Minos and Crete: A Mythological Perspective

From the first excavations carried out in Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans in 1899, the role of Crete in ancient Greek mythology is associated with perceptions of the Bronze Age. Bull-leaping, a sport of the Minoan era in which the athlete performed jumps over a bull, is interpreted as precursor of the mythical Minotaur (Shapland, 2013). The palace of Knossos, with its intricate internal structure, is considered as the location of the mythical labyrinth. A series of similar identities led to the creation of the term "Minoan civilization", as a correlation with the Bronze Age in Crete (2000-1100 BC). Possibly the Cretan myths of the following periods come from stories told during the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, the myths of Crete must be included in the broader context of ancient Greek mythology, as Crete itself holds a prominent position in it. In order to understand its fame, Minos, the mythical king of Knossos must be examined.

Figure 1: The bull-leaping fresco in Knossos (1550/1450 B.C.).

Minos was the son of Zeus and Europe, and, as the offspring of these two great figures of mythology, was destined to rule Knossos (Buxton, 2016). Nevertheless, his subjects had doubts about his abilities as a king. He prayed to Poseidon for a bull from the sea to be sacrificed by Minos, in order to secure his rightful claim to the kingdom. The governor of Knossos, however, did not abide by the agreement. He held the bull on his behalf, and instead sacrificed a common bull. In order to punish Minos, Poseidon created in the king's wife, Pasiphae, an erotic desire for the bull. To fulfill her longing, she locked herself in a cow dummy and met the bull. Thus, was born the Minotaur, a creature with a human body and a bull's head. Minos, disgusted, imprisoned him in the labyrinth so that no one would know what had happened to him and his family.

The important issue that should be emphasized about Minos and his life is its paradox. An entire culture and an era is named after him, even if as a personality he tended to commit insults and overestimate his powers (Buxton, 2016). For example, he repeatedly committed adultery. According to a legend, he tried to rape the Goddess Britomartis, who was the corresponding Artemis of Crete (Pilafidis-Williams, 1998). Pasiphae avenged him by using magic and by forcing him to ejaculate snakes, scorpions, and centipedes, which colonized the island. Odysseus described him in the Odyssey as “Minos of baneful mind” (Homer, Odyssey, 11.321)

On the other hand, there are sources that highlight a different character from those of the myths. In the Iliad he was mentioned as “a watcher over Crete” (Homer, Iliad, 13.424). According to tradition, every nine years his father Zeus visited him to instill in him all those righteous and wise decisions he had to make in his life. Thus, Minos was considered the best legislator of the time, and, in fact, Odysseus met him in the Underworld with the golden scepter in his hand (Homer, Odyssey,11.568). According to Powell the negative myths about him emerged as a result of the prejudices and fear of the Athenians (Powell & Reitz, 2009).

Figure 2: Minos, the Judge of the Underworld (1537-41).

This can be related to the prevailing perceptions about Crete, which can be examined from the point of view of mythology. This island was considered a place of imprisonment and cruelty (Buxton, 2016). A strong example that illustrates this is the existence of the labyrinth. A second example is the imprisonment of Pasiphae after her meeting with Taurus. A third and more glaring example is the myth of Glaucus, son of Minos and Pasiphae (Apollodorus. 3.3.1.). As a child, he was trapped in a jar of honey and died of suffocation. No one could find him, and, having no other choice, Minos turned to help a soothsayer, Polyidus. He found the corpse, but because it was exactly this, a corpse, Minos also imprisoned the seer in the jar. A snake then approached them, but Polyidus killed it. A second snake appeared and by touching the dead snake with an herb, brought it back to life. Poliydus did the same with Glaucus and resurrected him. Impressed, Minos forbade the soothsayer to leave Crete, in order to teach his art to his son.

This rule of Minos and his tendency for control and power created the feeling that Crete as an island was also a place of imprisonment. In mythology, Minoan Crete, however, is not only that. Thucydides states that "Minos is the first to whom tradition ascribes the possession of a navy" (Thucydides, 1.4). One could conclude that this is related to his need to control the sea as well. Nevertheless, the Cretans, in mythology and narratives, were people who travelled constantly. They had ships and they moved from place to place. They were merchants, pirates, and, therefore, mobile. In tragedies, such as in the Hippolytus written by Euripides, they were those who brought news from afar.

Figure 3: Pasiphaë and the Minotaur (340-320 B.C.).

Crete in mythology symbolizes the nature of power. There is domination and supremacy, but there is also the possibility that it will turn into tyranny and obsession with control. The technological achievements of Daedalus, a personal inventor of King Minos, were used for good purposes, but also for imprisonment. On the one hand, the navy helped the Greeks in war and trade, on the other, it provoked wars and piracy. The myths associated with Crete can be described as nothing more than "mental experiments". The way the government operates on this island was paradoxical. The central lesson of the stories from the Minoan civilization could be interpreted as humankind's inability to exercise absolute control. Minos never managed to fully control all the spectrums of his world. There was always a higher power that simplified conditions.

Bibliographical References

Apollodorus, & Frazer, J. (2002). Apollodorus. Harvard University Press.

Buxton, R. (2016). The complete world of Greek mythology (pp. 194-199). Thames & Hudson.

Graves, R. (1992). The Greek myths (pp. 313-314). Penguin Books.

Homer., Murray, A., & Dimock, G. (1998). The Odyssey. Harvard University Press.

Homer., Murray, A., & Wyatt, W. (1999). Iliad. Harvard University Press.

Kerényi, K., & Kerényi, M. (1997). Die Mythologie der Griechen (p. 117). Klett-Cotta.

Pilafidis-Williams, K. (1998). The sanctuary of Aphaia on Aigina in the Bronze Age. Hirmer.

Powell, B., & Reitz, B. (2009). Einführung in die klassische Mythologie. Metzler.

Shapland, A. (2013). Jumping to Conclusions: Bull-Leaping in Minoan Crete. Society &Amp; Animals, 21(2), 194-207. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-12341302

Thucydides., & Jowett, B. (1900). Thucydides. Oxford University Press.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Anonymus. (1550/1450 B.C.). The bull-leaping fresco in Knossos. [Fresco]. Retrieved from: https://heraklionmuseum.gr/language/en/the-bull-leaping-fresco/

Figure 2: Michelangelo B. (1537-41). Last judgment (detail). [Fresco]. Retrieved from: https://www.wga.hu/index1.html

Figure 3: Settecamini Painter. (340-320 B.C.). Pasiphaë and the Minotaur. [Attic Kylix]. Retrieved from: http://expositions.bnf.fr/homere/grand/vas_037.htm

Author Photo

Leonidas Michailidis

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