Monday, 20 December 2010

The myth of Theseus and the minotaur

In the previous post, we commented upon the gentle reputation of the civilisation of Bronze Age Crete — a reputation based upon a low level of militarism, unusual freedoms for women, and relative social harmony. The Greeks, however, offer us a very different view of the Cretans in one of their most famous stories: the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Theseus killing the MinotaurTheseus killing the Minotaur. Round Attic drinking cup, c.450–440 BCE.

This is a splendid and often-repeated tale, but is more than a figment of the imagination. It illustrates how any myth is partly rooted in material and social conditions. Marx described Greek mythology as “nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination.”[1] We shall discuss mythology in general another time — for the moment, let us examine one of its great examples.

The story

Beside the many images from the myth in Greek and Roman art, we have a narrative, because it is mentioned in several ancient texts. These differ in some of the details. One of the most substantial accounts is by Plutarch in his chapter on Theseus from Parallel Lives, in which the writer even considers variations on the story. There are also references in the Roman poet Ovid’s two great works, the Metamorphoses and Heroides, and a short account in Book IV of the Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BCE.

The version I shall cite here, as the most pithy, is from the Bibliotheke (i.e. Library) attributed to Apollodorus of Athens [2]. This work, written between 100–200 CE, remains our single best source for many tales of Greek mythology.

According to legend, Minos was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman named Europa. He ruled a kingdom on Crete, using his powerful navy to impose Cretan rule across the Aegean and demand tribute from its peoples. The story of the Minotaur begins with the death of King Asterius, who had adopted and raised Minos.

Asterius dying childless, Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another.[3]

Diodorus expands upon Minos’s motivation: it was his practice to regularly sacrifice a bull to Poseidon, but this bull was of such “extraordinary beauty” that he wanted it for himself.[4] Some sources (e.g. Philostratus the Elder and Propertius [5]) describe it as being white or ‘snow white’. The Bibliotheke continues:

But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae [Minos’s wife] should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daidalos, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth.

Pasiphae with the minotaurPasiphae with the minotaur. Image from a drinking cup, c. 340–320 BCE.

The Minotaur, then, was the product of a strange, to us even comical, union — Minos’s wife, aroused by Poseidon with passion for a bull, disguises herself as a cow to entice it to have sex with her. Minos’s punishment for his impiety is a half-human, half-animal son who has to be isolated from society in the labyrinth: a maze one could never escape.

The Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way.

Later, Androgeus, the son of Minos (and half-brother of the Minotaur), went to Athens to compete in the games, and performed so triumphantly that he was “waylaid and murdered by the jealous competitors”. In a rage, Minos, “master of the sea”, attacks Athens.

[The Athenians] inquired of the oracle how they could be delivered; and the god answered them that they should give Minos whatever satisfaction he might choose. So they sent to Minos and left it to him to claim satisfaction. And Minos ordered them to send seven youths and the same number of damsels without weapons to be fodder for the Minotaur.

This dreadful tribute had to be paid (in the accounts of Plutarch and Ovid) every nine years.

The story then introduces Theseus, the founding hero of ancient Athens. His mother Aethra conceived him of two fathers simultaneously: the mortal king Aegeus and the immortal Poseidon, making Theseus a demi-god. He was not immortal, but was capable of superlative feats. Even before setting out to fight the Minotaur, he had defeated several fearsome adversaries.

And [Theseus] was numbered among those who were to be sent as the third tribute to the Minotaur; or, as some affirm, he offered himself voluntarily...

And when he came to Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, being amorously disposed to him, offered to help him if he would agree to carry her away to Athens and have her to wife. Theseus having agreed on oath to do so, she besought Daidalos to disclose the way out of the labyrinth.

And at his suggestion she gave Theseus a clue when he went in; Theseus fastened it to the door, and, drawing it after him, entered in.

The ‘clue’ is of course a ball of twine — “the famous thread” (Plutarch) — which Theseus can unravel as he goes so that he can find his way out of the labyrinth.

And having found the Minotaur in the last part of the labyrinth, he killed him by smiting him with his fists; and drawing the clue after him made his way out again. And by night he arrived with Ariadne and the children at Naxos.

There is a tragic epilogue to the story when Theseus returns home to Athens. He had agreed to raise a white sail on his ship upon his return, so that his anxiously watchful father would know he was safe. In fact he does not, and Aegeus, believing his son dead, throws himself off a cliff to drown in the sea. Ever since, that sea has borne his name: the Aegean.

Theseus became king and went on to have further adventures (see for example the Bibliotheke and Plutarch’s Theseus.) One of his less magnificent actions, according to most versions, was to abandon Ariadne, in spite of his promise to marry her, when they reached Naxos. Why he did this depends on the version one reads, and we shan’t be diverted by it here.

