Theseus and the Minotaur

No denizens of Greek myth struck such a menacing yet tragic figure as the Minotaur. His existence, we're told, was down to a bout of stubbornness on the part of Minos. The King of Crete had been given a splendid white bull by Poseidon on the strict understanding that it was to be sacrificed in the god's honor. Minos petulantly refused, so Poseidon cast a spell on Minos's wife, Pasiphae, causing her to become infatuated with the beast. One thing led to another and pretty soon Pasiphae was the not-so-proud mother of a half-man half-bull.


The Minotaur – its name literally means "Minos's bull" – proved to be as undomesticated as it was embarrassing and it was obvious that it had to be kept well away from the public gaze. Therefore Minos instructed Daedalus, Crete's most celebrated engineer, to come up with a scheme to imprison the Minotaur on a permanent basis. The result, as legend records, was the greatest and most cunningly convoluted maze ever devised – the Labyrinth.

But bad luck seemed to pursue Minos. Not only had his wife been tricked into having an affair with a bull but his son had been done to death by the Athenians who were peeved at his success at the Panathenaic games. To punish the Greeks for this outrage, Minos insisted that every nine years seven young men and seven female virgins be shipped to Crete to perish in the Minotaur's lair.


Enter, Theseus, the king of Athens's son. Determined to put a stop to the killings, he volunteered to go with the third batch of sacrifices in order to confront the monster. But he had a problem: even if he managed to dispose of the Minotaur, how would he find his way back out of the Labyrinth? Cue Ariadne, daughter of the wretched Minos. Having fallen in love with the handsome Theseus, she supplied him with a ball of twine (at Daedalus's suggestion) to unravel as he penetrated deeper and deeper into the maze. Hero that he was, Theseus slew the creature and returned to Ariadne's arms. As for Minos, unlucky as ever, he went in pursuit of Daedalus and wound up being scalded to death in his bath.


Could there possibly be any truth behind all this ... bull? The whole fantastic story seems like an allegory for the complex blend of myth and reality that may underpin it: a possible nucleus of truth hidden deep within a maze of fantasy, with the monstrous exaggerations of folk over time preventing us from penetrating the maze to separate fact from fiction. What we need in such a situation, if we're to establish any real basis to the myth, are independent sources or, even better, physical relics that provide a link with historical events.


One clue comes from the Roman historian Pliny who refers to an actual building in Crete called the Labyrinth – though apparently nothing of it remained in his time. More substantially, coins found at Knossos, the ancient capital of Crete, clearly depict a maze, and old writings agree that it lay close by the ancient capital and possible even under the royal palace itself.


But what of the monster that supposedly stalked the maze? That too may have been rooted in fact, according to Gunter Nobis, former director of the Alexander Koenig Museum in Bonn. In 1993, Nobis examined several hundred bones which had been found at the Palace of Knossos almost a century earlier by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans. The bones had been unearthed in the so-called Room of Oxen. Some, Nobis determined, were from aurochs, extinct European bison which stood up to five feet tall at the shoulder. Others were from smaller domestic oxen. And still others, intriguingly, were from something in between.


Nobis speculated that Crete had become an important center for bull-breeding, supplying animals for sacrifice and work, and for the famous public games at Knossos in which men would grab the horns of bulls and somersault over them. A good new breed would doubtless have been highly prized in such a culture. Word of it would have spread far and wide, and, quite conceivably, been immortalized in legend. So, the Minotaur may indeed have been a mixture of different animals – albeit that the extent of the hybridization had become absurdly exaggerated over time.