Where Did The Myth Of The Minotaur Originate?

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By: Alex Postrado

Minotaur: Where Greek Mythology’s Half-Bull, Half-Man Beast Originated

The island of Crete may — nowadays — be renowned for its breathtaking beaches and exquisite cuisine, but there was once a time back in the days of antiquity when it was better known for being home to a fierce, man-eating hybrid of a monster.

Many a tale, as well as a myriad of ancient poets — like, the Roman poet Ovid — describe it as a beast that is half human and half bull.

They call it the Minotaur.

And the story has it that hidden someplace under the island of Crete was a labyrinth in which the legendary Minotaur was shut-in.

It is said that only a few knew how to break out of this “maze-like construction” because it was specifically built to prevent two things from escaping:

The Minotaur, as well as the dark and mortifying truth about it.

minotaur leaving the labyrinth

Theseus and the Minotaur

The horrors to the youths of Athens began with a single death — that of Androgeos, the son of the king of Crete, Minos.

Androgeos was known to be a bright and athletic young man when his fate was sealed. A leading figure in the Panathenaic Games, it was said that a lot of his competitors were envious of him. And so, one day, they murdered him.

When King Minos learned about the killing of his beloved son, he was understandably furious. And with wrath and vengeance in mind, he — together with his fleet of warriors — attacked Athens.

Casualties quickly fell all over the ancient city and it was only when an Oracle was consulted that it was decided:

Every nine years, Athens shall send seven young, virgin men and maidens to Crete as tributes to King Minos, or else they shall strike again.

In two consecutive instances, Athenian youths were sacrificed for their homeland’s safety. But, on the third culling, the Athenian hero Theseus volunteered to go.

As it happened, Theseus had a plan in mind.

He learned that the tributes were being fed to a mythical beast, called the Minotaur, which was believed to be caged in an underground labyrinth at the Palace of Knossos. To end the nightmarish fate of his fellow Athenians, Theseus set out to slay the monster.

With the help of Ariadne, daughter of Minos, and her twine ball and thread, Theseus found a way to enter the labyrinth while still being able to retrace his steps back to safety.

Soon, Theseus finds the Minotaur sitting at the heart of the intricate maze. After a long and tiring fight — with Theseus using either a club or just his bare hands — he successfully kills it.

The hero escapes and eventually becomes one to tell the tale of Crete’s part man, part bull monstrosity.

And finally, after years of being held captive by the dread, caused by the man-eating terror, Athens and Crete were free again.

Minotaur drawing
The fearsome Minotaur.

The Making of a Hybrid Bull-Man Monster

The Minotaur might have petrified the inhabitants of Crete — especially those who have heard about the monster — until the very day Theseus puts an end to it, but little did they know that their own ruler, King Minos, was actually — in large part — to thank for its existence.

To understand that, we would have to go back to the beginning of Minos’ reign.

One of Phoenician princess Europa’s birth sons and former King of Crete Asterion’s adoptive sons, Minos had always known that one day, either he or one of his two brothers — Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus — will rise to the throne.

But, to Minos, it was clear from the start that he wanted to be named the next king. So, when the day of selection came, Minos prayed to the god Poseidon to make a bull emerge out of the sea as a sign of his support for his ascension to power.

And that, Poseidon did.

A magnificent bull appeared from the depths and secured the throne for Minos.

Albeit beneficial for the future king of Crete, it came with one fairly easy task in exchange — Minos needed to sacrifice the bull back to Poseidon soon after.

However, the Cretan bull — as it was to be known — was far too majestic for Minos to let go, so he decided to instead sacrifice a different one.

Angered by Minos’s trickery, Poseidon unleashes a chilling curse. Unfortunately, it was King Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, the daughter of Helios, who would have to bear the cost of his arrogance.

According to the myth, Pasiphae was cursed to have a “salacious passion” for the Cretan bull.

And soon, the queen found herself ordering the architect and craftsman Daedalus to make a wooden cow, covered in bull’s hair, for her to climb into as she mates with the Cretan bull.

The fruit of that appalling, bestial act was none other than the Minotaur.

At first, Pasiphae nursed the Minotaur and called it Asterion, named after the previous king of Crete.

