History Channel - Clash of the Gods - 4 of 10 - The Minotaur





Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a king named Minos. King Minos lived on a lovely island called Crete. King Minos had a powerful navy, a beautiful daughter, and a really big palace. Still, now and then, King Minos grew bored. Whenever King Minos was bored, he took his navy and attacked Athens, a town on the other side of the sea.

In desperation, the king of Athens offered King Minos a deal. If Minos would leave Athens alone, Athens would send seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls to Crete every nine years to be eaten by the Minotaur.
The Minotaur was a horrible monster that lived in the center of a huge maze on the island of Crete. King Minos loved that old monster. He did like to give his monster a treat now and then. He knew his people would prefer he fed his monster Athenian children rather than ... well, after thinking it over, King Minos took the deal.

Nine years passed swiftly. It was just about time for Athens to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete to be eaten by the Minotaur. Everyone in Athens was crying.


The bronze "Horned God" from Enkomi, Cyprus

After he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos competed with his brothers to rule. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull, as a sign of support (the Cretan Bull). He was to kill the bull to show honor to Poseidon, but decided to keep it instead because of its beauty. He thought Poseidon would not care if he kept the white bull and sacrificed one of his own. To punish Minos, Aphrodite made Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. Pasiphaë had the archetypal craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, and climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him in his infancy, but he grew and became ferocious, being the unnatural offspring of man and beast, he had no natural source of nourishment and thus devoured man for sustenance. Minos, after getting advice from the oracle at Delphi, had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur. Its location was near Minos' palace in Knossos.

Nowhere has the essence of the myth been expressed more succinctly than in the Heroides attributed to Ovid, where Pasiphaë's daughter complains of the curse of her unrequited love: "The bull's form disguised the god, Pasiphaë, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden." Literalist and prurient readings that emphasize the machinery of actual copulation may, perhaps intentionally, obscure the mystic marriage of the god in bull form, a Minoan mythos alien to the Greeks.

The Minotaur is commonly represented in Classical art with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. One of the figurations assumed by the river god Achelous in wooing Deianirais as a man with the head of a bull, according to Sophocles' Trachiniai.

From Classical times through the Renaissance, the Minotaur appears at the center of many depictions of the Labyrinth. Ovid's Latin account of the Minotaur, which did not elaborate on which half was bull and which half man, was the most widely available during the Middle Ages, and several later versions show the reverse of the Classical configuration, a man's head and torso on a bull's body, reminiscent of a centaur. This alternative tradition survived into the Renaissance, and still figures in some modern depictions, such as Steele Savage's illustrations for Edith Hamilton's Mythology (1942).

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 434 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[Dionysos addresses Ariadne :] `He [Theseus] shed the blood of the halfbull man [the Minotauros] whose den was the earthdug labyrinth . . . But you know your thread was his saviour: for the man of Athens with his club would never have found victory in that contest without a rosy-red girl to help him."

Suidas s.v. Aigaion pelagos (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Theseus, the son of Aigeos the king of Attika, ruled the Kretans and pursued the Minotauros into the area of the labyrinthos and killed him when he was hidden in a cavern. He took to wife the woman Ariadne, who had been born to Minos of Pasiphai, and thus he ruled Krete."

Suidas s.v. En panti muthoi kai to Daidalou musos :
"It is said that Pasiphae was in love with a bull and begged Daidalos to make a wooden cow and rig it up and put her in it; and mounting her like a cow, the bull made her pregnant. From her the Minotauros was born. Minos for certain reasons became angry with the Athenians and collected a tribute of seven virgins and an equal number of young men from them; they were thrown to the beast."