The Minotaur: Half Man, Half Bull Monster of Greek Mythology

Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, Archaic Ceramic (6th century BCE)
Black-figure amphora depicting Theseus fighting Minotaur. Attributed to the Painter of the Birth of Athena. Louvre Museum, Greek Archaic Age (600-480 BCE). De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

The Minotaur is an iconic half-man, half-bull character in Greek mythology. The offspring of King Minos' wife Pasiphae and a beautiful bull, the beast was beloved by its mother and hidden away by Minos in a labyrinth built by the magician Daedalus, where it fed on young men and women. 

Fast Facts: The Minotaur, Monster of Greek Mythology

  • Alternate Names: Minotaurus, Asterios or Asterion
  • Culture/Country: Greece, pre-Minoan Crete
  • Realms and Powers: The Labyrinth
  • Family: Son of Pasiphae (immortal daughter of Helios), and a beautiful divine bull
  • Primary Sources: Hesiod, Apollodorus of Athens, Aeschylus, Plutarch, Ovid

The Minotaur in Greek Mythology

The story of the Minotaur is ancient Cretan, a tale of jealousy and bestiality, of divine hunger and human sacrifice. The Minotaur is one of the tales of the hero Theseus, who was saved from the monster by means of a ball of yarn; it is also a tale of Daedalus, the magician. The story harbors three references to bulls, which is a subject of academic curiosity.

Appearance and Reputation 

Depending on what source you use, the Minotaur was a monster with a human body and a bull's head or a bull's body with a human head. The classical form, human body and bull's head, is most often found illustrated on Greek vases and later works of art. 

Charles-Edouard Chaise's
"Theseus and the Minotaur." Oil on canvas by Charles-Edouard Chaise (1759-1798). Ca. 1791. Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux Arts. adoc-photos / Corbis / Getty Images

The Origin of the Minotaur

Minos was one of three sons of Zeus and Europa. When he eventually left her, Zeus married her off to Asterios, the king of Crete. When Asterios died, Zeus' three sons battled for the throne of Crete, and Minos won. To prove he was worthy of the rule of Crete, he made a deal with Poseidon, the king of the sea. If Poseidon would give him a beautiful bull each year, Minos would sacrifice the bull and the people of Greece would know he was the rightful king of Crete.

But one year, Poseidon sent Minos such a beautiful bull that Minos couldn't bear to kill him, so he substituted a bull from his own herd. In a rage, Poseidon made Minos' wife Pasiphae, the daughter of the sun god Helios, develop a great passion for the beautiful bull. 

Desperate to consummate her ardor, Pasiphae asked for help from Daedalus (Daidalos), a famous Athenian sorcerer and scientist who was hiding out on Crete. Daedalus built her a wooden cow covered with cowhide and instructed her to take the cow near the bull and hide inside it. The child born of Pasiphae's passion was Asterion or Asterios, more famously known as the Minotaur.

Keeping the Minotaur

The Minotaur was monstrous, so Minos had Daedalus build an enormous maze called the Labyrinth to keep him hidden away. After Minos went to war with the Athenians he forced them to send seven youths and seven maidens each year (or once every nine years) to be led into the Labyrinth where the Minotaur would tear them to pieces and eat them. 

Theseus was the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens (or perhaps a son of Poseidon), and he either volunteered, was chosen by lot, or was chosen by Minos to be among the third set of young people sent to the Minotaur. Theseus promised his father that if he survived a battle with the Minotaur, he would change the sails of his ship from black to white on the return trip. Theseus sailed to Crete, where he met Ariadne, one of Minos' daughters, and she and Daedalus found a way to get Theseus back out of the Labyrinth: he would bring a ball of yarn, tie one end to the door of the great maze and, once he had killed the Minotaur, he would follow the thread back to the door. For her help, Theseus promised to marry her. 

Death of the Minotaur

Theseus did kill the Minotaur, and he led Ariadne and the other youths and maidens out and down to the harbor where the ship was waiting. On the way home, they stopped at Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, because a) he was in love with somebody else; or b) he was a heartless jerk; or c) Dionysos wanted Ariadne as his wife, and Athena or Hermes appeared to Theseus in a dream to let him know; or d) Dionysus carried her away while Theseus slept. 

And of course, Theseus failed to change the sails of his ship, and when his father Ageus glimpsed the black sails, he threw himself off the Acropolis—or into the sea, which was named in his honor, the Aegean.

The Minotaur in Modern Culture 

The Minotaur is one of the most evocative of Greek myths, and in modern culture, the story has been told by painters (such as Picasso, who illustrated himself as the Minotaur); poets (Ted Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges, Dante); and filmmakers (Jonathan English's "Minotaur" and Christopher Nolan's "Inception"). It is a symbol of unconscious impulses, a creature that can see in the dark but is blinded by natural light, the result of unnatural passions and erotic fantasies. 

Picasso's Minotaur Drinking with a Girl
A visitor walks past the "Minotauro bebiendo con una muchacha" (Minotaur drinking with a girl) by artist Pablo Picasso. The Antioquia Museum in Medellin, Colombia. RAUL ARBOLEDA / AFP / Getty Images

Sources