The island of Crete was closely associated with bulls in Greek mythology. Its most famous monster had the head of a bull and Zeus had brought the island’s first queen there in the form of a white bull.
There was another famous bull from the island, as well. The Cretan Bull, the father of the Minotaur, had originally been a gift to King Minos.
The Cretan king’s arrogance and disrespect, however, turned the bull into a curse. It would ravage the island and bring shame on King Minos and his family.
Two great heroes and a price would all attempt to get the best of the Cretan Bull. It fought against more well-known figures than perhaps any other monster in Greek mythology.
The Cretan Bull was not a monster in Greek mythology. It was an animal that had been created as a peaceful and beautiful creature.
When Minos, one of the three sons of Zeus and Europa, took power over the island of Crete and banished his brothers, he asked the gods to send a sign of their favor. He petitioned Poseidon for a bull that was as white as snow as proof that his rule was favored.
Poseidon obliged and a beautiful white bull swam ashore near Minos’ palace. According to custom, Minos would be expected to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon as thanks for his favor.
Minos, however, was too taken with the bull to do what was expected of him. He decided that the bull was too majestic to be killed and sacrificed an inferior animal to Poseidon instead.
The god of the sea was infuriated at this lack of respect. He decided to rescind his favor and prove to the people of Crete that he no longer supported their short-sighted and disrespectful king.
Poseidon drove the Cretan Bull mad, transforming it from a peaceful and gentle animal into a rampaging beast.
The Cretan Bull tore its way across Crete, leaving horrible destruction wherever it went. Fields, homes, and entire villages were trampled by the crazed bull.
The destruction of Crete’s farms and homes was not the only vengeance Poseidon would enact through the Cretan Bull, though.
To further punish the king, Poseidon turned his attention to Minos’ wife Pasiphae. With help from Aphrodite and Eros, he made the queen of Crete fall hopelessly in love with the bull that was rampaging across her kingdom.
Pasiphae was so overcome with love that she devised a scheme to enable her to get close to the bull. She ordered the inventor Daedalus, who was a prisoner of Minos, to build her a wooden cow that she would be able to climb into.
Hiding in the cow, Pasiphae waited in a field that she knew the Cretan Bull frequented. From their encounter, the monstrous half-bull Minotaur was born.
Pasiphae loved her son, but he soon grew to be a dangerous and ravenous cannibal. The Minotaur not only created another threat to the people of Crete, but was also a source of embarrassment and shame for Minos.
Minos knew that he could not deal with both the bull and the Minotaur. He locked Pasiphae’s son in the Labyrinth and set about finding a way to rid the island of the Cretan Bull.
The beleaguered king was in luck. There was a hero in Greece who was being tasked with carrying out impossible and dangerous tasks.
In Tiryns, Heracles was being assigned his infamous twelve labors by his corrupt cousin, King Eurystheus. Hearing about the ferocity and strength of the Cretan Bull, the king commanded Heracles to capture it as his seventh task.
The hero sailed to Crete and asked Minos for any aid he could get in capturing the beast. King Minos refused, however, and said that Heracles would have to fight and capture the creature on his own because he had already lost too many men in his efforts to subdue it.
Heracles found the bull and wrestled it into submission. Eurystheus had instructed that the bull was to be taken alive, however, so the hero was left with the task of taking it back to the mainland without further harm.
He packed the Cretan Bull into a crate and shipped it back to Eurystheus as proof that the task had been completed.
Like the other monsters that Heracles brought back to Mycenae, the bull terrified the weak king. He refused to keep it nearby and it was soon released to run wild throughout Greece.
The Cretan Bull rampaged throughout mainland Greece just as it had Crete. It was able to wander from one kingdom to another, however, sparing the people from the prolonged destruction it had wrought upon the island.
The bull made its way to Sparta and Arcadia. It then crossed the isthmus that connected these regions to Eastern Greece and ran all the way to Marathon in Attica.
In this area, the bull settled in for a while. As in Crete, it stayed in the region and destroyed fields, orchards, and homes.
The bull remained near Marathon for so long that many people forgot that it had originally come from Crete. They called it the Marathonian Bull and grew to fear it.
