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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #220: The Minotaur

No, the other Minotaur.

I devoured Greek mythology as a boy, in whatever form I could find it. Doris Gates' Penguin versions, Barbara Picard's outstanding translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey for young readers, and of course the iconic D'Aulaires' gorgeously-illustrated volume. It's their image that appears along with this profile. As I got older, I began to read more sophisticated texts, culminating during my college years when I was lucky enough to study ancient Greece with two of the great history professors at UNH, Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory McMahon. Hesiod, Ovid, Sophocles, Sappho, the Homeric Hymns, Herodotus. On the one hand, I was developing a deep appreciation for and understanding of the Hellenic traditions that so informed the Enlightenment and consequently our own democratic systems. On the other hand, I was still - am still - a geeked-out fan of the timeless mythic adventure stories.

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has always ranked high on any list of my favorites. There's a reason I appropriated that legendary monster's name for my first published novel. There's so much to that tale that resonates with me. Of course there's Theseus, the central-casting Athenian hero who sails to Minos to slay the Minotaur and put a stop to the yearly tribute of young sacrifices. Even that aspect of the story is perfectly Greek - Theseus succeeds, brilliantly, and yet he forgets to hoist the right color sails on his way home to inform his waiting father, King Aegeus, of his triumph. His dad, in despair, jumps off a cliff to his death (hence, the Aegean Sea). No hero ever gets away clean in these myths.

As layered as is the tale of Theseus, I always liked, and pitied, the Minotaur. His mother, Pasiphae, was married to King Minos of Crete. Minos prayed to Poseidon for a sign of his favor, and the sea god sent a beautiful white bull from the waves. Minos was supposed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon in return, but in his hubris (it always starts with hubris) he keeps the bull. To punish him, Poseidon makes Minos' queen fall in love with the bull. Pasiphae begs the inventor Daedalus to construct a cow costume for her. She gets inside and mates with the white bull, gets pregnant, and gives birth to the bull-headed man known as the Minotaur (bull of Minos).

Greek myths are weird, yo.

So this child, born of infidelity and god-cursed bestiality, is shown no kindness, no love, no human affection. Instead he is locked by his enraged stepfather at the heart of a labyrinth beneath the palace, and tasked with devouring the young men and maidens of Athens who are sent in tribute. Of course, he is slain by Theseus (with the help of Ariadne, his half-sister, who provides Theseus with the ball of thread to help him through the labyrinth). Much later, Dante includes the Minotaur as one of the damned guardians of the section of Hell reserved to punish violence. As if it were his fault that he was conceived as a cruel punishment to a vainglorious king. The Minotaur got a raw deal, if you ask me.

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