The Greek legends about the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, are extremely old. The Minotaur myth was in fact ancient already when it was written down by Greek scholars in antiquity. Essentially all the Greek legends and myths are about the time before antiquity – the mystical Bronze Age.
By Annika Lagerhorn
Only two legends have survived in their entirety
The ancient legends were retold and recited orally for centuries by bards before the scholars of antiquity decided to capture them in text. Only two legends survived the transfer to written text more or less unscathed: Homer’s works the Iliad and the Odyssey. These two works are the only legends that were written down in their entirety, line by line, in thousands of lines. All other legends have only survived as summaries, which make them similar to reading a review – or reading the summary on the backside of a book – instead of reading the full story. Not surprisingly, large parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey have a far more realistic feel compared to the other legends, most probably because they have been less exposed to the ravages of time and bad alterations.
The real background behind the legends
But what does that tell us about the other legends, such as the legend about the Minotaur? Would they also have had a more realistic feel if they had been written down in full? Are there other aspects of these stories, that we do not understand today, that make them appear more fanciful than they originally were? What if all these stories originate in a real, sometimes brutal, Bronze Age reality?
It is easy to draw the conclusion that people were more superstitious in the past, but a more sober approach is to assume that people were more or less like we are today. And that the old legends to the most extent tell about reality, but that the bards of the time used metaphors and references that we do not fully grasp. So, here is my attempt to uncover the Bronze Age reality behind the Minotaur myth, and the following adventures of the great hero Theseus who is supposed to have killed the Minotaur. My analysis is based mainly on the writings of two scholars from antiquity: The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus (translated and commented by C.H. Oldfather) and The Library by Apollodorus (translated and commented by Sir James George Frazer). I have used the same methods that I used when I helped Malena with the research for her book Heracles – A Psychopath’s Tale.
The conception of the Minotaur
Legend tells that Minos wants to rule Crete, but some people are opposed to that. Hence, Minos claims that he has received the kingdom from the gods and as proof, whatever he prays for will be done by the gods. He prays to Poseidon, god of the seas, that a bull will appear from the sea and that he will sacrifice that bull to Poseidon. Poseidon kindly sends the bull, and this “proves” that Minos is the right ruler and he obtains the kingdom. But the bull is so fine that Minos decides to keep it and he sacrifices another bull instead. Another version of the myth tells that Minos every year sacrifices the finest bull from his herds to Poseidon, but this particular bull is so fine that he sacrifices another bull.
Anyway, this angers Poseidon, who decides to make the bull ferocious and also wake a passion for the bull in Minos’ wife Pasiphae. Filled with passion, Pasiphae asks the architect Daedalus to help her live out her passion. Daedalus constructs a wooden cow that he covers with hides and Pasiphae creeps into the cow and can this way couple with the bull. She later gives birth to the monster Minotaur that has the upper body of a bull but the lower body of a man. This apparently dangerous monster, the Minotaur, is kept in a labyrinth where it cannot find its way out. The labyrinth is also constructed by Daedalus, who obviously is a man with engineering skills.
Or the construction of the Minotaur
Fanciful or not, the story about the Minotaur could have a realistic background. Bulls may in fact be symbols for water, waves, or rivers. There is another ancient legend where the hero Hercules “battles” against the river Acheolus and the river takes the shape of a bull (I use the Roman name Hercules instead of the older Greek name Heracles since most people are familiar with the name Hercules). Acheolus is also the name of an ancient god of rivers and water, the origin of all fresh water according to Homer. Furthermore, Acheolus seems to have been pictured as a bull with a man’s face in ancient times. Like an inverted, or upside down, version of the Minotaur.
So, if bulls may be symbols for water, the story about the Minotaur could be about constructing some kind of wall against the sea (ruled by Poseidon) or a river (ruled by Acheolus) to prevent flooding. Or a harbor construction. Or, considering the fact that there are also elements of conception and fertility in the legend, the Minotaur myth could be about the building of an irrigation system to keep the land fertile in times of drought. Maybe Pasiphae came up with the idea and Daedalus built an ingenious irrigation system – later misinterpreted as a labyrinth where the Minotaur (water) was trapped or “tamed”?
