The Minotaur (Greek: Μῑνώταυρος; Latin: Minotaurus; Etruscan: Θevrumineś) is a character from Greek mythology whose most traditional representation among the ancient Greeks was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man. The Roman author Ovid described him simply as "part man and part bull."
He dwelled in the center of a Labyrinth, an elaborate construction erected for King Minos of Crete, and designed by the architect Daedalus and his son, Icarus specifically to house the creature.
The historic site of Knossos, with over 1300 labyrinth-like compartments, has already been identified as the site of the Minotaur's labyrinth, although there is no evidence to confirm or disprove such speculation. In the myth, the Minotaur later dies at the hands of the Athenian hero Theseus.
The term Minotaur comes from the Ancient Greek Μῑνώταυρος, composed etymologically of the name Μίνως (Minos) and the noun ταύρος ("bull"), and can be translated as "(the) Bull of Minos".
In Crete, the Minotaur was known by his proper name, Asterius, a name he shared with Minos' adoptive father. Originally, Minotaur was only used as a proper name referring to this mythical figure. The use of minotaur as a common noun designating the members of a fictional, generic race of anthropogenic bull-headed creatures appeared much later, in the 20th century genre of fantastic fiction.
Birth and appearance
After taking the throne of Crete, Minos began to fight his brothers for the right to rule the island. He then begged the sea god, Posidon, to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of approval for his reign. Minos was supposed to sacrifice the bull in honor of the god, but decided to keep it because of its immense beauty.
For his failure to keep his promise and as a way to punish Minos, the goddess Aphrodite made Pasyphaea, wife of Minos, fall madly in love with the Cretan Bull from the sea. Pasyphaea then asked the archetypal craftsman Daedalus to build her a wooden cow in which she could hide inside in order to copulate with the white bull.
The child of this crossbreeding was the monstrous Minotaur. Parsiphae took care of him during his childhood, but then he grew up and became ferocious; being the fruit of an unnatural union between man and wild animal, he had no natural source of food, and had to devour men in order to survive.
Minos, after taking advice from the oracle at Delphi, asked Daedalus to build him a gigantic labyrinth to house the creature, located near Minos' own palace at Knossos.
Nowhere has the essence of the myth been expressed more succinctly than in the Heroides, attributed to Ovid, in which Pasiphae's daughter complains of the curse of her unrequited love: "Zeus loved Europa, like a bull, hiding her divine head - she gave birth to our people. A burden and a punishment were born from the womb of my mother, Pasiphae, ridden by bull she deceived."
More literal and prurient readings that emphasize the mechanism involving copulation itself may, perhaps intentionally, obscure the mystical marriage of the god in bull form, a Minoan mythos that was foreign to the Greeks.
The Minotaur is usually represented in classical art with the body of a man, and the head and tail of a bull. One of the forms assumed by the river god Aqueloo when wooing Dejanira is that of a man with a bull's head, according to Sophocles' play The Trachinias.
From the classical periods through the Renaissance, the Minotaur appears as the subject of several descriptions of the Labyrinth.
Roman author Ovid's Latin account of the Minotaur, which does not elaborate on which half of the creature was a bull and which was a man, was the most widespread during the Middle Ages, and several illustrations made in the period and after show the Minotaur in an inverse configuration from its classical appearance: a man's head and torso on a bull's body, similar to a centaur.
This alternative tradition lasted until the Renaissance, and still figures in modern versions of the myth, such as the illustrations of Steele Savage made for Mythology by Edith Hamilton (1942).
Tribute and Theseus
Androgeus, son of Minos, was killed by the Athenians, jealous of his victories in the Panathenaic Games. Another version of the myth claims that Androgeus died in Marathon, attacked by the Cretan Bull, the former lover of his mother, whom Aegeus, king of Athens, had ordered him to kill.
The most common tradition tells that Minos then declared war on Athens to avenge his son's death, and emerged victorious from the confrontation. Catullus, in his account of the birth of the Minotaur, refers to another version of the myth, in which Athens would have been "compelled by the cruel plague to pay compensation for the death of Androgeus."
