Minos was the son of Zeus, the god of the sky and justice in Greek mythology, who rules as king of the gods on Mount Olympus, and the Phoenician princess Europa. Zeus, in the form of a bull, tricked Europa and carried her across the sea from Phoenicia to Crete. From their union, the symbolic union of heaven and earth, three sons were born: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. After being abandoned by Zeus, Europa married Asterius, the king of Crete. As the marriage proved childless, Asterius adopted Zeus’ sons and made them his heirs. Radamanthys was a colonizer and lawmaker, and after his death, along with Minos, a judge of the dead in the underworld together with Minos. Sarpedon became king of Lycia and was a tragic hero of the Trojan War, killed by Patroclus.
After the death of Asterius, Minos claimed the throne of Crete and boasted that all his prayers to the gods would be answered as proof of his right to rule. After the death of Asterius, Minos claimed the Cretan throne and boasted that the gods would answer whatever prayer he offered to them as proof of his right to reign. Accordingly, he first dedicated an altar to Poseidon and then prayed for a sacrificial bull to emerge from the sea. Instantly, a dazzling white bull swam ashore. However, Minos was so struck by the bull’s beauty that he spared it and slaughtered another instead. As a result of the events, Minos’ claim to the throne was accepted by the Cretans.
Minos was a just and powerful ruler in his earthly world, who, however, was merciless towards his enemies; a supreme judge in the world of the dead; and, an interlocutor of Zeus in the divine world. Minos met Zeus every nine years, when they conversed, was educated by the god and received orders and permission from him to rule the earthly realm. In order to protect Crete from external enemies and preserve internal order, Minos received the bronze automaton Talos from his father, Zeus. Talos, forged by the god Hephaestus, circled the island three times a day, carrying bronze tablets inscribed with the divine laws on its shoulders. Minos had his seat at Knossos, where the ingenious Athenian craftsman Daedalus, then living in exile in Crete, built him a splendid palace. Minos created a powerful naval force, eradicated piracy and is believed to have become the first man to control the Mediterranean.
“[Minos] who was most kingly of mortal kings, and reigned over very many people dwelling round about, holding the sceptre of Zeus wherewith he ruled many.”
Hesiod: Fragments (8th century BC)
“And indeed I saw King Minos there, glorious son of Zeus, sitting, old sceptre in hand and delivering judgement to the dead, who sat or stood all around, putting their cases to him for decision within the House of Hades, to which the gate is wide.”
Homer: The Odyssey (8th century BC)
Minos married Pasiphaë, the daughter of Helios and the Oceanid nymph Crete, and they had eight children: Phaedra, Androgeus, Xenodike, Ariadne, Acacallis, Glaucus, Deucalion and Catreus. Poseidon, to avenge the insult done to him by Minos when he replaced the sacrificial bull, made Pasiphaë experience an unnatural desire for the magnificent white animal. Mad with lust, Pasiphaë sought the help of Daedalus, who then created a mechanical wooden cow covered with cowhide, so realistic that it fooled the bull. From the union of Pasiphaë and the bull, the Minotaur was born, a monster with a bull’s head and a human body. To hide his wife’s disgrace, the horrified Minos locked the Minotaur in the underground labyrinth built by Daedalus in Knossos.
When Androgeus visited Athens during the Panathenaic festival, he defeated Aegeus, the king of Athens, in every contest. Out of envy and fear of losing his supreme power, the king conspired against Androgeus’ life. To avenge his son’s death, Minos declared war on Athens. When he realized that he could not subdue them, Minos turned to Zeus for help. Consequently, all of Greece was hit by earthquakes and famine. The kings of the various city-states gathered at Delphi to seek advice from the Oracle and were instructed to have Aegeus say a prayer for them. When this happened, earthquakes stopped everywhere except Attica. Thereupon, the Athenians again asked the Oracle for advice and were told to give Minos whatever he asks for. Which was the gift of seven young man and seven young girls, sent to Crete every nine years as prey for the Minotaur, as long as the monster lived. The Athenians obeyed and the curse was lifted from Attica.
