Minotaur the Guardian of the Labyrinth


In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a being with a human body and a bull’s head and tail. Apart from this descriptive name, the name of the Minotaur was Asterion. Sometimes it is still represented as a bull with a human torso, in correspondence with the Centaur. He lived in the Labyrinth, a building built by Daedalus on the orders of the king of Crete Minos. The Minotaur was killed by Theseus.

Before Minos became king, he asked the god Poseidon for a sign to prove that he, and not his brother, should ascend the throne. The god sent a beautiful white bull and asked Minos to sacrifice this bull to him. But Minos sacrificed another bull instead, hoping that God would not notice.

But Poseidon realized what had happened, got angry, and made Minos Pasiphae’s wife fall in love with the bull. The woman could not satisfy her passion and asked for help from the engineer Daedalus. He made an empty cow dummy, Pasiphae got into it and the bull was fooled and mated with her. From this union the Minotaur was born.

Minos, after receiving an oracle from the Oracle of Delphi, asked Daedalus to build a building to enclose the Minotaur, and he built the Labyrinth.

Half man, half bull, the Minotaur was the result of king Minos’s refusal to sacrifice a certain bull to the god Poseidon. The god punished him by making Pasiphe, Minos’s wife, fall in love with the bull, and she bore it a son, the Minotaur.

Because it was a terrible monster, Minos had it enclosed in a labyrinth, and each year he had seven young girls and seven young boys from Athens sacrificed to it.
The Minotaur was killed by the hero Theseus, who with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne made it out of the labyrinth by following a thread he had tied to the entrance.

When, all those years ago, Theseus’ father. Aegeus had returned to Athens after visiting the Oracle at Delphi he organized the Panathenaic Games which were held every four years and involved, amongst other things, athletic competitions. Androgeos, the son of Minos, took part in these games and won many victories. The jealous Aegeus was angry that Athenian citizens had been defeated by this son of a Cretan King and sent him to Marathon where he was commanded to slay the Cretan bull. However, he was killed by the bull and his father, Minos the King of Crete, blamed the Athenians and also the citizens of Megara for the brutal death of his son.

theseus-and-minotaurIn revenge Minos gathered together his men and sailed forth towards Athens. His fleet entered the Saronic Gulf and Megara was overthrown and conquered. The war, however, was not over. Minos called upon Zeus for assistance and the god sent a plague to the city of Athens. In despair at the destruction the plague had wreaked on the Athenian population Aegeus capitulated and Minos laid out his terms of retribution for his son’s death.

Minos demanded from the Athenians to send as a sacrifice to the Minotaur seven young men and seven young women every nine years. This sacrifice of the Athenian youth would only end when one of the victims managed to kill the Minotaur by fighting with him in the Labyrinth of Knossos.

Twice, seven young males and seven young females were shipped off to the Labyrinth in a ship with black sails, and each time they were killed and devoured by the Minotaur. When the third time came to send the hapless victims off to Knossos, Theseus offered to go and attempt to slay the bull himself. Reluctantly, Aegeus agreed but instructed the captain to change his sails from black to white if Theseus had been successful and the young people where spared. The wily Theseus exchanged two of the girls with boys, dressing them in women’s clothes. Venus was invited to become a guide on their journey and on the 6th of Mouichion (April) they set sail.

Representations of the Minotaur.

Within the framework of the representation of rivers as human-headed bulls, what position could the exact opposite representation have, i.e. a man with a bull’s head? We are of course referring to the Minotaur. This correlation, which results from the opposite, is reinforced by two representations of the Minotaur.

On a Cycladic amphora with relief decoration on the neck, the Minotaur is represented with a human head and horns – this is inferred from the part of the head that survived – like Achelous. In other performances, the Minotaur, in the usual form we know him, tries to escape from Theseus, who, however, has caught him by the horn, something reminiscent of the performance with Herakles and Achelous.

Could we attribute to the Minotaur the status of a river god? Or should we speculate on the myth of the youth who consumed the destructive action of the waters of a river and on his death by Theseus his taming?

