The Minotaur in Classical Myth
from Bulfinchs 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 Dædalus, 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.
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 sacred monster.
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.
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