the legend of the minotaur

while on crete, one has to visit knossos, to see the ruins of the palace of king minos, where – according to the greek myth – the minotaur lived in the labyrinth under the palace.

king minos of crete – the one of myth – was the son of zeus and europa, whom zeus had kidnapped and, presumably, also lain with while in the form of a bull. one day, minos wanted to honor his uncle poseidon, so he asked poseidon to send him a bull to sacrifice. poseidon caused a bull to emerge from the sea, but it was so beautiful that minos couldn’t bear to kill it. this angered poseidon, and perhaps for that reason, minos’ wife, pasiphae, developed an unreasonable passion for the bull. daedalus, the palace architect and resident genius, constructed a wooden cow for pasiphae to climb inside, and she mated with it. pasiphae subsequently bore the minotaur, a human with the head of a bull. not too pleased, minos locked the minotaur in the labyrinth, a giant maze under the palace.

later, minos’ son was killed while visiting athens. in retaliation, minos led an expedition against athens, sacked the city, and in a further act of revenge, he required the athenians to send seven boys and seven girls to knossos every year to feed to the minotaur. this went on until theseus, the son of king aegeus, killed the minotaur with the help of minos’ daughter.

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the ruins of knossos.

the reality is different, but close to the myth. king minos did sack athens in revenge for his son’s death, and he did require the athenians to send seven boys and seven girls each year to knossos. the tribute was a combination of the hunger games and jallikattu, however: the youth had to enter the ring with a bull and vault over its back, as depicted in the mural shown below. the labyrinth doesn’t refer to a maze beneath the palace – the only thing below the palace is a series of storerooms – but instead to the god “labyros” whose symbol was a two-headed axe. one can see the axe, a symbol of the king’s power, carved into the palace walls at various points.

the myth therefore tracks closely with the reality of the situation: there was no minotaur, but the children of athens were sacrificed to a bull every year. and with regard to the rumor about pasiphae and the bull, has debunked the more contemporary version of that one.

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