Saturday, November 14, 2009

Labyrinth and Minotaur


Greek legend would have us believe that when King Minos (son of Zeus) came to the Cretan throne his brothers weren’t too chuffed so, in order to prove his right to the crown he ’sent an ancient email’ (prayed to Poseidon, God of the Sea) to give a sign of approval. He asked that a white bull be sent to him as confirmation and promised that if that sign of approval was sent, he’d sacrifice the bull in Poseidon’s honour.

Poseidon duly obliged but Minos decided he rather liked the little white bull (now’s the time for all of you over 45 to burst into song with your impressions of Tommy Steele (at least here in the UK)!!) so decided to sacrifice the best bull from his herd instead. Obviously not the sharpest chisel in the tool box – even I know you don’t tangle with the gods! – it goes without saying that Poseidon wasn’t best pleased so he punished Minos by forcing Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, to fall in love with the white bull. She arranged for the architect Daedalus to make a wooden cow, she then climbed into it and fooled the white bull into mating with her – just hope she made sure there weren’t any splinters! From this mating Pasiphae produced a child that had the head and tail of a bull but the body of a man, and this monstrosity scared the Cretans to such an extent that Minos summoned Daedalus to his Court and commissioned him to make a labyrinth so big and complex that it’d be impossible to escape from it.

Once it had been completed, Minos and his Merry Men, captured the minotaur and locked him in the labyrinth but every so often, seven youths and maidens were gathered from Athens and sent into the maze for the minotaur’s delectation and delight! When it came to the the third sacrificial anniversary, the Greek hero Theseus (the product of a menage a trois – his mother Aethra had entered into a bit of hanky panky with Poseidon and Aegeus on the same night!) volunteered to go into the maze as part of the picnic hamper and kill the minotaur to prevent more of his fellow Athenians being led to the slaughter.

On arriving on Crete, Theseus met Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, who fell in love with him and told him that, provided he agreed to marry her, she would let him into the secret of getting out of the impenetrable maze with all his bits intact. He agreed to the arrangement, so she gave him a ball of thread, he tied one end of the thread securely at the entrance to the maze and, as he walked through, he slowly unwound it. Once he’d come across the minotaur which, by some miracle, happened to be taking a snooze, he beat it to death and then led the remaining sacrificial Athenians back to safety by rewinding the thread.

This myth has stood the test of time and many have tried to discover the site of the Minoan palace and the labyrinth. This yearning for the truth behind the ancient tale, was fuelled by a wealthy English archaeologist, Arthur Evans who visited Crete and excavated and partially reconstructed the site at Knossos between 1900 and 1935. Now, over half a million people a year visit the ruins and are told that this was the site of King Minos’ palace and consequently the most likely location of the mighty labyrinth so it’s little wonder that other sites in the area are shoved on the back burner, but a group of English scholars from Oxford University joined forces with the Hellenic Speleological Society and spent the last summer delving into a medley of tunnels and caves discovered in a disused quarry just 20 miles up the road.

Gortyn, in southern Crete. was at one time the Roman capital of the island. The archaeologists discovered that the caves at Gortyn (known locally as the Labyrinthos Caves) had been visited by ‘archaeological thieves’ – basically less energetic and rugged Indiana Joneses or less buxom and scantily clad Lara Crofts! – who were on the verge of blowing the whole thing sky high by dynamiting one of the inner chambers in the hope of finding treasure but thankfully our archaeological heroes arrived just in the nick of time!

The caves run to about two and a half miles and have numerous tunnels leading to wide chambers and dead end rooms which have been visited by travellers since Medieval times who were searching for the labyrinth. Unfortunately, interest waned in these a-mazing caves and was re-routed to Knossos over the last 100 years or so thanks to Arthur Evans’ excavation escapades. The caves at Gortyn then fell into neglect and even became a Nazi ammunition dump during World War 2!

Nicholas Howarth, a geographer from Oxford University who led the Anglo side of the expedition, said that the Gortyn caves had a menacing feel about them and it’d certainly be easy to become lost in the mass of tunnels and chambers so there seemed to be no reason why Gortyn couldn’t have been the location of the cave maze. He believes the main reason Knossos had remained so highly regarded as the labyrinth site was due to Arthur Evans who had the wealth and clout to promote the area once he’d excavated and partially reconstructed it.

But before you make up your mind which is the most likely site, Nicholas Howarth has also said there may be a third option; at Skotino on the Greek mainland but little’s known about this at the moment.

The fact of the matter is that there’s no real evidence that King Minos’ palace, the labyrinth or the minotaur existed – it’s purely a myth.

Andrew Shapland, the curator of Greek Bronze Age at the British Museum in London added his two penn’orth by saying that Knossos is mentioned by Homer (the Greek poet, not Simpson!) so it seems more likely that if in fact this myth was a reality then Knossos would be the favoured site.


According to Greek myth, there was only one Minotaur - the child of Pasiphae, Queen of Crete and wife of King Minos, and a white bull sent by the sea god Poseidon.

The Minotaur had the body of an enormous human, with the head and shoulders of a bull. His body - particularly the animal parts - was covered in brown hair, and his horns were wickedly sharp, with a span wider then a man's outstretched arms. Given his fearsome reputation, it seems likely that he measured around 10 ft (3 m) high.

King Minos trapped his stepson in the great Labyrinth below the palace of Knossos and kept the Minotaur satisfied by feeding him 14 young men and women exacted as tribute from the Athenians. According to one version of legend, this tribute was made every nine years, suggesting the Minotaur could live off stockpiled nutrient reserves for long periods of time. However, other versions suggest the tribute was annual, or that Minoans were slaughtered instead of Athenians eight years out of nine.

The Minotaur was probably about 30 when the Athenian hero Theseus came to Knossos, entered the maze-like Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived and killed it, and was at his physical prime. This suggests a total lifespan of around 50 years.

Many observers said that the Minotaur was invulnerable to any weapon but his own horn driven through his brain. This is probably an exaggeration, although a Minotaur's size, speed, strength and ferocity, combined with a pair of deadly horns, must have made it a formidable adversary.

Knosses was destroyed by some form of cataclysm around 1450 BCE. Barbarian invasion from the mainland was once the favored explanation, but now a volcanic eruption and subsequent tidal wave are thought to have been responsible. By 1100 BCE, the Minoan civilization had faded.

In art and mythology, at least, the Minotaur lives on. Theseus and the Minotaur were favorite subjects for painters and craftsmen of ancient Greece. The tale continues to be one of the most popular of ancient legends. In the Middle Ages, Dante imagined the Minotaur as the brutal guardian of the Seventh Circle of Hell, a symbol of perversion.