The Minotaur Myth: A Tragic Tale

The Minotaur is a creature from ancient Greek mythology. According to the records, it was a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. The Minotaur was born as a result of a curse on King Minos of Crete.

The story of the Minotaur revolves around the Labyrinth, a vast and intricate maze constructed by the skilled craftsman Daedalus on the orders of King Minos. The Minotaur was placed inside the Labyrinth because it was a dangerous and uncontrollable creature, feeding on human flesh.

The most popular story about Minotaur is that one involving the Minotaur and Theseus and has inspired various works of literature, art, and film.

Who, or What, Was the Minotaur?

The Minotaur, child of the Queen of Crete and a God-created animal, was part bull, and part man. It was doomed to wander the Labyrinth of Minos and would feed on Athenian children.

Although the name Asterion is sometimes given to the Minotaur, it would make for a confusing moniker. In other myths, Asterion (or Asterius) has been a name given to a child of Minos, a Grandchild of Minos (and son of Zeus), a Giant, and one of the Argonauts. Asterion is said to be another King of Crete, and in another telling, a god of rivers.

READ MORE: Jason and the Argonauts: The Myth of the Golden Fleece

However, no other name is ever given to the Minotaur, so many storytellers give him this one. After all, it is quite Cretan.

What is the Etymology of “Minotaur”?

The origin of the word “Minotaur” is quite unsurprising. “Taur” is the ancient Greek word for bull, and the originator of the astrological “Taurus,” while “Mino” is simply the shortening of “Minos.” “Mino-taur” is, quite simply, “The Bull of Minos.”

While this etymology may sound simple at first, it is worth noting that it means ancient Greeks emphasized the bull belonging to King Minos, rather than its origin in Poseidon or its placing in Crete. Is it because Minos was the character most affected by the existence of such a creature, or is this an indication of just how important the Cretan King was to Greek history? It is difficult to know.

Who Was the Mother of the Minotaur?

The mother of the Minotaur was Queen Pasiphae, the Greek goddess, and wife of King Minos of Crete. She has been charmed into cheating on her husband and gave birth to the creature as a result of this infidelity. It is because she was the queen of Crete that her son was sometimes called the Cretean (or Kretean) Minotaur.

Pasiphae was the daughter of Helios, the Greek sun god. Queen Pasiphae was immortal and, despite being charmed by Poseidon’s Bull, had her own powers as well. In one Greek myth, she discovered her husband cheating and cursed him so that he would “ejaculate snakes, scorpions, and millipedes, killing the women with whom he had intercourse.”

Was King Minos the Father of the Minotaur?

While the Minotaur was literally “The Bull of Minos,” the real father of the creature was the Cretan Bull, a mythological creature created by the sea god Poseidon. Poseidon sent the bull originally for Minos to sacrifice and prove his worthiness as King. When Minos instead sacrificed an ordinary bull, Poseidon cursed Pasiphae to lust after it instead.

What Was the Cretan Bull?

The Cretan Bull was a beautiful, white bovine of great significance, having been created by a god. According to one myth, it was this bull that carried Europa for Zeus. As part of his twelve labors, Heracles (Hercules) captured the bull and presented it to Eurystheus. However, before this occurred, Pasiphae was to become cursed to lust after it.

Obsessed with the bull, Pasiphae had the inventor Daedalus construct a hollow wooden cow that she could hide in to have sex with the bull. In Greek mythology, sleeping with mythological animals (or gods pretending to be animals) was quite common but always disastrous. In this case, it led to the Minotaur’s birth.

How is the Minotaur Described?

For a creature so often referred to in myths, the descriptions offered are quite general and vague. The Minotaur was most frequently represented by the body of a man and a bull’s head. In some cases, only the face was that of a bull. According to the Greek mythology recorded by Diodorus Siculus, the creature was described as having “the upper parts of the body as far as the shoulders being those of a bull and the remaining parts those of a man.” 