Unravelling the myth

How might this fabulous story, which works on several levels, be rooted in the history of the Bronze Age Aegean?

Let us begin with the Minotaur himself. Like Minos’s foster-father, his proper name was Asterius or Asterion, meaning ‘star’ or ‘starry one’. The Greek name for the Minotaur was Minotauros, derived from Minos (Μίνως) and tauros (ταύρος) or ‘bull’, i.e. the ‘bull of Minos’.

It is no accident that bull imagery should be associated with ancient Crete. As we’ve discussed, there is plenty of evidence that the bull was a significant symbol in Minoan culture, as attested by the images of bull-leaping and so forth. There are, however, no Minoan images of the Minotaur: he is a Greek creation.[6]

Although the Minotaur has his roots in Crete, he is also a more universal symbol. The Greeks’ own texts about the Minotaur do not dwell sensationally upon the gory details of the story — Apollodorus’s account is particularly spare — but the imagination is easily stirred by the concept: a half-human beast lurking within a dark and inescapable maze, hungry to devour the flesh of frightened and helpless young people. Since the first recorded story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, told us of that “terror to human beings” Humbaba, destructive and frightening creatures have stalked through our stories. Greek mythology teems with them: the Cyclops, Medusa the Gorgon, the Hydra, the Sphinx, Cerebus the three-headed dog and many more. The wicked and terrifying monster is an archetype universal to human cultures.

On another level, these creatures are identified in part with animality, symbolising the animal or savage aspect of human nature itself. The Minotaur is, in Euripides’ words, “A mingled form where two strange shapes combined, / And different natures, bull and man, were joined”, “a mingled form and hybrid birth of monstrous shape” (cited in Plutarch, my italics.) Diodorus refers to him as “this monstrous thing”. A later Roman writer, Virgil, referred to the Minotaur as the result of a “monstrous union”, the product of Pasiphae’s “unnatural love” (Aeneid, Book 6). When a heroic human being like Theseus — intelligent, brave, civilised — confronts the mythic creature, his or her victory represents our victory over the animal in ourselves.

In the myth’s terms, it is fitting that the wicked Minos who tyrannises the Aegean and demands human sacrifices should be associated with the half-animal Minotaur. The Greeks prided themselves on valuing reason over savagery, order over chaos, civilisation over barbarism. We will look at a further motivation for their making this association in a moment. But first let us look at how Theseus helps embody this contrast.

Theseus is strongly identified with Athens — he is the city’s legendary founder. By defeating various monsters he makes the region safe for civilisation. Theseus is credited with the synoikismos or ‘gathering together’, a process whereby a group of settlements combine to form a polis or city-state, and with the unification of Attica under Athenian rule. He also founded Athens’ constitution and many of its traditions. (One can read of some of his civic achievements in books 24-25 of Plutarch’s Theseus.) It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with the Minotaur, imprisoned in its dark lair awaiting human meat.

Of course, Theseus belongs to the aristocracy. This is a story of the ruling class — Aegeus, Theseus, Minos, Pasiphae, Ariadne and even the Minotaur himself. Theseus is rewarded for his victory over the Minotaur by his accession to the kingship of Athens. This may be the narrative logic behind the story’s epilogue, when Theseus’s failure to raise a white sail leads Aegeus to jump to his death — the old king must be removed so that Theseus may claim the throne on his return.

Another key symbol of the story is the labyrinth, built on Minos’s orders to house the Minotaur. As Apollodorus tells it:

Now the Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way [7]. The labyrinth was constructed by Daidalos... he was an excellent architect and the first inventor of images.

Daidalos (Latin: Daedalus) devised such a bewildering multitude of corridors that, according to the Roman poet Ovid, he “hardly could himself make his way out, so puzzling was the maze”.[8]

A labyrinth and a maze, though the terms are often used interchangeably, are technically not the same thing. A labyrinth is unicursal, i.e. it has a single route to the centre and back again. A maze is multicursal, i.e. it requires a person to make choices about which path they will take.

Nobody has ever discovered a labyrinth on Crete despite extensive excavations, although some scholars have made a case for a quarry near Gortyn as a possible inspiration. The only image from the Minoan period of a labyrinth is on the back of a Linear B clay tablet found at the Mycenaean site of Pylos; given that the text is about a delivery of goats, the image is unlikely to be very meaningful.

LabyrinthLabyrinth image from Minoan clay tablet. Photo: Marsyas.

