Cretan Cattle, Labyrinths, and Lunar Goddesses: Re-examining the Myth of the Minotaur

Initially, I alert you, the reader, to the fact that this myth in particular is packed with symbolic names or titles. In order to fully understand the symbolism of the myth, knowing the meanings of these names and titles as well as contextual background unveils the core of this myth. After briefly telling the myth, I will dive into all the additional material that like Ariadne’s thread will lead you to the heart of the myth.

The myth of the Minotaur starts with Europa, who, supposedly, is seduced by a white bull; a white bull that is secretly Zeus in animal guise. After giving birth to semi-divine triplets (Rhadamanthys, Minos, and Sarpedon), Europa marries King Asterius of Crete. After Asterius’s death, Minos claimed the throne of Crete. He then prayed to the sea god Poseidon for a bull to arise from the ocean as a sacrificial tribute to the god and to Minos’s power. Poseidon sends him a “dazzling” white bull. Minos decides he cannot kill such a magnificent beast and instead sacrifices a lesser bull from his own herd to Poseidon.

King Minos then marries Pasiphaë, the daughter of Helius and Crete. Affronted by Minos’s deception and inferior tribute, Poseidon causes Pasiphaë to not only fall in love with his white bull, but to desire it. The Iliad states that Ariadne had a dancing place built for her by the craftsman Daedalus (xviii, 592). Apparently, Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne, had employed Daedalus much earlier to construct a cow “frame” that she could crawl into so that the bull could mount her as a cow. From that convoluted union, Pasiphaë births a bull-child, the Minotaur, i.e. the Minos bull, who is also named Asterion.

Minos, horrified by this creature, confines it and Pasiphaë to an underground maze that has only one entrance and one exit. Minos then works to extend his rule throughout the Aegean Sea.  Angered by this, certain Athenians murder his son Androgeus. In revenge, Minos asks Zeus to curse the Athenians which he did by sending them earthquakes and famine. The only way to get rid of the curse was to send Minos seven young men and seven young women every nine years to the Cretan labyrinth where the Minotaur would devour them.

Theseus, a semi-divine son of Poseidon, agrees to help the Athenians banish the curse completely by offering to be one of the seven boys sent to the Minotaur. Theseus is determined to kill the Minotaur as a sacrifice to his father, Poseidon.  However, he can only accomplish this through the help of Ariadne. Falling in love with him at first sight, she gives him her magic ball of twine that will guide into and out of the labyrinth safely. After killing the Minotaur that night, Theseus and Ariadne leave Crete with the other young men and women and sail off Naxos. Theseus abandons Ariadne there, sailing away in stealth.