Mythic Monday: Minotaur

Tonight’s post is brought to you by request of a certain super awesome security dude/friend/geek extraordinaire.

We’re going back to Greek mythology tonight for one of the most iconic monsters ever. The Minotaur. I love this myth, because it’s full of tragedy, horror, evil, physically improbable impregnation, and ultimately I can’t help but root for the Monster every time.

The Minotaur myth originates specifically in Crete (Krete). Let’s go over the quick (NON-Ovid version) of how he came to be.

As usual, it begins with pissing off the Gods. Now there are two ancient versions I’ve found of the Minotaur’s birth. In the later version (Roman), Queen Pasiphae, daughter of Helios (the Sun) and wife of King Minos of Krete had gotten…hmm…somewhat lax in her offerings to Venus (that’d be Aphrodite in English-translated Greek). Venus’s revenge was to curse Pasiphae with an unnatural lust for the prize bull Minos received from Poseidon. She convinced Daedalus to fashion a hollow wooden cow and, well, yeah. The physics of that whole scene is sort of astounding, but there you go. She ends up pregnant by a God’s prize bull and gives birth to Asterion, a human boy with the face of a bull. Minos banishes the boy to the center of the Labyrinth built under Crete to live his life as a monster. s

In most older versions, King Minos is given a gorgeous prize bull by Poseidon to sacrifice, but he keeps the bull instead of properly sacrificing it. This royally ticks off Poseidon, and in vengeance he makes Pasiphae lust for the bull. The rest of the story of Asterion’s birth is pretty similar. If you bother to read the Ovid version suddenly Pasiphae is an adulteress and a whore. I’m sure you can tell by now that I’m not a fan of Ovid.

Years later, when another of Minos’s sons is killed in Athens, Minos calls down a plague on the Athenian people (or, wages war and wins, depending on the story). The only way to restore peace is an annual sacrifice of seven Athenian boys and seven girls to the Labyrinth. For the Minotaur (Minos’s Bull) to eat. Yes, Theseus is next…getting to that.

The pity factor I have for this creature is pretty damn high. Asterion, a prince of one of the most powerful Cities in the Aegean, grew up alone in the dark, lost his name and was used as a threat and a monster by his own father, condemned by his mother. Forced to eat people. NEVER allowed to live as a human being, even though he was one in every way except his head. In a few versions of the tale his sister Ariadne visits him, providing his only loving relationship ever.

Until, of course, Theseus shows up. Theseus, the Athenian Hero determined to stop the tribute requirement, volunteers as tribute. Yes, Katniss style. Ariadne falls in love with him when he arrives on Krete…Ariadne, the Princess of Krete. She convinces Daedalus to tell her the secrets of the Labyrinth and gives Theseus a ball of twine/string to find his way back out. In those versions where she’s visited Asterion before, she just tells Theseus. Either way, her love for Theseus prompts her to betray her brother, knowing Theseus will kill Asterion. Considering Asterion’s fate so far, it’s not necessarily an unkind thing.

And he does. There are innumerable depictions of the fight between The Minotaur and Theseus. After he kills the creature and escaping the Labyrinth, he takes Ariadne and the remaining Athenian teens back to Athens.

The symbolism of the story is greater than the typical Hero story for Athens, though. Labyrinths were all over the ancient world for a time, and were considered mysteries of knowledge. The Minotaur, at the center of the mystery, guarded the knowledge found within. (It’s worth noting that I mean mystery in the spiritual epiphany/secret ritual way, not the beach novel way.) Theseus conquering the Minotaur and emerging alive is a rite of passage (recall he becomes King later) of his power, knowledge, and cunning. With this act, he’s proven he can be King. In addition, Theseus can make a case for being favored by the Gods. King Minos took a gift from a God and not only wasted it, he sullied and corrupted a place of knowledge and power with taboo horrors. Theseus restored the Crete Labyrinth by destroying the monster inside, earning him favor with the Gods.

Ultimately, this tale is always told as the Theseus Hero story, focusing on his bravery and cunning in overcoming the cannibalistic beast controlled by a despot. But as always, I prefer to consider the whole tale from Asterion’s point of view. A creature cursed through no fault of his own to live one of the most horrid existences possible…wouldn’t he welcome death when it came for him? Interestingly, the name Asterion means “the starry one.” While he’s not actually associated with the constellation story of Taurus, it’s a curious connection. 

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