Field of Science

The (possible) Geological Origin of the Minotaur Myth

According to myth the Minotaur was a terrible creature, born from an unnatural union between queen Pasiphaë of Crete and a sacred bull, send by the Greek god Poseidon to the island. The monster, half man and half bull, with an appetite for human flesh, was so dangerous that it was imprisoned in a subterranean labyrinth, so complex nobody could escape from it. The poet Callimachus of Cyrene (320-303 BC) describes the angered roars of the Minotaur coming from this prison - and only human sacrifices could calm the beast. 

Fig.1. Wall paintings dating to the 16th century BC from Tell el-Dab (Egypt) showing the bull-leaping ritual, Minoan artists exported their style and skills to other regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

The oldest descriptions of the Minotaur also note that the bull made tremble and shake the earth. It´s also curious to note the relationship between the Minotaur and Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. Poseidon could also generate earthquakes with his trident, as one name describes him as Enosigeo, the earth-shaker. Also the labyrinth is an old symbol of earth´s unknown interior, the womb of the goddess Gea. So the Minotaur myth shows some remarkable connections to earth or earthquakes.

For sure the Greek Minotaur myth was inspired by much older stories from the Minoan Civilization. The antique culture of Crete (3650-1400 BC) did worship the bull, as paintings discovered in the excavated ruins show a strange ritual involving young men leaping over the back of a bull. Bull cults are generally associated to fertility, but possibly on Crete it was also a response to the risk posed by earthquakes.
Weak earthquakes are common on Crete, as the island is located on the border of two important tectonic plates, the African Plate in the South and the Aegean Plate in the North. Stronger events happened in past times (~365 AD) as suggested by a 10m displacement observed along the coasts of the island.

Fig.2. Crete´s location above a subduction zones makes it vulnerable to earthquakes, map from PLATT et al. 2007.

So was the Minotaur – including his associations to earth – a personification of the mysterious, at the time unexplainable, forces of nature?


KAPLAN, M. (2013): The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. Scribner: 256

McINERNEY, J. (2011): Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World. Expedition. Vol.53(3): 1-13

The Volcano as Crematory - Paolo Gorini´s strange geological-anatomical experiments

Paolo Gorini (1813-1881) was an Italian mathematician and naturalist, interested in medicine and geology, trying to combine in a quite unusual way his two passions. 

Gorini  worked on methods to conserve corpses, in part for medical purposes, in part for more practical reasons  - as he supervised also crematoriums in Italy and in Britain it was sometimes necessary to preserve a body until it could be cremated (in one case, due bureaucratic problems, he had to hold a body for over two years). 

After 1842 Gorini also started to work on a theory to explain the formations of mountains. Gorini believed that rocks and mountains were formed from crystallization of a liquid, or molten substance, following James Hutton´s suggestions. Like in an organism, fluids (which he called plutons) would feed the earth from within and over time a mountain would form or “grow”. Gorini had some evidence from the field, like solidified dikes and veins seen in outcrops or hollow conduits, now empty but once filled with molten magma.
Fig.2. Vein in granite, observed on the Naabranken (a mountain in Bavaria), first depiction of its kind published in 1868 in GÜMBEL, von W.: Geognostische Beschreibung des Königreichs Bayern: II. Abt. Ostbayerisches Grenzgebirge. Such veins form when fluids crystallize, so Gorini was right that some minerals and rocks form in such a way and his theory may also explain (in part) volcanoes, but it can´t explain entire mountain ranges, formed by tectonic deformation of earth´s crust over time.

He designed also some experiments to support his explanations. In public shows he heated liquids until forming bubbles "quite similar to the real ones [volcanoes]”. Gorini hoped that his experiments would prove useful in time. In 1865 Mount Etna erupted,  causing death and devastation, and Gorini criticized that people rely on superstition, offering flowers and prayers to the volcano, instead of science, trying to understand the mechanics behind volcanic eruptions and so may avoid or even prevent them.
He published his theory in 1851 in the book "Sull´Origine delle Montagne e dei Vulcani - Studio Sperimentale" (On the Origin of Mountains and Volcanoes - An Experimental Approach), followed by a series on papers over the years.
Fig.3. Gorini’s first work (1851) concerning mountains and volcanoes.

Despite his success with the public, the “experimental approach” shows were quite popular, his scientific publications were meet with skepticism. Some scholars considered his “experimental geology” an important contribution to better understand volcanoes, other considered Gorini a respectable anatomist, but just a  “geological showman”.
In 1872 Gorini tried to model volcanoes using molten magma. Seeing how insect burst into flames when coming into contact with the incandescent material, he also tried to cremate human corpses, or at least parts, with this artificial lava. However it was difficult to melt and handle enough material to burn an entire human - also lava doesn´t quite work the way as depicted in movies - and Gorini soon abandoned these experiments.  

Fig.4. The dramatic death of Pliny the Elder consumed by fire during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, from "Histoires prodigieuse" (1560). Contrary to the common myth, the most lethal effects of a volcano are not lava flows and disposing of a corpse in it is quite difficult. Curious side note - there is also no documented case in history where humans were sacrificed in a volcano or volcanoes used to cremate corpses.

Gorini continued his career as respected anatomist and mummification-specialist, however his geological contributions were soon forgotten – a shame, as if even many of his conclusions are wrong (one must also consider the limit knowledge of volcanoes at the time), his ideas and especially his rational approach, using experiments to explain observations in the field, are nevertheless timeless.
LORUSSO, L.; FALCONI, B.; FRANCHINI, F.A. & PORRO, A. (2013): Geology, conservation and dissolution of corpses by Paolo Gorini (1813–1881). In DUFFIN, C. J., MOODY, R. T. J. & GARDNER-THORPE, C. (eds) “A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society, London”. Special Publications, 375: 469–474