In Greek mythology, the island of Crete is represented by its most famous king. While the genealogies and succession of kings plays a major role in the stories of other regions, Cretan myths nearly always feature the same character.
Part of the legend of King Minos, however, was that he had to fight his brothers for control of the island. Europa and Zeus had three sons who could have claimed the throne of Crete, but in the end it was Minos who won out.
One of his exiled brothers was Rhadamanthus, whose popularity was said to be a threat to Minos. While some writers claimed that he went on to become the stepfather of a famous hero, Rhadamanthus largely disappears from mythology for the rest of his life.
After his death, however, he became a much more prominent figure. As one of the judges of the Underworld, Rhadamanthus was noted as a figure of justice and a wise leader.
So what qualified Europa’s son to be one of the most powerful figures in the Underworld? The depth of Rhadamanthus’s legend might be much more complex than the myths would seem!
When Zeus abducted the Phoenician princess Europa and took her to Crete, he began the island’s long involvement in the mythology of Greece.
Europa gave birth to three of the god’s sons. When her affair with Zeus ended, she married the Cretan king Asterius.
Asterius raised Europa’s sons as if they were his own. Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon grew up as princes of Crete.
Because Asterius and Europa had no sons of their own, one of her children with Zeus would inherit the island’s throne after the king’s death. Asterius did not specify which of the brothers would be his heir, however.
Many people assumed that Rhadamanthus would take the throne after his stepfather’s death. His wisdom and judgement had made him the popular choice among the residents of Crete.
Greek writers mentioned a few of the laws passed by Rhadamanthus during his time on Crete, although few accounts exist of his early life overall.
One mentioned that he insisted that people swear oaths on animals. Another, more long-lasting, law passed by Rhadamanthus was that a person should not be liable for actions taken in self-defense if the other party committed violence first.
When Asterius died, however, it was not the legal-minded Rhadamanthus that took the throne. After a quarrel between the brothers, Minos seized power.
His first action as king was to banish his brothers from Crete. Minos was distrustful of them and thought that Rhadamanthus in particular was likely to rebel.
Rhadamanthus was popular enough that such a rebellion would probably have significant support. Minos hoped that by exiling his brothers, his hold on power would be more secure.
Some accounts said that Rhadamanthus took control of smaller Aegean islands and ruled them well. In this version of his story he was married to Minos’s daughter Ariadne; a younger relative by the same name eventually helped Theseus kill the Minotaur.
Another story, however, said that Rhadamanthus eventually settled in Boeotia. There he met Alcmene, who by that point in her life was a widow, and married her. Minos’s brother became the stepfather of Hercules.
While this was the extent of his role in early myths, later legends made Rhadamanthus a much more important figure in the afterlife.
Convinced that the structure of the Underworld was unjust, Zeus set about making reforms to the realm. One of these was to establish judges who would determine the fate of each person’s soul based on their behavior and actions in life.
Zeus could not choose a god to judge the dead because a person should be judged by their equals. He could not assign a common mortal to the position, however, because they were too fallible and corruptible.
The solution was for Zeus to appoint some of his own children as judges. Their status as demi-gods gave them a balance between humanity and divinity that would allow them to make just and fair decisions.
It was decided that three judges should be appointed. King Aeacus of Aegina would judge the people of the West while Rhadamanthus judged those from the East. In case the judges could not come to a decision, Minos would cast the deciding vote.
Many writers placed Rhadamanthus in the Isles of the Blessed when he was not working as the judge of the dead.
Pindar said that Rhadamanthus became the chief advisor of Cronus after the Titans were released from Tartarus. Cronus became the ruler of Elysium, while Rhadamanthus ensured that his reign was lawful.
Lucian left Cronus out of his account, instead saying that Rhadamanthus himself was the chief of the heroes in the afterlife.
Although he was a minor character in the story of Minos and Crete, Rhadamanthus grew to be respected as a judge and leader in the Underworld.
In the story of Minos, Rhadamanthus played a relatively minor role. In the Underworld, however, he became one of the most important figures there.
The contrast between the two portrayals of Rhadamanthus may be evidence that his original role was much broader than it became in later myths.
The children of the gods often displayed an aptitude for their divine parents’ domains. Ares’ daughters were the fearsome Amazon warriors, Apollo’s son Asclepius became a physician, and Erichthonius was as inventive as Hephaestus.
As a son of Zeus, Rhadamanthus inherited his father’s dedication to law. Zeus chose him as a judge specifically because he was incorruptible in his beliefs regarding justice and morality.
This explanation for his elevated status in the Underworld does not fully explain his role there, however. There is little evidence given elsewhere for his lawful nature and Minos was appointed as a judge despite being vilified in most Greek myths.
Historians believe, however, that many elements of Greek mythology were influenced by earlier history. Could Rhadamanthus have been an historical figure?
If so, the first mystery to unravel for historians would be where Rhadamanthus’s story originated. His myths link him to three regions – Crete, Central Greece, and Asia.
If Rhadamanthus was based on a real figure, it was likely a ruler from either Crete or Phoenicia, where Europa was born. Both of these cultures influenced the development of Mycenaean Greece and were incorporated into its mythology.
Crete is often portrayed negatively in Greek mythology, likely because of historical conflicts between the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Cretan society is personified by Minos, a petty and violent king.
The stories of Rhadamanthus as a just and wise ruler could have originated with a Minoan king. The legend of a virtuous king may have been minimized as part of the vilification of Minoan culture in Greek mythology.
It is also possible that Rhadamanthus was based on a person from the East, likely Phoenicia or Asia Minor. He was given rule over this region in the Underworld.
The surviving mythology of Rhadamanthus also divides his influence in life between Asia and Crete. While he was said to have settled in or near Greece after his exile, his two sons were believed to have founded cities on the island of Crete and in Asia Minor.
While Phoenician culture is known to have greatly influenced both Crete and mainland Greece, very few Phoenician characters are named in Greek mythology. Europa is one of the most prominent of them.
If Rhadamanthus was based on a Phoenician ruler, he may have been reimagined as a Cretan leader because of Europa’s origins. His connection to Asia was maintained, however, in his Underworld role and the identity of his son.
Like Heracles, Rhadamanthus may have been a semi-legendary character from another culture who was written into Greek mythology as a son of Zeus. If he was known for his dedication to law, descent from the king of the gods would justify his seemingly inhuman legal acumen.
In early mythology, there may have been more stories of Rhadamanthus as a lawmaker that have since been lost. While the decision to place him as a judge of the dead may seem arbitrary, it could be based on long-standing traditions that predate Greek culture entirely.
Rhadamanthus was one of the three sons of Europa and Zeus. He and his brothers were raised as princes of Crete by their stepfather, the island’s king.
A few surviving examples in mythology claim that Rhadamanths was a well-loved lawmaker. His rules and reforms made him popular among the people.
When his brother Minos seized power after King Asterius’s death, this popular appeal made Rhadamanthus a threat to his rule. Minos exiled both of his brothers.
Rhadamanthus settled in Greece. According to some accounts, he married Alcmene and became the stepfather of Heracles.
After death, the exiled Cretan became a more prominent figure. He was chosen, along with Minos, as one of the three judges of the dead in the Underworld.
Writers portrayed Rhadamanthus as not only a judge in the realm of Hades, but also as one of its rulers. In the Isles of the Blessed, he was generally considered to be one of the leaders of the many demi-gods and heroes who were sent there.
The difference between the two portrayals of Rhadamanthus, one as a very minor figure and the other as a king and legal official, may indicate that some part of his story has been lost. It is possible that Rhadamanthus was based, at least in part, on an historical figure whose legend was largely forgotten by the Classical Era.