Ruins of Knossos Palace at Crete

minos: legends & realities

The Greek myth of the maze and the minotaur is an epic of oral and written traditions. The rite-of-passage tale opens with King Minos of Crete betraying Poseidon by keeping a sacrificial bull as a pet, and his wife later giving birth to a violent minotaur, which Minos concealed in an elaborate labyrinth. Each year Athenians sent 14 hapless children—seven boys and seven girls—to the minotaur’s labyrinth as tribute to King Minos.

View looking into the Palace with two red columns
Vie into the excavation of Knossos Palace

One year Theseus, son of the Athenian king, volunteered as tribute to defeat the minotaur. He meets the daughter of King Minos after arriving in Crete and they fall in love. She gives him a sword for protection and a ball of string to help him retrace his route out of the maze. Theseus battles the minotaur near the center of the maze, repeatedly leaping over the charging beast until the minotaur collapses in exhaustion. Theseus rescues the remaining tributes before following the unspooled string out of the labyrinth and eventually returning victorious to Athens with the princess.

Ancient Architecture with Twists and Turns

A century ago British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans explored and excavated the Bronze Age walls of the palace at Knossos. He uncovered an expansive, 4,000-year-old complex featuring intricate passages without symmetry or order—1,300 chambers spanning six acres—Crete’s largest archaeological site. What emerged were labyrinthine corridors surrounding an open and elevated courtyard. Fresco paintings on walls portrayed bulls, dolphins, and ancient sports.

Dolphin frescos on the wall of Knossos Palace
Details of Queen’s room at Knossos Palace with dolphin frescos

Studies of other ancient artwork in the region suggested that the Knossos palace likely doubled as a religious center and bull jumping arena. Bull jumping was a daring rite of passage celebrated by early eastern Mediterranean cultures. Dual headed axe blades, like the one wielded by the minotaur, etched the palace walls. Ornamental horns of consecration symbols—icons of bull worship—adorned sculptures throughout the grounds. Parallels between the archaeological evidence and the minotaur myth mounted with each unearthed artifact.

When Evans presented his Knossos findings to the world, he suggested a name for Crete’s Bronze Age inhabitants—Minoans, in honor of the mythical King Minos, and a nod to the epic minotaur tale. It’s likely but not certain that the myth evolved from early visitors exploring the abandoned ceremonial chambers and twisted corridors in Knossos. They crafted a legendary story to make sense of vast and vacant halls, discarded double axes, and artwork depicting powerful bulls.

Knossos Palace complex with charging bull fresco and red columns.
Knossos Palace complex with charging bull fresco and red columns.

You can explore the labyrinth on a number of shore excursions on the Greece, Israel & Egypt: Footsteps of Faith in the Holy Lands voyage that cruises for 10-days from Athens to Athens. 

 

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