Minotaur bust, (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)
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In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (//, //; Ancient Greek: Μῑνώταυρος [miːnɔ̌ːtau̯ros], Latin: Minotaurus, Etruscan Θevrumineś), was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man or, as described by Roman poet Ovid, "part man and part bull". He dwelt at the center of the Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus, on the command of King Minos of Crete. The Minotaur was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.
The term Minotaur derives from the Ancient Greek Μῑνώταυρος, a compound of the name Μίνως (Minos) and the noun ταύρος "bull", translated as "(the) Bull of Minos". In Crete, the Minotaur was known by its proper name, Asterion, a name shared with Minos' foster-father.
"Minotaur" was originally a proper noun in reference to this mythical figure. The use of "minotaur" as a common noun to refer to members of a generic species of bull-headed creatures developed much later, in 20th-century fantasy genre fiction.
Birth and appearance
After he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos competed with his brothers to rule. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull, as a sign of support (the Cretan Bull). He was to kill the bull to show honor to Poseidon, but decided to keep it instead because of its beauty. He thought Poseidon would not care if he kept the white bull and sacrificed one of his own. To punish Minos, Aphrodite made Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. Pasiphaë had the archetypal craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, and climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him in his infancy, but he grew and became ferocious, being the unnatural offspring of man and beast, he had no natural source of nourishment and thus devoured man for sustenance. Minos, after getting advice from the oracle at Delphi, 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).
Theseus and the Minotaur
Androgeus, son of Minos, had been killed by the Athenians, who were jealous of the victories he had won at the Panathenaic festival. Others say he was killed at Marathon 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 seventh or 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, Minos' daughter Ariadne fell madly in love with Theseus and helped him navigate the labyrinth. 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. On the way home, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos and continued. He neglected, however, to put up the white sail. King Aegeus, from his lookout on Cape Sounion, saw the black-sailed ship approach and, presuming his son dead, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea that is since named after him. This act secured the throne for Theseus.
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 cradles an infant Minotaur on her knee.
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 Phoenicians. 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 Pasiphaë'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.
The Minotaur in Dante's Inferno
The Minotaur (infamia di Creti, "infamy of Crete"), appears briefly in Dante's Inferno, in Canto 12 (l. 12–13, 16–21), where Dante and his guide Virgil find themselves picking their way among boulders dislodged on the slope, and preparing to enter into the Seventh Circle of Hell.
Dante and Virgil encounter the beast first among the "men of blood": those damned for their violent natures. Many commentators believe that Dante, in a reversal of classical tradition, bestowed the beast with a man's head upon a bull's body.
In these lines Virgil taunts the Minotaur in order to distract him, and reminds the Minotaur that he was killed by Theseus the Duke of Athens with the help of the monster's half-sister Ariadne. The Minotaur is the first infernal guardian whom Virgil and Dante encounter within the walls of Dis. The Minotaur seems to represent the entire zone of Violence, much as Geryon represents Fraud in Canto XVI, and serves a similar role as gatekeeper for the entire seventh Circle.
Giovanni Boccaccio writes of the Minotaur in his literary commentary of the Commedia: "When he had grown up and become a most ferocious animal, and of incredible strength, they tell that Minos had him shut up in a prison called the labyrinth, and that he had sent to him there all those whom he wanted to die a cruel death". Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his own commentary, compares the Minotaur with all three sins of violence within the seventh circle: "The Minotaur, who is situated at the rim of the tripartite circle, fed, according to the poem was biting himself (violence against oneself) and was conceived in the 'false cow' (violence against nature, daughter of God)."
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.
- In an episode in Batman: The Animated Series titled 'If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?', the Riddler recreates the Minotaur's labyrinth as one of his riddles to be solved by Batman and Robin for saving a businessman's life. The maze has a robotic Minotaur in its center, which provides the final riddle for solving the maze.
