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In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (Greek: , ), as the Greeks imagined him, was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man or, as described by Ovid, "part man and part bull." He dwelt at the center of the Cretanmarker Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction built for King Minos of Cretemarker and designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus who were ordered to build it to hold the Minotaur. The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus, the son of Aegeas.

The term Minotaur derives from the Greek Μῑνώταυρος, etymologically compounding the name Μίνως (Minos) and the noun ταύρος "bull", translating as "(the) Bull of Minos". The Minotaur's proper name was in fact Asterion, a name shared with Minos' foster-father.

Minotaur was originally a proper noun in reference to the mythical figure. The use of minotaur as a common noun to refer to members of a generic race of bull-headed creatures developed much later, in 20th-century genre fiction.

Birth and appearance

After he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos struggled with his brothers for the right to rule. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull, as a sign of approval. He was to sacrifice the bull in honor of Poseidon but decided to keep it instead because of its beauty. To punish Minos, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, to fall madly in love with the bull from the sea, the Cretan Bull. She had Daedalus, the famous architect, make a wooden cow for her. Pasiphaë climbed into the decoy in order to copulate with the white bull. The offspring of their coupling was a monster called the Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him in his infancy, but he grew and became ferocious. Minos, after getting advice from the Oracle at Delphimarker, had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur. Its location was near Minos' palace in Knossos.

Nowhere has the essence of the myth been expressed more succinctly than in the Heroides attributed to Ovid, where Pasiphaë's daughter complains of the curse of her unrequited love: "the bull's form disguised the god, Pasiphaë, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden." Literalist and prurient readings that emphasize the machinery of actual copulation may, perhaps intentionally, obscure the mystic marriage of the god in bull form, a Minoan mythos alien to the Greeks.

The Minotaur is commonly represented in Classical art with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. One of the figurations assumed by the river god Achelous in wooing Deianira is as a man with the head of a bull, according to Sophocles' Trachiniai.

From Classical times through the Renaissance, the Minotaur appears at the center of many depictions of the Labyrinth. Ovid's Latin account of the Minotaur, which did not elaborate on which half was bull and which half man, was the most widely available during the Middle Ages, and several later versions show the reverse of the Classical configuration: a man's head and torso on a bull's body, reminiscent of a centaur. This alternative tradition survived into the Renaissance, and still figures in some modern depictions, such as Steele Savage's illustrations for Edith Hamilton's Mythology (1942).

Tribute price that brought Theseus to Crete

Androgeus, son of Minos, had been killed by the Atheniansmarker, who were jealous of the victories he had won at the Panathenaic festival. Others say he was killed at Marathonmarker by the Cretan bull, his mother's former taurine lover, which Aegeus, king of Athens, had commanded him to slay. The common tradition is that Minos waged war to avenge the death of his son, and won. Catullus, in his account of the Minotaur's birth, refers to another version in which Athens was "compelled by the cruel plague to pay penalties for the killing of Androgeos." Aegeus must avert the plague caused by his crime by sending "young men at the same time as the best of unwed girls as a feast" to the Minotaur. Minos required 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 approached, Theseus volunteered 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 and would have the crew put up black sails if he was killed. In Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and helped him navigate the labyrinth, which had a single path to the center. In most accounts she gave him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path. Theseus killed the Minotaur with the sword of Aegeus and led the other Athenians back out of the labyrinth. But he forgot to put up the white sail, so when his father saw the ship he presumed Theseus was dead and threw himself into the sea, thus committing suicide.

Etruscan view

This essentially Athenian view of the Minotaur as the antagonist of Theseus reflects the literary sources, which are biased in favour of Athenian perspectives. The Etruscans, who paired Ariadne with Dionysus, never with Theseus, offered an alternative Etruscan view of the Minotaur, never seen in Greek arts: on an Etruscan red-figure wine-cup of the early-to-mid fourth century Pasiphaë tenderly dandles an infant Minotaur on her knee.

Interpretations

The Minotaur in the Labyrinth, as depicted on a 16th-century gem in the Medici Collection in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence.
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; one of the monster's names was Asterion ("star").

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 some archaeologists to suggest that the palace itself was the source of the labyrinth myth, an idea generally discredited today. 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 Phoeniciansmarker. 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 labrys) 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 Aegean 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 of the Hellene poleis from Minoan beliefs.

