Of the many fantastical creatures and great beasts that inhabit the world of ancient Greek Mythology, few capture our imagination as vividly as the Minotaur. Read on to learn everything about the Minotaur Myth and why until this day it remains as one of the most prominent stories told.
The role of the Minotaur in the Greek Mythology
This hybrid of human and bull – generally depicted as a powerful man’s body with the head of a bull – was said to dwell deep within a labyrinth in the Minoan Palace of Knossos.
This labyrinth was constructed to hide him. He was a voracious creature, much feared. But he was also the offspring of Cretan royalty, so the palace was his home.
The Legend of the Minotaur: The Bull in the Mythology of Crete
The fact that the Minotaur was half bull was extremely significant. Bulls played an important role in the mythology of Crete. These magnificent beasts were a powerful symbol, thought to be the representatives of an earth god, power, and light.
One of the most famous of the images of the Minoan Palace of Knossos is the fresco of the “Bull Jumper”. The original of the fresco is now in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. The fresco depicts an enormous bull. On the left, a male figure seizes its horns (possibly the origin of our expression of today – “to grab a bull by the horns”). Another figure is captured mid-jump, hands down on the bull, like a gymnast. A third figure stands ready to catch him, arms outstretched.
Bull-leaping was not only a legendary test of bravery. It was also a significant ritual in the religion of the Minoans, where the bull – as in many ancient societies – was revered. In addition to the famous fresco, there were also other representations of bull-leaping found in the excavation of the Palace of Knossos.
Who are the Parents of the Minotaur?
How did such a creature come to be? As one might guess, the half man/half bull creature was conceived from a union of human and beast.
Some of the story is already in the creature’s name. The Minotaur’s name and his identity are closely linked. You’ll also notice a link to the word “Minoan”. Both of these words derive from “Minos” – Minos was one of the three sons of Zeus and Europa. The other two were Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus. Zeus, in the form of a bull, abducted the Phoenician princess Europa, and conceived Minos.
Europa was brought to Crete and there married Aseterion, King of Crete. He raised these three stepsons as his own. Upon Aseterion’s death, one would ascend the throne. Minos sought advantage over his brothers (Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus) by divine intervention. He made a sacrifice to the god Poseidon, and in doing so asked that a bull appear from the sea, which he promised in turn to also sacrifice to Poseidon. A magnificent white bull then emerged from the sea.
All was going well for Minos. The appearance of the white bull was indisputable proof of the favor of the gods, and the throne of Crete was his. If only he had then kept his promise to Poseidon. But he did not; the bull was too glorious. He kept the white bull for himself, and sacrificed another bull in its place.
Poseidon, of course, discovered the deception, and was angered. His revenge was inventive. He did nothing to Minos, and nothing to the bull. What he did, was to ask a favor of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. He wanted her to cause Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, to fall madly in love with the creature, which she did.
Here enters another famous figure of mythology: Daedalus, known perhaps best from the myth of Icarus. Pasiphae persuaded this brilliant architect of the mythological world to construct a cow – covered with real cow hyde – that was believable enough to tempt the white bull. The plan succeeded; Pasiphae climbed inside, and so was able to consummate her strange passion.
The Minotaur was the result of this union. And now we visit the second part of his name – ‘taur’ derives from the word for bull, as in the astrological sign “taurus”. The Minotaur is the Bull of Minos. This however was not the name his mother gave him. She called him Asterion, after the stepfather of King Minos. And in this name, too, we see a connection to astrology, as “asteri” is the Greek word for star.
What is the Minotaur Famous for?
The Minotaur began life peacefully enough, but as he left his infancy he became ferocious. King Minos sought the advice of an Oracle, and determined that he must be hidden, for two reasons. One was his monstrous diet – he fed on humans. The other reason was of course to hide the shame of Pasiphae’s unnatural passion.
The Minotaur in books and movies
Naturally, such a strange story and above all such a beast has long captured the human imagination. The Minotaur often is used to express the bestial longings of man, and therefore is a powerful allegorical figure. There are many references to the Minotaur in popular culture throughout the centuries, and into the present time.
He appears in Dante’s Inferno of the 14th century. Here, the Minotaur is guarding the seventh circle of hell, the circle for those of violent natures. An illustration by William Blake of a later period depicts the minotaur with the head and torso of a man and the body of a bull, much more like a centaur.
This is by no means the only such depiction. A famous painting by the 19th-century painter George Frederick Watts shows the Minotaur in a tower, looking out to sea and watching for the ship that will bring him his gruesome feast of innocent victims. In this era, the Minotaur’s bestial nature was also used as an allegory for male lust. The painting was created in the context of the social purity crusades happening at the time, and specifically of campaigns against child prostitution.
It is not at all surprising that this fantastical beast mesmerized the surrealists. Man Ray’s surrealist photo of 1934 leaves the beast’s terrifying head to the shadows of our imagination.
For the Surrealists, too, the depiction of the Minotaur embodied social and political ideas. Most notably, there was a publication called Minotaure in Paris in the 1930’s. For the founders the artist Andre Masson and the writer Georges Bataille, the Minotaur conjured their feelings about the violence of the age. The publication was first launched on the eve of the civil war in Spain, and continued until the eve of WWII.
Picasso became fascinated with the minotaur, representing not only the latent bestiality in men, but also the sexual energy. Here too though, the mounting political tensions of the 1930s were a subtext. Minotaur Ravishing a Female Centaur is one of the more famous of these works.
The Minotaur has also inspired films. A 1960 Italian Film called “The Wild Beast of Crete” relates the journey of Thiseus and his legendary encounter with the Minotaur. More popularly, the Minotaur appears in both the books and film adaptations of the Percy Jackson series, with a particularly thrilling sequence in “The Lightning Thief”.
Not least, the Minotaur also features in fantasy games. The classic “Dungeons and Dragons” has Minotaurs. And “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey” – a game that derives much from mythology and ancient history – includes a mission to kill the Minotaur in the labyrinth at Knossos.
When in Crete, it is fascinating to visit the mythological dwelling place of this most famous of the beasts of the Ancient Greek world. The labyrinth of the Minotaur was said to be hidden in the Palace of Knossos, which is a fantastic destination where history and fantasy mingle.