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Minotaur

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (Greek: Μινόταυρος, Min¤âtauros) was a creature that was part man and part bull. It dwelt in the Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction built for King Minos of Crete and designed by the architect Daedalus to hold the Minotaur. The actual historical site of Knossos is usually identified as the site of the labyrinth. The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus.

"Minotaur" is Greek for "Bull of Minos". The bull was also known as Asterius or Asterion, a name shared with Minos's foster father.

Birth and appearance

The literary myth satisfied a Hellenic interpretation of Minoan myth and ritual. According to this, before Minos became king, he asked the Greek god Poseidon for a sign, to assure him that he, and not his brother, was to receive the throne (other accounts say that he boasted that the gods wanted him to be king). Poseidon agreed to send a white bull on condition Minos would sacrifice the bull to the god in return. Indeed, a bull of unmatched beauty came out of the sea. King Minos, after seeing it, found it so beautiful that he instead sacrificed another bull, hoping that Poseidon would not notice. Poseidon was very angry when he realized what had been done, so he caused Minos's wife, Pasiphae, to be overcome with a fit of madness in which she fell in love with the bull. Pasiphae went to Daedalus for assistance, and Daedalus devised a way for her to satisfy her passions. He constructed a hollow wooden cow covered with cowhide for Pasiphae to hide in and allow the bull to mount her. The result of this union was the Minotaur (the Bull of Minos), who some say bore the proper name Asterius (the Starry One). In some accounts, the white bull went on to become the Cretan Bull captured by Hercules as one of his labours.

The Minotaur had the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. Pasiphae nursed him in his infancy, but he grew and became ferocious. Minos, after getting advice from the Oracle at Delphi, had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur. It was located under Minos' palace in Knossos.

The price that brought Theseus

Now it happened that Androgeus, son of Minos, had been killed by the Athenians, who were jealous of the victories he had won at the Panathenaic festival. Others say he was killed by the Cretan bull at Marathon (his mother's former taurine lover) which Aegeus, king of Athens, had commanded him to slay. To avenge the death of his son, Minos waged war and won. He then demanded that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, drawn by lots, be sent every ninth year (some accounts say every year) to be devoured by the Minotaur. When the third sacrifice came round, Theseus volunteered to go to slay the monster. He promised to his father, Aegeus, that he would put up a white sail on his journey back home if he was successful. Ariadne, in the Greek version the daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and helped him get out of the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path. Theseus killed the Minotaur (with a magical sword Ariadne had given him) and led the other Athenians back out of the labyrinth. However Theseus forgot to change the black sails of mourning for white sails of success, so his father, overcome with grief, leapt off the clifftop from which he had kept watch for his son's return every day since Theseus had departed into the sea. Then it became known as the Aegean Sea.

Minos, angry that Theseus was able to escape, imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. They were able to escape by building wings for themselves, but Icarus died during the escape as he flew too high and the wax which held the feathers in the wing melted as it was closer to the Sun.

Interpretations

The contest between Theseus and the Minotaur was frequently represented in Greek art. A Knossian didrachm exhibits on one side the labyrinth, on the other the Minotaur surrounded by a semicircle of small balls, probably intended for stars; it is to be noted that one of the monster's names was Asterius.

The ruins of Minos' palace at Knossos have been found, but the labyrinth has not. The enormous number of rooms, staircases and corridors in the palace has led archaeologists to believe that the palace itself was the source of the labyrinth myth. Homer, describing the shield of Achilles, remarked that the labyrinth was Ariadne's ceremonial dancing ground.

Some modern mythologists regard the Minotaur as a solar personification and a Minoan adaptation of the Baal-Moloch of the Phoenicians. The slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus in that case indicates the breaking of Athenian tributary relations with Minoan Crete.

According to A. B. Cook, Minos and Minotaur are only different forms of the same personage, representing the sun-god of the Cretans, who depicted the sun as a bull. He and J. G. Frazer both explain Pasiphae's union with the bull as a sacred ceremony, at which the queen of Knossos was wedded to a bull-formed god, just as the wife of the Tyrant in Athens was wedded to Dionysus. E. Pottier, who does not dispute the historical personality of Minos, in view of the story of Phalaris, considers it probable that in Crete (where a bull-cult may have existed by the side of that of the double axe) victims were tortured by being shut up in the belly of a red-hot brazen bull. The story of Talos, the Cretan man of brass, who heated himself red-hot and clasped strangers in his embrace as soon as they landed on the island, is probably of similar origin.

A historical explanation of the myth refers to the time when Crete was the main political and cultural potency in the Mediterranean sea. As the fledgling Athens (and probably other continental Greek cities) was under tribute to Crete, it can be assumed that such tribute included young men and women for sacrifice. This ceremony was performed by a priest disguised with a bull head or mask, thus explaining the imagery of the Minotaur. It may also be that this priest was son to Minos.

Once continental Greece was free from Crete's dominance, the myth of the Minotaur worked to distance the forming religious consciousness from Minoan beliefs.

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