Before proceeding with any case, we should list the already known interpretations surrounding the Minotaur, but also more generally the meaning and symbolism of the bull, after first recalling who he was, or rather who was said to be the Minotaur.

Pasiphae, wife of Minos, fell in love with the bull of Poseidon that the king did not sacrifice to the god, as he had promised, because it was too beautiful. Daedalus, in order for the queen to unite with the bull, built a cow effigy, into which Pasiphae entered.

The child that was born, the Minotaur, lived in the Labyrinth which was in the basement of the palace and which had an easy entrance, but a difficult exit with turns that led nowhere. The king locked his enemies there to perish.

According to another version, the Minotaur was the son of the general Taurus who helped Minos take power. The child was named Asterius but, because he looked like Taurus, he was named Minotaur.

It is also said that the illegitimate child was not imprisoned in the Labyrinth but lived at first in the mountains as a wild man or became a general who with other Cretans followed Dionysus to the Indies. Then he went to Massagetae, near the Phasis river, where he was killed and to honor him they called a part of Colchis Taurida.

Lucian interprets Pasiphae’s union with the bull as a physical allegory and similarly explains Daedalus’ mediating role. So according to Lucian, Daedalus knew the secrets of Astrology and tried to introduce his son to them, but he behaved unwisely.

Pasiphae also asked Daedalus to initiate her into these secrets, who first showed her the bull in the sky. This initiation was taken as a marriage: “and Pasiphae, instead of Daedalus, I heard a bull about the phenomenon in the stars and this astrology for the love of the word apiketo, whence they think that Daedalus infused me with the bull” (Luk., About Astrology 16).

Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus, offers a favorable interpretation of Theseus’ fight with the Minotaur, considering the Labyrinth to be a fortress used as a prison from which no one could escape.

Minos instituted gymnastic contests in honor of his son, Androgeus, whom his father had believed to have been treacherously killed in Athens, establishing as a prize the youths imprisoned in the Labyrinth.

Another interpretation says that the Minotaur was a Cretan general named Taurus, of great power in the court of Minos, who had won the naked contests and who treated the young Athenians with arrogance and cruelty.

Also; that Theseus defeated the Bull in a wrestling match and that Minos abolished the tax he had imposed on the Athenians. Of course, we know the Athenian version of the myth, worked within a wider mythological context, in which democratic Athens reworked the ancient myths for its own ideological purposes.

We also know that young people taking part in coming-of-age ceremonies are likely to be wearing bull masks or competing against someone wearing a bull mask.

For example, in the Kaverium of Thebes, a fragment of a skypho (National Archaeological Museum of Athens) depicts a naked man wearing the mask of a bull, apparently participating in ritual events and accompanied by two other naked male figures in an ithyphallic position. Two questions arise here: a) What is the symbolism of the bull? b) What was intended by the use of the mask?

It is known that the Mediterranean civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome) believed that the ancestor gods were incarnated in a bull or accompanied by bulls – in the East he even carried the world between his horns.

And this is because the bull was one of the elements that very early people associated with the sky, which, with the movement of the stars and the seasons, ruled the cycle of nature and, by extension, agricultural pursuits.

The offspring of these ancestor gods were fertility gods who controlled rain and river waters or the sun. In the Greek world, the bull was associated with deities whose original existence was chthonic, such as Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, Poseidon, or with heroes such as Heracles and Theseus – both of whom descended into the underworld while they were still alive. , while Heracles after his death was worshiped in Kalydona as a chthonian god.

From this semiology, the answer to the second question, about what the wearer of the bull’s mask was aiming for, easily emerges. Obviously the same as the actor with the theatrical mask. That is, the methex with the qualities of the bull, its strength and fertility.

After all, by defeating the bull, or someone disguised as a bull, the young man made a display of his manhood and physical strength and proved it. Therefore, he was rightfully entering the world of adults.

But his victory may have signaled the imposition of his own values against the tyranny and anarchy caused by the wanton rule of an animal or a tyrant, such as e.g. of Minos in Plutarch’s interpretation; or even the victory of civilization over nature, of the “cooked” over the “raw”.