- The Minotaur appears in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books The Lightning Thief and The Last Olympian and also the first book's film adaption Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
- A minotaur, or minotaur-like creature, appeared in the Doctor Who stories The Mind Robber (1968) The Time Monster (1972), The Horns of Nimon (1979) and "The God Complex" (2011). The Fourth Doctor also claims to have given Theseus the ball of string to navigate the labyrinth.
- In American Horror Story: Coven, Delphine LaLaurie tortures her houseboy, Bastien, for having sex with one of her daughters. The sadistic slave-owner attaches the severed head of a bull to his body, explaining that ever since she was a little girl she has had a fascination with the Minotaur of Greek myth, and is thrilled at the opportunity to finally have one of her own.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis includes a race of Minotaurs who are followers of the White Witch.
- Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The House of Asterion" (collected in The Aleph) tells the Minotaur's story.
- Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves features both the labyrinth and the Minotaur as prominent themes.
- Director Shin Sang-ok's monster film Pulgasari features a gigantic minotaur.
- The novel Death's Shadow in Darren Shan's series The Demonata mentions the Minotaur, saying that it raised Beranabus, who wept over its dead body after it was slain by Theseus.
- In the film Fellini Satyricon Encolpio is pursued by a man with a bull's head-mask through a labyrinth. He is watched by a crowd who chant/laugh in a heavily stylized manner. This affectation seems to echo the Roman 'Laughing festival' and when the Minotaur/man spares Encolpio because of Encolpio's pleas that he is a student, the idea, that the intervention of Religious ritual can help Man's soul triumph over the brute force of the Earth, is supported.
- The novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherill depicts the Minotaur (of the Theseus mythology) five thousand years after leaving the Labyrinth. The Minotaur is now in the American South, living in a trailer park, and working as a line cook at a steakhouse.
- Manny Taur, son of the Minotaur, is a character in Mattel's Monster High cartoons and has been released in doll form and sold exclusively at San Diego Comic-Com.
- "English Dictionary: Definition of Minotaur". Collins. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
- "American English Dictionary: Definition of Minotaur". Collins. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
- "Minotaur" at dictionary.reference.com
- semibovemque virum 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.
- In a counter-intuitive cultural development going back at least to Cretan coins of the 4th century BCE, many visual patterns representing the Labyrinth do not have dead ends like a maze; instead, a single path winds to the center. See Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000, Chapter 1, and Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth, Cornell University Press, 1990, Chapter 2.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 31. 1
- The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women fr. 140, 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."
- Walter Burkert notes the fragment of Euripides' The Cretans (C. Austin's frs. 78-82) as the "authoritative version" for the Hellenes.
- 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."
- Several examples are shown in Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000.
- Examples include illustrations 204, 237, 238, and 371 in Kern. op. cit.
- Carmen 64.
- Servius on Aeneid, 6. 14: singulis quibusque annis "every one year". 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.
- Plutarch, Theseus, 15—19; Diodorus Siculus i. I6, iv. 61; Bibliotheke iii. 1,15
- The wine cup is illustrated in Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling, Etruscan Mythology (Series The Legendary Past, British Museum / University of Texas at Austin) 2006, fig.29 p. 44 ("early fourth century") (on-line illustration).
- Sir Arthur Evans, the first 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.
- Paolo Alessandro Maffei, Gemmae Antiche, 1709, Pt. IV, pl. 31; Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000, fig. 371, p. 202): Maffei "erroneously deemed the piece to be from Classical antiquity".
- The traverse of this circle is a long one, filling Cantos 12 to 17.
- Inferno XII, Verse Translation by Dr. R. Hollander, p. 228 commentary
- The fallen angels, the Erinyes [Furies], and the unseen Medusa were located on the city's defensive ramparts in Canto IX.
- Boccaccio Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine commentary
- Boccaccio's Expositions on Dante's Comedy, University of Toronto Press, 30 Nov 2009
- Bennett, Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 177-180.
- Dante Family letters Rossetti Archive http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/pr5246.a43.vol2.rad.html
- Beck, Christopher, "Justice among the Centaurs," Forum Italcium 18 (1984): 217-29
- Minotaur in Greek Myth source Greek texts and art.