Minotaur

The Minotaur is an ancient monster from Greek mythology that was part human and part bull or ox. Most sources describe the creature as having the body of a human male but the head of a bull. Other sources state it had the body of an ox and a human head.

Minos, the king of Crete, imprisoned the monster in a labyrinth under the palace at Knossos. The labyrinth was allegedly built by the famous Greek inventor Daedalus.

The legend stated that Poseidon, the god of the sea, sent Minos a snow-white bull, which was intended to be a sacrifice. Minos ruled over the majority of the Aegen Sea, and Poseidon believed the king should show him more respect because of this rule. However, Minos was quite taken with the bull’s beauty and decided not to kill it for Possedon but to integrate it into his herd. The king sacrificed another bull, hoping that Posidon would be appeased.

Poseidon was not fooled and punished Minos by having the king’s wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with the animal. Naturally, Minos forbade his wife from seeing the bull, but she found an ally in Daedalus, who created a wooden cow that Pasiphae could climb inside and essentially use to seduce the bull. The plan worked, and this ‘relationship’ resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. The creature’s proper name was Asterion, and Pasiphae attempted to nurture the monster and raise it like a son. Unfortunately, Asterion proved to be a savage beast, which led to Minos asking Daedalus to create the labyrinth as a prison.

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur

Sometime later, Androgeos, the son of Minos, was killed, and Minos blamed the people of Athens. The Cretan king demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven young women to Crete every nine years as sacrifices. Minos and Crete were the preeminent power in the Greek world at the time, so the Athenians were forced to bow to his demands. The Athenians were also encouraged by the oracles to do Minos’s bidding.

These Athenian sacrifices were flung into the labyrinth, where they met a grisly fate at the hands of the Minotaur. The agreement with Athens stipulated that these sacrifices must continue until the Minotaur’s death. This happened twice, with 28 young Athenians sent to this horrendous death.

However, when the third time arose for Athens to send another 14, Athenian hero Theseus volunteered to be sent to Crete in the guise of one of the sacrifices but with a plan to slay the beast. Thankfully, the Cretan princess, Ariadne, fell in love with him and agreed to help him kill the Minotaur. On Daedalus’s suggestion, Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of string to help him navigate the labyrinth, and with the help of his father’s sword, the young hero killed the Minotaur and broke the cycle of sacrifices. The young couple then fled the island together.

Historian Pseudo-Apollodorus, allegedly writing in the 2nd century BC, described how Theseus killed the Minotaur:

“Ariadne, daughter of Minos, being amorously disposed to him, offered to help him if he would agree to carry her away to Athens and have her to wife. Theseus having agreed on oath to do so, she besought Daedalus to disclose the way out of the labyrinth. And at his suggestion she gave Theseus a clue when he went in; Theseus fastened it to the door, and, drawing it after him, entered in. And having found the maze, till he found the Minotaur asleep in the inmost recess; then he was to catch the monster by the hair and sacrifice him to Poseidon; after which he was to retrace his steps, gathering up the thread behind him as he went.”

Minos did not spare Daedalus from punishment for his treachery; he was imprisoned with his son Icarus in the labyrinth. Daedalus later invented two pairs of wings so they could escape the island, but Icarus was famously killed after he flew too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings together melted.

In most versions of the story, the Minotaur is portrayed as a vicious, bloodthirsty monster, but some iterations do present it as a victim, imprisoned and lonely in the labyrinth.

The legend of the Minotaur and the labyrinth has endured for thousands of years

The legend of the Minotaur has since become an integral part of Greek culture. One theory suggests the story appeared shortly after Athens took over from Crete as the dominant power in the region.

It’s not clear exactly where the story of the Minotaur first appeared. Homer’s The Iliad, written circa the 8th century BC, mentioned Minos, Theseus, and Ariadne, but not the Minotaur or the labyrinth. Herodotus, generally known as the earliest historian, who lived in the 5th century BC, wrote about a labyrinth but placed it in Egypt in a city called Crocodilopolis. It was only later writers, such as the Roman Pliny the Elder, who placed a labyrinth at Knossos. 

The legend has been retold multiple times over the last thousand years, albeit with a few changes and variations. The Minotaur was referenced by some of ancient Greece and Rome’s most illustrious writers, such as Psuedo-Apollodorus, Plutarch, Pausanias, Ovid, Seneca, and Virgil. The Minotaur has also featured in art on pottery, mosaics, paintings, and numerous other items. In modern times, the Minotaur has appeared in TV shows, video games, and movies. In 2006, Hollywood released the Tom Hardy movie Minotaur.

Archaeologists and historians are still searching for the Knossos labyrinth

The palace and area surrounding Knossos were reportedly abandoned in the 8th century AD following an earthquake. Since the 15th century AD, various efforts have been made to locate the mythical labyrinth. This search has been complicated because many later Roman writers placed the labyrinth not at Knossos but in the nearby town of Gortyn. Gortyn might have been dismissed as Roman bias (Gortyn took over from Knossos as the seat of local power when the Romans arrived); however, when Florentine priest Cristoforo Buondelmonti visited the area in 1415, he found a series of underground passages which he declared to be the labyrinth.

Five hundred years later, in the 19th century, Captain Thomas Spratt stated his belief that Buondelmonti was correct that the underground caves at Gortyn may be the labyrinth. Spratt described the ancient quarry as “unquestionably a real labyrinth, such as the ancients understood by that term.”

In 1878, a local businessman named Minos Kalokairinos (no relation) found another possible candidate. He began digging on Kephala Hill, which lies to the south of both Knossos and Gortyn, where he uncovered the remains of a building with curious symbols carved on the walls. After assessing the age of the ruins, Kalokairinos declared this building the Temple of Knossos and assigned the labyrinth to a cave complex a short distance away. The debate still rages about where the labyrinth was built and whether or not it even existed.


References

Primary sources

Apollodorus. “The Library,” This version published 1921 and trans by James George Frazer. Pub.: W. Heinemann, accessed May 15, 2024.

Homer. “The Iliad,” This version published 1876 and trans by William Lucas Collins. Pub.: J.B. Lippincott Company, accessed May 15, 2024.

Pausanias. “Description of Greece,” Attica, chapter 27. trans by Perseus Digital Library – Tufts University, accessed May 15, 2024.

Secondary sources

Ashmolean Museum, “Myths of the Labyrinth,” accessed May 10, 2024.

Britannica, “Minotaur,” accessed May 14, 2024.

Eureka Courses, “The Myth of Minotaur,” accessed May 10, 2024.

Knossos Palace, “The importance of Minotaur legend for the global civilization,” accessed May 10, 2024.

National Geographic, “The Minotaur legend in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome,” accessed May 10, 2024.

Theoi Greek Mythology, “Minotaurus,” accessed May 14, 2024.

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