What is a Minotaur? - Definiton & Myth

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Minotaur was one of the most famous creatures of ancient mythology. In this lesson, we'll explore the legend of the Minotaur, and see how this story may have been created.

The Minotaur

Imagine winding your way through the most complex maze in history, only to come face-to-face with a monstrous creature with the body of a human and the head of a bull. That'll keep you up at night. This beast, known as the Minotaur, is one of the most fearsome creatures of ancient Greek mythology. Today, we often refer to any creature that is part bull and part human as a minotaur, but in mythology there was really only 'the' Minotaur, and he was one scary monster.

The Minotaur, as seen on a Cretan coin from the 5th or 4th century BCE

Creation of the Minotaur

According to Greek mythology, the story of the Minotaur begins with King Minos of Crete. One of three brothers, Minos sought to prove that he was to become the true king of Crete by praying to Poseidon for a bull and promising to sacrifice it in the god's honor. Poseidon created a majestic bull out of the waters, proving that Minos was the chosen king of Crete.

However, Minos decided to keep the bull for himself and sacrificed a different one to Poseidon. Greek myths are full of warnings about trying to trick the gods, and in this case, Minos was punished in a particularly unique way. Poseidon (or in some versions Aphrodite) cursed Minos' wife and made her mad with lust for the bull that Minos was supposed to sacrifice. She later gave birth to a creature that was half bull and half human. She named it Asterion. (Yes, the Minotaur actually has a name.) While the people of Crete knew him as Asterion, his reputation also spread as the Minotauros, which literally translates as the Bull of Minos.

The Labyrinth

As Asterion grew, his cursed nature took over, and he began to eat people. To both protect the child and his people, Minos went to the master craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus. He commanded them to build a massive maze known as the Labyrinth. Asterion was placed in the middle, but still hungered for human flesh.

At the same time, King Minos learned that his only human son had been killed by the Athenians. Full of grief and seeking revenge, he attacked Athens until they promised to pay retribution. The cost was seven maidens and seven male youths, sent every few years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Over time, the people of Athens grew restless of the sacrifices and decided that something had to be done. King Aegeus (considered one of the semi-mythical founders of Athens) had a son named Theseus. Theseus volunteered as tribute and took his father's sword with him to Crete. Once there, King Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him and decided to help rescue him. She went to Daedalus, who told her that Theseus could escape the Labyrinth by taking a ball of string, unraveling it as he went to create a path he could follow out. Smuggling in the ball of string and the sword, Theseus entered the Labyrinth, killed the Minotaur, and was able to find his way out. Theseus sails home and marries Ariadne's sister. He abandons Ariadne on an island, where she's left to reflect on her role in her half-brother's death. (Don't feel too bad for her- she ends up marrying Dionysus). Theseus returns as a hero and savior of the Athenian people.

Theseus and the Minotaur was a popular subject in ancient Greek pottery


As crazy as it sounds, the story of the Minotaur may actually be somewhat based on reality. Before the rise of Athenian civilization, the island of Crete was home to the first true civilization of Europe. We know very little about them, and in fact, we don't even know what they called themselves. We call them the Minoans, after King Minos. One symbol of the Minoan kings was the bull.

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