In modern representations of the Minotaur, the human part of the creature is larger than an ordinary man, and quite muscular, while the bullhead includes large horns. Pablo Picasso, who created many sketches of the mythological tragedy, shows the Minotaur with many different versions of the bullhead, while his work Wounded Minotaur includes a tail on the poor character.

Today, many computer games which use liberal references to European mythologies include “minotaurs” as enemies. These include the Assassin Creed series, Hades, and Age of Mythology.

Dante, in his famous epic The Inferno, described the Minotaur as “the infamy of Crete” and filled with such rage that it bites itself when seeing the adventurers. Dante finds the creature at the gates of Hell proper, between those not worthy of heaven and those to be punished.

What Happened to the Minotaur?

Minos was enraged at his wife and what she had done with the Cretan Bull. Ashamed of the resulting “monster,” Minos worried about his reputation. Despite returning victorious from conquering many nations, he could never get over the insults thrown at him.

“I do not wonder that Pasiphae preferred the bull to you,” says the scorned Scylla after being refused safe passage after helping Minos win his latest battle. If such insults from his enemies became the common rumors of his people, Minos would lose respect and power. That would not do. So he came up with a plan.

King Minos demanded that the famous Greek inventor Daedalus (who was seeking refuge in Crete at the time) would build a large labyrinth in which the Minotaur would be trapped. After all, it was Daedalus who built the wooden cow, and the King could always revoke his protection.

Daedalus put a lot of work into building a maze no one had ever experienced before. Those who did not know how the Labyrinth would work could never find a way to leave. Thus, the walls would keep the Minotaur surrounded and safe, the people would feel free from its grasp, and Minos’ reputation was secure. The maze would be at times called “The Minotaur’s Labyrinth,” “The Labyrinth of Minos” or simply, “The Labyrinth.”

Little is said about how the Minotaur was treated, but it can be assumed it wasn’t well. The people of Crete knew him only as a monster, captured by King Minos, and the Queen told no one what she had done. We don’t know if anyone talked to the Minotaur, or what it was fed, but it is safe to assume that, with no other option, it turned into the monster everyone thought it would be. As a punishment, Minos ordered Athens to send a group of seven young men and seven maidens, who he forced into the Labyrinth. There the Minotaur would hunt them down, kill them, and eat them.

What is the Minotaur’s Labyrinth?

The Labyrinth of the Minotaur was a large structure built as a prison for the creature, filled with passages that would wind back on themselves, “vague windings,” and “mazey wanderings that deceived the eyes.”

The design of the maze was so complex that Ovid writes Daedalus, “the architect, hardly could retrace his steps.” Pseudo-Apollodorus wrote of the Labyrinth, “that with its tangled windings perplexed the outward way.” It was impossible to tell if you were going further towards the exit, or deeper into its depths.

What is the Difference between a Maze and a Labyrinth?

Many modern texts insist on calling the Minotaur’s Labyrinth a maze, saying the name “Labyrinth” is not correct. This is because some English horticulturalists decided that a labyrinth has only one path, in which you cannot get lost.

Who Killed the Minotaur?

The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus, the Greek adventurer and eventual founder of “modern” Athens. Theseus, to prove his birthright as king, had to travel through the underworld, and underwent six “labors” (somewhat similar to those of Heracles). Upon finally arriving in Athens, he found himself against Medea, the King’s consort, and Minos’ threat against Athens to provide “seven Athenian youths of each sex” to feed his beast. If he was to take the crown from the weak King Aegeus, he would have to deal with them all.

It was for this reason that the Athenian hero Theseus went to see the Minotaur.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus, upon hearing that King Minos ordered Athens to send children to their deaths, took the place of one of the children. With the help of Minos’ own daughter, Princess Ariadne, he was able to find a way to beat the Minotaur.

The night before he was to be forced into the maze, Ariadne came to Theseus and offered him a spool of thread and a sword. “Take these,” she said. From the moment Theseus had set on Cretan shores, Ariadne had become entranced by him. She was not charmed like her mother was, simply in love.

On the day the Minotaur was to be given his human sacrifices, Theseus told the children with him to not be afraid but to stay near the door. To wander further in would surely end in them being lost.

