In Greek mythology Minos was the semidivine ruler of an empire based on the island of Crete. Although he is most famous for forcing the Athenians to send a small group of youths to Crete, where they were fed to a monster known as the Minotaur, Minos was viewed by some as a wise and just king.
Minos was the son of Zeus, ruler of the gods, and Europa, a beautiful Phoenician princess. Zeus lusted after Europa and transformed himself into a bull to carry the princess away to Crete. There, according to most versions of the story, she bore him three sons—Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon—although Greek poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE) does not cite Sarpedon as Minos's brother. After Zeus left the island, Europa married the Cretan king Asterius, who raised the three boys as his own. When they were young men, all three of the brothers fell in love with Miletus, a semidivine son of Apollo. They quarreled over Miletus and, in some accounts, Minos expelled his brothers from the island forever.
With his brothers banished, Minos ascended the Cretan throne unchallenged on the death of Asterius. Still, he felt the need to demonstrate to his Cretan subjects that the gods wanted him to be king, so he prayed for a divine sign that would publicly acknowledge his right. Poseidon, god of the sea, answered Minos's prayer and sent a beautiful bull from out of the waves. Poseidon made Minos promise that once all the Cretans had recognized the significance of the bull, Minos was to sacrifice the animal to the sea god. However, when the bull appeared and Minos was universally proclaimed king, he ignored Poseidon's instructions. Some versions claim that he could not bring himself to kill the bull because the creature looked so majestic. Others say that the bull reminded him of the form Zeus took when he wooed Europa, and that he could not kill something that resembled his own father. Whatever the reason, instead of sacrificing Poseidon's bull, Minos killed the best bull from his own herd. This did not satisfy Poseidon. On the contrary, the sea god viewed Minos's failure as blasphemy, and he swore revenge.
Minos had married Pasiphae, a daughter of the sun god Helios, and made her his queen. Together they had four sons—Catreus, Deucalion, Glaucus, and Androgeos—and five daughters—Ariadne, Phaedra, Acacallis, Xenodice, and Euryale. Minos also had many illegitimate children. After years of enduring her husband's infidelities, Pasiphae concocted a potion that made Minos imagine that snakes and scorpions were coming out of his body whenever he made love to another woman.
Poseidon finally took his revenge on Minos by causing Pasiphae to fall helplessly in love with the bull from the sea. However, the animal did not reciprocate her affections. While Minos was abroad expanding his empire, Pasiphae summoned Daedalus, the court inventor, to devise a contraption that would enable her to make love with the bull. He built a hollow statue of a cow inside which Pasiphae could lie. When the bull saw the effigy in his pasture, he mistook it for a real cow and mounted it, thus impregnating the queen of Crete. The product of this union was a baby boy with a bull's head. Our primary source for the story of Pasiphae and the bull is The Cretans, a play credited to Greek dramatist Euripides (c. 486–c. 406 BCE). Now lost, the work is reputed to have had Pasiphae arguing that it must have been the gods who made her fall in love with the bull in order to punish Minos, and denying that it was as a result of anything she had done.
When Minos returned from his travels, he was so disgusted at the sight of the bull-headed infant that he commissioned Daedalus to create a home for it hidden deep beneath the royal palace. Daedalus built a massive, complex maze from which the monster was unable to escape because it could never find the exit. Named the Minotaur, the bull-headed creature lived on human flesh.
Events outside of Crete provided a gruesome supply of food for the beast. Minos's son Androgeos was a great athlete. He won the Panathenaic Games, which were held in Athens in honor of the goddess Athena, but was murdered shortly after his victory. In vengeance, Minos laid siege to Athens. Although he had a mighty army, he was unable to conquer the city. Minos prayed to his father for help. In response, Zeus sent a plague and famine to Athens. The Athenians, desperate to find ways of ending their suffering, sought the advice of an oracle who told them that they should submit to whatever terms Minos demanded. In return for ending the siege, Minos required that a tribute of seven youths and seven girls be sent to Crete (either annually or every nine years) as food for the Minotaur. The tribute ended only when the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur and escaped from the Labyrinth with the help of Minos's daughter Ariadne.
