Monsters have been part of storytelling since the earliest times, and the Minotaur is one of the most famous. Half man, half bull with a face only a mother could love, let us creep into the labyrinth to make ourselves known to him.
Back in the days of ancient Greece, it was considered very poor form to appropriate for oneself an animal marked for sacrifice to the gods. It worked like this: an animal was fed and cared for, protected from predators, washed, groomed and coddled until the time came for it to be taken to the altar of the relevant god and sacrificed for the glory of that god. Gods were given the pick of the herd because, you know, only the best will do. Bear with me, this is leading somewhere.
In ancient Crete, three brothers were vying for the kingship. One brother, Minos, declared he was the most logical choice because he enjoyed the gods’ favour so much so that if he asked the gods for something, he’d get it immediately. To demonstrate his claim, he prayed to the sea god Poseidon asking that a bull appear from the ocean (yes, the ocean!) and promising to sacrifice that bull to the god.
Sure enough, a bull appeared from the ocean – and not just any bull. This was a magnificent snow-white creature quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen. A bull among bulls. Politics being what it always has been – who you know – Minos became king.
Dearie me, what should Minos do but decide not to keep his side of the bargain. Thinking that the bull would be better off in his own fields servicing his cattle, he sacrificed a lesser bull to Poseidon instead. You’d think he’d have known better.
Gods don’t do run-of-the-mill punishments and the angry Poseidon came up with a doozy. Pasiphae was Minos’s wife and Poseidon decided to make her fall in love with the white bull. Yes, you read that right. She was overcome with an unquenchable passion for the beast and well, what do you know, by hook and by crook they got together and she found herself pregnant.
When the child was born, he had a human body and the head and tail of a bull. It was truly a face only a mother could love. Minos was rather put off and soon ordered a massive labyrinth to be built to both house and hide the horrible hybrid creature. This perhaps wasn’t as cruel as it sounds because the Minotaur, as he was known, liked to eat people. By the way, the maze was designed and constructed by Daedalus; you might know his name as the father of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. The years rolled by and the Minotaur lived in his lonely prison eating the occasional prisoner, I suppose.
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the Minotaur. I like to think, however, that his mum never stopped loving her strange little boy-bull.
One day, Minos’s son was accidentally killed while visiting Athens and Minos was so enraged that he attacked Athens in revenge. Minos never did things by halves and he decided that every year (some sources say every nine years) the Athenians had to send fourteen young people to Crete as a tribute to him. Those teenagers were fated to be Minotaur munchies.
This went on for a time until Theseus, son of the king of Athens, decided he’d take it upon himself to kill the Minotaur. Off he went to Crete and, luckily for him, met one of Minos’s daughters, Ariadne, who fell in love with him. She knew a thing or two about the labyrinth and gave Theseus a ball of string so he could tie one end to the opening of the maze and then follow it back afterwards. She evidently preferred Theseus over her half-brother the Minotaur.
Theseus killed the Minotaur seemingly without too much effort. (I put it down to diet – if only the Minotaur had been given some vegetables. Bulls are herbivores after all.) The Athenian then escaped from the labyrinth by following the string back to the entrance, then sailed back to Athens with Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, who was also in love with Theseus (who seems to have been quite a babe-magnet). There’s a whole other tragic story about Theseus, Ariadne and Phaedra, but now’s not the time for it.
The moral of our story is that if you promise the gods you’re going to sacrifice them a beautiful snow-white bull, you had better do it, because otherwise your spouse is likely to present you with one very unattractive baby.
As a postscript, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the Minotaur. He was a monster, an outcast, a fearsome man-eater, but he was also the innocent victim of his stepfather’s pride, and it seems hardly fair that he had a miserable life in a dingy labyrinth detested even by his family. I like to think, however, that his mum never stopped loving her strange little boy-bull.