This fear, however, did not stop them from holding the traditional games as part of the Panathenaia festival. Great men from throughout Greece traveled to Athens to pay honor to Athena by competing in her games.
One of the Greek kings who traveled to Athens for the festival was King Minos. He brought his only son, Androgeus, to compete.
Androgeus was the undisputed victor of the games. He won every event he competed in and was met with great acclaim.
Aegeus, the king of Athens, saw the young man’s strength as a possible solution to one of the area’s greatest problems. He asked the Cretan prince to seek out and kill the Marathonian Bull to prove his strength and heroism.
Although Minos was protective of his only son, Androgeus quickly accepted the quest. He was no match for the animal, however, and the Cretan Bull once again punished Minos for his actions.
Minos went to war against Athens after the death of his son. He was victorious and made the great city a client of Crete.
In retribution for his own son’s death, Minos demanded that young men and women from the best families in Athens be sent to Crete. They were sacrificed to the Minotaur, punishing Athens and protecting Crete from the monster’s hunger.
Athens had already sent many of its young people to Crete when a new teenaged boy arrived in the kingdom. Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, entered his father’s kingdom without announcing his parentage.
Theseus had been born in Troezen with Aegeus and Poseidon both contributing to his conception. Aegeus had been forced to return to Athens before his son was born, but had left his sandals and sword for the boy to take up when he was of age.
As a young man, Theseus had learned his lineage and set out for Athens to take his place as the aging king’s only heir. He defeated several monsters along the way, proving his courage and fortitude.
When he entered Athens, no one knew who he was. Only the king’s wife, the witch Medea, could see the resemblance between father and son.
Medea had hoped that one of her own sons would inherit the kingdom since Aegeus had no heirs of his own. Realizing that the newcomer was a threat to her sons’ rise to power, she saw him as a threat.
Theseus presented himself at his father’s court but did not reveal who he was. Medea seized the opportunity to rid her family of a rival before Aegeus could realize the truth.
She claimed to distrust the young man and doubt his tales of heroism on the journey to Athens. She proposed that, if he was really as brave as he claimed, he would be able to rid the kingdom of the Marathonian Bull once and for all.
Medea hoped that the bull would kill Theseus and her husband would never learn the boy’s identity. She was thwarted, however, by the fact that Theseus really was as strong and heroic as he claimed to be.
Theseus captured the bull and dragged it back to Athens. There, he offered it as a sacrifice to Athena in front of his father and the grateful people of the city.
During this second meeting, Aegeus finally saw the sword and sandals that he had left behind many years later for his son. He recognized Theseus as his heir and Medea fled the city before she could be arrested for her scheming.
Theseus soon volunteered to go to Crete as a hostage to kill the Minotaur. Both the Cretan Bull and its monstrous offspring were finally dispatched by the great founding hero of Athens.
According to some people, however, the story of the Cretan Bull did not entirely end with Theseus.
The constellation Taurus was usually said to represent Zeus. The white bull was the form he had taken to abduct Europa from Phoenicia and take her to Crete.
Others, however, said that the constellation was actually in the form of the Cretan Bull. It was placed in the stars to commemorate its beauty and its usefulness to Poseidon.
In truth, the image of the bull in the stars far predated the story of the Cretan Bull.
Most of the Athenian stories about King Minos and Crete did not develop until the 6th century BC. The story of the Cretan Bull was one of the last to emerge.
Bulls had been associated with Crete because of its pre-Greek religious practices and artwork and many historians believe that historical events may have inspired the interactions between Crete and Athens in the stories. The Cretan Bull was a later invention based on this imagery.
Historians believe that the constellation was identified as a bull long before this time, however. Some claim that there is evidence of this constellation dating from as far back as the Palaeolithic stone age!
The bull constellation and its association with Crete far predated the legends of the Cretan Bull. The stories incorporated these ideas, however, to make it seem as though the Cretan Bull had been the origin of much more ancient themes.
This was likely the reason that the Cretan Bull was pitted against both Heracles and Theseus, as well.
By writing the bull in the mythology of Heracles, it was established as one of the central monsters in mythology. Its ultimate defeat by Theseus reinforced the Athenian hero’s status as the founding king who defeated the might of Crete.