But, after Asterion outgrew its bull calf figure and gradually turned into a savage man-devouring monster, King Minos — who, all throughout, was terribly ashamed of Pasiphae’s divine-inflicted affair — ultimately turned to Daedalus to, once and for all, lock up the monstrous mistake in an elaborate labyrinth for the safety of his kingdom and his image.

ancient depiction of the birth of the minotaur
Pasiphaë and the Minotaur; Source

The Origin of the Minotaur Myth

Since the day the myth of the Minotaur has been passed, the world has been inescapably gripped by it.

It was a sentiment embodied by countless works of art from across history, including films, operas, plays, pottery, and poetry. Though, in most of these art pieces, the Minotaur was depicted quite contrastingly.

Others picture the Minotaur to have “the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull,” which befits Virgil’s portrayal of the Minotaur in the Aeneid, quote:

The lower part a beast, a man above. The monument of their polluted love.

statue of the Minotaur
The Minotaur is most often depicted with the head of a bull.

The rest of the scholars and artists, on the other hand, suggest that it was the other way around — with the head, being that of a bull, and the body, that of a man.

To be fair, in earlier versions of the myth — including Ovid’s account — it was rarely specified which half of the Minotaur is which. So, it is just bound to happen that people will eventually start taking creative liberty with the story.

Despite this, there are still key elements about the Minotaur that stuck throughout the years.

One of which was the beast’s various names.

As the story goes, the real name of the Minotaur was — as mentioned earlier — Asterion. However, this moniker was believed to only be known by the inner circle at the Palace of Knossos, while the rest of Crete — as well as others from different cities — were more familiar with the name Minotaur or Minotauros.

The word minotaur is a compound of the name Μίνως — or Minos — and the noun ταῦρος — meaning, “bull“.

In simpler terms, the word translates to “Bull of Minos“.

Although, nowadays, minotaur is used, not only to refer to the singular Greek Minotaur but also to collectively describe a race of bull-headed creatures, commonly seen in the 20th-century to modern pop culture.

Regardless of all this, some theorize that the myth of the Minotaur could actually be only part-fiction. They claim that a possible historical explanation of it may be rooted in real events and traditions observed in Crete during the Bronze Age.

They cite a supposed ceremony, where developing Greek cities — including Athens — were obliged to deliver tributes to the already-established Crete — a ritual, guided by a priest “disguised with a bull head or mask“.

This could explain “the imagery of the Minotaur“.

But other historians like to add science to their formula — concluding that the myth may have actually originated from geology.

Since much of the early descriptions of the Minotaur were focused on “the ‘cruel bellowing’ it made from its underground labyrinth,” they theorize that it is possible that the monster was actually some sort of a personified explanation for the unusual noises heard across Crete that the ancient civilization failed to understand.

Science journalist and monster-myth enthusiast Matt Kaplan attributes this noise to the “extensive tectonic activity,” discovered to be present in the region around the time the myth of the Minotaur first surfaced.

Statue depicting Theseus conquering the Minotaur
Statue depicting Theseus conquering the Minotaur

The Discovery that Challenged the Myth

Still, the race to find the real origin of the Minotaur myth — to others — may have reached its end as soon as British archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed what was claimed to be the actual Palace of Knossos, situated near the north coast of modern-day Crete.

The palace was reported to be “the size of more than two football fields,” with a “multiplicity of rooms, staircases and corridors” — but, to most’s surprise, no labyrinth.

With that, some assume the palace itself may have been the actual labyrinth that the myth was describing — albeit, in a more metaphorical sense. But, to this day, this theory remains widely discredited for lack of conclusive proof.

With labyrinth or not, though, the discovery of the Palace of Knossos was far from being a lost effort.

In it, several clues about a possible connection to the myth were found — which includes the many artifacts excavated, featuring bulls, and some tablets, bearing the now-deciphered word “Minos”.

In spite of that, skeptics assert that things like these still do not entirely solve the Minotaur myth — instead proposing that both the Minotaur and its labyrinth may have just been symbols of things or situations that are generally hard to escape.

And maybe, it is exactly that. A lot of olden-day stories were heavy on symbolism, anyway.

Or maybe it was indeed based on something very real — only that the evidence we are searching for was purposefully hidden from us — told only in myths, but is resting somewhere in our own labyrinthine history.


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