Myth, Minotaur and Minoans
Updated: Jun 22
The legend of the Minotaur was an evolving myth that was passed down through the centuries, often as depictions on works of art, like the Attic black-figure Siana cup of Theseus wrestling the Minotaur (560-550 BCE) on display in the Gods, Myths & Mortals exhibition. While elements of the myth were mentioned in the Iliad in the 8th century BCE it wasn’t until a century later that we began to see images of the Minotaur and his encounter with Theseus. The story continued to gain traction, Euripides’ fifth-century play The Cretans was a testament to this.
To the Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries Crete would have seemed a distant memory of an ancient power that was once respected, admired, and feared. It was also one that their ancestors, in particular the hero Theseus, had overcome, and the story of the Minotaur reflects that cultural belief.
The myth takes place on Crete during the height of Minoan power, now believed to be around 1600 BCE. The most well-known version begins when Zeus falls in love with Europa, a Phoenician princess. Turning himself into a gentle white bull, Zeus carries her off to the island of Crete. She later gives birth to his son Minos, who grows up to become King of Crete.
In an effort to strengthen the legitimacy of his reign, Minos asked Poseidon for help, vowing to sacrifice the first animal to emerge from the sea to the god. Poseidon sent a magnificent bull to Minos, who charmed by the majesty of the creature determined to keep it for himself and substituted another bull in its place. Poseidon, enraged by the deception made Minos’s wife Pasiphae go mad with desire for the bull. Having coupled with it she gave birth to a human-bull hybrid whom she named Asterion. Asterion, better known as the Minotaur, was imprisoned by Minos in an intricate labyrinth designed by Daedalus.
Above: Minoan bronze votive double headed axe (1700-1450 BCE); pair of Cypriot bull earrings (1300-1100 BCE); Attic black-figure Siana cup of Theseus wrestling the Minotaur (560-550 BCE) are all on display in the Gods, Myths & Mortals exhibition on loan from the Benaki Museum, Athens.
When one of the sons of King Minos was killed in Athens, the king decided to take his revenge by ordering that the Athenians send 7 girls and 7 boys to Crete every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Theseus, the young son of the King of Athens, volunteered to be one of the youths that would go to Crete, but vowed to kill the Minotaur and put an end to King Minos’ human sacrifices. Arriving on Crete he announced his intentions to Minos who laughed, as he trusted that even if Theseus could slay the Minotaur, he would never find his way out of the labyrinth.
But Theseus had a secret. He had met Princess Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, who having fallen in love with Theseus, decided to save his life. She gave him a thread which unravelled as he walked further and further into the labyrinth. Once Theseus found and slew the Minotaur he was able to use the thread retrace his steps and escape the labyrinth.
The repetitive use of bulls as a theme in the myth is due to the Minoan culture’s reverence for bulls: frescoes and figurines, dating from 1700 to 1400 BCE show figures jumping over the bulls in a ritual called tauro-kathapsia. This rite may have been practiced at sacred ceremonies and sacrifices to the gods. A symbol of fertility in many religions, bulls were ritually killed using the double-edged ax or labrys, an emblem of royal power.