Many stories of King Minos and the island of Crete involve bulls. Perhaps the most terrible of these is the story of Queen Pasiphae’s terrible curse.
When Minos attempted to keep the Cretan Bull for himself rather than sacrifice it to Poseidon, the god of the sea sent a series of curses to punish him.
One of these was to make Pasiphae, the king’s wife, fall in love with the very beast he had tried to lay claim to.
Pasiphae’s love for the Cretan Bull is one of the more disturbing scenes in the mythology of Crete, and led to the creation of the island’s most infamous monster.
The Cretan queen’s curse was probably designed to be grotesque. Historical grudges inspired the people of Athens to depict Crete and its ruler in the worst possible way, including accusing the queen of an unnatural love.
The curse of King Minos and his wife begins with the abduction of Europa.
Zeus had taken the form of a gentle white bull to gain the trust of the innocent Phoenician princess. When she trusted him enough to climb onto his back, he lept into the sea and swam to the island of Crete with the princess.
Zeus made Europa his mistress. They would have three sons together before he married her to Asterion, the ruler of the island.
Asterion and Europa had no other children, so the king raised Zeus’s sons as his own. When he died, he left his kingdom to his wife’s eldest child, Minos.
Minos and his brothers argued over the succession, however. After a brief conflict, Minos was victorious and expelled his brothers from his kingdom.
Because of his disputed claim to the throne, however, Minos asked for a sign of the gods’ favor. He prayed to Poseidon to send a white bull to show that Minos had his approval.
In exchange for favoring his rule, Minos promised to offer the bull as a sacrifice back to the god.
Poseidon was pleased with this and sent the Cretan Bull to display his approval of Minos and his rule. The animal was beautiful, regal, and docile.
Minos grew greedy and wanted to keep Poseidon’s gift. He instead sacrificed an ordinary bull, believing that the god would accept a lesser substitute and allow him to keep his extraordinary gift.
Minos was wrong, however. Poseidon was furious that a mortal king would show such disrespect and break a vow to a god.
Poseidon punished Minos harshly for the offense.
First, he turned the Cretan Bull from docile creature to a raving beast. The bull went completely wild, rampaging around the island and leaving destruction everywhere it went.
The sea god then went a step farther. He asked Eros to make Pasiphae, Minos’s wife, to fall in love with the now-wild bull.
With a shot from Eros’s bow, the queen fell desperately in love with the animal. She was wholly consumed by this unnatural attraction.
Pasiphae commanded Daedalus, the great inventor in service to Minos, to construct a wooden cow. Hiding inside, she was able to lure the Cretan Bull close to herself.
The result of Pasiphae’s curse was the birth of the Minotaur. The half-bull, half-human monster was a voracious cannibal who soon began to threaten the people of the capital city, Knossos.
To contain the beast, Minos had Daedalus build the Labyrinth. The maze-like underground prison was designed to make sure that the Minotaur could not find its way out.
The creature still terrorized the people of Knossos, however. When it grew hungry it roared and bellowed with such fury that it shook the ground beneath the city.
Minos found a solution in the recently conquered city of Athens. He demanded that young men and women be sent to Crete, fourteen at a time, as sacrifices to the terrible monster.
In time, the curses of Minos were removed from his kingdom. Hercules captured the Cretan Bull and took it to the mainland, where it was eventually killed by Theseus near Marathon.
Finally, Theseus would come to Knossos and defeat the Minotaur, killing it in the dark tunnels of the Labyrinth. The final curse of Minos would be that his daughter, Ariadne, would betray him to help Theseus, only to be abandoned by the hero as he traveled back to Greece.
Pasiphae’s cursed love for the Cretan Bull is just one of the many stories set on that island that involves bulls.
It is widely believed that the Bronze Age civilization of ancient Crete venerated a bull god among their deities. While their texts have not been decoded, art from ancient Crete prominently features white and spotted bulls.
The bull god, who may have been their chief deity Velchanus, was not directly incorporated into the mythology of mainland Greece. The importance of bulls on the island of Crete, however, remained.
A few stories, like the abduction of Europa, were attributed to Zeus. Most Creten legends, however, were changed into tales that cast the island as a barbaric land with corrupt and cruel rulers.
To the Mycenaeans, however, the bull cult of Crete was part of a threatening and domineering culture. As shown in the story of Theseus, the mainland had been under the control of the island nation at one time.
The culture of Crete, called the Minoan after the legendary king, was culturally and economically dominant through much of the Bronze Age. While it is unclear whether their influence was expanded by military conquest, the legend of Theseus suggests that this may have been the case.
With the Minoans seen as oppressors, the culture of Crete was often vilified in Athenian legends. While stories of King Minos were usually more favorable on Crete itself, most mainland Greeks viewed him as a cruel and impious ruler.
The imagery of Crete was made monstrous and barbaric in later Greek tradition. The role of Pasiphae is one example of the way in which the Minoans were vilified by Greek culture.
Even though the actions of Pasiphae were caused by the influence of the gods, they were almost unbelievably grotesque. The conception and birth of the Minotaur was an unnatural and disgusting addition to the story of King Minos.
This is, however, by design. It is almost certain that a similar myth did not exist in ancient Crete, but was instead created to further vilify the island and its leaders.
The image of a woman mating with a bull may have been inspired by the Minoan custom of bull jumping and ridings. Many surviving frescos and votive sculptures from Bronze Age Crete show both men and women leaping over large bulls in what was probably a religious ritual.
This image was intentionally distorted by the Mycenaean Greeks after they were free of Minoan rule. A previously innocuous aspect of Minoan religion was changed into a grotesque act that created a monster.
The curses laid on Crete, including that of Pasiphae, were also caused by the greed and impiety of its king. The entirely of Minoan culture was tainted by the fact that their rulers were, in the view of the people of Athens at least, tyrannical and dishonest.
King Minos of Crete sought a sign from Poseidon to show that the gods favored his rule. The sea god obliged and sent a white bull to prove the legitimacy of Minos’s rule.
The gift soon turned into a curse, however, when Minos broke his promise to the god and tried to keep the animal instead of sacrificing it to the gods.
Poseidon first made the Cretan Bull a wild and destructive beast instead of a docile gift. He then inflicted an even worse curse on the king’s wife.
He made Pasiphae fall madly in love with the animal. She was desperate enough that she had a wooden cow constructed to attract the bull’s attention.
As a result, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur. Her monstrous child would prove to be an additional curse in its own right.
The story of Pasiphae and the Cretan Bull is one of many set on the island that incorporates the imagery of the white bull. It is almost certain, however, that it was not a Cretan tale.
Instead, the curse of Pasiphae seems to be part of an intentional effort by Athenian mythographers to vilify the rulers and religion of Crete. Having once been conquered by the Minoan culture, Athenian myths systematically showed the island as a corrupt and barbaric kingdom.
Pasiphae may have been inspired by images of bull jumping in Minoan art, probably representations of a religious ritual. In Athens, however, the bull cult of Crete was transformed into one that made human sacrifices to a monster and the leaping women of Minoan frescos became participants in an obscene and unnatural affair.