For hundreds of years, most people believed that the Greek myths were complete fantasies. The people and places in them were, with few exceptions, entirely fictional.
Archaeological finds in the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, led to a different interpretation. Now, some element of historical fact is seen in many of these legends.
One of the first myths to be identified with an archaeological site was the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Many archaeologists believe that they have found the site of the mythical Labyrinth.
So where was the Minotaur’s Labyrinth?
One of the most famous legends from Greek mythology is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. It centered around the island of Crete and the Labyrinth built at its heart.
According to legend, the Minotaur was the monstrous, bull-headed son of King Minos’s wife. When the monster became violent and cannibalistic, King Minos had a prison built to contain it.
This was the Labyrinth, which was built beneath the palace of Knossos. The famous inventor and architect Daedalus was charged with building a series of dark tunnels that were so confusing that the Minotaur could never find its way out.
Daedalus was so successful that he nearly became trapped in the Minotaur’s Labyrinth himself while he was finishing the construction. The Minotaur was trapped inside and the people of Crete were protected.
The Minotaur still had to be fed, however, so Minos ordered that young men and women from Athens be sacrificed to it. The practice finally ended when Theseus, aided by Daedalus and Minos’s daughter Ariadne, killed the monster within its Labyrinth.
The legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, like many from mythology, was long assumed to be a work of fiction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, archaeologists began to learn that many of the Greek myths may have been inspired by history.
When the ruins of Troy were discovered, a new school of archaeology was born that directly connected ancient legends with real-world sites. Thus, when ruins of a pre-Greek civilization were found on Crete, their culture was called the Minoan after the legendary king.
The remains of the Minoan city surprised archaeologists. It was highly advanced for its time, including features like indoor toilet facilities, a complex drainage system, and large public spaces.
The palace and capital city, identified as Knossos based on the ancient legends, were far more complex and luxurious than anything else found in Europe from that era. While much of the continent was just entering the Bronze Age, Crete was clearly the center of a large and influential trade network and political structure.
When British explorer Arthur Evans began to uncover the site in 1900, he found a palace structure with over a thousand rooms and corridors. Well-acquainted with the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, Evans proposed that the size and complexity of Knossos had led to the legend.
Evans put forward the idea that the Minoan city, which had already been in ruins by the Classical Era of Greece, had seemed like an incomprehensible maze. The idea that the Minotaur had been trapped in such a Labyrinth grew from the inability of later Greeks to understand the sprawling structures at Knossos.
This idea remained popular for decades, but modern scholars aren’t so sure that the Labyrinth was all a misunderstanding.
Evans based his theory not only on the complexity of Knossos, but also on some of the art and artifacts that he found there.
The ruins on Crete are famously home to frescoes and other works of art that depict bulls. Most historians interpret these as showing religious rituals and celebrations.
Evans also found many images of a labrys, a double-headed axe that was traditionally a symbol of power. Although the exact relationship is unclear, linguists have long believed that the labrys was connected to the name of the Labyrinth.
Evans took these clues to create his story about the Labyrinth. As further excavations at Knossos revealed even more rooms and walls, the idea that the sprawling complex was mistaken for a maze became more and more plausible.
Some historians doubt that this theory is correct, however.
One issue with the idea is the way in which the legends of ancient Greece were sometimes treated by early archaeologists.
Arthur Evans and his peers had a tendency to immediately identify their most spectacular finds with ancient legends. This helped to increase their own fame by bringing popular attention to their finds.
At Troy, for example, a trove of gold goods was named Priam’s Horde. At Mycenae, a fine gold burial mask was called the Mask of Agamemnon even though there was no evidence to link it to the legendary king.
By identifying Knossos as the direct inspiration for the Labyrinth, Evans may have been following the same pattern. Although there was little evidence for his theory, linking the palace more closely to the myth of the Minotaur increased its public profile.
While the idea was certainly popular among the public, historians have noted that there is no more evidence for Evans’ theory than there is for the identification of Agamemnon’s mask.
Instead, many believe that the story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth may have its origins in a time before Knossos fell into ruin.
The story of the Minotaur usually says that the Labyrinth was built underneath the sprawling capital. This detail has led many archaeologists to look beneath the ancient ruins for answers.
Crete is home to several cave systems. These dark and twisting underground passages seem to fit the description of the Labyrinth.
While many natural caves on Crete have been explored, one site in particular has intrigued archaeologists in recent years. Near Gortyn, on the island’s southern shore, a series of tunnels might be a possible location for the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.
The caverns near Gortyn are accessible only through a very narrow crevice, but below ground they open up into a series of interlocking, tunnel-like spaces. In the dark, the many narrow spaces and the small entrance would make it difficult to find a way out.
Unlike the island’s other cave systems, Gortyn’s tunnels also appear to be at least partially man-made.
While much of the cavern system is natural, several walls and tunnels seem to have been smoothed by human action. Several chambers and the passages connecting them were enlarged by people who lived nearby.
The area around Gortyn has been occupied since the Neolithic, so it is likely that work was done on these caves long before the Greek era. Even in the Minoan era, these tunnels may have already been ancient.
Archaeological work continued at both the site of Gortyn and in the subterranean tunnels. Many historians now believe, however, that the seemingly man-made caves in southern Crete may be an inspiration for the Labyrinth that held the Minotaur.
The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the most well-known in Greek mythology. According to legend, the Minotaur was trapped in the Labyrinth, a dark maze built by Daedalus on the island of Crete.
The Minotaur’s Labyrinth was one of the most legendary places in Greek mythology, so people assumed it was an invention of ancient storytellers.
In the late 19th century, however, archaeological discoveries confirmed the existence of other legendary places. After cities like Troy and Mycenae were discovered, many legends seemed more likely to have traces of fact within them.
In 1900, a British explorer named Arthur Evans began to uncover a large city and advanced palace complex that he identified as the legendary Knossos. He named the culture that built it the Minoan after the mythical king of Crete, Minos.
The palace was a sprawling collection of buildings with over a thousand rooms. It was so complex that Evans believed it may have seemed like an incomprehensible maze to the first post-Minoan people who saw the ruins.
Evans suggested that this inspired the legend of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. This theory remained popular for over a hundred years.
Since the year 2000, though, historians have re-examined this idea. They looked at the island of Crete’s caves to find a source of the underground maze story.
One cave system in the south of Crete seems like a likely source for the story. Its structure was changed by people sometime in the pre-Greek past, possibly giving rise to the idea that the entire system had been built by a single architect.
Whether the Minotaur’s Labyrinth was inspired by the complex ruins of Knossos or a system of underground caverns with smooth walls, most historians believe that a real site on Crete was the source of the story. More evidence will be needed, however, before anyone can say for certain that they found the legendary Labyrinth.