The Minotaur: The Bull-Headed Monster of Crete
The Minotaur: The Bull-Headed Monster of Crete
How well do you think you know the myth of the Minotaur – the half-bull and half-human monster who terrorized the island of Crete?
Even if you don’t know Greek mythology well, you’ve probably come across the Minotaur. The famous monster of Crete, a mix of a bull and a man, has become one of the most iconic legendary creatures in the world.
Locked away in the Labyrinth, the most famous maze in history, the monster feasted on dozens of innocent young men and women who were sent to face it.
Usually shown with the body of a muscular man and the head of a mad bull, the Minotaur was a flesh-eating monstrosity that brought suffering to many. Even imprisoned, it made a formidable foe for one of the most well-known heroes of ancient Greek mythology.
While the story of the Minotaur may seem to be one of the most fantastic of all the ancient legends, its origins are surprisingly grounded in the real world.
From a lost cult to a modern archetype, the story behind the Minotaur and the Labyrinth that imprisoned him might surprise you!
The Birth of the Minotaur
The legend of the Minotaur begins with one of the most famous kings in the mythology of the Mediterranean. Minos, the king of Crete, had competed with his brothers for rule over the island nation.
He and his brothers had been raised by Asterion, the founder of Crete, who married their mother but had no other children with her.
Their mother, Europa, had been abducted to the island by Zeus who took the form of a white bull.
Asterion left his new nation to Minos, who quarrelled with his brothers. When he prevailed, he banished them all from his new kingdom.
The king asked Poseidon to send him a white bull as a sign that the gods favored his rule. He swore to sacrifice the bull to the god when he received it.
Poseidon sent the bull to Minos, but when it had arrived the king was so overcome by the animal’s beauty and majesty that he chose to keep it instead. He thought the gods would accept a substitute sacrifice in its place.
Poseidon did not accept the substitution, however. Instead, he was insulted that his gift should be taken for personal desire by an ungrateful mortal.
Offending the gods could lead to serious consequences, and Minos would be punished for his selfishness.
To punish Minos, Poseidon first turned the beautiful bull against him. The once gentle animal turned wild, wreaking havoc and destroying both fields and homes.
The Cretan Bull would run wild for years, destroying much of the island. Eventually, its capture would be one of the twelve labors of Heracles.
Heracles took the bull to mainland Greece as part of his task, where it was set free to run wild. It destroyed huge swathes of the landscape, eventually making its home near Marathon.
It would finally be killed by Theseus after he arrived in Athens. This would not be the last time the Fates brought that hero together with the bulls of Crete.
Poseidon’s wrath was not complete, though. Before the bull was captured by Heracles, he called on Eros to further punish the willful human king.
They made the king’s wife, Pasiphae, fall desperately in love with the animal. Overcome by Eros’s arrow, she became obsessed with the wild creature.
The queen called on the famous architect and inventor who served at the court of Minos, Daedalus. Under her orders he built a wooden cow that the queen could climb into.
Disguised in her artificial cow, the queen went to a field the Cretan Bull was known to be fond of grazing in.
The result was the birth of the Minotaur.
The creature was originally called Asterios, after the stepfather of Minos, but it was not long before it became known by a more descriptive name.
This name came from that of his own stepfather, Minos, and the word for bull, tauros. It was the bull of Minos, his punishment for offending the gods.
The monster was half human and half bull. Usually depicted with the body of a man and the horned head and tail of an animal, it was a frightful creature.
Pasiphae still cared for her child, though. She nursed the Minotaur until it grew large, strong, and ferocious.
As a monstrous creature, the Minotaur had no natural source of nourishment. It could neither eat the normal food of humans or the grasses that would sustain a bull.
Instead, the Minotaur began to eat people.
The Sacrifices in the Labyrinth
Minos had to find a way to keep his people safe from the monster his wife had given birth to. He called on Daedalus, who had been at least partially responsible for its birth, to devise a solution.
At the king’s court at Knossos, the architect built the Labyrinth.
This famous structure was a maze-like prison for the Minotaur. Its twisting, confusing hallways were designed to be impossible to escape from.
According to Ovid, Daedalus was so successful in designing the intricate and baffling passages of the Labyrinth that he himself could barely find his way out when its construction had been completed.
Most legends say that the great Labyrinth was built underground. The cold and darkness beneath the earth made it even less likely that the monster would ever find its way out.
The Minotaur was imprisoned, but Minos still had to find a way to feed it. The creature’s angry, hungry bellows were shaking the palace of Knossos and could be felt throughout Crete.
The answer to the king’s problem came in the form of conquest.
Not long before, Minos’s son, Androgeus, had been killed in Athens. While some legends said it was an intentional murder, others claimed the prince’s death had been an accident.
