The Minotaur: Man-Bull Beast of Crete

France, Paris, Jardin des Tuileries, statue of Theseus fighting the Minotaur and ferris wheel
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The Minotaur is a mythical hybrid creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull who was so savage he had to be confined to a labyrinth, a one-way maze designed by the accomplished craftsman, Daedalus. You can visit the palace at Knossos and learn more about the Minotaur when you visit Greece. The myth of the Minotaur and some facts about this creature will be a good foundation for your travels, especially to the island of Crete.

The Story of the Minotaur

Pasiphae and Minos were the Queen and King of Crete in times of early Greek mythology. Minos, feeling a need to assert his legitimacy of rule over that of his brothers Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, asked the gods to send him a sign that he was the rightful ruler. An amazingly beautiful bull from the sea appeared, a sign from either Zeus or Poseidon, the myths are unclear. The idea was that Minos would use the bull as a kind of public relations campaign, and then send it back to the gods by sacrificing it in their honor.

But Minos liked the beautiful bull so much he kept it to fertilize his own herds and sacrificed a lesser bull in its place. That turned out to be a bad idea. Aphrodite was asked by Zeus to make Queen Pasiphae fall madly in love with the bull and mate with it. This was accomplished with the aid of a fake cow suit designed by Daedalus. Pasiphae then gave birth to the Minotaur, who was so savage he had to be contained in the labyrinth.

Later, Minos demanded tribute from Athens in the form of youths and maidens whose fate was to be fed to the Minotaur. Some say this is a metaphor for the dangerous bull-leaping games the Cretans were famed for. Theseus, son of the King of Athens, arranged to be among the tribute group and, with the help of Princess Ariadne, a daughter of the King and Queen, he made his way into the labyrinth guided by a thread and was able to kill the Minotaur.

Major Temple Sites Related to the Minotaur

In later ancient and modern times, the story of the Minotaur is associated with Knossos. But the earliest versions of the story put the site of the labyrinth near the other major Minoan palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete. Phaistos was known for its herds of sacred solar cattle and also was near Gortyn, the place where Zeus, in bull form, brought Europa.

The so-called "labyrinth" can still be visited but it is not for the fainthearted and don't expect your cell phone to work in its miles of underground tunnels. It is believed to have been an ancient quarry; part of it blew up during the Nazi Occupation of Greece when it was used as an arms depot, and again later when left-over ordinance exploded.

Minotaur Facts and Trivia

Mentions of the Minotaur in Greek mythology weave in a complex story involving symbolism, some contradictory. Information about the Minotaur that is fairly consistent includes:

  • The Minotaur's Strengths were that he was incredibly strong with sharp horns—a fierce fighter, hungry for flesh.
  • The Minotaur's Weaknesses were that he was not incredibly bright and fairly emotional—constantly hungry and angry.
  • The Minotaur's mother was Pasiphae, Queen of Crete and wife of King Minos. She is also believed to have been a moon goddess of Crete, and the Minotaur's horns may also represent the moon. His father was a sacred white bull given temporarily to King Minos to be sacrificed back to the gods.
  • The Minotaur was not known to have a spouse. He apparently ate both his male and female victims, making reproduction a bit unlikely. And so he had no offspring, either.
  • Frequent misspellings and alternate spellings of the Minotaur's name include Minataur, Minatour, and Minitore. The Minotaur was also said to be named Asterion, the name of Europa's husband and a name which connects him with the starry celestial form of Zeus.
  • While everyone talks about the Labyrinth, which is an ancient Cretan word possibly meaning "House of the Double Axe" (which may refer to bull horns), it seems that a maze is actually meant. A labyrinth has only one path to and from the center of the design, while a maze has many dead-ends and blind alleys and can be designed to deliberately mislead and confuse a victim. The thread of Ariadne would not have been necessary for Theseus to use to get in and out of a true labyrinth—there would have been only one way in or out.
  • The Minotaur is featured in the 2011 movie "The Immortals" which takes some liberties with the ancient myths.
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