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The Minotaur in Dante's Inferno

The Minotaur, the infamia di Creti, appears briefly in Dante's Inferno, Canto 12,11-15, where, picking their way among boulders dislodged on the slope and preparing to enter into the Seventh Circle, Dante and Virgil his guide encounter the beast first among those damned for their violent natures, the "men of blood", though the creature is not actually named until line 25. At Virgil's taunting reminder of the "king of Athens", the Minotaur rises enraged and distracted, and Virgil and Dante pass quickly by to the centaurs, who guard the Flegetonte, "river of blood". This unusual association of the Minotaur with centaurs, not made in any Classical source, is shown visually in William Blake's rendering of the Minotaur (illustration) as a kind of taurine centaur himself.

See also

  • in Mesopotamian mythology Shedu had a bull body and a human head.
  • Molech or Ba'al worshipped in the Middle East, and depicted as a man with the head of a bull.
  • The Egyptian god Apis is often depicted as a bull, or bull-headed man.
  • Ushi-oni Another bull-headed monster; from Japanese folklore.
  • Michael Ayrton 20th century British artist whose work included many interpretations of the Minotaur, Daedalus, mazes and the Labyrinth.


References



Notes

  1. "Minotaur" at dictionary.reference.com
  2. semibovumque virem; semivirumque bovem, according to Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2.24, one of the three lines that his friends would have deleted from his work, and one of the three that he, selecting independently, would preserve at all cost, in the apocryphal anecdote told by Albinovanus Pedo. (noted by J. S. Rusten, "Ovid, Empedocles and the Minotaur" The American Journal of Philology 103.3 (Autumn 1982, pp. 332-333) p. 332.
  3. Labyrinth patterns as painted or inscribed do not have dead ends like a maze; instead, a single path winds to the center, where, with a single turn, the alternate path leads out again. See Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000, Chapter 1, and Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth, Cornell University Press, 1990, Chapter 2.
  4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 31. 1
  5. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, says of Zeus' establishment of Europa in Crete: "...he made her live with Asterion the king of the Cretans. There she conceived and bore three sons, Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthys."
  6. In Greek mythology, the Cretan Bull was equally the bull that carried away Europa.
  7. Walter Burkert notes the fragment of Euripides' The Cretans (C. Austin's frs. 78-82) as the "authoritative version" for the Hellenes.
  8. See R.F. Willetts, Cretan Cults and Festivals (London, 1962); Pasiphaë's union with the bull has been recognized as a mystical union for over a century: F. B. Jevons, )"Report on Greek Mythology" Folklore 2.2 (June 1891:220-241) p. 226) notes of Europa and Pasiphaë, "The kernel of both myths is the union of the moon-spirit (in human shape) with a bull; both myths, then, have to do with a sacred marriage."
  9. Several examples are shown in Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000.
  10. Examples include illustrations 204, 237, 238, and 371 in Kern. op. cit.
  11. Carmen 64.
  12. The annual period is given by J. E. Zimmerman, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Harper & Row, 1964, article "Androgeus"; and H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Dutton, 1959, p. 265. Zimmerman cites Virgil, Apollodorus, and Pausanias. The nine-year period appears in Plutarch and Ovid.
  13. Plutarch, Theseus, 15—19; Diodorus Siculus i. I6, iv. 61; Bibliotheke iii. 1,15
  14. The wine cup is illustrated in Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling, Etruscan Mythology (Series The Legendary Past, British Museum/University of Texas) 2006, fig.29 p. 44 ("early fourth century") ( on-line illustration).
  15. Sir Arthur Evans, one of many archaeologists who have worked at Knossos, is often given credit for this idea, but he did not himself believe it; see David McCullough, The Unending Mystery, Pantheon, 2004, p. 34-36. Modern scholarship generally discounts the idea; see Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000, p. 42-43, and Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth, Cornell University Press, p. 1990, p. 25.
  16. The traverse of this circle is a long one, filling Cantos 12 to 17.
  17. Jeremy Tambling, "Monstrous Tyranny, Men of Blood: Dante and "Inferno" XII" The Modern Language Review 98.4 (October 2003:881-897).



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