Androgeus is killed
The Minotaur myth continues: King Minos’ son Androgeus travels to Athens to take part in the Panathenaic festival and defeats all contestants in the games at the festival. He also makes friends with the sons of Pallas. Pallas and his sons are more or less rivals of Augeus, king of Athens, so king Augeus sends people to kill Androgeus when he is on his way to another festival in Thebes.
Another version of the myth tells that king Augeus sends Androgeus against the bull of Marathon. This bull was according to some people the very same bull that Minos refused to sacrifice and the father of the Minotaur. The bull was captured by the hero Hercules in one of his labors and was then let loose. The bull roamed around and came to Marathon. There is yet another version that states that Androgeus is killed in the war against Athens.
Whatever the reason, Minos wages war against Athens because of his son’s death and prays to the god Zeus for help, and Zeus sends famine and pestilence to Athens. The Athenians first try to get rid of the famine by sacrificing the daughters of Hyacinth, but the famine continues. In his translation of The Library of Apollodorus, Frazer comments that there are several Greek legends where maidens freely sacrifice themselves to free their country of pestilence, famine, or prolonged drought, so there might have existed a tradition of that kind in ancient times.
There are similar legends from northern Europe. According to an old Norse legend, the king of the Swedes, Domalde, was sacrificed after three years of bad harvests. And among the Celts, the kings were symbolically “married” to the goddess of the land and could be sacrificed in difficult times. Lately, the Celtic legends have been verified by the finds of bog bodies, bodies of people who have been killed or sacrificed in bogs, that show signs of having belonged to the nobility of the time.
Sacrifices to the Minotaur
When nothing works, the people of Athens ask an oracle what they should do to get rid of the pestilence and famine and they get the answer from the god, Zeus presumably, that they should give Minos whatever satisfaction he wants (for the killing of his son Androgeus). Minos says that he wants seven youths and seven maidens sent to him every year, or every nine years according to another version, as fodder to the Minotaur.
Very gruesome indeed. A more plausible and realistic explanation is that Minos wages war against Athens simply because he wants to make it a vassal state and Androgeus is killed in the war. As a vassal state, Athens must regularly send some kind of tribute to Minos. Perhaps the youngsters were supposed to labor with the labyrinth – or irrigation system or dam – to keep it intact and well-functioning, given that my guess about the Minotaur and the labyrinth is correct.
The hero enters the scene
The great hero of the Minotaur myth is Theseus. He is a son of king Augeus, outside of marriage. Augeus puts his sword and sandals under a rock and tells Theseus’ mother that if she gives birth to a son, she should send him to Augeus when he is strong enough to roll away the rock. Now, this is the Bronze Age and no one would be stupid enough to put a bronze sword and sandals under a rock since these very valuable items would be destroyed. But being able to roll away a big rock was probably a fairly good way to make certain that a young person was no longer a child.
So, when (teenage?) Theseus is old enough he manages to roll away the rock. He picks up the sword and sandals and walks to Athens. On the way, he clears the road from evildoers. There is a long recounting in the legend of very grotesque people here. For example, Theseus kills a man who compels people who pass by to lie down on a bed. The man then cuts off body parts of those who are too long for the bed and stretches those who are too short. And so on. All these grotesque stories of evildoers who are killed by Theseus were probably old folklore stories that were well known at the time and were added to the story to give it more action and to make young Theseus a hero.
The similarities between Theseus and Hercules
The killings of all those evildoers are reminiscent of the legends of Hercules. Apart from his twelve labors, there are many fanciful myths about Hercules where he kills evildoers of a similar kind, actually a few of the stories are almost identical to those of Theseus. When it comes to Hercules, a lot of people in antiquity claimed to have him as their ancestor, and they probably wanted to add more fame to the myth to give themselves a grander reputation. The name Hercules may also have been used in the same way as we use the word “prince” today in fairytales.
However, when you take away all the fanciful stories about Hercules, and also the stellar myths that are connected to the name Hercules, a number of very realistic stories remains, stories about a real man who lived very, very far back in time. A man of action and courage, yes, but also a ruthless man who raped, stole, and killed. This man, the real man who once may have had the name Hercules or Heracles, is the main character of the book Heracles – A Psychopath’s Tale, for which I have done most of the research. It is scary when you read all the old sources from antiquity about Hercules and you realize that this evil man may once have lived. Theseus was maybe not as ruthless, but definitely not a nice guy, as you will see below.