Theseus gave one of them the end of the string and let it follow behind him as he dove into the crooked Labyrinth. By following the thread back whenever he reached a dead end, he was able to ensure he never double-backed too far and had an easy way to return.

READ MORE: Theseus and the Minotaur: Fearsome Fight or Sad Slaughter?

How Was the Minotaur Killed?

For an adventurer that was experienced in fighting, Theseus knew he would win easily. In Heroides, Ovid states that he broke the Minotaur’s “bones with his three-knotted club, [and] he scattered them over the soil.” He did not need Ariadne’s sword after all. Perhaps the people of Crete could hear the cruel bellowing of the creature’s death. Perhaps some were glad to be rid of it. No one records if Queen Pasiphae was happy or sad about the death of her child.

Theseus killing the Minotaur was to begin the downfall of Minos. Daedalus escaped with his son, Icarus, while Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, went off with Theseus. Soon, the Athenians drew stronger, and Crete eventually fell to Greek hands.

Does the Minotaur’s Labyrinth Exist?

While the Minotaur’s Labyrinth may exist, no archeologist has yet to find conclusive evidence or evidence of the Minotaur itself. It may be a palace, a series of caves, or lost forever. The Minos Palace does exist and is under constant excavation. Each year, new discoveries are made. The Labyrinth may yet be found.

One of the most popular theories is that the palace of Minos is the remains of the Labyrinth, repurposed after Theseus slew the Minotaur. Texts like The Iliad, and letters from around the Middle Ages agreed with this idea, and archeologists have discovered that the palace was rebuilt multiple times.

Other theories are that the Labyrinth was entirely underground, or that no such historical Labyrinth existed. Ancient historians are curious, however – with how popular the story was, could it be that there was once a maze so intricate you could get lost forever? Many researchers have attempted to find a historical explanation for the Minotaur myth, and how it connects to the end of Crete’s dominance over the Mediterranean. So far, few have come to an agreement.

Are There Other Mythological Creatures like the Minotaur?

The Minotaur is quite a unique creature. Other deities and creatures have been presented as having elements of the animal, including the ancient Greek Satyrs, the Irish Faeries, and Christian Demons. However, very few have two distinct parts the same way as the Minotaur. The Lamassu, ancient Assyrian figures who protect those in prayer have been around for millennia and influenced mythology around the world. It may well be they influenced the part man part bull that is better known than the Minotaur himself, the Sphinx.

The Lamassu of Assyria

The Lama was an Assyrian goddess who protected her followers from harm as they presented their pleas to other deities. Lamassu (or Shedu if male) were figures that represented the goddess’s powers and it was believed that having such a figure would offer protection on earth.

Because of this, the Lamassu has been found in motifs, carved as statues, and painted on urns from ancient Assyria. The Lamassu appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh and are believed to have inspired many later mythological beasts.

While the Minotaur had the body of a man with a bull’s head, however, the Lamassu’s human part was their head. It was their body that was animal and often winged. In fact, many Lamassus had lion’s bodies with human heads, making them look quite similar to the Sphinx.

The Sphinx of Greece and Egypt

The famous statue of the Great Sphinx that watches over the Pyramids of Giza is well-known to most people. This giant statue of a cat with a human head, watch for something unknown. In Greek and Egyptian myth, the Sphinx was a lion with a woman’s head, and wing, and would guard the most important places. If she appeared to you with a riddle and you failed, you would be eaten.

The most famous tale of the Sphinx is when she was sent by the Egyptian gods to protect Thebes. Only Oedipus could solve her famous riddle, saving his own life. Unfortunately for the King’s own story, making it to Thebes would be the start of his troubles.

The Minotaur myth is a tragic one. A child born from adultery, punished by being imprisoned in an impossible maze, fed on children, before being bludgeoned by Theseus for crimes he could not understand. It is difficult to find meaning in the tale of the Minotaur, but it leaves a lasting impression and forms an important role in understanding the move from Minoan to Greek rule over the Mediterranean.

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