In any case, and without being able to answer precisely about the identity of the Cretan Minotaur, we can say with certainty that it is part of a long tradition that wants the bull connected to ancestors, creator gods, generator gods of fertility and the liquid element . And of course, if we accept that this is a primary core, it is known that in mythmaking practice a strong and valid myth is also invested with other elements that exploit and utilize its prestige and power for other ideological goals.

The death of the Minotaur

Among the sons of Minos, Androgeus was the most violent and devoted himself to sports by participating in the “Panathenaic Games”, where he defeated all his fellow athletes. But Aegeus king of Athens and father of Theseus, fearing the friendship that developed between the future king of Crete and the Pallantids who were rivals of Aegeus, sent Androgeus against the Marathonian Bull, whereupon the beast killed the prince of Crete. Another version holds that he was ambushed by his rivals while on his way to Thebes to participate in the Laius Games.

As soon as Minos was informed of the death of his child, wanting to take revenge, he campaigned against Athens. Initially he took control of Megara and and then began to besiege Athens which he conquered following the intervention of Zeus who sent a pestilence to the city. When the Athenians asked the Oracle of Delphi how they could be saved, they received the answer that they had to accept the terms of Minos, who decreed that every nine years, seven boys and seven girls should go to Crete as food for the Minotaur for as long as the monster lived.

The third time the Athenians had to pay the tribute, because they were displeased with Aegeus, the son of Theseus asked that he himself be sent to the island, in order to pacify the multitudes and put an end to the blood tribute, taking the place of one of the seven young men sailing from Faliro at the beginning of the month of Munich (today’s March). Sailing to Crete he met the daughter of Minos, Ariadne who fell in love with him and asked him to promise that he would take her to his homeland and marry her.

Then she gave him a skein of thread, the well-known “Myth of Ariadne”, so that when Theseus entered the labyrinth he could untangle it, so that he could, after killing the Minotaur, find the exit. Indeed, the hero, after attaching one end to the entrance of the labyrinthine abode, killed the monster and, wrapping the mito, managed to get out of the Labyrinth. Taking advantage of the darkness of the night, Theseus, Ariadne and the other youths escaped to the harbor and boarded the ship to return to Athens.

He himself returned to Athens and fought the battle of the Panathenaians, in which the son of Minos Androgeus defeated them all. Aegeus sent him against the bull of Marathon, by which he was killed. Others say that on his way to Thebes, to take part in the games of Laius, his competitors ambushed him, because they were jealous of him, and killed him. Minos, to whom the message of death reached him while he was sacrificing on Paros for the Graces, threw from his head the wreath and stopped the flute, but he performed the sacrifice as it should; therefore even today they sacrifice to the Graces without flutes and wreaths.

After a while, because he was a sea-king, he fought with a fleet against Athens and conquered Megara, which at that time had Nissus as king, and killed Megareus, son of Hippomenes from Onchistos, who had come as an ally of Nissus. Nisos also died because of his daughter’s betrayal. That is, he had a purple hair on the top of his head that if pulled out was an omen that he would die; but his daughter, Scylla, because she fell in love with Minos, pulled out his hair. When Minos conquered Megara, he tied the daughter by the feet to the stern and drowned her in the sea.

Βecause the war was dragging on, unable to capture Athens, he prayed to Zeus to take revenge on the Athenians. And as famine and disease fell upon the city, first the Athenians, following an old oracle, slaughtered in the tomb of the Cyclops Geraistus the daughters of Hyacinthus, Antheida, Aigliida, Lytaia, and Orthea; their father was Hyacinthus who had come from Sparta and lived in Athens.

But since they saw no benefit from the sacrifice, they asked for an oracle how they would be saved. And the god answered them to satisfy every request that Minos would make. So they sent men to Minos that they gave him the right to ask for the satisfaction he wanted. And Minos demanded that they send unarmed seven youths and as many new food to the Minotaur.

Historical appeal

The myth of the Minotaur acquired historical timelessness and inspired many modern writers and artists. For example, it appears in Dante’s “Inferno” when Virgil guides Dante as they prepare to enter the seventh circle of hell. The Minotaur is mentioned in works by Boccaccio and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, while Picasso, Dali and Rivera depicted the monster in surrealist works of art.