Aegeus must then prevent the plague caused by his crime by sending "young boys, as well as the best unmarried girls, to a feast" of the Minotaur. Minos required that at least seven Athenian boys and seven maidens, chosen by lot, be sent to him every nine years (or, according to some accounts, annually) to be devoured by the Minotaur.
As the date approached for sending the third sacrifice the young prince Theseus volunteered to murder the monster, promising his father, Aegeus, that he would order the ship bringing him home to raise white sails if he had succeeded in the endeavor, or black sails if he had died.
In Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, falls in love with Theseus and helps him move through the labyrinth, which had a single path leading to its center. In most accounts Ariadne gives him a ball of thread, which he uses to mark his path so that he can return through it.
Theseus then kills the Minotaur with Aegean's sword, and leads the other Athenians out of the labyrinth. On the return journey, however, he forgets to raise the white sails, and his father, seeing the ship and imagining that Theseus was dead, commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea that has since borne his name
The essentially Athenian view of the Minotaur as the antagonist of Theseus reflects the literary sources, which are partial to Athenian perspectives. The Etruscans, who considered Ariadne a companion of Dionysus rather than of Theseusus, presented a different view of the Minotaur, never seen in Greek art:
in an Etruscan wine goblet made in red figure from the first half of the 4th century BCE, Pasyphae tenderly supports the infant Minotaur on her lap.
The fight between Theseus and the Minotaur was often depicted in Greek art. A didactic at Knossos displays on one side the labyrinth, and on the other the Minotaur surrounded by a semicircle of small balls, probably representing stars; one of the monster's names was Asterius, "star" in ancient Greek.
The ruins of the palace of Minos at Knossos were discovered, but no labyrinth was found there. The huge number of rooms, staircases and corridors in the palace has caused some archaeologists to suggest that the palace itself may have been the source of the labyrinth myth, an idea that is generally discredited today. Homer, describing Achilles' shield, commented that the labyrinth was an enclosure for Ariadne's ceremonial dances.
Some modern mythologists see the Minotaur as a solar personification, a Minoan adaptation of the Baal-Moloch of the Phoenicians. The death of the Minotaur by Theseus, in this case, would indicate the severance of Athens' tributary relations with Minoan Crete.
According to the British scholar A. B. Cook, Minos and the Minotaur are just two different forms of the same character, representing the sun-god of the Cretans, who depicted the sun in the form of a bull.
Both Cook and Scottish anthropologist James Frazer explained the union of Pasiphae with a bull as a sacred ceremony, in which the queen of Cnossos married a bull-shaped god, just as the tyrant's wife in Athens had married Dionysus.
French archaeologist Edmond Pottier, who does not dispute the historical existence of Minos from the story of Phalaris, considers it likely that in Crete (where a cult of bulls may have existed, along with that of the Labris) a form of torture was to lock victims inside the belly of a glowing bronze bull.
The story of Talus, the Cretan bronze man, who would leave himself in braza and embrace foreigners as soon as they set foot on the island, would probably have a similar origin.
One historical explanation of the myth refers to the period when Crete was the leading political and cultural power in the Aegean Sea. As the city of Athens (and probably other mainland Greek cities) paid tribute to Crete, it can be assumed that this tribute included young men and women, destined for ritual sacrifice.
The ceremony was performed by a priest wearing a mask or bull's head, which would then explain the imagery related to the Minotaur. This priest could also be the son of Minos.
With continental Greece free from Cretan domination, the myth of the Minotaur had the role of distancing the incipient religious consciousness of the Hellenistic polis from the Minoan beliefs.
The Minotaur in Dante's Inferno
The Minotaur, the infamia di Creti, appears briefly in Dante Alighieri's Inferno, in his canto 12, 11-15, where, making their way among rocks scattered across a hillside, and preparing to enter the Seventh Circle, Dante and Virgil, his guide, first encounter the creature among those cursed for their violent nature, the "men of blood," though his name is not mentioned until verse 25.
At Virgil's provocative reminder of the "king of Athens," the Minotaur rises, enraged, and distracts the centaurs guarding the Phlegeton, "river of blood," thus allowing Virgil and Dante to quickly pass by them.
This uncharacteristic association of the Minotaur with centaurs, which is not made in any other classical source, is shown visually in William Blake's illustration of the creature as a kind of taurine centaur.