Theseus and the Minotaur: the man, the myth and...the science

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

Theseus wrestling the Minotaur, Attic black-figure siana cup 550-560 BCE; God, Myths & Mortals Exhibition.

Like Odysseus and Orpheus, Theseus was a legendary hero of the distant past, supposedly an offspring of King Aegeus, a human being or the god Poseidon. To those who wrote about him in ancient times, he was an actual hero, founder of Athens and responsible for the political unification of Attica under Athens. Plutarch wrote using sources from mid-fifth century BCE and fourth century BCE. His historical reality has not been proved, but scholars believe that Theseus may have been alive during the Late Bronze Age, possibly as a king in the 8th or 9th century BCE.

The most famous tale about Theseus is littered with half-gods, half-mortals and has him fighting a ferocious beast in the middle of a maze. Why a maze? A Labyrinth is unicursal; that is, it, has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the centre and out again and may originally have substituted for a pilgrimage. One pauses in the centre for reflection or enlightenment. Mazes, on the other hand, are multi-branching, confusing and places in which to become lost and fight monsters. We’ll call it a Labyrinth to avoid confusion.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this tale, which, you won’t be surprised to read, has several versions. In one, Minos of Crete fought with his brother for the throne and, having won the kingship and exiled his brother, prayed to the god of the sea, Poseidon, for a snow-white bull as a sign of the god's approval. (Herodotus mentions Minos in his Histories, ‘Minos of Cnossus’ as having ruled the sea and Herodotus also mentions a detail found in the myth of the Minotaur, ‘Sarpedon and Minos fought for the throne [of Crete] and the victorious Minos expelled Sarpedon’.) Rather than sacrificing the bull, he kept it, enraging Poseidon, who caused Minos' wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull so deeply that she mated with it; the offspring was a male with the head and tail of a bull. As it grew older the Minotaur became violent and Minos had an intricate Labyrinth built in which to contain the creature.

The city of Athens, in one story, was responsible for the death of King Minos' son, Androgeus, and had to pay a tribute to the King of Crete each year (or nine years in some versions) by sending seven of the best and most noble youths and seven of the finest and most virtuous maidens aboard a ship with black sails, confront the Minotaur and die in Crete. They were cast into the Labyrinth deep within the palace of Minos, which was such a complicated construction that no one could ever find the way out alive.

Theseus, Prince of Athens, volunteered to end the tribute by taking his place among the youths and killing the Minotaur. On his arrival in Crete, Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and, on the advice of Daedalus, architect of the Labyrinth, gave him a ball of thread, so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus promised that if he returned, he would take Ariadne with him. As soon as Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he tied one end of the ball of string to the doorpost and brandished his sword which he had hidden from the guards inside his tunic. Theseus followed Daedalus' instructions given to Ariadne: go forwards, always down, and never left or right. Theseus came to the heart of the Labyrinth and upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur and killed the beast.

Theseus fled with Ariadne back toward Athens, leaving Ariadne behind on the island of Naxos (whether by accident or on purpose depends on which version of the story one reads). Theseus was supposed to change the black sails of the ship to white so that King Aegeus would know his son lived and had conquered the Minotaur. Theseus forgot, however, and his father, seeing the ship with the black sails, hurled himself off a cliff into the sea in grief and was drowned (the sea became known as the Aegean, after him).

Until Sir Arthur Evans unearthed the palace of Knossos, the half-man-half bull killed by Theseus was considered just a popular legend; archaeology changed that perception.

Minoan Bull Leaping Fresco (edited) 1600 - 1450 BCE, Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

Evans knew the stories of Minos and of Knossos, and upon finding murals of bull jumping youths in the palace, posited that perhaps Knossos was the Labyrinth from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, probably the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. Evans gave the name ‘Minoan’ to the culture he discovered at Knossos (after King Minos, of course). Minoan bull jumping - a sport engaged in by both men and women - was widely known even to the ancients (Plato makes mention of weaponless bull hunting in his Critias in 119 CE, speaking of Atlantis, which is most likely a fictionalised version of Crete).

The archaeologist Anna Michailidou writes, ‘Behind the pre-Hellenic word Labyrinthos - which is etymologically allied to the word labrys (double axe, symbol of the Minoan goddess) - is perhaps the very palace of Knossos, the ruins of which reveal the labyrinthine complexity of its structure’ and further, ‘It is amazing how long one can spend wandering in and out of these rooms, going up and down stairs and, frequently, much to one's surprise, finding oneself back in the same room having come by a different route’. For Bronze Age people who, in the main, probably lived in very simple dwellings, the immense size and complexity of the Palace at Knossos would have bewildered and, quite literally, amazed!

The story of the Minotaur, a half human-half bull, could have originated from the bull jumpers of Knossos (who, in their acrobatic leap over the bull, became ‘one' with it momentarily before vaulting over the horns) in the same way the story of the Labyrinth can be seen as originating from the complex structure of Knossos itself, as Evans and others have suggested.

Other scholars have drawn parallels between natural phenomena and myth creation. In attempts to make sense of the world our early ancestors often gave physical form to terrifying things they saw in nature in order to rationalise them. Different retellings of the myth do agree that the beast lives underground in the Labyrinth, and that when it bellows the earth shakes. Scientific research into the seismic activity revealed that Crete is on a subduction zone, which is a tectonic plate boundary where two plates converge causing significant and consistent earthquakes.

Perhaps the myth of Prince Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth has more truth than ‘myth’ to it after all.

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