Minotaur: History and Mythology of the Ancient Greek Bull-Headed Monster

MinotaurArt by Phill Simmer

Etymology and Names –

Artwork depicting Minotaur being slain by Theseus inside the Labyrinth.

As succinctly described by the Roman poet Ovid, Minotaur (Ancient Greek: Μῑνώταυρος, Latin: Minotaurus, Etruscan: Θevrumineś) is a ‘part man, part bull’ – thereby pertaining to a Greek mythical creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man, as depicted during the Classical times. Now in terms of etymology, the word ‘Minotaur’ is derived from Μίνως or ‘Minos’ and the noun ταύρος or ‘bull’, thereby meaning the ‘bull of Minos’.

Interestingly enough, from the mythico-historic perspective, King Minos was associated with the island of Crete, as one of the preeminent rulers of the Minoans (whose very name is derived from Minos). Thus the myths of Minotaur are intrinsically related to the Cretan island and its labyrinth, with the creature itself being sometimes referred to as Asterion by the Cretans – named after the foster father of Minos.

The Myth of Minotaur –

Much of the myth comes down to us from various ancient Greek sources, including – the Bibliotheca (Bibliothēkē – ‘Library’), also known as the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, a compilation of Greek myths and heroic legends, dating from circa 1st-2nd century AD; writings of Callimachus, a 3rd century BC Alexandrian scholar; Description of Greece by Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek geographer; and Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, a 1st century BC Greek historian.

The Poseidon Affair –

Minotaur
Heracles capturing the Cretan Bull. Detail of a Roman mosaic from Llíria (Spain), from the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mythical narratives of the Minotaur and even the bull trope itself are tied to that of King Minos. In that regard, according to Greek mythology, Minos was the son of Zeus and the mortal yet exceedingly beautiful Europa (sometimes described as a Phoenician princess, who later personified Europe). According to one version, Zeus, enticed by Europa’s beauty, took the form of a bull and carried (or abducted) her away to Crete, and their union bore three sons – Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. All of the three brothers were adopted by Asterion (or Aseterion), the king of Crete who went on to marry Europa.

But the island soon fell into political turmoil after the death of Asterion, with all of the three brothers vying for the rulership of Crete. However, Minos (whose very name means ‘king’ in Cretan) claimed of support from the gods and followed it up by convincing Poseidon, the Greek god of seas, to present him with a snow-white bull from depths of the water. Such an act convinced his opponents of his divine ‘connection’ and Poseidon’s will, which allowed Minos to take over the throne of Crete and banish his other brothers.

Now talking of divine purposes, the bull was delivered by Poseidon on a condition – that it was to be sacrificed by Minos in honor of the sea-god in full view of the heaven. Unfortunately, for Minos, the king, impressed by the majestic nature of the beast, decided to keep the bull for himself and instead sacrificed a different animal. Poseidon, angered by such an overture, resolved to punish Minos for what was perceived as arrogance and vanity of the newly-declared king. Consequently, the sea-god goes on to instill an unnatural passion within Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, which results in Pasiphae falling deeply in love with the white bull. According to another narrative, it is Aphrodite who curses Pasiphae, while a third myth concludes that it was a divine conspiracy hatched by both Poseidon and Aphrodite that pushes forth the perverse lust within Pasiphae.

The Birth of the Monster and the Labyrinth –

Minotaur
Pasiphae and infant Minotaur. Source: Madeline Miller

As a result of this aberrant form of desire, Pasiphae ordered the skillful craftsman Daedalus (the father of Icarus) to construct a wooden cow covered in real cowhide. Once completed, the queen concealed herself inside the structure, which was then wheeled on to the meadow grazed by the white bull. Unsurprisingly, the bull took interest in the ‘cow’, and their resultant bizarre union gave birth to the monstrous offspring – the Minotaur.

King Minos, being deeply offended by the act, decided to punish Daedalus and Icarus by enslaving them. As for Minotaur, in spite of its bizarre morphology, the creature was raised and nurtured as a calf by Pasiphae, and was given the name of Asterion (Minos’ foster father) – also meaning ‘star’; or Asterius – ‘starry one’. But over time, as it grew in strength and ferocity, the Minotaur, having no natural source of sustenance, began to devour unsuspecting humans for its nourishment. So in a bid to hide his wife’s abnormal act and to also protect his citizens, Minos consults the Oracle at Delphi. The solution comes forth in the form of a massive yet somber Labyrinth that was to hold (and hide) the bull-headed monster – and this gigantic project, constructed underneath Minos’ own palace at Knossos (the Minoan capital of Crete), was undertaken yet again by Daedalus and Icarus.

Minos’ Revenge on the Athenians –

Aethra Showing her Son Theseus the Place Where his Father had Hidden his Arms – Painting by Nicolas-Guy Brenet. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And while the intricate Labyrinth was constructed, King Minos suffered yet another tragedy in the form of the death of his only son with Pasiphae –  Androgeus (or Androgeos). According to one version of the myth, it was the Athenians who murdered Androgeus out of jealousy for his wins at the Panathenaic games. Another version mentions how he was killed by the Marathonian Bull (the very same Cretan bull of Poseidon that was ‘shipped off’ to Marathon by Heracles) when the athlete was asked to confront the animal at the behest of Aegeus, the King of Athens.

