• Ali Isaac

knossos, capital of ancient crete and the legend of the minotaur

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

 I visited Knossos whilst I was in Crete recently. Knossos is said to be the ancient capital of Crete, home to legendary King Minos.

The walls of Knossos are tumbled now, long derelict and bleached by the sun like old bones. Roofed only by the sky, these once elegant rooms and cool graceful passages are still thronged with people, strangers who have come to admire what once was, a bygone era of which they have no comprehension. It is a world within a world, a fleeting glimpse into knowledge, power, artistry, skill, grandeur and mystery the like of which will never be seen again.

“I still wander there, but they pass right by me, their eyes pinned on stone, their senses unaware of that they can’t touch. Poor blind fools. I pity them. We were never like that. We knew how to live, really live.

“I am Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, Princess of Knossos, and my guilt and shame will not let me rest, even in death. For I did a terrible thing; I abandoned my family, betrayed my father and king, and slew my own brother, all for love of a man who used me and didn’t want me.

“We all did terrible things, believing ourselves omnipotent, like the Immortals. Now we have eternity in which to regret.”

According to Greek myths, Minos was a fair and just ruler who received his learning from Zeus. He was the son of Zeus and a nymph named Europa. Zeus shape-shifted into the guise of a bull and abducted her, taking her to Crete, where three sons were born to them; Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. Later, Europa married the King of Crete, Asterios. He adopted her sons, and when he died, the oldest, Minos, inherited the throne.

Minos married Pasiphae, daughter of Helios and the nymph, Crete. They had four sons: Androgeus, Catreus, Deucalion and Glaucus, and four daughters: Ariadne, Phaedra, Xenodice, and Acalle.

One day, Minos decided to give thanks to the God Posiedon for his good fortune with an extravagant sacrifice. Posiedon sent him a magnificent white bull from the sea for this purpose, but it was so beautiful and noble, that Minos decided to keep it for himself. Furious, the God punished him by afflicting his wife, Parsiphae, with a mindless uncontrollable passion for the bull. Hmmm… sounds more like she was being unfairly punished for his misdemeanours.

She instructed Daedalus, a skilled craftsman, to build a wooden likeness of a cow, which she climbed inside. The bull mated with the wooden cow, and thus Parsiphae was impregnated. The resulting offspring was the Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull. Minus ordered Daedalus to build the Labyrinth and locked the monster inside.

Head and shoulders of the minotaur, body of a man, head of a bull.
Knossos and the Legend of the Minotaur

Meanwhile, Minos’s oldest son, Androgeus, went to Athens to take part in a sporting event. He won every game, much to the jealousy of the other competitors, who conspired together and murdered him. In revenge, Minos attacked and defeated Athens, and demanded tribute every nine years of seven young men and seven young women, which he sacrificed to the Minotaur by locking them in the Labyrinth to be eaten.

It was Theseus, Prince of Athens, aided by Ariadne, Minos’s own daughter, who later killed the Monotaur, thus ending the tribute. Furious beyond reason, Minos sought retribution by chasing Daedalus, who had taken refuge with the King of Sicily. Minos was killed by the King’s daughters, who poured boiling water on him as he was taking a bath. What a way to go!

The legends of Minos and his family are many, and I can’t tell them all here. Whether he really existed, or is just a figment of some ancient poet’s imagination cannot be known, but certainly the Minoan civilisation flourished during the Bronze Age, between 3300BC and 1000BC.

What amazes me is that people could emerge from the Neolithic (stone) Age, building such masterful and magnificent, sophisticated complex dwellings as the palace at Knossos. It had plumbing and flushing toilets, for goodness sake! Neolithic man was still building simple mud huts on stone foundations with clay floors, or living in caves, and only acquired the skill of metal working between 3800 and 3300BC. It kind of beggars belief, really.

Nowadays, the remains of the palace and city lie in the foothills, surrounded by shady scented pines which dance in the breeze. The site is vast, covering 6 acres, and the palace complex contained a theatre, 1300 rooms including royal apartments, extensive store rooms, and a plethora of workrooms for craftsmen.

It had three separate water management systems, one for supply, one for run-off (torrential rains) and one for removing waste water. It also had a ventilation system of porticoes and air vents. The walls were covered with colourful paintings called frescoes.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that the stone throne in the throne room was carved to fit the buttocks of a female, rather than a man! Also, there were many figurines of women found among the ruins, some holding snakes, suggesting priestesses of a snake cult.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Minos’ is the Cretan word for ‘king’, and therefore it may just have been a title, rather than a name. It also suggests that royal succession in Crete passed from mother to daughter, her husband becoming the ‘minos’, or warrior-chieftain.

I would have to look into this; certainly the Greek versions of the stories bear no references to female power. As with the Romans, women were considered chattels and possessions, the keeper of domesticity and child-rearing. But it all reminds me of legends closer to home; the Irish tarb-fheis, or ‘bull feast’; the famous milk-white cattle of the Danann; the cattle raid of Cooley, the many women of power in Irish myths, and the snakes that St Patrick was so keen to ban from Ireland.

There are also connections with the Sanskrit, which caught my attention. For example, the name of the main god listed on tablets found at the site, Asirai, is said to be the equivalent of Sanskrit Azura. The name mwi-nu (Minos) is thought to come from the Sanskrit muni,  meaning ‘ascetic’, with reference to the legend of Minos sometimes living in caves. It’s all speculation, but intriguing nonetheless.

I hope you have enjoyed my little foray into Cretan mythology. Next week, we return to more familiar territory back home on Irish soil. ☺

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