What is a Minotaur?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

In Dante's "Inferno," the Minotaur guards a circle of hell.
In Dante's "Inferno," the Minotaur guards a circle of hell.

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.

The minotaur is said to have the head of a bull.
The minotaur is said to have the head of a bull.

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.

In Greek myth, a minotaur was killed in a labyrinth by Theseus.
In Greek myth, a minotaur was killed in a labyrinth by Theseus.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

JessicaLynn

I think it's interesting that the legacy of the minotaur has kind of lived on in mazes. I can't really think of any other myth that involves a labyrinth or a maze, so it seems safe to say that the story of the minotaur immortalized the maze.

I know where I live, mazes tend to pop up around Halloween, in haunted houses and things like that. I wonder if mazes are considered to be kind of scary because of the story of the minotaur?

Azuza

@SZapper - Well, that's an interesting perspective. Most people root for Theseus, but you feel sorry for the minotaur! I personally don't. Yes the minotaur was dealt a rough hand in life, but he was still cruel and vicious and ate people.

Anyway, I agree with the people who think the minotaur represents an even more ancient mythology than the Ancient Greeks. It makes sense, considering how many stories there are about the minotaur, and how many variations there are on a single minotaur story.

SZapper

Maybe I really, really like to root for the underdog or something, but I always feel really sorry for the minotaur. I mean, it wasn't his fault that his father made Poseidon angry, and then Poseidon forced his mother to mate with the bull. It seems like the minotaur really couldn't help his nature.

Obviously the Greeks didn't want to sacrifice people to the minotaur in his minotaur mazes every year, but maybe they didn't have to kill him? I'm sure they could have found some way to contain the minotaur, even as strong as he was.

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