Minotaur

Minotaur

[min-uh-tawr]
Minotaur: see Minos.

In Greek mythology, a monster of Crete with the body of a man and the head of a bull. It was the offspring of Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos, and a snow-white bull sent by Poseidon and intended for sacrifice. When Minos kept it instead, the god punished him by making his wife fall in love with the bull. The Minotaur (whose name means “Minos bull”) was imprisoned in the Labyrinth built by Daedalus. After defeating Athens in a war, Minos forced the Athenians to send human tribute to be devoured by the Minotaur. The third year the tribute was sent, Theseus volunteered to go, and with the help of Ariadne he killed the monster.

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In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (Greek: Μῑνώταυρος, Mīnṓtauros) was a creature that was part man and part bull. It dwelt at the center of the Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction built for King Minos of Crete and designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus who were ordered to build it to hold the Minotaur. The historical site of Knossos is usually identified as the site of the labyrinth. The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus.

"Minotaur" is Greek for "Bull of Minos." The bull was known in Crete as Asterion, a name shared with Minos's foster father.

Birth and appearance

After he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos struggled with his brothers for the right to rule. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull, as a sign of approval. He was to sacrifice the bull in honor of Poseidon but decided to keep it instead because of its beauty. To punish Minos, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, to fall madly in love with the bull from the sea, the Cretan Bull. She had Daedalus, the famous architect, make a wooden cow for her. Pasiphaë climbed into the decoy in order to copulate with the white bull. The offspring of their coupling was a monster called the Minotaur.

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 literal copulation may intentionally obscure the mystic marriage of the god in bull form, a Minoan mythos alien to the Greeks.

The Minotaur, as the Greeks imagined him, had the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. Pasiphaë nursed him in his infancy, but he grew and became ferocious. 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.

Tribute price that brought Theseus

Now it happened that Androgeus, son of Minos, had been killed by the Athenians, who were jealous of the victories he had won at the Panathenaic festival. Others say he was killed at Marathon by the Cretan bull, his mother's former taurine lover, which Aegeus, king of Athens, had commanded him to slay. The common tradition is that Minos waged war to avenge the death of his son, and won. However, Catullus, in his account of the Minotaur's birth, refers to another version in which Athens was "compelled by the cruel plague to pay penalties for the killing of Androgeos." In this version, the Athenians are made to ask Minos what they can do to stop a terrible plague that has come upon them, and he was thus given power to make demands of them. In either case, Minos required that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, drawn by lots, be sent every ninth year (some accounts say every year) to be devoured by the Minotaur.

When the third sacrifice came round, Theseus volunteered to go to slay the monster. He promised to his father, Aegeus, that he would put up a white sail on his journey back home if he was successful and would have the crew put up black sails if he was killed. In Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and helped him navigate the labyrinth, which had a single path to the center. In most accounts she gave him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path. Theseus killed the Minotaur with the sword of Aegeus and led the other Athenians back out of the labyrinth.

Interpretations

The contest between Theseus and the Minotaur was frequently represented in Greek art. A Knossian didrachm exhibits on one side the labyrinth, on the other the Minotaur surrounded by a semicircle of small balls, probably intended for stars; it is to be noted that one of the monster's names was Asterion ("star").

The ruins of Minos' palace at Knossos have been found, but the labyrinth has not. The enormous number of rooms, staircases and corridors in the palace has led archaeologists to believe that the palace itself was the source of the labyrinth myth. Homer, describing the shield of Achilles, remarked that the labyrinth was Ariadne's ceremonial dancing ground.

Some modern mythologists regard the Minotaur as a solar personification and a Minoan adaptation of the Baal-Moloch of the Phoenicians. The slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus in that case indicates the breaking of Athenian tributary relations with Minoan Crete.

According to A. B. Cook, Minos and Minotaur are only different forms of the same personage, representing the sun-god of the Cretans, who depicted the sun as a bull. He and J. G. Frazer both explain Pasiphae's union with the bull as a sacred ceremony, at which the queen of Knossos was wedded to a bull-formed god, just as the wife of the Tyrant in Athens was wedded to Dionysus. E. Pottier, who does not dispute the historical personality of Minos, in view of the story of Phalaris, considers it probable that in Crete (where a bull-cult may have existed by the side of that of the labrys {double axe} victims were tortured by being shut up in the belly of a red-hot brazen bull. The story of Talos, the Cretan man of brass, who heated himself red-hot and clasped strangers in his embrace as soon as they landed on the island, is probably of similar origin.

A historical explanation of the myth refers to the time when Crete was the main political and cultural potency in the Aegean Sea. As the fledgling Athens (and probably other continental Greek cities) was under tribute to Crete, it can be assumed that such tribute included young men and women for sacrifice. This ceremony was performed by a priest disguised with a bull head or mask, thus explaining the imagery of the Minotaur. It may also be that this priest was son to Minos.

Once continental Greece was free from Crete's dominance, the myth of the Minotaur worked to distance the forming religious consciousness of the Hellene poleis from Minoan beliefs.

See also

References

Notes

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