Theseus travels to the Minotaur
Back to Theseus and the Minotaur: When Theseus arrives at Athens, king Augeus’ wife Medea tries to kill him by convincing king Augeus to send Theseus against the Marathonian bull, the “father” of the Minotaur, as mentioned above. Theseus manages to kill the bull and avoids Medea’s plots. He also makes king Augeus recognize him by showing his sword.
Now Theseus is numbered among those who will be sent as the third (or first or second, the sources vary) tribute to the Minotaur. Some say however that Theseus offered himself voluntarily. The ship has black sails and king Augeus tells his son that if he returns alive, he should signal that by hoisting white sails on the ship. According to the version written down by the Greek scholar Diodorus Siculus, king Augeus makes an agreement with the captain on the ship that if Theseus overcomes the Minotaur the sails should be white, but if he dies, the sails should be black “just as they had been accustomed to do on the previous occasion”.
The previous occasion? According to this version, they have obviously previously decided to signal with black or white sails if the young people (?) sent to Minos would come back dead or alive (?). If so, this contradicts the fanciful idea that the Minotaur eats all the young people sent to him. In reality, it seems more likely that they were sent as a labor force, or to take part in a ritual of some kind, lost in the fog of history, that was hazardous and dangerous and that there was a risk that one or some would not come back alive.
Theseus and Ariadne
When they have arrived at Crete, Minos’ daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, who is unusually handsome according to the Greek scholar Diodorus Siculus. She helps him to kill the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth, on the promise that he takes her home to be his wife. The legend tells that she gives Theseus a “clue” from Daedalus. This clue is supposed to be a ball of thread that he fastens at the entrance of the labyrinth and by drawing it after him he can find his way out again.
Ariadne and Dionysos
Theseus brings Ariadne and the other young men and women (or teenagers? children?) on his ship back home and they put in at the island of Dia, later called Naxos. Here, a guy, or god, called Dionysos falls in love with Ariadne and takes her away from Theseus and makes her his wife.
There is however another version of this episode in Homer’s Odyssey, which tells that the goddess Artemis slews Ariadne because of the witness of Dionysos. The goddess Artemis, like the god Apollon, were symbolically said to send arrows of disease. It could be that Ariadne fell ill and died on the island. If the island was sacred to the god Dionysos, or had a shrine dedicated to Dionysos, this could maybe metaphorically be explained as Ariadne becoming the wife of Dionysos. As mentioned above, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are probably less affected by alterations and I find this version the most plausible one.
Anyway, Theseus is devastated and forgets about the sails. When his father king Augeus sees the black sails, he commits suicide.
The kidnap of Antiope
After the Minotaur adventure, Theseus becomes king of Athens after his father. Now the legend tells that he joins Hercules in an expedition against the Amazons and kidnaps the Amazon Antiope. When I did the research about Hercules / Heracles for Malena’s book Heracles – A Psychopath’s Tale, I mapped out all the adventures and legends about the real man Hercules, taking away the stellar myths and folklore connected to the name Hercules and sticking to realistic events. I find it not very likely that Hercules and Theseus fought together against the Amazons. Rather, they had their own separate skirmishes with Amazons. The origin of the Amazons is unknown, but the name Amazon seems to be used to describe people where the women had a strong position in society and carried weapons.
Anyhow, bride robbery is mentioned several times in the Greek legends, the most famous one being Paris robbing Helen from her home and husband. The fact that bride robbery is mentioned so often points at the fact that this sad tradition was fairly common. Antiope and Theseus had the son Hippolytus, but Antiope seems to have returned to her relatives after giving birth.
And now some Greek drama…
Deucalion, son of Minos, has taken over the rule of Crete after his father Minos has died and Deucalion’s sister Phaedra marries Theseus, probably to have stronger political connections between Crete and Athens. So, the Minotaur conflict seems to be over and done with. At the wedding, Antiope and some other Amazons appear and threaten to kill the wedding guests, but Theseus and his men manage to close the door and kill her. Other versions of the myth tell that Antiope is killed by Theseus in battle. Either way, the kidnap of Antiope must have been really brutal, and not a voluntary action, as she regards her “husband” as an enemy.