In any case, the Athenians were held responsible for the death of Androgeus, which drew the ire of Minos, resulting in war with Athens. It is said that Minos sailed with his Cretan fleet to harass the mainland city-state. And after much conflict and losses (in one version – a plague), the Athenians and their king decided to sue for peace and appease Minos. This appeasement came in the form of human tribute comprising seven maidens and seven youths (‘young men at the same time as the best of unwed girls’) – who were to be sent to Crete every seven years (other versions mention every year to every nine years) to be devoured by the voracious Minotaur inside the Labyrinth. In essence, the tribute pertains to human sacrifice and the unfortunate Athenian victims were chosen by drawing lots.

The Deadly Mission of Theseus –

Minotaur
Theseus about to slay the Minotaur, Athenian red-figure stamnos circa 5th B.C., British Museum

Finally, by the time of the third ‘batch’ of the tribute, Theseus, the son of Athenian king Aegeus, volunteered as one of the chosen victims. But his plan, as he boasted to his father, was to kill the Minotaur. He even promised that after slaying the monster he would return to Athens with white sails, but if he failed in his task (and get killed instead), black sails would be drawn. The myth goes on to mention how after Theseus’ arrival in Crete, both daughters of King Minos – Ariadne and Phaedra fell in love with him. But it is Ariadne who takes the initiative to help Theseus in his dangerous quest, by approaching Daedalus – the architect of the massive Labyrinth of Knossos. She convinces the architect to tell her the secrets of the navigational paths that led into the center of the structure – the lair of the mighty Minotaur. The message, in turn, was conveyed to Theseus, who was also given a ball of thread for retracing his path.

Consequently, the Athenian hero delves into the dark Labyrinth by first tieing one end of his thread string to the entrance door. He then, guided by the (divulged) secret of Daedalus, manages to discover the center and find the monster lurking at one of the corners of the obscure enclosed space. Now one account describes how Theseus successfully slew the Minotaur with help of his father’s trusty sword, while another mentions how he boisterously defeated (and killed) the hybrid monster by just using his fists. In any case, after the demise of the Minotaur, Theseus successfully retraces his steps and escapes from the complex Labyrinth by following the (unraveled) thread tied to the entrance.

The hero then proceeds on to free his fellow Athenian prisoners and takes the two Minoan princesses Ariadne and Phaedra onboard to ultimately flee from Crete. However, on the journey back home, Theseus unceremoniously abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos (possibly at the behest of the Greek god Dionysus) – and the princess is later wedded by Dionysus himself. Furthermore, overjoyed with the prospect of marrying Phaedra, Theseus forgets to change the color of his sails to white. Thus in a tragic turn of events, in spite of the hero’s successful mission, his father Aegeus, on viewing the black sails from afar, jumps off the cliff in despair. This unforeseen event secures the throne for Theseus, while the surrounding waterbody is named Aegean Sea (after Aegeus).

Minotaur and Minos from the Historical Perspective –

Cretan Bull Dancers – Restored Fresco. Source: Pinterest

Suffice it to say, many of the mainland Greece legends do not portray King Minos in a favorable light. But interestingly enough, a few other earlier mythic anecdotes depict Minos as a champion of wisdom and justice, who even went on to build the region’s first navy to defeat the local pirates. In that regard, the actual historical legacy of the mighty Minoans can be possibly derived from such tales that establish the ancient authority of the island-state, thus hinting at its cultural dominance in the areas comprising mainland Greece and Crete. In fact, the early phase of the Bronze Age Mycenaean civilization in itself (mostly based in mainland Greece) was markedly inspired by the distant Minoans hailing from the island of Crete.

As for the depictions of the Minotaur, the fight (or showdown) between Theseus and the hybrid monster is a rather recurrent theme in Classical Greek art, especially on pottery. But the origins of the myth of Minotaur is shrouded in mystery, with many potential conjectures. One of the most popular hypotheses relates to the motif of bull and the related cult of bull that were prevalent in the ancient Cretan culture. According to Classical scholar Arthur Bernard Cook, the bull may have represented the sun in Cretan (or Minoan) circles, and as such Pasiphae’s union with the bull may have alluded to the sacred ceremony between the Minoan queen and the bull-headed deity (or the horned-god).

From the socio-political angle, as we mentioned earlier, there might have been a case of cultural and trade-based dominance of Minoans (from Crete) over the Bronze Age Greeks of the mainland – at least for a particular period of time. In that respect, the story of Theseus possibly underlines the ‘breakaway’ or independence of the mainland Greeks from this ‘economic’ hegemony of the Minoans. Interestingly enough, from the architectural perspective, while there is no evidence of the labyrinth, there had been speculations in the academic circles (although some are often discredited in our modern times) that the Palace at Knossos, with its intricate planning, staircases, and spatial features, was the inspiration for the Labyrinth of Daedalus.

And lastly, in case one is interested, this video below represents the scale and scope of the massive Palace at Knossos with its intricate layout of passages and corridors, accompanied by a flurry of frescoes and pottery. The video in itself was sourced from flipped prof’s YouTube Channel.

 

Featured Image: Art by Phill Simmer

Online Sources: Ancient Encyclopedia / Theoi / Greek Boston / Madeline Miller

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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