Labyrinths appear on Cretan coins, but only from the last half-millenium BCE, long after Minoan culture had faded away. At the Egyptian site of Avaris, a Minoan wall painting has been discovered which combines four bulls with the decorative device of meanders: meanders are component parts of mazes, but this is not the same thing as an actual image of one. They seem to represent, if anything, the pattern of a tiled floor, perhaps a courtyard.

In my view, any attempt to find the ‘real’ labyrinth of the Minotaur — for example in the quarry at Gortyn — is on a wild goose chase. This doesn’t mean that there could not be some concrete precedent in Minoan culture that was suggestive to the Greek imagination.

A popular theory for the origins of this aspect of the myth is the impression made on the Mycenaeans who visited Crete by the intricate jumble of architecture in Knossos. The palace has actually been planned and constructed with great care. But with 1300 rooms connected by passages of varying sizes and many interconnecting rooms, it could have seemed (for all the exuberance of its form and decoration) like an intimidating maze to visitors.

But the labyrinth may not be so easily accounted for. The Greek word labyrinthos may derive from the pre-Greek labrys, referring to a double-headed axe which was the dominant religious symbol in Minoan civilisation. The ‘labyrinth’ would therefore be the ‘house of the double-headed axe’.

LabrysA golden Minoan labrys. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber.

The Minoans built courtyards decorated with the labrys, and some archaeologists have proposed that the bull games depicted in Minoan frescoes may at Knossos have been held in the paved central courtyard, or in the Theatral Area at the north-west. The confrontation between human and bull therefore might have a historical precedent, wrought by the mythic imagination into new form. Alternatively, ancient Greeks visiting the baffling site at Knossos may have mixed up the maze-like structure of the palace with the labrys that was so prominent there into a new conception. We don’t know.

There is a passage in Homer’s Iliad, sometimes seen as linking ceremonial dancing to a labyrinth at Knossos, which mentions

a dancing floor as well...
like that one in royal Knossos
Daidalos made for the Princess Ariadne.
Here young men and the most desired young girls
were dancing...
in lines
as though in ranks, they moved on one another.[9]

The Greek traveller Pausanius later describes “Ariadne’s Dance, mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, carved in relief on white stone.”[10] But this is weak evidence for a supposed labyrinth, even weaker for being conveyed through imaginative poetry centuries after the Minoans danced no more.

Several of the ancient accounts refer to something explicitly called, or very closely resembling, a maze. We have cited above Apollodorus and Ovid; Diodorus refers to a labyrinth “the passage-ways of which were so winding that those unfamiliar with them had difficulty in making their way out”. Whatever its obscure origins, the image of the Minotaur trapped in a confusing maze was well established among the ancient Greeks by the time the surviving accounts were written.

The lair of the Minotaur may have been as much a spiritual one — a dark and confusing place of the mind — as a physical construction. The ‘palaces’ of the Minoans were built to a different, more organic scheme to the orderly architecture of classical Greece, and may in the myth have functioned as a symbol of unreason, an appropriate companion to the half-animal Minotaur and the barbaric Minos. For this reason it is not hard to see why a labyrinth in the strict (i.e. unicursal) sense is less powerful as an image than a maze which one could never escape except by one’s own ingenuity and heroism.

Minoan Crete vs Mycenaean Greece

Daidalos (“cunning worker”), who receives his earliest recorded mention in Homer’s Iliad in the extract cited above, was, like Theseus, an Athenian. This might not be accidental. One of the symbolic oppositions suggested by the story is that of Cretans as animal and tyrannical, and of Athenians as civilised and rational. It is true that Daidalos was no moral paragon: he had fled Greece after murdering his talented young apprentice Talos in a fit of envy, and his career sometimes serves as a caution against the possible dangers of technology. But Daidalos was a craftsman renowned for his ingenuity. He helps Ariadne by supplying her with the thread that will save her beloved Theseus. He thereby stands up to the will of the tyrant Minos, and affirms the power of reason (the simple but ingenious solution to the problem of escaping the labyrinth) against chaos (the confusing maze with its flesh-eating half-beast). Minos persecutes and pursues Daidalos when he hears of his part in Theseus’s feat, but that is another story.[11]

Minos himself appears only in myth. Apart from a couple of ambiguous inscriptions in Linear A, we have no historical evidence of his existence. There may have been a historical individual who inspired his mythological namesake, or ‘Minos’ may have been a Cretan word for ‘king’ rather like the Egyptian ‘Pharaoh’, or he may be pure invention. There is a curious continuity in Minos’s story: he was himself fathered by a bull, in a sense, as this was the form taken by Zeus when he abducted Europa. Yet this act of lechery was typical of Zeus and must be understood differently to the curse of Poseidon.