A few even claimed that he had been killed by the Cretan Bull itself after it migrated to Marathon.
However it happened, Minos blamed the Athenian king for the death of his son.
When Minos took power, one of his first acts was to mount a war against Athens to avenge the death of the prince.
Minos was successful and Athens became a client state of Crete.
The city was forced to pay a tribute to its conqueror, and Minos saw an opportunity to solve the greatest problem he faced at the time.
In lieu of gold or grain, he made the Athenians pay in blood.
The Minotaur required human flesh, so Minos commanded Athens to send seven young men and seven young women as payment.
The legends vary as to how often Athens was forced to hand over its young people. Some said the price was to be paid every seven years, others said nine.
Some even said that the Athenians were forced to sacrifice fourteen of their young people every single year.
The young men and women were chosen by lot in a horrible drawing. They knew that once they were sent to Knossos there was no hope of ever coming back alive.
Theseus and the Minotaur
Athens at the time was ruled by King Aegeus, the man who would give his name to the Aegean Sea as an indirect result of his involvement with Crete.
Before the war began Aegeus had been childless. Eager to have an heir, he had consulted the oracle at Delphi to ask why none of his previous wives had given him children.
The prophesy given to him was that he should not loosen the mouth of his wineskin until he reached the pinnacle of Athens or he would die of grief.
He did not understand the oracle’s advice, so he was discouraged as he made his way home.
He stopped in the city of Troezen as he traveled toward Athens. The king of that city believed he understood the oracle’s words, and that they involved his daughter Aethra.
The king of Troezen plied Aegeus with strong wine and, once the Athenian was drunk, offered him his daughter.
That same night, Aethra had a vision in a dream sent by Athena that prompted her to wade to a nearby island. There, she was visited by Poseidon.
Her son Theseus, therefore, was regarded as having been fathered by both the Athenian king and the god of the sea.
Such dual fatherhood was common in the legends of the great heroes of the ancient past. They were mortal but possessed strength and courage far beyond that of ordinary men.
Aegeus had to return to his home city before Aethra’s baby was born. Before he left, he buried his sandals, shield, and sword under a great rock.
When Aethra’s child had grown strong enough to move the rock and claim his belongings, Aegeus said he would welcome him in Athens as his son.
Theseus grew to adulthood and found his human father’s belongings. Aethra told him the story of his birth and he decided to set out for Athens, taking the longer and more dangerous land route instead of traveling by ship.
Along the way he passed by six entrances to the underworld, each guarded by a terrible monster. He slew them all, establishing a reputation the proceeded him when he arrived in his father’s city.
He did not identify himself immediately, however. Medea, who had married Aegeus in the meantime, was the only person able to recognize the young man as her husband’s son because of the resemblance between them.
Worried that Theseus would supplant her own son as heir, Medea saw him as a threat. She tried several times to cause his death or have him killed, but the young hero always emerged victoriously.
She even sent him to kill the Cretan Bull, who by this point had been brought to the mainland by Heracles and was causing mayhem near Marathon. It was only after this great feat that Theseus was recognized by his father and accepted as his heir.
The scheming Medea was sent into exile.
The happy reunion Aegeus had with his son would not last long, though. The time was quickly approaching for Athens to pay its third tribute of fourteen young people to King Minos.
When Theseus heard about the sacrifice of Athen’s noblest youths, he was horrified. He swore to his father that he would put an end to the tribute forever.
Theseus took the place of one of the seven young men who had been selected to sail for Crete.
These things sensibly affected Theseus, who, thinking it but just not to disregard, but rather partake of, the sufferings of his fellow citizens, offered himself for one without any lot. All else were struck with admiration for the nobleness and with love for the goodness of the act.
― Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives: Volume I
Finally reunited with his son, Aegeus was afraid of sending him to almost certain death. Theseus assured his father that he would be able to defeat the terrible monster that was slaughtering Athenian youths just as he had killed the wild bull that created it.
He told Aegeus to watch for the sails on the ship that returned from Crete. The ships taking tributes to Crete had always flown black sails as a sign of mourning, but Theseus told his father that he would hoist white sails on his return if he was successful.
When Theseus and the other young Athenians arrived at Knossos, one of the people who greeted him was Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. The princess fell in love with the handsome young hero and swore she would not let him die.
Ariadne consulted Daedalus, who was also unhappy with the cruel use the Labyrinth had been put to. Together, she and the artificer devised a way for Theseus to escape the great maze.
She escorted Theseus to the Labyrinth entrance late at night and handed him a spool of thread. He tied one end of the thread to a post near the door and unwound it as he entered the dark maze.
