The Minotaur

I’m not particularly keen on scholarly attempts to demythologize the Ancient World (since such attempts are nearly always excessively rationalistic), but I have to say I found the following possible explanation for the myth of the Minotaur to be intriguing.

The myth, to recap, features the story that Athens had to pay a yearly tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to King Minos, ruler of Knossos on Crete. These were to be eaten by the monstrous half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur–progeny, via the interference of Zeus, of Minos’ wife and a bull. So violent was the Minotaur that Minos had Daedalus, his resident genius, construct an inescapable maze, the Labyrinth, in which the Minotaur would be imprisoned. The hapless Athenian youths would be sent into the Labyrinth to be picked off at will by the monster. At last, the hero Theseus arose to deal with this horrific arrangement. With the help of the king’s daughter, Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string to unwind as he walked, Theseus fought and killed the Minotaur and escaped the Labyrinth.

The stuff myths are made of, indeed. According to an older book on Ancient Greece,:”(H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks [Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, rep. 1964], pg. 17.)”: Sir Arthur Evans, excavator of Minoan Crete, discovered numerous friezes, statuettes, and other evidence indicating that the Minoans on Crete worshipped bulls (tauros). King Minos seems to have actually existed, and his magnificent palace, dug up by Evans, architecturally conjures the image of a labyrinth. Since Thucydides tells us that Knossos was the center of a powerful sea-faring society (a “thalassocracy”), it is not difficult to imagine King Minos taking Athenian hostages to guarantee the cooperation of mainland Greeks with his regime.

Thus, Minos + tauros + labyrinthine palace + youthful hostages + swashbuckling hero retrojected into the past from a later age = one whopping good story that has significant moorings in real live history.

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