The Minotaur In Classical Mythology Essay, Research Paper
from Bulfinch’s Mythology
The Athenians were at that time in deep affliction, on account of
the tribute which they were forced to pay to Minos, king of Crete. This tribute consisted
of seven youths and seven maidens, who were sent every year to be devoured by the
Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s body and a human head. It was exceedingly strong and
fierce, and was kept in a labyrinth constructed by D?dalus, so artfully contrived that
whoever was enclosed in it could by no means fid his way out unassisted. Here the Minotaur
roamed, and was fed with human victims.
Theseus resolved to deliver his countrymen from this calamity, or to die in attempt.
Accordingly, when the time of sending off the tribute came, and the youths and maidens
were, according to custom, drawn by lot to be sent, he offered himself as one of the
victims, in spite of the entreaties of his father. The ship departed under black sails, as
usual, which Theseus promised his father to change for white, in case of his returning
victorious. When they arrived in Crete, the youths and maidens were exhibited before
Minos, and Ariadne, the daughter of the king, being present, became deeply enamoured of
Theseus, by whom her love was readily returned. She furnished him with a sword, with which
to encounter the Minotaur, and with a clew of thread by which he might find his way out of
the labyrinth. He was successful, slew the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth, and
taking Ariadne as the companion of his way, with his rescued companions sailed for Athens.
On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving
her asleep. His excuse for this ungrateful treatment of his benefactress was that Minerva
appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to do so.
On approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus forgot the signal appointed by his father,
and neglected to raise the white sails, and the old king, thinking his son had perished,
put an end to his own life. Theseus thus became king of Athens.Andre- Peyronie
Minos asked Poseidon to give a sip to prove to the Cretans that he was favoured by the
gods. The god agreed, on condition that the bull that he would cause to rise from the sea,
would subsequently be offered to him as a sacrifice. However, the animal was so beautiful
that Minos could not bring himself to destroy it in this way. Poseidon was furious and
decided to take his revenge by making Queen Pasiphae fall passionately in love with the
white bull. Longing to be united with the animal, the queen enlisted the help of the
ingenious Athenian, Daedalus, who was at the court of Minos. The artisan used his skill to
create a heifer out of wood and leather. The queen concealed herself inside the heifer and
the white bull, deceived by appearances, coupled with her. The fruit of this unnatural
union was the Minotaur, also known as Asterion or Asterius, which had the head of a bull
and the body of a man. Furious and ashamed, Minos had Daedalus construct a sort of huge
palace-prison, the labyrinth, in which to keep the monster. Every year (or every nine
years), seven youths and seven maidens were fed to the Minotaur, a tribute imposed on the
Athenians by Minos. One day, Theseus suggested that he join the group of youths and, with
the help of the thread given to him by Ariadne, he found the Minotaur, killed it and
emerged, triumphant, from the labyrinth.
The monstrous nature of the Minotaur derives from the way in which it was conceived. In
this respect, the story of its origins is as important as its own story. Its life was in
fact singularly devoid of incident. Imprisoned in the labyrinth, it was as if the tribute
paid by the Athenians provided a periodic source of distraction and food. The story of the
Minotaur is inextricably linked with that of the labyrinth — the maze that was
constructed for the creature, that was doomed to disappear with it and in which it waited.
Without knowing it, the Minotaur was waiting to be slain by Theseus. This was the only
event of its life.
[. . . .]
From a literary point of view, the Minotaur has experienced two major phases, one as
the incarnation of horror and the other as illustrating the complexities of monstrosity.
In the Greek and Latin Classical myth, the Minotaur was not the subject of an autonomous
literary theme. It was either the monster slain by Theseus or conceived by Pasiphae. Its
monstrosity left so little room for doubt that, during the Middle Ages, it sometimes
appeared as a devil or a monster among many others, independently of its mythical
background. During the Renaissance and neoclassical period, it was reinstated within the
context of the Greek myth, but its role did not extend beyond that of providing a foil for
Theseus. It was from the end of the nineteenth century onwards that the loathsome creature
provided systematic food for thought rather than simply firing the imagination. The very
particular circumstances of its conception, its monstrous nature, its relationship with
the labyrinth and its slaying by Theseus became important points of reference as well as
functional tools in the avant-garde mode of literary analysis. The shameful monster once
more became the product of an unnatural love, but which this time had to be recognized and
accepted. Through its association with desire, the hideous monster was found to be much
less ugly than had originally been thought and was soon instrumental in developing the
modern concept of beauty. When, in the very heart of the labyrinth and at the very moment
of the confrontation, Theseus suddenly saw his own inverted image rise before him,
represented by the Other, he had to acknowledge it and find a way of seeing it in a
favourable light. It is impossible to destroy an image and impossible to kill the
Minotaur. At the very most we can sacrifice it, in other words transform it, or else it
‘completes’ us. In conclusion, using a modern intellectual approach, the modern age has
restored the monster to its former function of the pre-Hellenic era. It is, once again, a
Excerpted from a longer essay in Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes.
Ed. Pierre Brunel. Trans. Wendy Allatson, Judith Hayward, and Trista Selous. London:
Routledge, 1996. Copyright ? 1996 by Routledge.