The minotaur is creature in Greek mythology with the head of a bull, a bull’s tale and a man’s body. He is particularly connected with the island of Crete, where he was said to have lived his adult life in an elaborate labyrinth at Knossos. Vicious and powerful, the minotaur guarded the labyrinth until he was slain by the Greek hero Theseus.
There are many classical scholars who suggest the minotaur, since it is so pervasive in Greek mythology, represents a more ancient mythology cycle than that of Ancient Greece. In particular, scholars like Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough believe that the creature represents a much older sun God worshipped by the Cretans prior to their adopting Zeus and the Greek pantheon of gods. Others connect the minotaur and his bull father to the Phoenician worship of Ba’al, the well-known golden calf of the Bible.
In Greek mythology, though, the minotaur is a ferocious beast and a strong lesson in the consequences of offending a god. He is the child of the strange liaison between the wife of King Minos, Pasiphaë, and the white Cretan bull. Accounts of the myth tell that King Minos prayed to Poseidon for a white bull, but then liked the bull so much he refused to sacrifice it. Poseidon got his revenge by causing Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull. She mated with the bull and the result was the strange man/bull creature who was too wild and vicious to raise as a normal child.
As an adult, the minotaur is a cannibal, demanding tribute of women and men each year, who he would then devour. Some myths tell that Theseus, the hero, volunteered to be part of the yearly tribute so that he could attempt to slay the beast. Theseus was aided by Minos’ daughter Ariadne, and used a ball of string to navigate his way through the labyrinth where he slew the creature and freed the Greeks held hostage by him.
Minotaurs and the contest between Theseus and the creature at Crete have been represented in various art forms. The slaying of the minotaur was a subject of much classical Greek art, and up to modern and postmodern art, representations of the minotaur, particularly in the work of Picasso, continue to fascinate. Dante’s Inferno places the beast as guardian to the seventh circle of hell, and in more modern literature, C.S. Lewis used the beast as a commander of the White Witch’s army in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.