At the end of nine years, Minos went to Athens with a large fleet, and demanded and received 14 more youths. Theseus, king Aegeus’ son, was among those who went to Crete to face the Minotaur. When they landed in Crete, Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, fell in love with the handsome Theseus. To help him find his way out of the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread she had received from Daedalus. Theseus unwound the thread as he walked into the Labyrinth, and after killing the Minotaur, rewound it to find the way out. During his escape from Crete, Theseus took Ariadne with him, but abandoned her on Naxos while she slept. Furious by Daedalus’ betrayal, Minos imprisoned him and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth. The resourceful Daedalus made wings out of wax and feathers and the two escaped, flying high into the sky. But young Icarus, ignoring his father’s advice, flew too close to the sun. The heat of the sun melted the wax that held his wings together, and the young man plummeted into the sea and drowned.
Grief-stricken Daedalus sought refuge at the court of King Cocalus in Camicos, Sicily. The angry Minos organized a naval expedition to hunt down the craftsman in hiding. However, he knew that the crafty Daedalus would find a way to cover his tracks, so he had to figure out a way to flush him from his hiding place. Thus, Minos issued an imposable challenge, which he believed only Daedalus could solve to all the kings of the known world: passing a string through a conch shell. Captivated, Daedalus rose to the challenge and solved it. He pierced a hole in the tip of the conch shell, smeared it with honey, and then tied the thread to an ant, which, attracted by the honey, crawled through the spirals of the shell, pulling the thread with it. The delighted Cocalus informed Minos that the riddle had been solved thus betraying Daedalus. However, Cocalus did not want to lose the ingenious craftsman, so he decided to murder the mighty king instead. Minos met an ignominious end, when Cocalus’ daughters murdered him in a boiling bath.
Greek myths have served as an inexhaustible source of fascinating themes for art from antiquity to the present day. Minos appears in such famous literary works as Homer’s epics, the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’, and Ovid’s mythological narrative, the ‘Metamorphoses’. In Virgil’s epic poem ‘Aeneid’, Minos appears as a terrifyingly somber judge of the underworld. Inspired by Virgil, Dante Alighieri places Minos at the entrance of the Second Circle of Hell in his narrative poem the ‘Divine Comedy’. Minos is depicted as a beast with a giant snake-like tail. After learning the sins of a soul, Minos decides on the appropriate punishment and specifies the circle the soul must descend. To indicate the location, he wraps his tail around his own body as many times as the corresponding circle. A famous depiction of Minos, based on Dante’s vision, can be seen in Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
The intricate stories and prominent figures of Greek myths contain a kernel of historical truth. The figure of the just and powerful Minos, who appears in many myths, was for the ancient Greeks a real person of the heroic past. Archeological finds in Crete somewhat support this. The remains of the palace at Knossos, believed to be the seat of King Minos, point to a prominent center of power and religion, especially at the height of the Minoan civilization (1700-1450 BC). The mythical labyrinth, which according to one hypothesis represents the maze-like Palace of Knossos itself, is mentioned in a Linear B tablet found in Knossos as the location of the “priestess of the labyrinth”. The bull, a dominant figure in Cretan myths, is a recurring motif in Minoan art. The Minotaur appearing on seals from Knossos is particularly interesting. Moreover, the great ancient historians of the 5th century BC, Herodotus and Thucydides, and later Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias and others, also refer to Minos of Knossos and his dominion over the Mediterranean as well as the network of colonies founded by the mighty king and his descendants. In support of this, archeological excavations have revealed sites bearing Minoan cultural characteristics on the Aegean islands (Kea, Kos, Kythera, Lemnos, Milos, Rhodes, Santorini, Samos and Samothrace), the Peloponnese (Mycenae and Vapheio), the coast Asia Minor (Qalna in Syria and Tel Kabri in Israel), and Egypt (Avaris).
Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) The Library of History
Graves, Robert (1955) The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition
Kerényi, Károly (1951) Görög mitológia
Plato (5th century BC) Minos