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Minotaur: The Beast of the Labyrinth


"So, my labyrinth’s a piece of cake? Well then let’s see how you deal with this little slice..." [Image: LPDS/Wombo Art]

On one occasion Pasifae, wife of Minos, king of Crete, incurred the wrath of Poseidon and, as punishment, was condemned to put into the world a deformed creature: the Minotaur, with a gigantic body of a man and the head of a bull. King Minos, to hide the monster from other humans, had commissioned the famous architect Daedalus to build the labyrinth, a construction so complicated that whoever entered it could no longer get out, and in the farthest corner of said labyrinth hid the Minotaur. At each new moon it was necessary to sacrifice a human to the Minotaur: the monster, in fact, fed on human flesh and if it was not satisfied, it began to sow death and terror among the inhabitants of the region.

King Minos had another son, Androgeus, who, being in Athens to participate in sports games, was treacherously murdered by the Athenians, blinded by jealousy over his strength and ability. Minos, hearing the terrible news, swore revenge: reunited his army, he made it march against Athens, and the city, which was not prepared to sustain the attack, soon had to capitulate and negotiate peace.

The Cretan king received the Athenian ambassadors very harshly and these were his words: «You have barbarously killed the son who was the hope and support of my old age. My conditions for peace are these: Athens will send every nine years seven young men and seven maidens to Crete, so that they may pay with their lives for my son's.» The ambassadors were terrified when the king added that the young Athenians would be offered to the Minotaur, but they had no choice: the Athenians had to accept. They got only one concession: if one of the young men succeeded in the desperate quest to kill the Minotaur and get out of the labyrinth alive, the city would be spared the heinous tribute.

Black Sails for the First Leg, White for the Return

Twice already the terrible price had been paid. Twice an Athenian ship powered by black sails had carried seven young men and seven maidens to their dire fate. But when the day came when, for the third time, the names of the victims were drawn, Theseus, the only son of the king of Athens, Aegeus, decided to risk his own life to rid the city of that horrible tribute. The next day, Theseus and his companions embarked, and the king, on dismissing his son, told him through tears to set white sails when he returned. They left, and a few days later they reached the island of Crete.

The famished Minotaur, secluded in the labyrinth, waited for its food mooing. But, until the day and time set for the sacrifice, the young men and maidens had to remain guarded in a house on the outskirts of the city. This prison, in which the unfortunate youths were treated with the magnanimity reserved for sacrificial victims, was surrounded by a park bordering on the garden in which the two daughters of Minos, Ariadne and Phaedra, used to stroll. The fame of the courage and beauty of Theseus had reached the ears of the two maidens and, above all, Ariadne, the eldest of the princesses, wanted to meet and help the young man.

Following the Thread

When, finally, she managed to see him one day in the park, she called him and, offering him a ball of yarn, said: «Take this ball; represents your salvation and that of your companions. When you enter the labyrinth you will tie a rope at the entrance, and as you enter the terrible place you will wind it regularly; Once the Minotaur is dead, you can roll it up again and find your way to the exit. And also take this dagger: with it you will be able to face the monster without fear, attack it and hurt it. Do not be afraid». Saying this, she drew a dagger from the folds of her dress and handed it to Theseus. «I am risking my life for you» she added, «because if my father knew that I helped you, I would have to face his tremendous wrath. But you, if you succeed in your undertaking, save me in your turn and take me with you».

The next day the young man was led into the labyrinth and, when he was deep enough inside not to be seen, he tied the ball of yarn to the wall and let the thread unwind, while, guided by the mooing of the monster enraged by hunger, he walked through the tangled labyrinth of corridors. Theseus advanced without fear and finally, entering the cave, he found himself facing the terrible Minotaur. With a terrifying roar, the beast lunged at Theseus, who plunged his dagger into the Minotaur's inhuman body as many times as the Minotaur lunged at him; At last, the monster let out one last moo that echoed through the halls of the labyrinth like thunder among the mountain peaks.

Theseus only had to wind up Ariadne's thread again to travel the path that so many young people had undertaken without hope of return. In this way, Theseus had not only saved his life and that of his companions, but he had also freed Athens from its debt.

When the Athenian ship was ready to sail back to Attica, Theseus secretly brought Ariadne on board and also Phaedra, who had not wanted to leave her sister. During the trip the ship anchored in the island of Nassos to take shelter from a storm and, when the winds died down and it was time to start again, they could not find Ariadne. They looked for her everywhere, shouting her name to the wind, but finally, having lost hope of finding her, they had to resume their journey without her. Ariadne had gotten lost and fallen asleep in a forest where, shortly after, she was found by the god Dionysus, who made her his wife and made her immortal.

Meanwhile, Theseus, deeply saddened, sailed to Athens forgetting to change the black sails. And when the old Aegean king, who approached the dock every day to watch the arrival of the ship, saw the ship silhouetted on the horizon that still hoisted the signs of mourning and not those of victory, full of pain he threw himself into that sea ​​that has been named after him ever since.

From the Labyrinth to the Arena

Today we know that, in many agricultural towns, the bull, as a symbol of fertility, was considered, if not properly a divinity, a manifestation of divine force. The bull was sacred in Egypt, in Babylon and in Persia; in Greece itself we find it as epiphany (form that a god can adopt to manifest itself to humans) of Poseidon and even of Zeus.

But the most curious thing is to verify that the bull, as a divine manifestation, was in many places the center of sacrifices, which in its way of developing came to assume, even for us, aspects of authentic games. In Thessaly, for example, young men on horseback chased a bull, and once they reached it they galloped on its neck, grabbing it by the horns trying to knock it down.

In Athens and Tenedos there were cults in which a previously designated individual had to kill a bull through a complicated ceremonial; in remote times, when human sacrifices were not rare, the matador of the bull was himself sacrificed. It is easy to find a link between these rites and the myth of the Minotaur, all the more so since reproductions of the games (or ceremonies?) have been found on Crete, the island of Minos, whose center was the struggle between cunning, skill and the strength of young men and maidens and the brutal impetus of a bull.

In subsequent historical periods, tauromachy (fighting the bull) was practiced in other nations, gradually losing its character and religious meaning. We still have a living example of this today in the corrida, which has become one of the main folklore motifs in Spain, Portugal and some Latin American countries.

[Source: Vv.Aa (1978). The Minotaur. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 110-113). Milano, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]