In Greek art and literature, the Minotaur was a hybrid creature. Half bull and half man, writers were typically vague in their descriptions of the beast.
Artists, however, tended to depict the Minotaur in a very standardized way. While written sources don’t say which parts of the monster were bovine, artists agreed that it had a man’s body with a bull’s head and tail.
Compared to other monsters like the Chimera or Medusa, the vaguely-described Minotaur had a remarkably consistent depiction in art. This may be because the creature’s image was ingrained in the Greek cultural consciousness long before the story of the Minotaur was written down.
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was the unnatural offspring of the human queen of Crete, Pasiphae, and the Cretan Bull.
Poseidon had sent the bull to Minos as a sign of his favor. When Minos tried to keep the animal instead of giving it back to the god as a sacrifice, however, Poseidon took revenge on him for the insult.
First he made the Cretan Bull wild and destructive. Then he made Queen Pasiphae fall desperately in love with the beast.
To get close to the bull, Pasiphae ordered the inventor Daedalus to construct a wooden cow that she could hide in. She had the false cow placed in a field that the Cretan Bull frequented as she waited inside.
The result of Pasiphae’s bestial love was a monster. It was commonly called the Minotaur, or “bull of Minos.”
In early Greek writing, the exact appearance of the Minotaur was not specified. It was simply called a composite or hybrid creature with no specification of how its body was formed.
The image of the monster being human but with a bull’s head was only included in later writings. Artists, however, made the monster’s depiction standardized at a much earlier date.
The Minotaur had the body of a man, always shown in the nude. Generally, he was larger and more muscular than a common man.
Sometimes the Minotaur’s body was covered in dark hair, but most often it was unremarkable aside from its heavy muscles.
Its head, however, was that of a bull. Sometimes this was in proportion to its human features, but often it was true-to-size and thus overly large for the body it sat upon.
The Minotaur also had a bull’s tail. While this detail does not seem to have been standard in written descriptions, it was usually included in the monster’s portrayal in art.
It is widely believed that both the Minotaur and its father, the Cretan Bull, have their origins in pre-Greek culture.
The Bronze Age culture of Crete, the Minoans, were the superpower of their day. When the Greek-speaking Myceneans were only just beginning to found their city-states on the mainland, the Minoan capital at Knossos multi-story buildings, conveniences such as indoor plumbing, and a population of at least 10,000.
The Minoan culture dominated the region, and it seems likely that at least some mainland Greek cities were conquered and made client states of the powerful Cretan kings. In later Greek mythology, this antagonism is still sometimes seen in the often negative depictions of Crete and its legendary king, Minos.
While the writing system of the Minoans has never been translated, at least some of their beliefs can be surmised through the art and artifacts they left behind. Based on both archaeology and the clues provided in Greek mythology, it is thought that bulls played a central role in the island culture’s religion.
Some historians have suggested that stories like Europa’s abduction and the Cretan Bull were influenced by the Minoan bull cult’s legends, but the Minotaur may have been based on the Greek view of its practices.
In the story of the Minotaur, young men and women from conquered Athens are sent to Knossos to be sacrificed to the cannibalistic monster. Historians believe that this may be, at least in part, influenced by history.
During the Minoan period, young people from the mainland may have been sent to Crete for a variety of reasons. While the story implies human sacrifice, they also could have been put into service or held as hostages to ensure the cooperation of their families.
It is thought that the priests of the Cretan bull cult may have, as was common in ancient religions, worn masks or headdresses to reflect the god they served. This could be the origin of the bull-headed man of mythology.
Similar images are known from Bronze Age cultures around the region. Figures with animal masks or horns are found in art not only from Crete, but from the lands it controlled as well.
When the Mycenaean Greeks took control of the region, they had already been largely influenced by Minoan religion. Some of the gods and practices of Crete were incorporated into the Greek pantheon, while others took on a negative role.
The abduction of Europa was thus included in the mythology, but the identity of the bull god was changed to be Zeus. The later bulls of Crete were recast as monsters.
The Minotaur may have once been based on the men who served Crete’s highest god. To the Greeks, however, those priests were monstrous figures who represented the oppression of Minoan rule.
The Minotaur was the monstrous offspring of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, and the Cretan Bull. It was described in ancient literature as being an unnatural composite of human and bull characteristics.
While the literary sources are vague, artists tended to agree on the exact imagery of the Minotaur. Almost without exception, it was shown as having a heavily-muscled human body with the head and tail of a bull.
Compared to many other monsters and hybrid creatures in mythology, the imagery of the Minotaur is consistent in Greek art. This may be because it was inspired by real-life imagery.
The Minoan culture of Bronze Age Crete is largely believed to have worshipped a bull god as one of their principal deities. Both art and reconstructed mythology support the idea that bulls played a central role in Minoan religion.
When the culture controlled the Eastern Mediterranean region, it is possible that the Greeks were forced to send children to be of service to the bull god. Whether this was as slaves, hostages, or human sacrifices cannot be determined.
In Bronze Age cultures, priests often wore masks or headpieces in the image of the god they served. The bull-headed monster of later Greek mythology may have been inspired by the masked priests of the bull god who caused terror to early Mycenaean Greek captives.