The monstrous Minotaur riveted ancient Greece and Rome

Prisoner of the Labyrinth, the half man, half bull was a favorite legend for centuries, revealing the intertwined cultures of the Mediterranean world.

The Nature of the Beast

George Frederic Watts created his 1885 painting of the Minotaur crushing a songbird “to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal.” Tate Gallery, London
Photograph by Album

Deep inside the Labyrinth on the island of Crete lived a Minotaur, a monster half man, half bull. Imprisoned there by his stepfather, King Minos of Crete, he dined on human flesh supplied by the city of Athens. Every nine years, Minos commanded Athens to send 14 youths in tribute. The horrible rite continued until the Athenian hero Theseus came to Crete, entered the Labyrinth, and slew the beast.

The story of the Minotaur has thrilled people for thousands of years and inspired myriad works of art: pottery, poetry, plays, the art of Picasso, operas, movies, and video games. Although the myth can be enjoyed as a satisfying tale, archaeologists now know that its fabulous qualities have roots deep in real events in the Bronze Age.

The bull-headed man in Minos’s maze embodies several traits found in the culture of Crete and ancient Minoan civilization. Bulls and maze motifs are found throughout Minoan culture, which dominated the Mediterranean from about 3000 B.C. to about 1100 B.C. In confronting and overcoming the bull—a symbol of Crete—Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, reflects the flowering of Aegean civilizations beginning in the middle of the second millennium B.C., as mainland Greece replaced Crete as the dominant power. (Learn more about the Minoan civilization and its collapse.)

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