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Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur - origins

How old is this Legend?

Bull leaping from fresco at Knossos
  • Bull leaping from fresco at Knossos
  • It is a very old legend. This and other stories about Theseus were written down by such people as: Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), a Greek historian and biographer, Ovid (43BC – 17 AD), a Roman poet and Horace (65BC – 8BC), another Roman poet – along with many others! The story, however, is likely to be much older, having been passed down the generations by word of mouth.

    Could such a creature have existed?

    Ritual Bull's Head, found in the Little Palace at Knossos (17th-15th centuries B.C.)
  • Ritual Bull's Head (17th-15th centuries B.C.)
  • An important Cretan deity was the sacred bull. Some of the pictures found in Knossus show bull-leaping, or dancing, in which an athlete grasps the bull's horns and vaults over the animal's back. We do not know whether this was a religious ritual, or even sacrifice (since success rates were likely to be low), or whether it was a sport – maybe a form of bullfighting. Some people think that it is such an impossible activity for anyone to survive, that it may represent a mythological dance with the Great Bull.

    In many ancient mythologies strange creatures often occur that are part human part animal. The ancient civilizations in the area around the Aegean Sea were often at war with each other. With a cult of bull worship, the great palace that existed on Crete, and the sort of rumours and tales that often accompany wars (brought back by soldiers or traders), it is easy to see how the legend of the Minotaur – half man, half bull – living in a Labyrinth and eating human flesh, developed.

    What parts of the legend have a basis in fact?

    Map of where Knossos is
(Map taken from www.worldhistory.timemaps.com)
  • Map taken from www.worldhistory.timemaps.com
  • It is very difficult to sort out fact from fiction with legends from such a long time ago in history. The palace at Knossus, where the Labyrinth was supposed to have been built, certainly existed – its remains can be seen to this day.

    It was built around1800 BC. The palace used advanced architectural techniques; for example, part of it was built up to five stories high. It had an elaborate drainage system and running water supply. The Minoans had also developed a writing system. Their ships apparently dominated the eastern Mediterranean and kept them pretty free from pirates, allowing trade to develop with Egypt, Syria, mainland Greece and beyond.

    The remains of three similar palaces have also been found on Crete – but Knossus was by far the largest with possibly up to as many as 50,000 people living there at its height.

    It is believed that its destruction may have been a combination of earthquake and invaders. The mainland Greeks, who eventually overran the palace were amazed by the size and complexity of its structure – it covered 6 acres and contained something like 1300 rooms. It is this complexity that may have helped to produce the idea of a Labyrinth.

    The figure of King Minos himself appears to be based on a number of strong kings who built and maintained the palace, and who probably demanded tribute from other states in the region.

    Similarly, Theseus is part of the foundation myth relating to Athens. He is likely to be the summation of a number of strong leaders who created the systems and united the tribes that built up Attica, with Athens as its major city – rather similar to the story of Romulus and Remus founding Rome. But, since Athens had no real recorded history until about 700BC, any stories were handed down by word of mouth and, of course, became glorified in the telling.

    That there was a period when Attica (and Athens) paid tribute to the Cretans, centred on the Palace of Knossus, is very likely. It is also likely that at least part of that tribute consisted of people, who were taken to be sacrificed to the Sacred Bull – (an important Cretan deity).

    It is also entirely possible that one of the kings of Athens / Attica became strong enough to refuse to pay the tribute, thus freeing the Athenians of this dreadful burden and giving story tellers a wonderful tale to pass on – with Theseus as its hero.

    Is this the only version of this legend?

    Reconstruction of part of North bastion of Knossus
  • Reconstruction of part of North bastion of Knossus
  • Since ancient Greek legends were passed down through oral tradition, many variations of this particular legend exist.

    For example, some versions of the legend state that the tribute of young Athenians was paid every seven years, or even nine years, instead of yearly.

    Some say that the human tribute was a punishment for the treacherous murder of Androgeus, the son of Minos, in Attica.

    There are also different versions about why Ariadne did not get to Athens with Theseus. Some say that after Theseus deliberately abandoned her on the island of Naxos, Ariadne was comforted by Dionysus, the god of wine, who later married her.

    Yet others say that Ariadne was very seasick and was put down on the island while Theseus did some repairs to the ship. A storm blew the ship out of harbour and when Theseus eventually got back to the island, she had died.

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