As Theseus crept through the underground tunnels he pulled out his sword, which he had managed to keep hidden from the Cretan guards. He followed the instructions Daedalus had given him to reach the heart of the maze.
Deep inside the Labyrinth, he came upon the Minotaur as it slept.
The beast awoke as soon as Theseus approached, and a great fight ensued between them.
Some writers said that Theseus was able to slay the Minotaur with his sword. Other said that the hero was disarmed in the struggle and was forced to strangle the monster with his bare hands.
Either way, Theseus emerged as the victor. Following the string Ariadne had given him, the hero was able to find his way out of the twisting Labyrinth.
Theseus had won the battle against the Minotaur, but this was not the end of his adventures.
He set sail for Athens with Ariadne, but abandoned her on the island of Naxos. Whether this was an accident or because he knew she was fated to marry Dionysus depends on the telling.
Distracted, he forgot his promise to change the ship’s sails to white. Seeing black sails approaching, King Aegeus threw himself into the sea in despair for the son he thought he had lost.
That sea, the Aegean, carries his name to this day.
Theseus would go on to journey to the underworld, kill his own son due to the duplicity of the Amazonian queen, and, according to some accounts, sail with the Argonauts. But the great hero would always be remembered most for his fight against the Minotaur in the maze-like halls of the Labyrinth.
The Minotaur continued to capture the imaginations of writers and artists long after belief in the myths ended. Dante Alighieri imagined it as one of the underworld guardians in his Inferno.
In the 1930s, the monster became a popular theme in surrealist art. Minotaure magazine featured cover art by masters like Pablo Picasso, Salvidor Dali, Renee Magritte, and Diego Rivera.
The Minotaur became separated from his legend, becoming a type of legendary monster rather than a specific character.
As such, it has been featured in everything from movies to comic books as a dangerous and bestial foe.
Some of the most notable recent depictions include:
- British television’s classic sci-fi series Dr. Who featured a minotaur in both the 1970s and in 2011. The more recent portrayal featured the protagonists trapped in a maze-like hotel with a minotaur that hunted them down one by one preying on their deepest fears.
- Dungeons and Dragons, the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game, has featured minotaurs as both monsters and playable characters since the 1980s.
- In the popular children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic a minotaur named Iron Will is a supporting character among a cast of other animals inspired by mythology, including pegasi and unicorns.
- The 2006 film Minotaur presents the legend as a horror story.
- The young adult book series Percy Jackson and the Olympians bases its story on Greek mythology. In the first book, the titular hero fights and kills the Minotaur.
- The North Korean kaiju film Pulgasari, made by kidnapped filmmaker Shin Sang-Ok, features a monster based on the Minotaur.
- Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, an installment of the popular video game franchise set in ancient Greece, features the Minotaur among other mythological monsters and heroes.
- The 2012 film Wrath of the Titans, a sequel to Clash of the Titans, features a minotaur among other monsters loosely based on Greek legend.
- In both the film version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and the book series that inspired it, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, minotaurs appear alongside other mythological monsters and demons in the service of evil rulers.
The story has also been adapted for various times and locations. Some update the characters and settings for a modern audience while others, like The Hunger Games, use elements of the myth as inspiration for a unique story.
The Bull Cult and the Minotaur
The story of the Cretan Bull and the birth of the Minotaur was probably rooted in the ancient religion and rituals of the island of Crete.
Separated from the mainland, Crete had long been regarded as a foreign culture by the majority of Greeks. The island nation always had a distinct culture and identity that set it apart from the rest of the Greek world.
This was especially true in the ancient past, hundreds of years before the height of Greek civilization.
The ancient Minoan culture, named by modern archaeologists for the legendary King Minos, was the first highly advanced civilization in ancient Europe. While mainland Greece was just leaving the Stone Age, the people of Crete were building multi-story palaces with indoor plumbing.
Knossos, the legendary home of Minos, was a real city. In 1600 BC its population may have been as high as 100,000 inhabitants.
Just a century later, however, the civilization was in severe decline. Archaeologists believe that a volcanic eruption between 1550 and 1500 BC destroyed much of the island and left the people of Crete economically and culturally devastated.
The Minoan culture was replaced by that of the Mycenaeans, the predecessors of classical Greek culture. By the time the myths and legends of Hellenic Greece were recorded, the ancient civilization of Crete was remembered only in ruins and lore.
The Minoans had a system of writing, but by the time of the Greeks the language had been lost. Greek storytellers, therefore, could only interpret the ruins of Crete through the art that survived.
One thing the Greeks could look at were representations of bulls.
Bulls seem to have formed an important part of Minoan faith, with many historians believing that a bull cult was one of Crete’s most important religious institutions.