The family drama gets even worse. Theseus’ new wife Phaedra falls in love with his son Hippolytus, but when Hippolytus is not interested in bedding her, she tells Theseus that Hippolytus has assaulted her. He believes her and prays to the god of the seas, Poseidon, that his son Hippolytus will die. And later, when Hippolytus is riding his chariot by the sea, Poseidon sends up a “bull” (a wave?) from the sea that frightens the horses. The chariot crashes, Hippolytus becomes entangled in the reins, and dies. When Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus becomes known, she hangs herself. What a drama. The bull/wave that Poseidon sends again indicates that the Minotaur myth could be related to water, for example some kind of construction work connected to water, waves, or rivers.
The kidnap of Helen
Theseus has a friend, Peirithous. When Peirithous marries a woman called Hippodameia, Theseus and a number of Centaurs are invited to the wedding (think of Centaurs as a tribe or family line, not as people with the lower body of a horse). The Centaurs are not used to wine and become drunk at the wedding and start assaulting the female guests. Hence, Theseus and Peirithous kill some of them and drive the rest away. The violence at the wedding party is sometimes called the “war” against the Centaurs in the Greek sources, probably to make the violence a bit more grandiose.
Now both Theseus and Peirithous are widowers. They decide that they want to marry “daughters of Zeus” (think of Zeus as an important ancestor a few generations back). Instead of dating or courting, that a normal person would do, they start with kidnapping Helen when she is only ten or twelve years old. Helen is the same Helen who about twenty-five to thirty years later (if you count the generations and map out all the people involved) is kidnapped by Paris, an event that becomes the ignition spark of the battle of Troy. Helen is a bit young and the Athenians do not like what Theseus has done, so he leaves the child with his mother. However, Helen’s two brothers Castor and Polydeuces manage to take her back.
The rescue by Hercules
At that time, Theseus and Peirithous have gone to kidnap Persephone as wife for Peirithous. In Greek mythology, Persephone is the wife of Hades, god of the dead. Theseus and Peirithous fail however and are trapped in the regions of Hades. Later, Hercules manages to rescue them while he is carrying out one of his labors, namely to fetch the monstrous dog Cerberus from Hades. Another version claims that Hercules only manages to rescue Theseus and other versions that Hercules rescued none of them.
In the sources from antiquity there is also a somewhat more rational or realistic version about the king of the Molossians or Thesprotians, king Aidoneus, who has a wife called Persephone, a daughter called Cora, and a dog called Cerberus. In this version, king Aidoneus promises to give his daughter in marriage to the one who can master the ferocious dog. When he realizes that Theseus and Peirithous do not intend to court his daughter but kidnap her, he arrests them. The dog kills Peirithous but Hercules helps Theseus being released.
The ruthless heroes
Theseus and Hercules / Heracles lived at about the same time, but Hercules was a few decades older. When I have sifted away all the stellar myths and folkloristic additions and tried to stick to the more realistic events that remain about these two ruthless men, I do not find it very likely that they had adventures together.
Originally, the tales about Theseus and Hercules were probably parts of chronicles, retold among the audience in the ancient past, in the Bronze Age before antiquity. The bards of the time used a lot of metaphors and added folkloristic tales to make the stories more captivating to the listeners. Later, many of those metaphors were misunderstood and/or taken literally. And most probably, bards and ancestors in later times made additions to the ancient legends, to make them more grandiose. Skirmishes became “wars”, chieftains “kings”, and so on. And courageous but also very ruthless men like Theseus and Hercules got a reputation that far exceeded their accomplishments. Especially the rapist and murderer Hercules. This is also why Malena and I decided to write a book about him, a book about the real man that shines through the lines and who still speaks to us from a very distant, ancient past.
Copyright Annika Lagerhorn
The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, Books III-IV, translated and commented by C.H. Oldfather
The Library by Apollodorus, Books 2 and 3 and Epitome, translated and commented by Sir James George Frazer (If you read this one, check Frazer’s footnotes because he has great comments and also refer to other ancient sources about the same myths.)