In mythology Minos seems to play a dual role. On the one hand we have a constructive ruler who establishes a Cretan constitution and enjoys “familiar converse with great Zeus” [12]; on the other hand, a cruel figure described by the Greek geographer Strabo as “tyrannical, harsh, and an exactor of tribute”. This contradiction was noted by Plutarch:

For Minos was always abused and reviled in the Attic theatres, and it did not avail him either that Hesiod called him “most royal,” or that Homer styled him “a confidant of Zeus,” but the tragic poets prevailed, and from platform and stage showered obloquy down upon him, as a man of cruelty and violence. And yet they say that Minos was a king and lawgiver, and that Rhadamanthus was a judge under him, and a guardian of the principles of justice defined by him.

One response to this has been to see the mythological figure as two different kings, the first beneficent and civilised, the second tyrannical. Whatever one’s view on that question, it is a less than admirable Minos who appears in the Minotaur story. Minos rashly attempts to trick the gods by keeping the finest bull for himself, the sort of arrogance (or hubris) the Greeks strongly disapproved of; he is punished by the unnatural union of his wife with a bull and cursed with a half-animal son; and he attacks Athens and demands an appalling tribute in the form of seven youths and seven maidens, all virgins, who every year (or nine years, depending upon the version) are to be sent to the Minotaur to be eaten alive.

These acts of cannibalism by the Minotaur — who is, after all, half-human — are a potent symbol of ‘bestiality’ in the myth. Cannibalism was as much a taboo for the ancient Greeks as it is for us. There are plenty of illustrations in Greek myth of it being rejected or punished: for example, when Tantalus serves up his own son Pelops in a stew for the gods, the gods refuse to eat. When the father of the Olympians, Kronos, eats his children to prevent them challenging him for power, he is punished when Zeus is carried away to safety and later returns to overthrow him. Accusing someone of cannibalism was as effective a way to demonise them as it would be today.

Why would the Greeks seek to demonise the Cretans?

The story seems to refer back to the period when Crete was the pre-eminent civilisation in the Aegean, a period in which Greek cities — including Athens, which in around 1500 BCE was a Mycenaean settlement — lived in its shadow and perhaps even had to pay the Minoans tribute.

In his Histories Herodotus mentions the Carians, who occupied the Greek islands and were subjects of Minos, and says they paid no tribute. This was perhaps because they ‘filled his ships’ on demand: but Herodotus’ statement implies that other peoples did have to pay tribute, and he goes on, ‘Minos had subjected much land and was of good fortune in war’.[13] He and Thucydides both credit the Minoans with naval dominance of the Aegean, contributing to theories of a Minoan thalassocracy, or sea empire, in the region.

Whether Athens paid tribute to the Minoans of any sort, let alone in the form of human sacrifices, we can’t say. Modern archaeology has not discovered evidence that the Minoans attempted to dominate anyone, even where they had settled overseas. Minoan artifacts across the Aegean imply some level of cultural distribution, but this is not the same as political or military domination. The relative defencelessness of the towns on Crete itself implies an internal peace that is at odds with the incessant strife of the later Greek states, and with the walled citadels of the Mycenaeans.

The story, however, suggests a polarisation between a harsh Cretan power and a heroic civilised Athens. The equation of Crete with tyranny, animality and even cannibalism therefore acts as propaganda against a hegemonic foe — perhaps the second, oppressive version of Minos. Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, like Herakles’ subduing of the Cretan Bull and Theseus’s later killing of that animal, may be a symbol of the shift of power from Minoan Crete to Mycenaean Greece. It may also represent the overthrow of an archaic religious order with a new one. Theseus would then characterise not an individual so much as an episode of history.

We should take care not to equate the fledgling Athens contemporaneous with Bronze Age Crete with the Athens that achieved hegemony over the Greek world about a thousand years after Minoan civilisation was snuffed out. But we do not look to myths for historical accuracy. The story may be a dim reflection of a historical context, obscured by the intervening ‘Dark Ages’ and converted into a heroic narrative by the oral tradition. We may speculate about whether Theseus or Minos represent actual leaders, etc, but the story’s interest for us lies in how it characterises the two civilisations and what meaning this had for the Greeks.


The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur has been taken up by subsequent artists and reshaped for their own purposes. The Minotaur appears briefly in Dante’s Inferno, both Blake and Picasso made drawings of him, and the surrealist movement named a journal after him — to name just a handful of examples.

This is perhaps because the myth works on many levels. Most immediately it is a stirring tale. It also explores some profound psychological questions, and embodies such oppositions as reason and unreason, civilisation and barbarism, which fascinated the Greeks. It is also a political story, a form of propaganda that presents the Greeks as heroic, the decaying Cretan power as deserving overthrow. As such, it tells us more about the Greeks than about the Minoans.

