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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS