ruins at Knossos as ‘maze-like’. That might have inspired the myths of the Greeks who later came upon the remains of the palace.