The sixth installment of Science Channel’s Mythical Beasts airs tonight, with a powerful episode about the massive monster known as the Minotaur. This creature is widely known in pop culture, depicted as having a bull’s head and a human body, but the story behind it is just as unique.
Mythical Beasts explains that the Minotaur comes from ancient Greece, arising from Knossos on the island of Crete. Every few years, the city of Athens would send 14 of their children there as a sacrifice to King Minos, where they were put into a labyrinth beneath the palace to be eaten by his cursed step-son, the Minotaur. A hero from Athens named Theseus disguised himself as one of the children and, with help from princess Ariadne who had fallen in love with him, escaped from the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.
Where fact and fiction meet
The palace of Knossos holds the remnants of the Minoan people that lived 4,000 years ago. It spanned several acres and once stood four floors in height, with at least 1,000 rooms included within. It’s been a treasure trove for artifacts, bones, and artwork, some of which are inscribed with images of the Minotaur and his labyrinth.
According to archaeologist Alexander MacGillivray, the findings in ritual rooms are proof that child sacrifices did actually occur here. Bones of children so young that gender is indiscernible have been found in Knossos, with cuts that resemble butchering marks. Some of the bones were smashed to pieces in brutal fashion.
Large murals that have been pieced back together show people jumping over the backs of bulls in a ritual called bull-leaping. MacGillivray thinks this may be where the idea of bulls as murderous creatures could have been born. Defeating one is a sign of strength, and we still see it today in places like Pamplona, Spain, in the running of the bulls.
Comparative anatomist Dr. Joy Reidenberg gives us a look at the skull of an extinct species of cattle called aurochs. Two skulls were found at the palace of Knossos, placed as an offering after an earthquake had damaged the palace. She believes they were probably between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds, and around seven feet tall. The daring of bull-leaping and other activities could explain why Knossos was so feared and revered.
The myth suggests that the labyrinth of the Minotaur lies below Knossos. Despite being drenched in bull iconography, evidence of a substructure beneath the palace is yet to be found. Because digging there, would cause damage to the ruins, excavation isn’t possible. Ground penetrating radar is brought in to search for the labyrinth, but they find no evidence of a lower structure.
Archaeologists Loeta Tyree and Antonia Stamos think it’s plausible the labyrinth was actually located in a cave system. The Skoteino Cave lies only eight miles to the east of the palace, and an altar and many artifacts were found at this location. Tyree and Stamos use an electronic distance meter to measure exact elevation and distances within the cave. They use the data to view 3D images of the interior of the cave, and find that it’s much vaster than originally thought.
Tyree believes the caves would have been well known to the Minoan people, and agrees they did use it for some sort of ritual. She cannot, however, confirm whether the cave at Skoteino was the basis for the famous labyrinth the man-eating Minotaur lived in.
What does it all mean?
According to Mythical Beasts, many of the portions of the Minotaur myth are only loosely based on real world happenings. Mythologist Richard Schwab believes that because oral tradition was still the primary method of record-keeping, the story needed to be exaggerated to be memorable and continuously passed down over time. He says digging further into the symbols within the myth can help crack the underlying message that the embellished story is truly aiming to tell.
The legend of mermaids is compared to the Minotaur myth and similarities are examined. Mermaids are said to be beautiful women with seductive voices who enchanted sailors, luring them to their island to kill and eat them. Derek Irwin, a maritime archaeologist, explains the mermaid myth as a coded message of danger and deception meant to keep ancient sailors from crashing into coastal rocks.
Mythical Beasts suggests that the underlying message of the Minotaur myth uses Theseus’ slaying of the feared creature as a euphemism for mainland Greece invading and defeating an already crippled civilization. Costas Synolakis, environmental engineer, shows pumice stones that are a result of a massive volcanic eruption. To add devastation from the eruption, a massive 50-meter high tsunami reached the island and destroyed much of Crete and the civilization there.
MacGillivray says the mainlanders saw this as an opportunity to seize power over the Minoans and erase them from existence. The story of the Minotaur could have been political propaganda used to incite rage against the Minoans and dismiss, or even justify, the deaths of an entire civilization.
Mythical Beasts did a great job at presenting and investigating a fair-sized portion of the Minotaur myth. A significant line is dropped at the end of the episode and it’s a stark reminder that history is written by those who win.
The view of the Minoan people in this myth has been distorted and cast as barbaric, and this belief is perpetuated through it’s telling, even 4,000 years later. It’s amazing that it holds on, even after so much time has passed.
The Minotaur episode of Mythical Beasts airs tonight at 10:00 eastern time on the Science Channel.