Several frescos and statues found on the island, including and Knossos, depict men leaping over the horns of oversized bulls.
Plato mentioned weaponless bull hunting in his depiction of Atlantis, which also may have been based on the decline of the great Minoan culture on Crete.
Altars from the Minoan era were sometimes topped with bull horns. Plutarch mentioned a horn altar on nearby Delos as a wonder of the world.
With this artwork and possible oral tradition, the Greeks strongly associated Crete with bulls.
In addition to the Minotaur and its sire, they claimed Crete was founded when Zeus took Europa there in the guise of a white bull. Glaucus, a son of Minos and half-brother to the Minotaur, was compared in coloring to a calf in his father’s herd.
There is evidence that some legends of Minos as a founding king of Crete date back far before the Mycenean Greeks ruled the island. Between the Minoans themselves and the Greek view of them, it’s only logical that Crete’s most infamous monster would be associated with the legendary king and the mystical bull.
A theory has been proposed, but largely discredited, that the sprawling ruins of Knossos themselves gave rise to the story of the Labyrinth. The ruins would have seemed confusing and maze-like to the Greeks that saw them.
But, while the palace at Knossos was probably not the inspiration for the Labyrinth, other aspects of legend may have been based in fact.
The History of the Legend
There is a possibility that the legend of the Minotaur was inspired by more than just the vague memory of a bull cult on Crete. According to some historians, Minoan history may provide more insight into the role of the Athenians in the story.
At its height, Knossos was the center of the most powerful civilization in Europe. Its power was not limited to Crete and the smaller nearby islands – the Minoans began to colonize mainland Greece as well.
In addition to establishing their own settlements, the Minoans were the economic powerhouse of their day. Trade was established throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, spreading their cultural influence.
During this time, budding cities like Athens would have been under the sway of the more powerful Minoans.
While not much is known about Minoan rituals, there is some evidence that human sacrifice may have been practiced. If so, it’s likely that victims would have been taken from tribute states rather than from among the Minoans themselves.
The story of the sacrifice of Athenian youths to a monstrous half-bull may have roots in an actual tradition. Some scholars have theorized that Cretan priests may have worn a bull mask when performing sacrifices, giving rise to the legend that the young people were killed by a bull-headed monster.
The tribute paid by the people of Athens may have been less bloody, though. Elsewhere in mythology there are examples of young men and women being taken not for human sacrifice, but to be dedicated as servants to a god or goddess.
Whether led to their doom or to a life of religious servitude, the idea of young people being taken from Athens to Knossos likely rose from historical fact. Through centuries of retelling and reinterpretation, the actual story became a fantastic myth.
With this in mind, modern scholars have sought to interpret the legendary Minotaur and its place in history. Its death at the hands of the Athenian prince could symbolize the rise of Athens to overtake Crete as the cultural and political center of the region.
The full story of Theseus could be an allegory for an actual historical event. The killing of the Cretan Bull at Marathon may represent a victory in battle there or the destruction of Cretan outposts, while the battle against the Minotaur reflects a final Athenian victory at Knossos.
There is even evidence that Theseus himself may have been based on an actual historical figure. As a founding king of Athenian legend, Theseus may be based on an actual king from the Mycenaean past who fought against Minoan rule.
Minos, too, may have been based in history. The name can be reconstructed from Linear B, one of the writing systems of the ancient Minoan culture, although archaeologists are not sure whether it was the name of a specific ruler or a title of kingship.
The legend may also have religious significance.
Some historians believe the bull in Minoan religion was a symbol of a sun god. In killing one of their chief gods, the Athenian prince broke the hold of Minoan supremacy.
In killing the monster and ending the sacrifices, Theseus symbolically ended the rule of Crete and established Athens as the dominant state.
The Minotaur as History
The figure of the Minotaur today is one of a legendary beast. With no personality or characterization beyond his ferocity, the monster seems destined to meet his end at the hands of a great hero.
The true story of the Minotaur, however, is more nuanced than the myth as we know it today.
The birth of the Minotaur and his death at the hands of Theseus tell a story of warring cultures and a fight for political supremacy. The death of the Minotaur represented more than just the end of a single monster, but the end of an entire civilization.
After the death of his father, Theseus went on to become king of Athens. He united Attica for the first time, creating one of the city-states that would come to dominate Greek culture and politics for centuries.
To do that, he first had to destroy the threat that came from Crete. The founder of the great state had to first free his people from foreign rule under strange gods.
Today, the religion and culture of the Minoan civilization are understood mostly through the study of art and ruins. But stories like that of the Minotaur help to broaden our knowledge of a civilization that has been lost for over 3,000 years.
In telling the allegorical story of the decline of Crete, the Greeks preserved clues about the Minoan past and their own.