Minotaur: Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology

Minotaur: Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology

A Minotaur deep in the Labyrinth on Crete Island; that is, a monster that was half human and half bull lived. Imprisoned here by his stepfather, King Minos of Crete, this creature fed on human flesh provided by the city of Athens. Minos ordered the Athenians to send 14 youths every nine years. This terrible ritual ended with the arrival of the Athenian hero Theseus in Crete. Theseus entered the Labyrinth and slew the beast.

Minotaur painting by George Frederic Watts in 1855. Tate Gallery, London. A: National Geographic
The story of the Minotaur has fascinated people for thousands of years and has also inspired many works of art, including pottery, poetry, theatre, works by Picasso, operas, films, and video games. Although this myth is known as a delightful tale, archaeologists know that the story’s magnificent details have deep roots in real events during the Bronze Age.

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The bull-headed man in Minos’ labyrinth embodies many features of Cretan culture and ancient Mycenaean civilization. Bulls and labyrinth motifs were seen throughout the Minoan culture, which swept the Mediterranean from 3,000 BC to 1,100 BC. The legendary founder of Athens, Theseus, who defeated the bull, the symbol of Crete, reflects the Aegean civilizations that began to rise in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Just as the Greek mainland ended and replaced the Cretan domination.

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A labyrinth myth

Classical writers told the story of the Minotaur over and over. What was said could vary, but each had common features. Bulls in various forms play an important role in these stories. In the best-known version, Zeus, the king of the gods, falls in love with Europa, a Phoenician princess. Transforming himself into a noble white bull, he bewitches the princess and carries her on his back to the island of Crete. The princess then gives birth to Minos, the future legendary king of Crete.

Minos asks Poseidon, the god of the sea, to send a bull to sacrifice in the honor of the god to legitimize his reign. Poseidon duly sends a majestic white bull coming from the waves. But Minos was fascinated by the beauty of the animal and spared its life.

Angered at this disrespect, the sea god Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, turns her eyes away with the desire of that bull. Pasiphae asks the Athenian inventor Daedalus to design a hiding mechanism that will allow him to approach the bull. He creates a life-size hollow cow, and Pasiphae enters this artificial cow to make love to the bull. As a result of this sexual union, a bull-human hybrid child is born, which he named Asterion. Known as the Minotaur, this creature is imprisoned by King Minos in a very complex labyrinth designed by Daedalus.

A coin from Crete from the 5th century BC depicting the mythological Labyrinth. (National Roman Museum, Rome) C: Bridgeman/ACI
Meanwhile, Theseus, a young prince in Athens, reaches adulthood. A few years ago, the Athenians killed one of King Minos’ sons, and the king of Crete made him pay a terrible price. Every nine years, the Athenians must send 14 Athenians, seven virgins and seven young men, to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Theseus, on the other hand, volunteered to be sacrificed and vowed to kill the Minotaur.

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