It is important for us not to oversimplify, for reasons of space, the complexity of the story. The myth of the Minotaur is not a simplistic account of a muscular hero defeating an evil monster, but part of a narrative continuum. Theseus and the Minotaur are partly both products of deeds that predate them and over which they have no control. It is how Theseus responds to the situation he finds himself in which determines his heroism. The characters are complex and sometimes contradictory. Daidalos devises the clever ruse of the thread, but he also built the labyrinth in the first place; Minos does not follow acceptable Greek practice by killing his cursed son by exposure, albeit keeping him in degraded conditions; the paragon Theseus (for whatever reason) does not honour his promise to Ariadne and later kidnaps another woman, Helen of Troy.

Being a myth, the story is of course elusive. There is no ‘correct answer’ to what it is all about, and there are other possible readings not explored here. This is the ambiguity of symbolic representations, which are not necessarily directed rooted in any concrete thing.

Anybody approaching this myth will, as Rodney Castleden commented, “inevitably be diverted and distracted to some extent by archaic images rising up from the mythic Knossos, the exotic city round which the Greeks wove fantastic legends.”[14] As well as this, and the limits of the archaeological evidence available, consider the timespans involved: arising in an oral tradition, the story was already centuries old when writers like Apollodorus or Plutarch recorded it. Even if there really was a King Minos, who lived at the peak of Minoan civilisation — say around 1600 BCE — he would have been dead roughly 800 years before even Homer’s work was first written down. The existence of different versions of the myth emphasises the elusive nature of imaginative narratives whose contact with archaeological fact is confusing and partial at best.

Trying to find concrete historical precedents for mythology always involves a great deal of speculation. Nonetheless, the scientific background to this story gives us fascinating insights into its possible origins and meaning. As two Aegean specialists put it:

The old legends, in short, may not have been nostalgic fantasies of a lost golden age spun out of whole cloth, but rather seemed to be dim memories of a very real, rich and vibrant civilisation...[15]

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur illustrates how mythology, for all its psychology and fancy, does not spring mysteriously from the imagination, but is a product of particular social and material conditions, even if the connection has become very obscure. And it shows that even a fairy tale has an ideological spin.

Further investigation
Apollodorus: Bibliotheke
Plutarch: ‘Theseus’ from Parallel Lives
The Theoi Project on the Minotaur, Ariadne and the Cretan Bull

[1] Marx, Introduction to the Grundrisse (1857–61).
[2] As it cites writers who lived after Apollodorus, the Bibliotheke cannot have been written by him. For this reason the writer is sometimes referred to as ‘Pseudo-Apollodorus’. The book survives in three books, plus an epitome by J. G. Frazer which summarises the lost part.
[3] Apollodorus, 3.1.3. From the translation by James George Frazer. The story continues in sections 3.15.7–3.16.2 and in the ‘Epitome’ 1.7–1.10. I have regularised the spelling of ‘Daedalus’ as ‘Daidalos’ for consistency with the rest of my article.
[4] Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, 77.2 of Library of History (1st century BCE). In the 40th of his Fabulae, Pseudo-Hyginus writes that the curse was laid on Pasiphae by Venus for failing for several years to make offerings to her.
[5] Respectively, Philostratus the Elder, Book 1 section 16 of Imagines, and Propertius, Book 2 poem 32 of the Elegies.
[6] The Cretan Bull features in another story of the ancient Greeks, the seventh labour of Herakles (Hercules). After it impregnates Pasiphae, the bull continues to rampage around the island, and Herakles was bidden to wrestle and capture it. It is later finally despatched by Theseus in one of his first adventures before he sails to confront the Minotaur.
[7] Apollodorus, 3.1.4. This phrase seems itself to be a quotation by Apollodorus from an unknown source.
[8] Ovid, Book 8 of Metamorphoses.
[9] Homer, Book 18 of The Iliad. I have cited the translation by Robert Fitzgerald.
[10] Pausanius, 9.40.3 of Description of Greece (2nd century CE).
[11] Which is also recounted by Apollodorus, introducing on the way the equally famous story of Daidalos’s son Icarus and his wings of wax. One can read about Daidalos and his career at the Perseus Digital Library.
[12] Homer, Book 19, line 178 of The Odyssey.
[13] Herodotus, 1.171 of Histories.
[14] Rodney Castleden, The Knossos Labyrinth (1990). We often see ancient Crete through a prism of Greek myth and legend.
[15] Donald Preziosi and Louise A. Hitchcock, Aegean Art and Architecture (1999).