Theseus was able to find his way out of the Labyrinth with the help of a plan devised by Daedalus. When Minos discovered the inventor's role in the death of the Minotaur, he threw Daedalus and his son, Icarus, into the Labyrinth. Ever the inventor, Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers, one pair for himself and the other for Icarus. After escaping from the Labyrinth, the two flew high into the sky away from Crete. Yet only Daedalus reached safety. Icarus, ignoring his father's warnings, flew too close to the sun. The heat melted the wax in his wings, and the boy fell to his death. Daedalus eventually found refuge in Sicily at the court of King Cocalos.
Minos became obsessed with capturing Daedalus. He devised a cunning plan to flush the inventor out of hiding by appealing to his vanity. The king traveled the world offering a prize to anyone who could pass a thread through a spiral-shaped seashell, knowing that only Daedalus had the skill to accomplish such a feat. For years Minos traveled to all the major courts offering his challenge, but no one proved clever enough to solve it. Finally he reached Sicily and the court of Cocalos. Daedalus, in disguise, examined the seashell carefully and took it away with him. After only a few moments he returned, having threaded the shell. He had solved the puzzle by boring a hole in the closed end of the shell and tying a thread to an ant. He then made the ant walk through the shell, pulling the thread behind it.
Minos recognized Daedalus and demanded that Cocalos hand over the inventor. Reluctantly the Sicilian king agreed, but he would not do so until after a night's rest. Believing that his years of search were at an end, Minos decided to relax in a bath poured for him by the daughters of Cocalos. Unknown to Minos, the girls adored Daedalus and were not willing to let him be taken away. According to some versions of the story, the girls poured either boiling water or pitch over Minos, scalding him to death. In other accounts the girls conspired with Daedalus to run a pipe through the roof of the room in which Minos was bathing. The girls filled the pipe with boiling water and, while Minos was relaxing in his bath, they poured it on him.
In the afterlife Minos became one of three judges of souls in the underworld. Rhadamanthys, Minos's brother, was the judge of Europeans; Aeacus—another of Zeus's semidivine sons—presided over Asians; while Minos determined the fate of those whose lives had been most complicated or difficult to judge. The ancient Greeks believed that both good and bad deeds were repaid a hundredfold in the afterlife, so the judgment of Minos was a terrifying prospect to people who feared retribution for the wicked deeds they had performed during their time on earth.
According to legend, King Minos made Crete a center of commerce in the eastern Mediterranean and received tribute from cities such as Athens as a sign of his hegemony. Although it is known that from around 3500 BCE to 1100 BCE Crete was indeed wealthy and powerful, no archaeological evidence has been found to prove the existence of a historical Cretan ruler named Minos. Nevertheless, when British archaeologist Arthur Evans (1851–1941) first excavated the palace of Knossos, he named the ancient Cretan civilization thus uncovered "Minoan" in honor of the mythical king.
On the walls of the palace of Knossos there are frescoes depicting festivals, domestic parties, and nature scenes. It appears that the Minoans, like the ancient Etruscans of Italy, lived in a hedonistic society in which pleasure and freedom were of great importance. Although little is known of the Minoan social structure, it is thought that men and women had similar rights, and that wives were not mere subjects of their husbands. By 1500 BCE, Greek-speaking Mycenaeans began to settle the island, and Minoan culture was adapted and later replaced.
One explanation historians cite for the downfall of the Minoan culture is a series of earthquakes followed by the largest recorded volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, to the north of Crete. It is known that Thera was once a thriving stopover port on the busy shipping route between Crete and Athens. The fact that archaeologists have found no evidence of human remains there has led them to conclude that the earthquakes must have forced the island's inhabitants to leave in a great hurry just before the catastrophe. The eruption is thought to have sent a tidal wave to the north coast of Crete, and to have caused a cloud of ash to reach as far as the easternmost parts of the Mediterranean. The tidal wave and ash cloud would have had a devastating impact on Minoan culture. The nature of Thera's fate is often associated with the myth surrounding the lost city of Atlantis. Some time later the island was repopulated by non-Minoan peoples.
See also: ARIADNE; CRETE; DAEDALUS; DEUCALION; EUROPA; HELIOS; ICARUS; PASIPHAE; POSEIDON; THESEUS; ZEUS.
- Farnaux, Alexandre, and David J. Baker, trans. Knossos: Searching for the Legendary Palace of King Minos. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
- Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. .
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